John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom



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Paul Harvey
John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom
Quite a while ago, I blogged about a (then) new biography of John Woolman, the pioneering eighteenth-century Quaker abolitionist,by Thomas Slaughter (The Beautiful Soul of Thomas Woolman).

The scholarship on Woolman continues. Penn Press has just published a new work by the British historian Geoffrey Plank, John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire, which looks fascinating. There's an author interview over at the Penn Press website, a little excerpt of which I'll post below:

Did you discover anything about Woolman in your research that was particularly surprising or seemingly uncharacteristic?
I think I was most surprised by Woolman’s relative wealth and his commercial dealings. Woolman mentions in his journal that he was a successful draftsman and shopkeeper, but the implications of his financial success did not become clear until I examined his ledger books and worked out some of the details. In the mid- to late 1750s, at exactly the same time that Woolman was beginning to dramatize his opposition to slavery, he invested in hog production. He almost certainly sent pork to sugar-producing plantations in the Caribbean. Quaker abolitionists are often depicted as busybodies, interfering in the lives of distant people whose concerns were far from their own. This stereotype misrepresents most colonial-era Quaker abolitionists, who were intimately familiar with slavery in several contexts—in their homes, in places like the local iron works, in the American south, and in the Caribbean.


And here's more about the work, for those interested:
The abolitionist John Woolman (1720-72) has been described as a "Quaker saint," an isolated mystic, singular even among a singular people. But as historian Geoffrey Plank recounts, this tailor, hog producer, shopkeeper, schoolteacher, and prominent Quaker minister was very much enmeshed in his local community in colonial New Jersey and was alert as well to events throughout the British Empire. Responding to the situation as he saw it, Woolman developed a comprehensive critique of his fellow Quakers and of the imperial economy, became one of the most emphatic opponents of slaveholding, and helped develop a new form of protest by striving never to spend money in ways that might encourage slavery or other forms of iniquity.
Drawing on the diaries of contemporaries, personal correspondence, the minutes of Quaker meetings, business and probate records, pamphlets, and other sources, John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom shows that Woolman and his neighbors were far more engaged with the problems of inequality, trade, and warfare than anyone would know just from reading the Quaker's own writings. Although he is famous as an abolitionist, the end of slavery was only part of Woolman's project. Refusing to believe that the pursuit of self-interest could safely guide economic life, Woolman aimed for a miraculous global transformation: a universal disavowal of greed.


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