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THE EUROPEAN RECEPTION OF JOHN WOOLMAN'S JOURNAL By Jean A. Perkins* Unlike Benjamin Franklin who was clearly writing at least part of his Autobiography with a wide public in mind, John Woolman would not have anticipated such a condition. Publication committees of the various Yearly Meetings of the Society of Friends published many a Quaker journal, always with the aim of providing members of the Society of Friends with food for thought and meditation on the real meaning of the doctrine of the Inner Light and its attendant testimonies of equality, simplicity and peace. The fact is that John Woolman, a simple tailor from Mount Holly, New Jersey, was able to create a work very different from those of his predecessors, infusing his Journal with a new spirit and a sense of commitment, which enabled it to be read outside the guarded social group which the eighteenth-century Quakers had become. They were not on the whole a proselytizing sect; they were speaking to each other in their numerous pubHcations , but John Woolman's interpretations of their testimonies made it possible for his essays and autobiography to be accepted by non-Quakers who shared some of these concerns. The last quarter of the eighteenth century was an Age of Revolution, not just of the American and the French Revolutions, but of thought and feeling, and John Woolman had already responded to these forces, incorporating them into his central message of the efficacy of love and conveying this message to individuals who were not members of his own "peculiar" people. The full title of the posthumously published first edition (1774) of John Woolman's Journal reads as follows: The Journal of the Life, Gospel Labours, and Christian Experiences of that faithful minister of Jesus Christ, John Woolman. As autobiography, this work clearly falls into the well-defined sub-genre of spiritual autobiography .1 The pattern in Quaker journals is an opening state- *Jean A. Perkins is Susan W. Lippincott Professor of French, Swarthmore College and a member of Swarthmore Friends Meeting. 1. This genre has been ably studied in Daniel Shea, Autobiography in Early America (Princeton, N.J., 1968). 91 92QUAKER HISTORY ment in which the author gives thanks to God for his gracious concern manifested throughout the individual's life, followed by an account of that individual's search for the Truth and the way in which it has been manifested in his or her life. These Journals were usually written by the travelling ministers of the Society of Friends, those members of Monthly Meetings, both men and women , who were given minutes from their own meeting to visit other meetings either in America or abroad. They received no compensation for their "gospel labours"; they travelled at their own expense , moving from one Quaker settlement to another and being warmly welcomed in the somewhat isolated settlements of the American colonies. Obviously they all had to engage in some other form of activity, and so there exists in these documents a curious tension between the spiritual and the worldly experiences of these individuals. In Quaker circles, business and religion were seen as complementary parts of a whole. Since the doctrine of the Inner Light included a clear instruction as to the necessity of subordinating the individual will to that of God, the aim of edification in a journal was stressed to counteract the obvious danger of self-glorification, thus creating a second tension, between the individual self and the social group. Since Woolman's Journal is probably the only eighteenthcentury Quaker autobiography read outside of Quaker circles, it may be difficult to see the ways in which it differs from the traditional pattern, but it does. For John Woolman's search for the Truth is an unending one; his first conversion is not the only one recorded. Even after becoming a recorded minister at the early age of 23, he continued to meditate upon the ways by which the experience of Divine Love could be spread until it infused the whole of his life and that of the society within which he functioned. The stages on this journey are detailed in the Journal: his decision to give up shop-keeping...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1504
Print ISSN
0033-5053
Pages
pp. 91-101
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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