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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*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