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The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition Hardcover – September 16, 2008

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; First Edition edition (September 16, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809095149
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809095148
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #446,729 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Not many today know about the New Jersey Quaker, mystic and social activist John Woolman (1720–1772). But William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, characterized Woolman as a saint. John Greenleaf Whittier called him the founding father of the abolitionist movement. As Slaughter (The Whiskey Rebellion) shows in this superb narrative, it may be argued that the pious, simple-living Woolman—by rejecting not only slavery but also the accumulation of wealth, economic exploitation of all kinds and all forms of violence—created the prototype for every pacifist and nonconformist to come after. Woolman always dressed simply in clothes he stitched himself, white clothes meant to mark him as a man of God. He advocated his causes in lectures and sermons across the eastern United States and England (where he died of smallpox) and through extensive writings. He made a point of owning nothing he did not need and giving away every and anything he could not use. In our own age of conspicuous consumption, the complex soul Slaughter so ably and beautifully resurrects is full of contemporary relevance as an example of principled living. (Sept.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* The most famous American Quaker was an unusual eccentric, and he arises out of Slaughter’s pages as a figure from the Age of Faith alive in and admonitory to the Enlightenment. Odd enough by being a Quaker, John Woolman (1720–72) essayed obedience to the light of God within as few others, even among Quakers, ever do. Though a crank about slavery who refused involvement with it in any way—thereby complicating his businesses as a preparer of wills and a tailor, for he declined to write wills for slaveholders until satisfied that they would free their slaves, and he ceased using dyed cloth because dye manufacture depended heavily on slave labor—he strove never to give offense, casting entirely in theological terms the antislavery testimony he carried to Friends meetings throughout the colonies and finally to England, and avoiding passion in his preaching and conversation. He became ever more ascetic, eventually refusing medicine, fancy food, carriage and horseback travel, and other physical comforts. His famous Journal and other writings are as selfless as personal records could be, which means that Slaughter, who worked on this biography for 20 years, had to immerse himself in Woolman’s world and read Woolman through the lenses of his time and place to make it the thoughtful, scrupulous, enlightening, and engrossing masterpiece it is. --Ray Olson

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Customer Reviews

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On the other hand, I don't think this would be a very useful book to anyone who didn't have a pre-interest in John Woolman.
J. A. Haverstick
Although on a gross, macro level the book proceeds chronologically, otherwise the organization is not transparent and there is too much needless repetition.
R. M. Peterson
Questions may remain and probably are unresolvable, but the reader still develops a rather deep sense of this gentle and influential Quaker minister.
Barry N. Bishop

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Twenty years ago, in circumstances I no longer recall, I came across and bought a somewhat worn and battered volume in original calf binding of "The Works of John Woolman", published in Philadelphia in 1774. (According to the inscription at the front of my copy, it had been bought and was signed by Samuel Garrett on December 3, 1774.) But I did not know much about John Woolman until I bought and read this biography.

Woolman (1720-1772) was the grandson of English Quaker immigrants to the New World. He grew up on a farm near Mount Holly, New Jersey, and as an adult he made his livelihood as a storekeeper, a tailor, and a teacher. But the core of his life was his interior spiritual quest, and its outward manifestation was his ministry. In furtherance of that ministry, he went on numerous travels or missions in the English colonies, primarily to Quaker congregations but also, memorably, once to fractious Indians. His last mission was to England, during which he contracted smallpox and died.

The publication for which he is best known is his Journal, which is his "spiritual autobiography" and is a landmark of that genre. Two other noted writings are two essays on "keeping Negroes", which are landmarks in abolition literature. Indeed, today Woolman is best known as an early voice in America against slavery, one which was frequently cited by abolitionists and, later, by those in the civil rights movement.

Woolman's anti-slavery stance was based in part on an underlying belief in the equality of all creatures, something which he extended to (non-human) animals.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By J. A. Haverstick on January 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Friends' journals are a unique literary/religious genre. They are spiritual autobiographies and, I was once told, serve as an alternative for Quakers to a written dogma. You can buy many of them very cheaply on the used and rare book sites both because a lot of them were published and because they are generally stultifying, even if you are acquainted with the formulaic religious language in which they are written. There are some exceptions to the stultifying rule: George Fox's journal, sometimes; the neglected journal of Thomas Chalkey (though it's deservedly mentioned in the Oxford Comp. to Am. Lit.); and , of course, John Woolman's journal.

If you are approaching your dotage, you may have read selections from Woolman's journal in the course of your secular education. Being a Quaker, I read it a bit more closely. Impressionistically, I remember the episode about not dying his clothes and especially the picture of him on his porch one morning surveying his bustling store with wagons coming in and out and wondering, What have I done wrong? How un-American is that?

Of course, Woolman is also a great figure in the Abolitionist movement. From the first, in the 1600's, the thought that all partake in the divinity led many Quakers to a radical egalitarianism. Passing through the Barbados in the 17th cent., Wm. Penn was led to write that reversing the environments of his children with that of the plantation slaves' environment would result in black nobles and white slaves. This view that others are our equals in the extended human - not just "spiritual" - sense really wasn't accepted until the late 20th cent. by most Euro-Americans, though in 2009 it seems to be getting some traction.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Kim Burdick on November 19, 2011
Format: Paperback
Sociologists and theologians have long considered Quaker John Woolman a pioneer in the birth of contemporary social consciousness.

Woolman's relations with Indians, Africans and slave owners, his negotiating skills, his extensive travels, and his belief in the importance of the abolition of slavery, should have made this a fascinating book.

There is plenty of good information in this book. It is well-researched and not badly written, yet "The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman" lacks the spark of life. It is tedious reading.

According to 18th century accounts by those who knew him, Quaker John Woolman was highly-respected and much admired. In this version of Woolman's life, his strengths are overshadowed by the author's sense that Woolman was a droopy, neurotic, troubled and troubling person.

The text drifts around a bit aimlessly. My teacherly-instincts tell me that the manuscript needs to be pared down to about two-thirds the current length. Slaughter needs to decide if this is a general biography of Woolman or if it is a book about Woolman as an abolitionist.

The serious scholar may want to search out references to Woolman in the early records of local Friends Meetings, read John Woolman's own Journal, and leave this book on the shelf.

Kim Burdick
Stanton, Delaware

Note: One minor detail especially bothers me. On page 147 Slaughter writes:

[The Woolmans] "named their daughter Mary (1750-97), perhaps because her birth came only a week before Christmas."

It should be noted that astronomers, Quakers, and most Yankee Protestants, were sceptical of the December date for Christmas. Quakers did not celebrate Christmas in the 18th century.
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