On Authority and Slavery - lessons from Woolman and Douglass

I've finally begun reading another of the Harvard Classics my husband has been pressing me to read for months now: The Journal of John Woolman. Woolman was a Quaker living in colonial days in America. In his travels visiting Friends among the colonies he saw his share of slavery and was often housed by fellow Quakers who were slaveholders. His experiences and his faith convinced him that slavery was an evil which destroyed both slave and master:
"Two things were remarkable to me in this journey: first, in regard to my entertainment. When I ate, drank, and lodged free-cost with people who lived in ease on the hard labor of their slaves I felt uneasy; and as my mind was inward to the Lord, I found this uneasiness return upon me, at times, through the whole visit. Where the masters bore a good share of the burden, and lived frugally, so that their servants were well provided for, and their labor moderate, I felt more easy; but where they lived in a costly way, and laid heavy burdens on their slaves, my exercise was often great, and I frequently had conversation with them in private concerning it. Secondly, this trade of importing slaves from their native country being much encouraged amongst them, and the white people and their children so generally living without much labor, was frequently the subject of my serious thoughts. I saw in these southern provinces so many vices and corruptions, increased by this trade and this way of life, that it appeared to me as a dark gloominess hanging over the land; and though now many willingly run into it, yet in future the consequence will be grievous to posterity. I express it as it hath appeared to me, not once, nor twice, but as a matter fixed on my mind."  (1746 emphasis mine)
After this first enlightening journey, Woolman, as part of his mercantile business, would find himself faced with requests for him to draw up wills and other contracts which involved the disposition of slaves. On the first of these occasions he did as he was asked, but found his conscience troubled so deeply that in the future he would refuse all such work, and never without explaining his scruples. From these experiences of obeying his Christ-informed conscience he learned "...that acting contrary to present outward interest, from a motive of Divine love and in regard to truth and righteousness, and thereby incurring the resentments of people, opens the way to a treasure better than silver, and to a friendship exceeding the friendship of men." And as time passed, he would see his earnest conviction bring about changes of hearts which would lead to the eventual freeing of many slaves.
"My mind was deeply engaged in this visit, both in public and private, and at several places where I was, on observing that they had slaves, I found myself under a necessity, in a friendly way, to labor with them on that subject; expressing, as way opened, the inconsistency of that practice with the purity of the Christian religion, and the ill effects of it manifested amongst us." (emphasis mine)
Indeed, Woolman's ongoing outspoken stance against slavery would eventually lead to a change in the official position of the Quakers on the subject, a conviction so firm that in 1790 the Society of Friends would go so far as to petition the United States Congress for the abolition of slavery *.

Woolman's observations on the morally destructive nature of slavery on those who practiced it resounded clearly another account I read earlier in the week. This, the recollection of former slave Frederick Douglass regarding his childhood master:
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"Yet he was not by nature worse than other men. Had he been brought up in a free state, surrounded by the full restraints of civilized society - restraints which are necessary to the freedom of all its members, alike and equally, Capt. Anthony might have been as humane a man as are members of such society generally. A man's character always takes its hue, more or less, from the form and color of things about him. The slaveholder, as well as the slave, was the victim of the slave system. Under the whole heavens there could be no relation more unfavorable to the development of honorable character than that sustained by the slaveholder to the slave. Reason is imprisoned here and passions run wild." from The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass (emphasis mine)
And in another place he relates the testimony of his own eyes - the steady moral degradation of an otherwise kind woman as she settles into the attitude of slave ownership.
"She at first lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness. It was at least necessary for her to have some training in the exercise of irresponsible power, to make her equal to the task of treating me as though I were a brute.
. . . In entering upon the duties of a slaveholder, she did not seem to perceive that I sustained to her the relation of a mere chattel, and that for her to treat me as a human being was not only wrong, but dangerously so. Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me.
When I went there she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. . . . Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamb-like disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.
The first step in her downward course was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practice her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded. . . .
Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger. I have had her rush at me with a face made all up of fury, and snatch from me the newspaper, in a manner that fully revealed her apprehension. She was an apt woman; and a little experience soon demonstrated, to her satisfaction, that education and slavery were incompatible with each other." (Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995, orig. 1885, p. 22). As quoted and emphasized by John Piper.

And so, what have I gained from these contemplations of slavery? I mean, really, slavery is over in America, right? Well, yes it is. But the nature of man has not changed, only the structures of authority. There are lessons here for everyone who owns even the slightest measure of authority - fathers, mothers, husbands, law enforcement officials, judges, social workers, employers, creditors, pastors...anyone really who holds the reigns of power in their hands to significantly alter the life-course and livelihood of another. As the old tried and true saying goes "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". It is the nature of man, whether great or small, to be corrupted by authority. Abuse of authority is a hallmark of godlessness, but the heart of a servant is a hallmark of the Christian:
"But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mt. 20:25-28)
So, in every area were we have the God-given power of authority at our fingertips, we are warned not to wield it as a weapon, but to forge it into the tools of a servant. And, as the citations above reveal, we fail to do so at our own peril. Our abuses of power and mistreatment of others destroy not only them, but our own souls.


Hydriotaphia said…
I wonder if Woolman was familiar with Browne's 1670's 'prophecy', probably not, but at least he was active about it, whereas Browne only wrote-

When Africa shall no longer sell out their Blacks,
To be slaves and drudges to the American tracts.
Hydriotaphia said…
But also slavery is far from dead, the sex-industry creates real slaves throughout the world while slavery to Mammon exists in America, GB and many other nations.
rachel said…
This is fascinating! I think I would enjoy this book a lot. Interesting how Woolman's stance led to a change in the Quaker's official position. I love stories of one person who makes a difference. :)
Laurie M. said…
It's a quiet and unassuming little book, a reflection of the character of its author. I plan to post a letter he quoted in full which was a statement on the part of the Society of Friends in reaction to the French and Indian War, which preceded the American Revolution. Fascinating and compelling. If there is one thing the Quakers are to be credited for, it is for taking stands based upon Christlike convictions. John Woolman is the picture of a man who carefully maintained a tender conscience.
Laurie M. said…
I was really struck by the prophetic nature of Woolman's words regarding the fate of the South if it continued on the course it was headed. It would be just about a hundred years coming.

Yes, slavery of various kinds is alive and well in the world! But for today my wish was to contemplate the curse that comes from a slaveholder mentality. I almost wish I'd waited a day to post this. In retrospect I'd like to have expanded a bit on that point,and the subtlety of it,how even in our small ways we can possess the mind of a slave driver and find ourselves the possessors of hard and cruel hearts.
Anonymous said…
Good choice of verses! Check out my daily Bible verses if you get a chance. I could use the feedback.

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