John Woolman: Quintessential Quaker

By David Sox

Friends United Press, 1999 | ISBN 0-94435-043-7

Reviewed by Merle Harton, Jr.

John Woolman is a man who has to be shared. This little book is therefore as much an act of kindness as it is a readable contemporary appreciation of a beloved 18th-century American Quaker. There is enough of the life and times of John Woolman here to satisfy the newcomer to Quaker history who seeks to understand Woolman’s endearing legacy as a Quaker minister, prophet, mystic, activist, and saint.

Sox, an American Friend living and writing in England, remains close to Woolman's Journal (Moulton’s edition) for the chronology and main biographical facts, but pulls from other sources to fill in blanks. And as those familiar with the Journal can attest, there are many such blanks, especially on the very events for which he is best known, including Woolman’s fame as the one who moved the Religious Society of Friends no longer to keep slaves and not to engage in slave commerce. As for other blanks—his life before he began his Journal at the age of 36, his family, marriage, children, and later adventures—Sox does an admirable job of gathering these into a winning portrait of a man who was sincere about his Christian faith and vowed to live an obedient life. Thus we are given a much wider picture of the man than his Journal can provide: who his friends were, his skill as a tailor, how he was received as a traveling witness against slavery, poverty, the idols of wealth, and war. Even Woolman’s stand against wearing dyed cloth and cured leather is here to paint a more detailed picture of the man, as he appears dressed “so that he was all white” during his fatal trip to England in 1772.

Sox’s book also includes maps and pictures, endnotes, with a good index. As a biography of Woolman, of a man who walked in the spirit and the light, this is a fine short specimen. As an introduction to, and leading into, Woolman's Journal, this is excellent. As a concise but readable study of this interesting Christian, this is a recommended book for both the Quaker and the non-Quaker.

Copyright © 1999 by Merle Harton, Jr.

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