The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian network founded in 1973


The Woolman Way

From The Vegan (Autumn 1972 edition)

The Quakers are going walking - along the route to York taken by John Woolman the Quaker "saint" from New Jersey two hundred years ago. He chose to walk because he would not use the stage coach service that so cruelly exploited the post boys and horses.
Though not a vegan John Woolman's attitude to animals was as far ahead of the accepted standards of his age as that of vegans today. In the eighteenth century it was rare for anyone to show compassion for animals. There were no controls at all over the rearing and slaughtering of animals, many kinds of cruel sports were commonly enjoyed, cats were skinned alive in the streets and birds were blinded to make them sing more sweetly in their cages. In 1809 Lord Erskine was greeted by shouts of derision in the House of Lords when he sought to introduce laws for the protection of animals and the Commons ruled it as "a subject not fit for legislation". So take heart animal defenders, there has been progress.
In his journal Woolman speaks movingly of his concern for over-worked oxen and underfed cows, for goaded horses and the live fowls carried for food on the trans-atlantic boats. If only farmers and vivisectors of today would listen to his plea "that we do not lessen the sweetness of life in the animal creation". However he was fully occupied with another area of cruel exploitation for in his day there was a section of the human race who were treated as animals are treated today - the negro slaves from Africa. They were, as animals are today, packed tightly in ships and transported to foreign lands. Many died on the way in appalling conditions. They were sold openly in the market places, prodded and goaded with no thought for their indignity and suffering. Whoever bought them had absolute rights over them. They were regarded as creatures whose sole function was to contribute to the physical advantages, so construed, of their owners, to provide them with food and clothing and money to buy luxuries and to obtain power in their communities. It is hard to believe that such activities were accepted as inevitable and justified by high-minded people, even by the Quakers. However as is still all too apparent today, man's ability to close his mind to ethical challenges that threaten his material advantages is practically unassailable - but not quite. John Woolman made it his major concern to open the minds of his fellow Quakers to the harm they were doing to themselves as well as their slaves, and he succeeded. Before his death in 1772 most Quakers had freed their slaves and shortly after the holding of slaves was made illegal in that society. Moreover he demonstrated the validity of a method that could well be studied by all minority groups who, as the vegans, seek to help the victims of powerful oppression.
The Woolman way is based firstly on the conviction that the exploitation of the week by the strong is contrary to the underlying scheme of things, to what Woolman called Universal Righteousness. Without some such faith however defined, vegans are on uncertain ground. If life in all its wonderful and varied manifestations is just the result of blind chance, is just "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" little inspiration can be found for challenging its abuse. Only a basic faith in "something not ourselves that makes for righteousness", whether it be expressed in religious, philosophical or humanitarian terms can give that enduring strength to make headway against materialistic self-interest and its attendant cruelty.
Secondly the Woolman way is based on the belief that there exists in every man something of that same Universal Righteousness, that every man however misguided or debased is capable of showing love and mercy and of responding to Truth. Woolman approached the slaveowners in that spirit. His love and concern for them was as great as his pity for the slaves. "He did not condemn them but because of his faith in them they came to condemn themselves and to change their ways".  Prosperous slave owners freed their slaves overnight after John Woolman had visited them.
Woolman never sought to evade the suffering that his sensitivity inevitably brought. He accepted it as laid upon him and found serenity in obeying the impulse to share his insights with others, to open their eyes and inspire them to free themselves and those they exploited from a common bondage to greed.
He recognised as a first obligation "to get his own life in the clear" as far as possible. Vegans will feel sympathy with his refusal to eat the sugar produced by slave labour and with his wearing of undyed cloth because dye was got from mines worked by slaves. Yet he never flaunted his personal example but always approached others with humility and a deep desire to avoid hurting them. It required great courage on his part to recognise that to alienate people was sometimes inevitable - "I saw that if I was honest to declare that which Truth opened to me, I could not please all men". But he comforted himself that by "speaking the truth in love" he was serving the cause of "true" as opposed to "superficial" friendship. Vegans, who often have to refuse food kindly offered will appreciate Woolman's refusal to accept hospitality based on slave labour. Can they speak as he did with sufficient sincerity, love and humility to be effective without antagonising?
How effective is the Woolman way? - the way of the conscientious affirmer, the way of mercy and truth which "is neither indifference to evil nor righteous indignation but the cultivation of brotherhood". To many it will seem pitiably week in the face of human greed, love of ease and lust for power. But violent methods though they may gain greater immediate advantage provoke negating repercussion. For instance there might be much truth in the comment "If the abolitionists of the North had shared not only the zeal of Woolman and his friends but also their patience and brotherliness in seeking not only to remedy the wrong but to convert the wrongdoer, one wonders whether the American Civil War could have been possible",  and the colour problem in America today that Woolman foresaw so clearly might have been avoided.
Today vegans blessed, as was John Woolman, with a sensitivity in advance of their day, have a cause such as his. Their strength is based as was his on a vision of Truth and that the heart of man must in due course respond to Truth. In so far as they can follow the Woolman way of humility and concern for the oppressors as well as the oppressed, they can look forward to the day when the circle of compassion is widened to include not only all men but all creatures.
(Quotations from "The Wisdom of Woolman" by Reginald Reynolds)
Reproduced with thanks to the Vegan Society.

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