John Woolman

John Woolman (1720-1772) was an American Quaker and campaigner whose ideas were influential in many areas, including the anti-slavery movement and the writing of the Foundations. His short time in England was influential on Quakers in Britain at that time, although they also had times of resistance to his ideas. A short biography of Woolman can be found on the Quakers in the World website, and his collected works and journal can be read online.

His tract A Word of Remembrance and Caution to the Rich was republished by the Fabian Society in 1879. This enabled a rediscovery of his ideas, and a reinterpretation of the long-standing Quaker ideal of simplicity. Especially significant was the link he made between wealth and war, as in the passage on page 10 of Word of Remembrance…:

This [connection between wealth and war] is like a chain in which the end of one link encloseth the end of another. The rising up of a desire to obtain wealth is the beginning; this desire being cherished, moves to action; and riches thus gotten please self; and while self has a life in them it desires to have them defended. Wealth is attended with power, by which bargains and proceedings contrary to universal righteousness are supported; and hence oppression carried on with worldly policy and order, clothes itself with the name of justice and becomes like a seed of discord in the soul. And as a spirit which wanders from the pure habitation prevails, so the seeds of war swell and sprout and grow and become strong until much fruit is ripened. Then cometh the harvest spoken of by the prophet, which “is a heap in the day of grief and desperate sorrows” [Isaiah 17:11]. Oh that we who declare against wars, and acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the light, and therein examine our foundation and motives in holding great estates! May we look upon our treasures, the furniture of our houses and our garments, and try whether the seeds of war have nourishment in these our possessions. Holding treasures in the self-pleasure spirit is a strong place, the fruit whereof ripens fast. A day of outward distress is coming, and Divine love calls to prepare against it.

The sentence which begins “May we look upon…” is likely to be familiar from the introduction to the Foundations given in Quaker faith & practice – it was also included in the introduction to the Foundations in the 1959 Book of Discipline.