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The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition

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The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition
By Thomas P. Slaughter. (Hill & Wang - A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2008. Pg. 449. B & W Illustrations, Maps.) ISBN 10: 0-8090-9514-9. ISBN 13: 978-0-8090-9514-8.

Reviewed by Herbert White - November 10, 2008

John Woolman (1720-1772) was a Quaker who has been referred to as the father of Abolitionism. In The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition, Thomas P. Slaughter has crafted a detailed biography of this influential, yet little known man. Born in New Jersey, to a Quaker family, Woolman started out as a simple tailor who went on to become a traveling preacher who preached not only about anti-slavery, but against all forms of exploitation ranging from the draft (conscription) to the inhumane treatment of animals. He also preached against excessive consumerism, advocated a simple lifestyle, and argued against violence in any form. Part mystic and part social activist, Woolman was to have a far reaching impact upon his fellow Quakers and all who heard his message.

Slaughter is a professor of history at the University of Rochester, and it is obvious from his writing that he genuinely admires Woolman. Yet his admiration did not prevent him from pointing about Woolman's foibles and idiosyncracies, thereby providing a well-rounded and honest account of Woolman and his life's work. Extremely well researched and documented, The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition provides a comprehensive and authoritative, yet readable, account of a remarkable man. This book takes the reader on a journey from Woolman's birth until his death, and shows how Woolman developed his philosophical and religious leanings and how he shared his 'revelations' with his fellow man. Slaughter discusses not only Woolman's preaching, but also the extensive body of writings that he left behind. Throughout, Slaughter provides a detailed analysis of how Woolman's activities were received by others and how he influenced the burgeoning anti-slavery movement. Woolman's esoteric lifestyle - his wearing of simple, undyed clothes, not using silver tableware, or riding horses - is also examined as a manifestation of his message.

The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition proceeds through Woolman's life chronologically. Tackling his life in such an orderly manner provides the reader with a firm understanding of how Woolman's mind set developed and how his effectiveness as a social activist grew over time. Excerpts from Woolman's own writing, especially his Journal, are used extensively, allowing the reader to scrutinize Woolman from his own perspective.

Poignant and detailed, The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition is a significant addition to the body of work on the abolitionist movement, as well as on Quakerism. This book is a perfect fit as a supplemental text for use in University-level courses on slavery, 18th century American Religion, the history of social activism and reform, the abolitionist movement, and American history in general. This is also an ideal book for general readers interested in examining the life of an extraordinary Quaker leader who strove to live what he saw as an ideal Christian lifestyle and who sincerely worked to make the world a much better place for all - humans and animals alike.


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