The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition
By Thomas P. Slaughter
(Hill and Wang, Hardcover, 9780809095148, 464pp.)
Publication Date: September 16, 2008
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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A biography of the famous eighteenth-century Quaker whose abolitionist fervor and spiritual practice made him a model for generations of Americans John Woolman (1720–72) was perhaps the most significant American of his age, though he was not a famous politician, general, or man of letters, and never held public office. A humble Quaker tailor in New Jersey, he became a prophetic voice for the entire Anglo-American world when he denounced the evils of slavery in Quaker meetings, then in essays and his Journal, first published in 1774. In this illuminating new biography, Thomas P. Slaughter goes behind those famous texts to locate the sources of Woolman’s political and spiritual power. Slaughter’s penetrating work shows how this plainspoken mystic transformed himself into a prophetic, unforgettable figure. Devoting himself to extremes of self-purification—dressing only in white, refusing to ride horses or in horse-drawn carriages—Woolman might briefly puzzle people; but his preaching against slavery, rum, tea, silver, forced labor, war taxes, and rampant consumerism was infused with a benign confidence that ordinary people could achieve spiritual perfection, and this goodness gave his message persuasive power and enduring influence. Placing Woolman in the full context of his times, Slaughter paints the portrait of a hero—and not just for the Quakers, social reformers, labor organizers, socialists, and peace advocates who have long admired him. He was an extraordinary original, an American for the ages.
Thomas P. Slaughter is the author of several books, including The Whiskey Rebellion and Exploring Lewis and Clark. He lives in Rochester, New York, with his wife and two children.
“Brilliantly written and researched . . . An extraordinary biography.” —Douglas Brinkley, Austin American-Statesman, Best Books of 2008 “Thoughtful and reflective . . . Thomas P. Slaughter treats Woolman’s dreams, his life, and his death with subtlety and great sympathy . . . He also, intriguingly, allows us to see Woolman as others did not wish to see him . . . As Slaughter carefully and rigorously shows, from one perspective Woolman’s life (both conscious and unconscious) was the story of an increasingly critical consciousness of the world . . . Slaughter suggests that ‘it is the extremes, not the complexities, that provide the man’s measure.’ I may not agree. But that he has written a work both historical and ethical that can make that question a point of debate is quite the accomplishment.” —Michael Meranze, William and Mary Quarterly “We can benefit from a really good secondary source such as Thomas P. Slaughter’s The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. Slaughter’s project is all about context and analysis . . . In the end, we do not explain Woolman. He explains us.” —John Benson, Quaker Life “The most ambitious biography of Woolman in two generations. Its strength lies in placing Woolman in the context of the Anglo-American Atlantic world of the mid-18th century . . . Recommended.” —T. D. Hamm, Choice “A masterful biography. . . Any understanding of the history of social reform in America begins with Woolman, and understanding Woolman begins here.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review) A “superb narrative. . . In our own age of conspicuous consumption, the complex soul Slaughter so ably and beautifully resurrects is full of contemporary relevance as an example of principled living.” —Publisher’s Weekly (starred review) A “thoughtful, scrupulous, enlightening, and engrossing masterpiece.” —Booklist (starred review) “Thomas Slaughter has accomplished the seemingly impossible task of rescuing a saint—here an Abolitionist Quaker saint—entombed merely in fame. This discerning, poetic biography discloses a Woolman far more powerful, both personally and morally, than even his famous Journal revealed. Few histories are more quietly riveting, more piercingly compelling. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman is an amazing reconstruction of a daring human life.” —Jon Butler, Dean, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Yale University “Anyone who cares about this country will be blinded by tears while reading this story of a journey that America might have taken, a journey that would have reconciled north and south, blacks and whites, a journey that instead John Woolman made almost alone. Tom Slaughter has written a magnificent book about a unique American. The narrative is as gripping as a suspense story—and simultaneously heartbreaking. I’ve read a lot about Woolman over the years, but nothing can compare to the insights Slaughter offers here. What a beautiful book!” —Thomas Fleming, author of The Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Survival after Yorktown