Norman Heller Quaker Plays  

John Woolman: A Man of First Steps





NARRATOR:     Long before William Lloyd Garrison published The Liberator or Harriet Tubman took her first trip along the Underground Railroad, John Woolman spoke out against slavery.  Woolman was a Quaker from Colonial New Jersey.  Although he deplored slavery everywhere, he was particularly distressed by slave ownership among his fellow Quakers. 

     In 1767, John Woolman traveled along the western shore of Chesapeake Bay near Baltimore, Maryland.  He visited Quaker meetings to share his anti-slavery views and accepted over-night hospitality wherever it was offered.  One of his stops was Gunpowder, Maryland.  There he spoke at a “quarterly,” or regional, meeting of Quakers.

     Though Woolman’s journal is an American classic and an inspiring example of living one’s beliefs, it contains almost no conversation.  Woolman tells us where he traveled and when but seldom even mentions his hosts and hostesses by name.  This short, two-act play takes place in Gunpowder.  John Woolman is the only non-fictional character in the play which is intended to illustrate his character and convictions.

     Like most Quakers of his day, John Woolman did not use the words “you” and “your” when referring to an individual.  In old English, “you” and “your” attributed special status to the person being addressed.  In keeping with their practice of treating people equally, Woolman and other Quakers said “thee and “thy” to everyone.







NARRATOR:  The first scene takes place in a large room filled with wooden benches arranged in a square and facing the center.  There are no cushions on the benches and no curtains on the windows, nor is there any adornment or decoration on the walls or elsewhere.  About fifty men of varying ages are seated on the benches. Plainly dressed,

all wear gray jackets with no lapels and, though indoors, they do not remove their  broad-brimmed gray hats.  Each man keeps his eyes downcast even as James Wells rises to speak. 



JAMES WELLS:  Friend Woolman, with all due respect for thy reputation as a devout  

                              Quaker, I must protest that thy views on slavery are more than a bit



GEORGE RUTHERFORD:  I approve of James’s observation.  (There is a chorus of men

                                               saying, “I approve.”  Chester Wells raises his hand.)


SAMUEL WOOD:     As clerk of this meeting, I must remind Friends to address thy

                                    words to the clerk.  Also, Quaker practice requires us to wait for

                                    the clerk to recognize us.  I recognize Chester Wells.


CHESTER WELLS:  In the 18th Chapter of the Book of Matthew, Jesus speaks of a king

                                   who punishes his servants by selling them and their wives and

                                   children.  If a person is sold, then, by definition, he becomes a

                                   slave.  The king in the parable is commonly thought to be God.

                                   So you see, God created slavery and considers it to be part of the

                                   natural order of things. 


ROGER ASHTON:  Now let’s be fair, Chester.  Thee has taken that Bible reference

                                  completely out of context.  The king in the parable forgives his

                                  servant’s debts and does not sell anyone.


GEORGE RUTHERFORD:  Perhaps it is thee who is being unfair, Roger.  The fact

                                               that Jesus told the story is proof enough for me that slavery

                                               is in keeping with the teachings of Scripture. (Again, many

                                               others express approval.  Some men stand to give emphasis

                                               to their approval and others add phrases like “We’re with

                                               thee, George” and “George speaks my mind.”  Quite a

                                               commotion results.)


SAMUEL WOOD:  Gentlemen!  Friends!  Please!  Let us refrain from punctuating each

                                 other’s statements by leaping to our feet.  This is, after all, a meeting

                                 for worship with a concern for business.  I appreciate that the topic

                                 introduced by our Friend from New Jersey has caused considerably

                                 more agitation than our usual business agenda.  But, we would do

                                 well to consider the example of this same Friend who sits before us

                                 calmly and stands to talk quietly and only when recognized.   Also,

                                 he does not speak in haste but allows the Spirit to guide his message. 

                                 (John Woolman raises his hand.) I recognize Friend Woolman.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Thank thee, Clerk   It is possible for us to find words in Scripture

                                    that will justify our every thought and deed.  However, there is no

                                    denying the spirit in which the words were written. The Spirit to

                                    which I refer is that of the Good Shepherd, and it is to that kind

                                    and merciful Spirit that I would be true.


ROBERT ASHTON:  If the Clerk please, the remark of Friend Woolman is well taken as

                                    is the statement by my good friend and cousin, Roger Ashton.

                                    All of us here at Gunpowder Quarterly meeting are Quakers in

                                    good standing.  We believe that God calls us to live exemplary

                                    lives.  However, much of our worth is tied up in slaves.  If we free

                                    our slaves, as this Friend seems to suggest, then we will be plunged

                                    into poverty.


CHESTER WELLS:  Surely God does not want us to be reduced to such a state.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Clerk, please (Clerk nods to Woolman.)  Thank thee. God does not

                                    ask more of us than we are capable of doing.  If we accept the truth

                                    that slavery is evil, then the way will open for us to abolish it.


JAMES WELLS:  Those words are so easily uttered, Friend.  But, stop and consider what

                              thee is saying.  Who’s going to pick my corn and tomatoes when they

                              ripen?  I have three children, but all of them together cannot harvest as

                              much as one of my adult field hands, and I have more than a score of

                              slaves working my fields.  I agree with my brother, Chester.  The God

                              I worship does not want to see my children wearing rags.


GEORGE RUTHERFORD:  Well said, James.  My crops would rot in the dirt and I

                                               would have nothing to take to market if it weren’t for my

                                               slaves.  (Woolman raises his hand.)


SAMUEL WOOD:   Friends, might I again remark that it is refreshing to observe John

                                  Woolman’s  respect for Quaker procedure.  You are recognized by

                                  the clerk, Friend Woolman.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  In Scripture we are told:  “Ask and it shall be given you.  Seek

                                   and ye shall find.”  If we are seeking to do God’s will, then we shall   

                                   find all that is needed to accomplish what He requires.


ROGER ASHTON:  If the clerk please, it may not be meant for us to free our slaves this

                                  moment.  Perhaps we can free them in a manner that doesn’t upset

                                  our economic status. 


ROBERT ASHTON:  Roger and I have an uncle in Philadelphia.  He has left provision in

                                    his will for his slaves to be freed after his death. 


JAMES WELLS:  That might work in the city, Robert, but here in rural Maryland our

                              widows would be left with farms they could not manage.


ROGER ASHTON:  Clerk, James’ comment is well put.  Perhaps in our communities it

                                  would be wiser to free slaves upon the death of both husband and



GEORGE RUTHERFORD:  There’s a problem with that idea, too. Roger.  Some of thee

                                               knew my brother-in-law, Walter Cook, from North

                                               Carolina.   Well, he had a fit of conscience right before he

                                               passed on.  He rewrote his will to state that his slaves would

                                               be freed after the death of his wife Mary.   Walter died

                                               shortly thereafter, and his poor wife spent the rest of her

                                               days in fear of her slaves who were not accustomed to

                                               having a woman in charge.


CHESTER WELLS:   I have only met one freed slave, and he was allowed to purchase

                                    his freedom.


GEORGE RUTHERFORD:  Where did he get the money?


CHESTER WELLS:   He was handy as a blacksmith and folks around brought him their

                                    horses to shoe.  I guess his owner let him keep what his customers

                                    paid for his services.


GEORGE RUTHERFORD:  Some of us have been led to believe that Roger’s house

                                               slave takes in sewing for a profit.


JAMES WELLS:  Is that true, Roger?


ROGER ASHTON:  Lilly’s situation is unique.  She is helping Sarah and me to save

                                  enough money to buy her fiancé.  He is on a plantation outside

                                  of Richmond, and she misses him dearly.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  (Woolman raises his hand and clerk nods to him) Thank thee,

                                   Clerk.  I would like it noted that Roger Ashton seems to care

                                   deeply for his slaves.


GEORGE RUTHERFORD:  Oh, the Ashtons are known for treating their workers like

                                               family members.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Clerk, I pray that Friend Rutherford does not mean that comment

                                   as a criticism.  We must never forget that we are considering

                                   human beings whose situation is no fault of their own making.


ROBERT ASHTON:  Clerk, Friend Rutherford must allow that my cousin has one of the

                                    most lucrative farms in these parts.  Also, it might be an effective

                                    practice to offer freedom in exchange for the fruits of hard work.

                                    Freedom could be a powerful incentive.


ROGER ASHTON:  I do know that there is not a slave in my possession who works

                                  harder than Lilly.  She has really developed her talent as a

                                  seamstress, too.


CHESTER WELLS:  And, her eyes are so different.


SAMUEL WOOD:  What did thee say, Chester?  Thy voice was hardly audible.  Did thee

                                 ask to be recognized?


CHESTER WELLS:  Excuse, me, everyone.  I guess I was thinking out loud.


JOHN WOOLMAN:   Clerk, please. (Clerk nods to Woolman)  Thank thee.  I sense that

                                     Friend Wells has alluded to something that causes him distress.

                                     I would hope that this gathering would be tender to his feelings.


SAMUEL WOOD:  Is thee distressed, Chester?  Would thee care to elaborate?


CHESTER WELLS:  Well, all right.  My dear Margaret is not adept with needle and

                                   thread.  Consequently, I visit Lilly often with clothes to be mended.


JAMES WELLS:  My own brother pays a slave?


CHESTER WELLS:  I give the money to Sarah Ashton.  What she does with it is her

                                   business.  Anyway, I have to remind myself that Lilly is a

                                   slave.  She moves so effortlessly, and her eyes are so bright and full

                                   of promise.  She’s nothing like my slaves.  I sometimes marvel

                                   how their feet hardly leave the earth when they walk.  But their

                                   eyes are the worst.  Like a glass chimney that’s gone sooty from a

                                   flame that burns poorly.  It’s gotten so I avoid their gaze 

                                   altogether.  It’s downright disturbing to see eyes without a glimmer

                                   of hope or purpose.


ROGER ASHTON:  Don’t be embarrassed by thy comments, Chester.  Thee is not the

                                  only slave owner to feel uncomfortable around his workers.  And

                                  there is nothing that one can say or do that changes the fact that they

                                  are slaves and we are free.  As for Lilly, I must confess that I have

                                  never even thought of giving Lilly the opportunity to buy her

                                  freedom.  Perhaps, once we have her fiancé safely aboard, it’s

                                 something that Sarah and I might discuss.


JAMES WELLS:  I suppose there’s something to be said for offering freedom as a

                              means of motivation.  However, I personally do not intend to change

                              my way of doing things.


SAMUEL WOOD:  Friends, the hour grows late.  We should break for lunch soon and

                                 leave ample time for the afternoon worship session.  I have

                                 attempted to minute this discussion, and I need Friends’ approval.

                                 Here’s what I wrote;  “The quarterly meeting was visited by John

                                 Woolman from Burlington Monthly Meeting in New Jersey.  He

                                 entreated Friends to consider the evils of slavery and to entertain

                                 ways to free slaves.  The ensuing discussion produced nothing

                                 close to consensus.  Some expressed willingness to consider

                                 freeing their slaves, and many did not.  Friends were grateful for

                                 Friend Woolman’s words.  However, there being no clear

                                 sense of the meeting, it was agreed to lay over further discussion

                                 of the topic of slavery for a future time.”


GEORGE RUTHERFORD:  I approve.  (Several other’s echo his words.)


JOHN WOOLMAN:  If the clerk please, I appreciate thy forbearance in allowing me to

                                    speak today.  Thank thee all for thy attention.  I only ask that

                                    thee prayerfully consider what has been said here today.


ROBERT ASHTON:  Clerk, there is no denying this Friend’s sincerity.  I am sure we

                                    will all take what he has said under advisement.


ROGER ASHTON:  I too admire his sincerity and the strength of his conviction.  If our

                                  Friend needs a place to stay this evening, then I am offering our



JOHN WOOLMAN:   Clerk, please allow me to say that I am grateful for this offer of

                                     hospitality and I am happy to accept it. I thank thee all for

                                     allowing me to participate in thy meeting.


SAMUEL WOOD:  Let us settle into silence for a few moments before we adjourn.






NARRATOR:  Sarah Ashton is sitting in her parlor reading.  Lilly, her slave, is sewing

                         nearby.   The room is amply furnished with plain, polished furniture.

                         The large windows are bare and the walls are painted white.  The only 

                         wall hanging is the portrait of an elderly Quaker ancestor in a

                         simple, but heavy, dark frame.  Sarah Ashton wears a long dress of gray

                         silk topped by a white linen apron.  Her hair is drawn back in a bun

                         and covered by a cap of white cotton that ties under her chin.  Lilly is

                         similarly dressed except that her dress is muslin, not silk.  The two

                         women are startled by a knock on the front door.


SARAH ASHTON:  I’m not expecting anyone, Lilly. Who that could be?   (Lilly rises

                                 and exits stage left.  Sarah rises, peers out the window, shrugs and

                                 returns to her seat.  Lilly returns stage left followed by John




LILLY:  Miss Sarah, this is John Woolman, a Quaker from New Jersey.


SARAH ASHTON:  (rising) Did thee say New Jersey?  I didn’t hear a horse or carriage.


LILLY:  There is no horse or carriage, Ma’am.


SARAH ASHTON:  No horse or carriage?


JOHN WOOLMAN:  I think what Lilly means to say is that I am on foot.


SARAH ASHTON:  Well do come in, Friend Woolman.  I’m Sarah Ashton.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  I’m pleased to meet thee.  Please call me John.


SARAH ASHTON:  Very well, John.  Has thee walked all the way from New Jersey?




SARAH AHSTON:  Thee has?  Oh my!  I was joking.  How far has thee walked today?


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Not very far today.  I spent last night with the Wood Family,

                                   just north of the Town of Gunpowder.


SARAH ASHTON:  What brings thee to this area?


JOHN WOOLMAN:  I’m traveling with a minute from my meeting in Burlington.  I

                                   attended Gunpowder Quarterly Meeting this morning.  I met thy

                                   husband there.  He explained that thee stayed home to be on hand

                                   for thy cook.


SARAH ASHTON:  Yes, Annie is expecting soon, and she thought the baby would be

                                  born today.  However, she is resting comfortably now, and it seems

                                  we have a few more days to wait.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Roger was kind enough to invite me to spend the night.


SARAH ASHTON:  That’s fine.  We welcome Friends traveling in the ministry.  I’m

                                  surprised Roger’s not with thee.


JOHN WOOLMAN:   It was important that he stay for the afternoon meetings.  I

                                    left after the morning session.  I spent most of the afternoon with

                                    Samuel Wood’s elderly aunt.  I did not realize that I would

                                    arrive before Roger.


SARAH ASHTON:  It doesn’t matter.  Do have a seat.  Would thee care for a cold drink?


JOHN WOOLMAN:   Yes, thank thee.  (Sarah nods to Lilly who exits stage right.  Sarah

                                     and John sit down.)


SARAH ASHTON:  Has thee traveled extensively?


JOHN WOOLMAN:   I suppose I have.  I’ve visited most of the northern colonies.


SARAH ASHTON:  Are northerners still angry at the British Crown?


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Things are quieter since the Stamp Act was repealed.


SARAH ASHTON:  I’ll refrain from calling them “hot-heads,” but those Adamses seem

                                  determined to start another war.  It’s hardly been four years since

                                  the French and British were fighting here in the colonies.  I was

                                  terrified when the savages got involved.  I’ve heard such terrible

                                  stories about what they did to British soldiers.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  The Delaware Tribe is quite peaceful.  I encounter them from time

                                    to time.


SARAH ASHTON:  Encounter them?  I would show them my back in a hurry.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  There’s really no need to fear our native brethren.  I’ve even

                                    learned a few words of their language.  (Enter Tobias, George,

                                    and Benjamin stage left.)


TOBIAS ASHTON:  Mother!  Mother!  I met Cousin Robert on the way home.  He said

                                   that a rather odd man spoke at Quarterly Meeting.  A Quaker from

                                   New Jersey, I think.


SARAH ASHTON:  Tobias Ashton, mind thy tongue!


GEORGE ASHTON:  But, Mother, he speaks out against slavery and he does not eat



BENJAMIN ASHTON:  And he does not know how to ride a horse!


SARAH ASHTON:  Children!  Where are thy manners?   John, please accept our



JOHN WOOLMAN:  No apology necessary.  At least I seem to have made an impression

                                   at Quarterly Meeting.


SARAH ASHTON:  Tobias, George and Benjamin, do you remember what I have said

                                  about telling tales?  This Friend is John Woolman—from NEW



BENJAMIN ASHTON:   (approaching Woolman) My father can ride a horse.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Well, actually, Benjamin, so can I.  However, in my recent travels I

                                    have chosen to walk.


GEORGE ASHTON:  What has thee got against horses?


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Nothing at all.  I gained a good deal of wealth in my earlier years,

                                    but now I am committed to simple living.  So, I’ve given up my

                                    fine steed.  Also, walking helps to keep me humble.  And, besides,

                                    the western shore of Maryland is very beautiful.  I’ve enjoyed

                                    seeing it at a slower pace.  Now as for thee, George, I must confess

                                    that thee has told no tales, for all that thee has said is true.


BENJAMIN ASHTON:  Thee really does not like sugar?


JOHN WOOLMAN:  The flavor is delightful, but does thee know where sugar comes

                                    from, Benjamin?


BENJAMIN ASHTON:  From the sugar jar.


TOBIAS ASHTON:  Benjamin, he’s talking about where sugar is grown.  It grows in



JOHN WOOLMAN:  Excellent, Tobias.  And sugar is harvested by slaves who are often

                                    terribly mistreated. 


GEORGE ASHTON:  What does thee mean by “mistreated?”


JOHN WOOLAN:  They work long hours in the broiling sun.  If exhaustion slows them

                                down, then they are whipped.  Slaves in Barbados live short,

                                wretched lives.  (Lilly enters stage right and hands Woolman a silver



JOHN WOOLMAN:Thank thee, Lilly. (He sets the cup on a table nearby.)


GEORGE ASHTON:  My father does not mistreat his slaves. Does he, Lilly?


LILLY:  No, Master George.  (She exits stage right.)


GEORGE ASHTON:  So, what’s wrong with owning slaves as long as you treat them



JOHN WOOLMAN:  Freedom is a blessing that I cherish.  For me to enjoy freedom

                                    while others are enslaved suggests that I am privileged for some

                                    reason.  In fact, I believe that all people are equal in God’s eyes

                                    and therefore entitled to the same rights.


GEORGE ASHTON:  Is that why thee pays slaves?


SARAH ASHTON:  Excuse me, George.  What did thee say?


GEORGE ASHTON:  Cousin Robert said that this man pays slaves for waiting on him.


SARAH ASHTON:  Is that true, John?


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Only if their owners agree to it.


BENJAMIN ASHTON:  Will thee pay Lilly?


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Lilly has been very kind to me.  She carried my heavy pack in from

                                    the porch, and she brought me a drink.


SARAH ASHTON:  Children, please excuse thy selves and wash thy hands and faces for



GEORGE ASHTON: Excuse us.  We’ll be back. (Children exit stage right.)


SARAH ASHTON:  The children needn’t hear what I have to say.  Lilly, come here,

                                  please.  (Lilly enters, wiping her hands on her apron.)


LILLY:  Yes, Miss Sarah.


SARAH ASHTON:  John, thee is permitted to pay Lilly if thee wishes.  Although she

                                 is our slave, Roger and I allow her to take in sewing for profit.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Is that the custom here?


SARAH ASHTON:  Hardly.  But we permit Lilly to raise money to help us purchase a

                                  slave named Caleb.  Lilly and Caleb are engaged to be married. 

                                  Lilly, would thee like to tell John about Caleb?


LILLY:  Miss Sarah and Mr. Roger wanted to buy Caleb when they bought me, but Caleb

               is very big and strong.  He sold for a higher price than any other slave at the

               auction.  I cried and cried when he was bought by that evil man, McDougal,

               from Richmond.


SARAH ASHTON: Clarence McDougal offered to buy Lilly too, but he has a terrible

                                 reputation and many of his slaves have—disappeared.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  How dreadful. Are thy neighbors understanding of thy arrangement

                                    with Lilly?


SARAH ASHTON:  A few are.  But, Lilly is a talented seamstress, so she gets lots of

                                  work.  However, much of the work arrives and departs after dark!


JOHN WOOLMAN:   I see.  Well, Lilly, I feel I already owe thee for thy service to me.  I

                                    also have some mending that needs doing if thee has time while I

                                    am here.  My mode of travel is very hard on my stockings which

                                    have huge holes in both heels.


LILLY:  I’m mighty quick at darning, Mr. John. Before thee wakes tomorrow, thy

              stockings will be good as new.  (Children enter.  George peers inside the cup

              which has remained untouched on table.)


GEORGE ASHTON:  So, it’s true.


SARAH ASHTON:  What’s true, George?


GEORGE ASHTON:  He won’t drink from a fancy cup.




SARAH ASHTON:  George,  please show respect for our guest.  Thy father has invited

                                  Friend  Woolman to spend the night.


BENJAMIN ASHTON:  Thee knows our father?


JOHN WOOLMAN:  We met today at Quarterly Meeting.


GEORGE ASHTON:  Did he hear thee speak against slavery?


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Yes and he was more receptive than many of those in attendance.


BENJAMIN ASHTON:  What does “receptive” mean?


JOHN WOOLMAN:  Well, it means that he was willing to talk about ways that

                                     slaves might be given their freedom.


GEORGE ASHTON:  Are you sure?  My father spoke of freeing slaves?


TOBIAS ASHTON:  Father says that Quakers are taught to respect God’s

                                   creation.  God’s creation means everything and everyone,

                                  including us and slaves too.


BENJAMIN ASHTON:    But, how can slaves be freed?  Where would they go?


JOHN WOOLMAN:  That is a good question, Benjamin.  And that is why we ask these

                                    questions of God before we ask them of one another.  When God

                                    answers us, there is no cause for fear, for we can trust in Him.


SARAH ASHTON:  Our visitor is very wise, Benjamin.  There is no reason to be

                                  frightened by the future as long as it is in God’s hands. The future of  

                                  slavery is an issue that adults must deal with.  Regardless of what

                                  thy father believes, he will continue to provide for thee and thy

                                  brothers--with slaves or without them.  Now, Lilly, when thee has  

                                  exchanged  John’s cup for a plain one, please prepare the tea.  Roger

                                  should be home by the time thee has finished.  (Lilly picks up the

                                  cup and starts to exit.)


TOBIAS ASHTON:  Wait, Lilly.  (Lilly stops and turns to Tobias)  Mother, perhaps we  

                                  could try our tea without sugar today.




TOBIAS ASHTON:  For the sake of all the slaves who are mistreated.  Not just the ones

                                  in Barbados but those right here in America whose owners are



LILLY:  Thank thee, Master Tobias.  (Lilly looks down at floor.  Sarah rises, hugs Lilly

               and turns to Tobias.)         


SARAH ASHTON:  Tobias, that is a noble suggestion.  Thee is more like thy father

                                 everyday.  No one has the right to mistreat another human being, and

                                 we should show our support and concern for the victims of hatred.


BENJAMIN ASHTON:  Thee is really having tea without sugar?  Can I just have water?


GEORGE ASHTON:  I’m with Benjamin.  What good would it do to give up sugar?


SARAH ASHTON:  For one thing, children, it would set an example for others to

                                  consider.  And thee would do well to follow that example.


JOHN WOOLMAN:  George and Benjamin, thee are young yet.  To the two of thee,

                                    slave labor is a normal part of the world.  But the day may come

                                    when thee will see the world differently and will want to join the

                                    struggle against injustice.


BENJAMIN ASHTON:  I think it’s just a struggle to give up something that tastes good. 

                                        How is it going to help anything?


SARAH ASHTON:  Yesterday, we had no thought of what sugar represents.  But Friend

                                  Woolman’s example has forced us to look at ourselves and our lives

                                  a little differently.


TOBIAS ASHTON:   That’s true.  I saw myself as just a boy who could do to nothing

                                    against injustice.  But, now I’ve discovered that there’s something

                                    even a child can do.  There is a first step, and perhaps—someday—

                                    many more.





JOHN WOOLMAN.  A Quaker in his late forties.  Almost saintly in his humility, sincerity, and commitment to his beliefs.  He is always calm, and his speech is deliberate and unhurried.


ROGER ASHTON.  A successful Quaker farmer in his mid thirties, tolerant, empathetic

and sincere.  Capable of becoming defensive when his words are challenged. 


ROBERT ASHTON.  First cousin of Roger and similarly affected by Woolman’s ideas. Less idealistic than his cousin and more willing to see both sides of an issue.


SAMUEL WOOD.  Clerk of the quarterly meeting, he shows appropriate deference to the itinerant guest.  Like the majority of his fellow Quakers, however, he dismisses Woolman’s teachings with polite indifference.  Takes his role as clerk very seriously.


CHESTER WELLS:  A devout Quaker, prepared to defend slavery with Bible references.

He betrays a deep sense of conscience as the discussion of slavery progresses.


JAMES WELLS.  Younger brother of Chester.  Less religious and more pragmatic than his brother, James speaks to the slavery issue from a purely economic perspective.


GEORGE RUTHERFORD.  Outspoken, surly and less articulate than other Quakers in attendance, he echoes his agreement when others speak his mind.


SARAH ASHTON.  An energetic Quaker homemaker in her mid thirties.  She is frank, forthright and easily flustered.  However, she is also loving, considerate, and sympathetic.


LILLY.  A house slave in her late teens or early twenties.  Open, friendly, attentive, and industrious.


TOBIAS ASHTON.  A sensitive young man age 13 or 14.  Like his parents, he  tends to be outspoken, and he is conscientious about trying to live his beliefs. 


GEORGE ASHTON.  The middle child, age 11 or 12.  Observant, loyal to local values, with a tendency to become suspicious, defensive and stubborn. 


BENJAMIN ASHTON.  The Youngest Ashton, age 6 or 7, he is innocent, forthright, curious and totally without pretense.         


NARRATOR.  The narrator sets the scenes and provides some of the information generally given in stage directions.  The part of the narrator allows the play to be read in a classroom without props or staging. 

    John Woolman was born in 1720 to Quaker parents in the Colony of New Jersey.  In the 1740’s, he found himself increasingly troubled by the immorality of slavery.  He eventually gave up his successful business in the Mount Holly area to travel with a minute from his Quaker meeting in Burlington to most of the American Colonies.  Wherever he went, he preached against slave ownership.

     In the late 1750’s, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) approved a minute forbidding members to own slaves.  This minute was largely the result of Woolman’s mission.

     The fact that Woolman visited Gunpowder Quarterly Meeting in Maryland in 1767 is recorded in his journal.  However, the journal does not tell us what transpired there, whom he met or where he spent the night. 

     “John Woolman:  a Man of First Steps” is a two-act play which presents a fictional account of Woolman’s visit to Gunpowder.  The play provides some insight regarding the character of John Woolman, his beliefs, and the various ways in which fellow Quakers may have reacted to his message

    Act One takes place in a Quaker Meetinghouse during sessions of the regional Quaker gathering at Gunpowder.   John Woolman has presented his views on slavery and now his audience is responding.  Only a few of the men in the room respond favorably to Woolman’s words. One of them is Roger Ashton who invites Woolman to spend the night at his home.

     Act Two takes place in the home of Roger Ashton.  John Woolman arrives before Roger, thus surprising his hostess, Sarah Ashton, and her house slave, Lilly.  The three characters are soon joined by the Ashton children, Tobias, George and Benjamin.  The children have heard about Woolman already, but they do not realize that the stranger in their parlor is none other than he.  To Sarah’s dismay the children’s unfavorable impressions of the New Jersey Quaker are boisterously aired.

     Woolman is patient with the children, and his example affects Sarah and Tobias, the oldest child.  Sarah and her son agree to try tea without sugar because Woolman tells them of the abuses suffered by slave laborers in Barbados where sugar is grown.

     This play was only presented once by the children at Manasquan Quaker Meeting in Wall, NJ in 1995 and, at that time, the play consisted of just the second act.  When the play was recently reviewed by an instructor at the Children’s Institute of Literature in Redding Ridge, Connecticut, it was suggested that the first act and the part of the narrator be added so that the play could be adapted more easily to the classroom.




Norman Heller Quaker Plays