John Woolman came from a family of Friends (Quakers). His grandfather, also named John Woolman, was one of the early colonial settlers of New Jersey. His father Samuel Woolman was a farmer. Their estate was between Burlington and Mount Holly Township in that colony.
In his Journal, John Woolman related a story about a major turning point in his life. During his youth he happened upon a robin's nest with hatchlings in it. Woolman, as many young people would do, began throwing rocks at the mother robin just to see if he could hit her. He ended up killing the mother bird, but then remorse filled him as he thought of the baby birds who had no chance of surviving without her. He got the nest down from the tree and quickly killed the hatchlings — believing it to be the most merciful thing to do. This experience weighed on his heart, and inspired in him a love and protectiveness for all living things from them on.
At age 23 his employer asked him to write a bill of sale for a slave. Though he told his employer that he thought that slavekeeping was inconsistent with the Christian religion, he wrote the bill of sale. Later he refused to write the part of a will that included disposing of a slave and in that case, convinced the man to set the slave free. Many Friends believed that slavery was bad — even a sin — but there was not a universal condemnation of it among Friends. Some Friends bought slaves from other people in order to treat them humanely and educate them. Other Friends seemed to have no conviction against slavery whatsoever.
Woolman took up a concern to minister to Friends and others in remote places. He went on his first ministry trip in 1746 with Isaac Andrews. They traveled about 1,500 miles round-trip in three months, going as far south as North Carolina. He preached on many topics, including slavery, during this and other such trips.
In 1754 Woolman wrote Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes. He subsequently refused to draw up wills transferring slaves. Working on a nonconfrontational, personal level, he individually convinced many Quaker slaveholders to free their slaves. He attempted personally to avoid using the products of slavery; for example, he wore undyed clothing because slaves were used in the making of dyes. He was also known in later life to abjure riding in stagecoaches, on grounds that their operation was too often cruel and injurious to their teams of horses.
In Woolman's travels, whenever he received hospitality from a slaveholder, he insisted on paying the slaves for their work in attending him. He would also refuse to be served with silver cups, plates, and utensils, on grounds that slaves were forced to dig such precious minerals and gems for the rich. On one occasion in his early adulthood, he did convey the ownership of a slave in someone's will, but was later so filled with remorse over the act that he went back, found the individual so injured, and made monetary reparations sufficient to sustain that person in freedom for some years. He observed that some owners used the labor of their slaves to enjoy lives of ease, and found much more fault with this practice than with those owners who treated their slaves gently, or even worked alongside them.
Woolman worked within the Friends traditions of seeking the guidance of the Spirit of Christ and patiently waiting to achieve unity in the Spirit. He went from one Friends meeting to another and expressed his concern about slaveholding. One by one the various Quaker Meetings began to see the evils of slavery and wrote minutes condemning the practice.
In his lifetime, Woolman did not succeed in eradicating slavery even within the Society of Friends in colonial America; however, his personal efforts changed Quaker viewpoints. In 1790 the Society of Friends petitioned the United States Congress for the abolition of slavery. The fair treatment of people of all races is now part of the Friends Testimony of Equality. Woolman's colonial-era success in persuading his fellow Quakers on this issue is credited with giving Quakers in the early days of the USA the moral authority to labor with people of other Christian traditions over it.
Woolman was also committed to the Friends Testimony of Simplicity. While he saw considerable success in his retail business, he eventually decided that it demanded too much of his time, distracting him from the more important matter of fulfilling the calling that God had given him to spread truth and light among Friends and others. Thus he decided to give up his career as a tradesman, subsequently making his livelihood instead as a tailor and an orchardist.
Woolman showed unusual insight for the time, in that he lived and worked among the Indians, recognizing that the Spirit moved among them also. He showed concern for the poor, for animals, and for the environment, his Quakerly witness qualifying as one of the earliest precedents to modern campaigns and sensibilities in those areas.
The Journal of John Woolman is not only considered to be an important spiritual document, but also a classic in English literature, as shown by its inclusion in the Harvard Classics. It is reportedly the longest-published book in the history of North America other than the Bible, having been continuously published since before the 1776 revolution.
Woolman's final journey was to England in 1772. During the voyage he stayed in steerage and spent time with the crew rather than in the better accommodations of the other passengers. He attended the London Yearly Meeting, and the Friends there were persuaded to oppose slavery in their Epistle (a type of letter sent to Quakers in other places). John Woolman went from London to York where he died of smallpox. A Memorial to him is located in Mount Holly, New Jersey on the site of one of his orchards, housed in a small home he reportedly built for his daughter and her husband.