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John Woolman in Abolitionists

John Woolman (1720-1772) was the most influential Quaker antislavery activist prior to the revolutionary era. In 1754, Woolman published Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, in which he asked his readers to "suppose that our ancestors and we had been exposed to constant servitude...destitute of the help of reading and good company...while others, in ease, have plentifully heaped up the fruit of our labour...should we, in that case, be less abject than they now are?" Woolman died of smallpox while attending a Yearly Meeting in England in 1772, but just four years after his death, the Quakers banned slaveholding among the Society of Friends.

Like the Puritans, the Quakers initially expressed no objection to slaveholding. Still, George Fox, founder of the Quakers, did visit Barbados in the late seventeenth century and admonished the slaveholders he encountered there to train their slaves about God and to treat them "gently and mildly." Yet no formal sect-wide action took place until 1742, when Woolman objected to preparing a bill of sale for a black woman that his boss had sold. Although he did ultimately comply, Woolman told his employer that he considered slaveholding inconsistent with Christianity, and he began a life-long campaign with like-minded members of the Society of Friends. Quakers soon came to comprise a disproportionate number of the most conscientious opponents of slavery, helping to found the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery in 1775.

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