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In May 1772, following his recovery from pleurisy, Woolman embarked on what would be his last journey.He decided to travel in steerage across the Atlantic to England rather than in cabin accommodation, remembering how his ‘fellow creatures’ – the black slaves – had made their passage from Africa.
Three years before he married, Woolman was working independently as a tailor and had developed a retail trade at Mount Holly.
But, because of his calling to speak against slavery, he felt the ‘cumber’ of business was beginning to stand in the way of what he demanded from himself.
concerning our duty toward this people; and it is not a time for delay’ ().
On that day the Quakers began the process by which they freed their slaves – the first large body to do so in America.
For 16 years he was also a member of the Overseers of the Press for Yearly Meeting.
On 18 October 1749 Woolman married Sarah Ellis by whom he had two children, Mary and John, but John only lived for a short time.By 1761 Woolman had given up his successful retail merchandising business and had come to rely on tailoring and orchard tending as his gainful occupations.Like a few other Quakers, notably Benjamin Lay and Joshua Evans he refused to use slave-grown products, including indigo dye.Thus began his crusade against slavery; a slow but steady pricking of consciences within the Society of Friends that would eventually spark further moves for abolition in America.Woolman’s efforts were largely accomplished by religious journeys, the first in 1743 taking him to points in New Jersey.It opened the way and set the pattern for pamphlets by Anthony Benezet on Africa and the slave trade, for pamphleting by John Wesley, Granville Clark and Thomas Clarkson in England and for antislavery pronouncements by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’.It was at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting on 26 August 1758 that Woolman made an impassioned appeal for Friends to abolish the practice of holding slaves: ‘In infinite Love and goodness He hath opened our understanding …Shortly after its publication, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting ruled that members who purchased or sold slaves would be removed from church positions of power.Woolman was also a pioneer of the Free Produce movement, shunning cotton and other goods produced by slave labor beginning in the early 1760s.For a long time Woolman had desired to take his concern over slavery to England.He arrived in London in time for Yearly Meeting and, at first, his appearance caused him to be regarded as ‘some itinerant enthusiast’.