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Lecture delivered by Joe Laufer before an audience of several hundred people at Medford Leas, Medford, New Jersey on October 10, 2010

Being 63 rd in the long line of lecturers for this event, I was both honored and apprehensive at being asked to stand at this podium today to share my thoughts about John Woolman.

Having arrived in Burlington County in the 70s, and not becoming aware of Burlington County’s rich Quaker heritage until the 80s, my knowledge of John Woolman is relatively recent – it is not lifelong – as yours is.

Not being a Quaker myself is a further disadvantage. My own religious affiliation couldn’t be further in theology, structure and ritual than Quakerism, yet I find reassurance in John Woolman’s own expression of tolerance in the opening paragraphs of his first “Considerations on Keeping of Negoes”:

He writes: “I believe the Bishop of Rome assumes a power that does not belong to any officer in the church of Christ; and if I should knowingly do anything tending to strengthen him in that capacity, it would be great iniquity. There are many thousands of people who by their profession acknowledge him to be the representative of Jesus Christ on earth; and to say that noe of them are upright in heart would be contrary to my sentiments.”

My presence here today follows a series of growing relationships with Quakerism. I have been welcomed into your communities as I researched the history of your meeting houses which became a popular newpaper series and is now one of my most asked for lectures. And I’ve been honored to serve on the planning committee for the Cropwell Meeting’s 200 th Anniversary celebration in 2009 and as a speaker at Evesham/Mt. Laurel meeting’s 250 th Anniversary in 2010.

All of which leads me to the topic of this program: “John Woolman – Son of Burlington County; Conscience of Quakerism.” This topic was chosen from a menu of possibilities because if seemed a proper fit with my role as County Historian. I wanted to focus on what it was about the physical and social environment of Burlington County in the early to mid 1700s that possibly contributed to the spiritual development of John Woolman.

What was it about this place in which we live today that helped form John Woolman’s convictions – actually, his conscience – and helped him formulate the philosophy which led to his actions, his writings and his overall influence in American society.

I discovered that his Journal is less an autobiography than it is a record of his Spiritual Journey – of his inner growth. It is more of a scriptural monograph than a biography. So I looked elsewhere for clues to the influences on his life. In his Journal he writes more of how God used him than of how he used things to deal with God. We are fortunate to have a wealth of information written about John Woolman to help in our quest to understand him.

The areas I explored were his family history, the village of Rancocas into which he was born, the Quaker community within which he worshipped (in particular, Rancocas Meeting and Mount Holly Meeting), the town of Mount Holly in which he worked, and to a lesser extent, the broader Burlington County and West Jersey areas through which he traveled

John Woolman was born on October 19, 1720 at Rancocas. It had only been 42 years since his grandfather and great grandfather had arrived here from England in 1678. History tells us of their difficult introduction to the terrain and temperature of their new New Jersey home. They had settled on their 130-acre plot within view of the beautiful Rancocas Creek.

During the 40 years between their arrival and John’s birth, much of the land in the area was converted to farm use and many of the original wildlife disappeared from the landscape.

By the time John was 10 years old, about 64 per cent of Burlington County was cleared for farming and thirty percent was forested. The village of Rancocas was one of the earliest Quaker settlements in Burlington County after the one in Burlington City.

The Rancocas Quaker Meeting was established in 1681, and in the early days meetings were held in the Woolman, Harding and Wills homes. Thomas Olive, who had extensive holdings in Willingboro, also worshipped here. The first Friends School, which John would have attended, was established in Rancocas in 1703 near where the old Quaker Cemetery is located today, on Bridge Road. It wasn’t replaced until 1773, the year of Woolman’s death.

The present Quaker Meeting House on main St. was opened in 1772, the year that Woolman died in England.

In 1720, the year of John’s birth, in all of the Hamptons – Eastampton, Westampton, Northampton and eventually Southampton, there were less than 300 people living – most of them Quakers. At the time of Woolman’s death, 52 years later, the village of Mount Holly had grown to only 387 heads of household (land-holding white males) and almost 200 buildings.

When Woolman was born, the first Mount Holly Quaker Meeting House (built in 1716) was only 4 years old and was located on present-day Woodlane Road. (then Gaskill Lane) across from Woodpecker Lane. The second Mt. Holly Quaker Meeting House was located behind Woolman’s Tailor Shop at 47 Mill Street. It was erected in 1763 when Woolman was 43 years old and was replaced 3 years after his death by the 3 rd and present Meeting House at the corner of High and Garden Streets in 1775.

I mention these historical facts about the Quakers of Rancocas and Mt. Holly to paint a picture of these communities at the time of Woolman – when neither of the current historic Quaker Meeting houses in these communities existed.

It should be noted that there was also a small Indian population in the region, but the census figures only provide information on the pioneer settlers and, to a degree, their negro slaves.

Burlington City was the hub of commerce during Woolman’s childhood, with a gradual replication of the commercial atmosphere evolving in Mount Holly as he became a young man. Links between regional and distant communities were made by way of old Indian trails, with the Burlington Path extending to Perth Amboy from Burlington via Crosswicks, and Freehold.

The pioneer home construction of the early settlers was being replaced by more permanent second generation construction throughout the area. Bridges were being built at strategic locations. It was a period of change and growth, but the sparce population separated farms and families while central locations for gathering (primarily churches) were being established.

The Woolman property was located in an area not far from the present day Rowan estate near the old Quaker burial ground. Even to this day it radiates the peaceful, rural elements it had in Woolman’s day. It is an ideal place to get in touch with nature. Fortunately, this property has been purchased by Burlington County as a part of the Rancocas greenway and the rural, pastoral setting will be preserved to hopefully inspire future John Woolmans! John’s parables dealing with the Robin and its nestlings, and also the Sun Worm could well have had their origins in this idyllic setting.

Woolman wrote about the incident with the Robin and its offspring more for its message than for its reality. Simply put, his message: one violent act leads to another – and guilt reveals a light within. He relates the story to show how early in his life his spiritual formation was taking place – how he experienced grace at an early age.

He tells the story of the sun worm dream to describe his own transformation from “bad” to good. It was symbolic of his transition – much as other mystics have recounted the dreams and incidents which triggered their conversions.


Within this geography, in the very tiny and peaceful community of Rancocas, John Woolman was being nurtured in a family of 13 children. He had four older sisters. There were 5 younger brothers and 3 younger sisters.

Quaker parents at the time believed in withholding certain luxuries, and even some essentials, from their children in order to “harden their bodies” for survival in difficult times. This was done out of love and was based on the principles laid out in the pedagogical writings of John Locke, familiar to the Woolman family.

Woolman himself recalled a childhood that “lacked celebration” and he did not, as other biographers have done, romanticize his youth. The details of his youthful activities were irrelevant to him. He began writing his Journal at age 36 – and the main thing he recalled about his childhood was the “sweetness” growing in his head, not the cattle, springs, magnolias, Indians, fields and forests that surrounded him as he grew up.

Outside of school, he indicates that he had a penchant for reading. It appears that he escaped from a lively home of 13 children by retreating into the open space and solitude of God’s bountiful nature for his quiet time.

Quaker parents encouraged their children to avoid those who did not profess the same faith, and among their readings was William Penn’s “Some Fruits of Solitude” which encouraged them to take productive advantage of periods of quiet and isolation.

When Woolman writes about his school days, he talks more about what he did above and beyond his actual formal schooling. He writes early on about leaving his schoolmates and the structured school day to go off on his own to read the Book of Revelations in a natural outdoor setting.

Woolman was exposed to a variety of literature, even before he was able to read thanks to the Woolman family custom whereby his older sisters read aloud to their siblings. The Woolman library was extensive, as was verified when their father Samuel died and an inventory indicated that he possessed books of divinity, navigation and law. The Woolmans also had friends in Burlington, Haddonfield and Philadelphia who had extensive libraries. It was customary for families to exchange books.


Other elements absent from Woolman’s Journal were references to youthful friendships. I recall how Dr. James Still, the “Black Doctor of the Pines” in his “Recollections” wrote of his childhood friendship with “Indian Job.” There is none of that in Woolman’s Journal.

Woolman’s father was a good friend of Richard Smith, of Burlington – a merchant and legislator. Two of his sons, John and Samuel were John Woolman’s age and are considered to be his best friends. While they may not have spent a lot of time together, they did meet regularly with their families, and had numerous occasions to interact together. All of the Woolman family friends were upright Quakers, so when John talks about falling in with wanton company, it should be interpreted as a relative term. John is always speaking from a position of higher standards.

As a young man, Woolman attended weekly meeting. Here he learned of the value of silence and reflection. He relates the story of how early on he attended a meeting in a bad frame of mind and said more than he should have at the meeting, and it upset him upon later reflection. From this he learned to hold back and reflect more before he spoke. He learned that first day meetings did not provide enough time for pure reflection and silence – that he should carry the same meditative exercise outside of meeting to his own private moments. He wrote that from inward purifying, and steadfast abiding under it, springs a lively operative desire for the good of others. This spirit would be a driving force in his pro-active missionary activity later in life.


How did Woolman’s Burlington County experience contribute to his views on slavery? First, here are some statistics:

  • In all of New Jersey, there were only 2,385 slaves when Woolman was born.
  • By the time he was 30, in 1750, there were 5,354.
  • At the time of Woolman’s death in 1772 there were 8,500 slaves in New Jersey.

I was curious to learn whether there was anything specific in Woolman’s Burlington County experience that triggered his militant advocacy for Abolition. How early could this seed have been planted?

As was mentioned, the Woolman family regularly visited friends in Burlington, Haddonfield and Philadelphia. John Woolman would have seen that the fathers of his friends bought and sold slaves. It was a common practice of most Quakers. It should be noted that local slavery was more of the household variety – where the slaves were used for domestic purposes rather than in a commercial, intensive labor context, although there were some rare exceptions. However, it wasn’t until he was 26, on his first sourthern journey in 1746 through Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina that Woolman experienced the more intense forms of slavery.

The Quaker struggle with with the issues of slavery did not begin with Woolman. As early as 1670 and 80. George Fox had issued admonitions concerning the humane treatment of slaves owned by Quakers.

The very first anti-slavery tract written in the American colonies was in 1688 by Quakers, and right here in Burlington County at the Burlington Quaker Meeting. The document had been prepared by Francis Daniel Pastorius of Germantown, Pennsylvania. It was read at the yearly meeting of the Delaware Valley Quakers at the Friends Meeting House in Burlington City.

For Woolman, however, it was not enough to simply treat your slaves with dignity – the whole institution of slavery was immoral.

It was in Mount Holly, when asked to write a will for a Quaker who included the transmission of a slave in his estate that Woolman first exercised his “Operative desire for the good of others” as he called it.

The scruple he felt led to his ultimate refusal to write wills of those who desired to transmit their slaves as property. From there he ratcheted up his “Operative Christianity” to actually confront fellow Quakers, asking them to give up their slaves.

His two treatises against the Keeping of Negroes are classics.

  • They are addressed to Professors of Christianity of Every Denomination
  • He labored for years over the proper wording of the final version
  • His father, Samuel, on his deathbed encouraged him to publish the work.
  • He took care to work through the proper Quaker channels in finalizing the work

Ironically, Benjamin Franklin printed the 1762 version – unfortunately never availing himself of the opportunity to take the message of Woolman to the next level as the Declaration of Independence was being framed 14 years later.

The first essay against the Keeping of Negores was somewhat generic and a marvelous treatise on basic practical morality that could be used for any moral issue, simply by replacing the reference to slavery with another moral issue.

The second essay on the same subject was twice as long as the first but much more specific. It was quite graphic in describing the institution of slavery, from capture to intercontinental transfer to sale and the consequent lifestyle while in captivity. It is moving in its description of the plight of slaves and well ahead of its time in American History in articulating the abolition debate.

Time prevents me from delving deeper into the local influences on the evolution of the spirituality of John Woolman. For me, this is the beginning of a personal journey of exploration into the mission, message and legacy of John Woolman. I hope that my message will motivate some here present today to re-visit the Journal and other writings of John Woolman and re-acquaint themselves with his inspiring message.

This personal experience of preparing and delivering the 63 rd Annual John Woolman Lecture was spiritually and intellectually stimulating for me. I gained new insights into the spirituality of John Woolman. I was most impressed by the way Woolman developed into an instrument of the Divine by recognizing and accepting the inner grace of God which grew within him. By divesting himself of worldly possessions and attractions, he made room for the Divine and then was able to exercise a very pro-active, operational Christianity. I like to believe that his early exposure to the natural environment of the Village of Rancocas contributed to Woolman’s appreciation of silence and stillness which served as a catalyst for creating a bond with the Divine, which, in turn, generated his “operative desire for the good of others.” From this, Woolman developed the innate ability to recognize injustice when he saw it and to effectively respond to it with action.

My conclusions are that:

  • He was singled out by God to be an instrument of salvation for others.
  • He was able to motivate others because he taught by example – not simply words.
  • He was uncompromising and consistent in his practice of his faith.
  • The roots of his success were in his ability to simplify his life and seek silence and solitude to let God in.

From within my own religious persuasion, I discovered dramatic parallels in the lives of Woolman and St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) – and as I progressed in my preparation, I was tempted to digress from my original plan and focus this entire talk on a comparison between the life and spiritual journey of each of these saintly men.

  • Each came from well respected and relatively wealthy families.
  • Each succumbed to youthful diversions with the “wrong” crowd as teenagers.
  • Each underwent a spiritual transformation after a life-threatening illness.
  • Each divested himself of worldly goods and lived frugally.
  • Each practiced a very the literal imitation of Christ.
  • Each had a great respect for nature – Francis using terms such as “brother sun” and “sister moon,” and expressed a unique harmony with animals.
  • Each flourished in an uncluttered life.
  • Each were moved intensely to action when they witnessed injustice.
  • Each suffered at the end of their lives from painful illnesses.
  • Each welcomed death with resignation and the eager anticipation of being united with the Divine. (Ironically St. Francis died on October 4 at age 45, and Woolman died on October 9 at age 52).

In my denomination, through the complex process of canonization, people like Woolman are declared Saints. There is no question in my mind that Woolman would have qualified immediately up on death and would have been placed on the fast track to canonization.

In that spirit, let me close by reading the popular prayer of St. Francis – which is so expressive of the message of John Woolman:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

© 2005 Burlington County Historian. All rights reserved.