Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Woolman, John

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WOOLMAN, JOHN (1720–1772), quaker essayist, son of Samuel Woolman, a quaker farmer of Northampton, Burlington county, West Jersey, was born there in August 1720. He was a baker by trade, when, about the age of twenty-three, he began a lifelong testimony against slavery. He learned tailoring in order to support himself simply, became a travelling preacher in the states, and journeyed on foot handing payment to the wealthy host, or to the slaves themselves, rather than accept hospitality from slave-owners (Brissot, Nouveau Voyage, Paris, 1791, ii. 9). To his exertions, joined with those of the eccentric Benjamin Lay [q. v.], may be traced the abandonment of slave traffic by members of the yearly meetings of New England, New York, and Philadelphia during the years following 1760. In 1772 he embarked for England, and on landing at London on 8 June he proceeded straight to the yearly meeting of ministers and elders. His peculiar dress (he wore undyed homespun) created at first an unfavourable impression on the more conventional English quakers; but as soon as they knew him better he won their friendship, and passed on to work in the English counties. He reached York at the end of September 1772, and almost immediately sickened of smallpox. After little more than a week's illness, he died there in the house of Thomas Priestman on 7 Oct. 1772. He was buried on the 9th in the Friends' burial-ground, York. He had been thirty years a recorded minister. By his wife Sarah Ellis, whom he married in 1749, Woolman left a son John and other children.

Woolman's ‘Journal,’ his most memorable work, reflects the man. Its pure and simple diction is not its greatest charm. It is free from sectarianism, and there is a transparent guilelessness in the writer's recital of his experiences in the realm of the unseen. It has appealed to a large circle of divergent minds. John Stuart Mill was attracted by the ‘Journal;’ Charles Lamb says ‘Get the writings of John Woolman by heart;’ Henry Crabb Robinson writes of its author as a schöne Seele, and of the exquisite purity and grace of his style. Ellery Channing pronounced it the sweetest and purest autobiography in the language; Edward Irving called it a godsend. From its appearance in 1775 it was reprinted at least ten times before 1857, besides selections, abridgments, and the editions of 1832, 1833, and 1838, in Friends' Library, Lindfield, edited by William Allen (1770–1843) [q. v.] It was included in vol. iv. of Evans's ‘Friends' Library,’ Philadelphia, 1817. The most popular edition is that with a valuable introduction by the poet Whittier, Boston, 1872, 8vo; this has been reprinted with an ‘Appreciation’ by Alexander Smellie, London, 1898, 8vo. The ‘Journal’ was translated into German, ‘Tagebuch des Lebens,’ &c., London, 1852, 12mo. ‘Mémoire de Jean Woolman,’ extracted from his journal, was issued London, 1819, and often reprinted.

Several of Woolman's essays are reprinted in his ‘Works,’ Philadelphia, 1774, 8vo (new edit. 1800); also in ‘Serious Considerations on various Subjects of Importance, with some Dying Expressions,’ London, 1773, 12mo; reprinted (with the next) New York, 1805. His finest essay, written a few months before his death, ‘A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich,’ Dublin, 1793, 12mo (reprinted, London, 1794, 12mo), was issued by the Fabian Society as a tract, 1898, and widely circulated. It was translated into French by Jacques Desmanoirs (Dublin, 1800, 8vo).

[Journal with Whittier's Introduction; Lives by Thomas Green, Dora Greenwell, and D. Duncan; Letters in Comly's Miscellany, vol. i.; Crabb Robinson's Diary, i. 403, 406, ii. 14, 136; Eclectic Review, June 1861; Saint John Woolman, an article reprinted as a pamphlet, London, 1864; Appleton's Encyclopædia of American Lit. vi. 605; Hildeburn's Cent. of Printing; articles in Good Words, i. 528, 715, and in several other English and American periodicals; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Smith's Cat. and Suppl.; Irish Friend, v. 62; Leeds Mercury, 13 Oct. 1772.]

C. F. S.