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The York Manuscript: John Woolman’s Final Writings

From: Quaker History
Volume 102, Number 2, Fall 2013
pp. 28-51 | 10.1353/qkh.2013.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

New Jersey Quaker minister and tailor John Woolman (1720–1772) is a well-known figure among scholars of eighteenth-century Quakerism and antislavery. Woolman is most famous for his Journal, which is regarded as a spiritual classic and an important example of colonial North American literature. Besides his Journal, Woolman also left a body of essays, letters, ephemera, and documents written in official capacity as a leader among Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Quakers (PYM). Taken together, this body of literature provides a more complex and nuanced depiction of Woolman than is possible from the Journal alone. For this reason, it is essential to identify and make accessible Woolman’s writings. And yet, such a task poses some difficulties. It was standard practice for eighteenth-century Quaker authors to submit their writings to PYM for revision and review, and Woolman not only followed this practice but served for a time on the committee responsible for reviewing publications. Early editors made revisions to Woolman’s publications and, though the editors generally accepted Woolman’s ideas, it has been the task of scholars to restore Woolman’s writings to the text of his manuscripts so as to gain a clearer picture of his voice. Another difficulty is that in some cases we do not have Woolman’s final manuscript, and so it is impossible to identify in the published work what was his intended text and what were the revisions made by editors. For instance, this article addresses this second difficulty by examining the recent re-discovery of a 1772 transcription of the manuscripts on Woolman’s person at the time of his death, known as the York Manuscript (or, MS Y), which changes some assessments of his last writings and provides the necessary evidence to establish with a good deal of certainty their contents and organization. The York Manuscript demonstrates that Woolman’s final writings have been significantly rearranged, and portions have been moved out of their original context. As a result, the meaning and poignancy of his writings in printed versions is sometimes diluted and obstructed.

At his death, Woolman left among his possessions some writings composed while travelling in England. Contained within these writings are critiques of slavery and the trans-Atlantic economy, as well as some of the most stridently apocalyptic language to be found anywhere in the corpus of Woolman’s writings. This material deepens and complicates our understanding of Woolman’s writings, and provides a glimpse into the type of society he longed for. These writings provide an important snap-shot of Woolman’s theological and spiritual awareness at the very end of his life, while on a physically and spiritually trying journey in a foreign land.

The importance of these last writings notwithstanding, scholars have faced challenges in reading accurately Woolman’s final words, and adequately assessing their implications for historical and theological understandings of his journey in England and his emphases in his final months. Woolman’s last writings were edited and published soon after his death, but the whereabouts of the manuscripts of some of these writings are unknown and so his exact text is elusive. To add to this uncertainty, there are significant inconsistencies between the published versions of these writings, thus casting even further doubt on the authenticity of the printed versions. Thus, in the paragraphs below, this article 1) outlines the York Manuscript’s history and origination; 2) highlights some of the main differences between the York Manuscript and published editions; and 3) explains how the recent re-discovery of a document illumines Woolman’s original voice, and examines the implications of this re-discovered manuscript.

The History and Origination of the Copy of the York Manuscript

The York Manuscript’s history, the explanation for its present location, and its recent re-discovery is itself a complicated story that begins with Woolman’s sense of calling to visit York, England. In 1772, Woolman acted on this “religious concern” and sailed to England for what would turn out to be his final ministry journey. He landed in London, and stayed there for a week before walking northward to York where he died of smallpox on October 7, 1772, at Almery Garth, the home...



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