THE SERVANT AS GRADUALIST – JOHN WOOLMAN

 

Greenleaf writes:

I have in mind the lives of two great culture shaping gradualists…

 The first of these is John Woolman (1720-1772) American Quaker of humble origins.  Largely self-taught he was a dedicated journal keeper and left a document that has become a literary classic.  His claim as a great culture shaping gradualist rests on his work to free the Society of Friends of slaves.  His method was unusual…

 John Woolman’s way was to reason with the Quaker slaveholders, one at a time, as he manifested his love for the slaveholder as well as the slave.  His visits were welcomed by the slaveholder.  Over a period of thirty years, while he earned a modest living and supported a small family, he traveled the East coast on foot or horseback visiting and revisiting slaveholders and pressing his gentle but firm argument.  ‘What will this practice do to your children?’  ‘What kind of legacy are you passing on to the future?’  These were some of his questions.

 Others joined the effort and by 1770 the Society of Friends became the first religious group in America formally to denounce slavery and forbid its practice among its members – 100 years before the civil war.  Woolman could wait.  As an appointed minister by his Meeting, he never ventured forth without the approval of his Meeting.  One of his several memoranda on slavery lay before the Meeting for fourteen years before they acted on it and it could be published.

 What if there had been fifty John Woolmans, or even five traveling the American South during the early 19th Century pressing Woolman’s gentle nonjudgmental arguments?  That effort might have made the difference and prevented that awful war.  John Woolman stands to me as the model of the gentle persuader, gradualism at its best. 

 It can be argued that the Quakers were better conditioned, ethically, than most to respond to Woolman’s approach, and they may have been.  But slaveholders were numerous among 18th Century Quakers and they were a conservative lot.  They were not pushovers for Woolman’s approach. 

 

 

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