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John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom

A Quaker in the British Empire

By Geoffrey Plank

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-9

In 1847 the poet John Greenleaf Whittier published a series of essays entitled “Quaker Slaveholding, and How it Was Abolished.” Whittier identified 1742 as a critical year, when “an event, simple and inconsiderable in itself, was made the instrumentality of exerting a mighty influence upon slavery in the Society of Friends.” Some time during that year a shopkeeper in Mount Holly, ...

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1. Past Ages: History

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pp. 10-32

In 1755, when at age thirty-five John Woolman began to write an account of his life, he started with a Saturday afternoon when he was a schoolchild, perhaps as young as six. The children were dismissed from their lessons, and Woolman joined a group walking in the direction of his family’s farm. None of the boys and girls were in a hurry to get to their homes. After going a short ...

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2. Deserts and Lonely Places: Social Diversion and Solitary Meditation

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pp. 33-52

On a spring day when he was approximately nine, Woolman was walking down the road toward a neighbor’s house when he saw a mother robin sitting by her nest. She flew off the instant she saw him, but did not go far for fear of abandoning her chicks. Instead she “flew about,” and “with many cries expressed concern” for her young ones. Woolman responded just as she ...

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3. More Than Was Required: Quaker Meetings

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pp. 53-72

In 1740 Elizabeth Woolman, John’s oldest sister, attained the age of twenty-five. Eber, the youngest of the Woolman children, had been born a year earlier, and there were now thirteen brothers and sisters living with their parents in the house by Rancocas Creek. Elizabeth decided that it was time for her to leave. This changed the dynamics of the household, because Elizabeth ...

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4. The Road to Large Business: Family and Work

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pp. 73-96

Families occupied a central place in the eighteenth-century Quakers’ vision of a moral social order. In his description of his parents’ home at the beginning of his journal, Woolman vividly described what he thought a good Quaker family should do. The ideal family gave all its members security, instruction, and spiritual discipline. Without partiality, husbands and wives, ...

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5. A Dark Gloominess Hanging over the Land: Slavery

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pp. 97-120

Elizabeth Woolman, John’s oldest sister, died at thirty-one on March 17, 1747.1 This was a formative event for John, emotionally trying and instructive at the same time. Elizabeth had contracted smallpox, and during her waning days John had gathered reports from those who were with her and kept a record of the stages of her demise. He hoped to learn from Elizabeth’s death, ...

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6. Men in Military Posture: The Seven Years’ War

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pp. 121-146

On a night in February 1754 Woolman dreamed that while walking through an orchard he saw two lights in the sky resembling dull suns. Suddenly a storm of fire swept over the orchard from the east. Woolman was surprised, but not afraid. He noticed a friend standing nearby who was “greatly distressed in mind at this unusual appearance,” and Woolman tried to be reassuring. He ...

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7. Not in Words Only: Conspicuous Instructive Behavior

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pp. 147-174

The Seven Years’ War made many Delaware Valley Quakers uneasy about serving in government. In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the war forced some Quaker officer-holders into difficult dilemmas, because they were responsible for punishing other Friends who had violated provincial laws on principle. This problem was acute in Pennsylvania, where in some instances Quaker ...

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8. The Deep: Crossing the Sea

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pp. 175-198

Woolman’s view of travel across the ocean darkened over the course of his life. With his boyhood home near the Delaware River and the port of Burlington only a few miles away, he grew up familiar with long-distance sailing ships. His first experience on the open seas came when he traveled to New England at age twenty-six. He recounted that trip in his journal with a precision that ...

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9. A Messenger Sent from the Almighty: England and Death

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pp. 199-222

Woolman monitored his health closely and in the late 1760s, to ward off illness, he started to avoid many foods.1 Under ordinary circumstances, his diet was “plain, chiefly consisting of bread and milk or butter &c.”2 During his voyage across the Atlantic in 1772, he was reduced almost entirely to eating bread, though he sometimes indulged in a wayward snack. Samuel Emlen ...

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pp. 223-234

On October 9, 1772, Woolman’s body was buried in York. William Tuke made the arrangements, doing his best to follow the deceased’s instructions. Woolman had wanted his clothing traded away to defray the costs, and although Tuke had tried to exchange Woolman’s hat, shirt, and trousers for a coffin and a shroud, there had been little time. The carpenter and the clothier ...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 235-236


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pp. 237-282


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pp. 283-290


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pp. 291-292

E-ISBN-13: 9780812207125
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812244052

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Early American Studies
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Daniel K. Richter, Kathleen M. Brown, Max Cavitch, and David Waldstreicher See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794700789
MUSE Marc Record: Download for John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom

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Subject Headings

  • Society of Friends -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Slavery -- United States -- History -- 18th century.
  • Woolman, John, 1720-1772.
  • Quakers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Abolitionists -- United States -- Biography
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