Born in 1720 to a Quaker family. His maternal and paternal grandparents were early Quaker settlers in New Jersey.
As a merchant’s clerk he was asked to write up the bill of sale for slaves. He felt this was inconsistent with his personal spiritual beliefs, and Christianity in general.
Although he had become a prosperous shopkeeper and tailor while keeping to his principles of avoiding business that involved keeping slaves, he decided to give up his business activities to allow more time for his abolition work.
Simplicity, economic equality, and abolition were important to him and he opposed animal cruelty. Woolman believed in living out these beliefs and dressed simply in undyed fabric as a protest against the dye industry that involved terrible working conditions. He refused to travel by horse and coach because of the cruelty meted out to the horses and horse boys by the drivers. His peers mocked and misunderstood his actions; today socialists, environmentalists, and animal rights activists may be inspired.
He travelled tirelessly in America to speak out against slavery and published an anti-slavery pamphlet, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes in 1754. He met slave owners and convinced many to quit the practice.
He also objected to paying taxes for war in accordance with the Quaker testimony to peace, a long tradition in Quakerism in the US and Britain that continues today.
In 1772 John Woolman travelled to England where British Quakers at London Yearly Meeting condemned slavery. He contracted smallpox in York, died and was buried there in October 1772.
John Woolman’s spiritual journal is the most continuously published book in American history apart from the Bible.