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From The Ark No. 192 - Winter 2002

 John Woolman's tenderness towards all creatures

David Sox, Anglican clergyman and Quaker, conducted this year’s ecumenical animal welfare retreat. In one session he talked about the subject of one of his many books, John Woolman.

David Sox

Catholics have St Francis; Quakers have John Woolman. For Quakers, Woolman is the ‘Quintessential Quaker’. In history he is most noted as a pioneer against black slavery; one whom A.N. Whitehead said held the ‘honour of making the first modern formulation … to procure the abolition of slavery; an Apostle of Human Freedom’.

Woolman was born in 1720 at Burlington County, New Jersey, and as his Journal indicates, was influenced by mystic writings including those of Jakob Boehme, John Everard and The Imitation of Christ, attributed to the Catholic Thomas à Kempis. Almost uniquely in a polemical age, Woolman expressed an 'ecumenical' interest in the latter, saying: ‘In reading his writing I have believed him to be a man of true Christian spirit.’

Woolman’s ‘ecumenism’ extended to the native Americans, and in 1763 he made an extraordinary journey to their lands far north in Pennsylvania so that he could be among them to ‘feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in; if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or … helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth among them.’

Unlike others of his time Woolman saw that the Indians’ plight was similar to the state of black slavery, and that for both ‘the seeds of great calamity and desolation are sown and growing fast on this continent’.

Woolman’s pricking of consciences led all Quakers in America on the road to the abolition of slaves and influencing other religious groups also to take stands against slavery.

Eventually Woolman took his mission to England in 1772 and there he walked from London to York. The reason he took to walking is interesting to those concerned for animals: Woolman knew that the ‘flying coaches’ sometimes ran horses to death and so he refused to use them. Sadly Woolman did not realise that he was suffering from small pox at the time, and in York he would die in October 1772.

Woolman’s concern for animals began early in his life. At age nine, like most boys, he had thoughtlessly thrown stones at a mother robin and killed her. Unlike other boys, however, he was ‘seized with horror’ as her young would ‘perish for want of their dam to nourish them’.

Later, as a teenager, Woolman wrote that ‘true religion consisted in an inward life, wherein the heart doth love and reverence the Creator and learn to exercise true justice and goodness, not only toward all men but also toward the brute creatures … to say we love God as unseen and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature moving by his life was a contradiction in itself.’ When Woolman came by ship to England in 1772, he decided to travel in steerage rather than in cabin accommodation, remembering how the black slaves had made their passage from Africa to the New World. On board, aside from expressing his concern for the hardships of the young sailors, Woolman characteristically felt pity for the fowls taken on board ship:

‘In observing the dull appearance at sea, and the pining sickness of some of them, I remembered the Fountain of goodness, who gave being to all creatures and whose love extends to that of caring for the sparrows … and believing in a tenderness toward all creatures that we do not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation.’

Christian classic

Woolman’s Journal is one of the great Christian classics of which Samuel Taylor Coleridge said he ‘despaired of the man who could not peruse the life of John Woolman without an amelioration of heart’.

In another of his writings, composed the year in which he died, Woolman struck an ‘environmental’ note which strikes more than a chord today:

‘The produce of the earth is a gift from our gracious Creator to the inhabitants, and to impoverish the earth now to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age.’ How prophetic!

Woolman’s example clearly indicates a combination of responsibility to both human and animal creation. With him it was never ‘either or’. God created both from the ‘dust’ of the ground and we share this blue planet together. Would that we acted as if this were the case.

Return to The Ark No. 192

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