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John Woolman, Pure and Simple

Mary Klein
On Needs (May 2015)
Pages for All Ages

Some words and phrases to know before you read

         Journal                                   slave owner
                 to be “low”                            cruel / cruelty
                 pure                                        ignored
                 principle                                 admit [to knowing]
                 tailor                                       mined
                 slave / slavery                         dye

Most Quakers know the name John Woolman. Lots of other people know about him, too. Almost 250 years ago, Woolman wrote a book about his life. People are still buying that book and reading it today. Not many books keep going like that for 250 years. The Journal of John Woolman is a special book because John Woolman was a special man.

When Woolman listened for God, he heard something that he called a “pure principle.” This pure principle told Woolman to love God always and to love all creatures, too. It told him that everyone has this pure principle inside them. It told him that he could love and speak to that pure principle inside every person.

Woolman was smart, and he was a good worker. Lots of people liked him. He could have gotten an important job. He could have made lots of money. But John Woolman wanted to live a simple life. He decided to become a tailor. He picked that job because it let him take time to listen for God and to do God’s work.

Many Quakers were slave owners then. This deeply upset John Woolman. He said that if Quakers really knew how to love God, they would not be cruel to any of God’s people. Slavery is as cruel as anything can be. John Woolman needed to try to stop that cruelty. In those days, many people ignored the cruelty of slavery. To them, slavery just seemed normal. John Woolman needed to help Quakers admit that slavery was cruel.

Woolman made many trips to talk about slavery with Quakers in their homes and in their meetinghouses. He traveled many hundreds of miles for more than twenty-five years. He always tried to make sure the slave owners knew that he cared for them. He wanted to be friends with them. He just didn’t want them to be cruel.

Quakers today feel proud of the Quakers long ago who helped end slavery. John Woolman would probably think that was odd. He didn’t try to end slavery so that he could feel proud. He tried to end slavery because God said so. He was just doing his best to follow what God was telling him to do.

  • Can you think of a time when it was easy for you to know the right thing to do?
  • How did you know?
  • What things in the world today are as bad as slavery in the 1700s?
  • What can people do to help?
John Woolman History learning Children First Day School

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