Nov 19, 2023

John Woolman


C. S. Lewis wrote, “Human beings, all over the earth, have the curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and can’t really get rid of it.” It’s one of the best descriptions of the conscience I’ve ever read. John Woolman (1720-1772) could be called the conscience of Quakerism in the contentious debate over slavery. As a young clerk for a merchant, he declined to write a bill of sale for selling a slave. He took up tailoring yet refused to work with dyed fabrics because slaves were used in making dyes. He boycotted all products associated with slave labor including silver, rum, sugar and tobacco. A friend asked him to draw up a will, but Woolman refused to finish it when the matter surfaced of who would inherit his female slave. Only when his friend agreed to free his slave did Woolman consent to complete the will. He went on the road at age 36 to appeal to Quakers and any who would listen to release their slaves. He gently appealed to their conscience rather than laying blame. Woolman is best known for his Journal and Essays which was published posthumously and has been in print since 1774. He wrote in his Journal that “slave keeping was a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion and a violation of Jesus’ teaching.” Four years after Woolman died, Quakers voted to prohibit members from owning slaves. They were the first organization in America to take a collective stand against slavery. Woolman leads us into prayer today:

O Lord my God.
The amazing horrors of darkness were gathered round me,
and covered me all over,
and I saw no way to go forth.
I felt the depth and extent of the misery of my fellow-creatures
separated from the Divine harmony,
and it was heavier than I could bear,
and I was crushed down under it.
I lifted my hand, I stretched out my arm,
but there was no one to help me.
In the depths of misery, O Lord,
I remembered that thou art omnipotent,
that I had called thee Father,
and I felt that I loved thee,
and I was made quiet in my will,
and I waited for deliverance from thee.
Thou had pity on me,
when no person could help me.
I saw that meekness under suffering
was showed to us
in the most affecting example of thy Son,
and thou taught me to follow him,
and I said, “Thy, will. O Father, be done!”


Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.