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  • Abner Woolman's Colonial World:Quaker Politics and Literature Before the American Revolution
  • Daniel Gorman Jr. (bio)

"A breed apart from the diarists who write simply to collect the days or preserve impressions of foreign places are those who set out in their books to discover who they really are. These are generally very serious people, more in the way of pilgrims, with inward destinations, than mere travelers. Some of them are after the sight of God; others are out to realize their full 'potential,' spiritual and otherwise; and some of them are carrying burdens of suffering they are unsure they can shoulder—they want to use their diaries to test, and add to, their strength."

—Thomas Mallon.1


The journal of Abner Woolman, the younger brother of renowned Quaker mystic and abolitionist John Woolman, was never published during its author's lifetime. After Abner's death, John combined the journal with two letters Abner wrote to Burlington and Wilmington Quakers.2 As John explains in his introduction, he recopied the journal, "collect[ing] the substance, of sundry short chapters, part . . . from a stitched book, and part from loose papers which I found in said book. . . . The original papers in his hand writing I have by me. . . ."3 This post-mortem revision of a person's writings, combined with new commentary by members of the Society of Friends, was a common practice in the transatlantic Quaker community.4 When John died on a missionary trip to England in September 1772, the Friends around him documented his demise, just as he had written an account of Abner's death.5 Before he left for England, John sent Abner's manuscript and some of his own writings to the Philadelphia Meeting for Sufferings.6 The Meeting for Sufferings, a program of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, had responsibility over philanthropy, poor relief, records of the dead, and some book publishing in the mid-Atlantic colonies.7 By forwarding Abner's letters to the Meeting, John [End Page 19] fulfilled (and, by adding the journal to the manuscript, went beyond) Abner's hope that the letters "might be continued to be handed about" after his death.8

The layered structure of the Abner manuscript evokes a matryoshka doll. John's reflective introduction and epilogue bookend the manuscript. Some of Abner's original handwriting apparently survives, thanks to the two letters following John's introduction, before the recopied journal passages begin.9 The first letter (September 1770) is addressed to the Burlington County, N.J., meeting, while the undated second letter "concerning trading to the west indies" is addressed to Wilmington Quakers.10 42 short "chapters," written mainly between 1760 and August 1771, follow. 12 Abner's holographs are not extant.

Despite his connection to John Woolman, Abner has received little scholarly attention. Mercy Griffith Hammond wrote in 1898 that the Woolman brothers shared a "singleness of purpose and humility of expression" alongside their "uncompromising testimony."12 Henry J. Cadbury (1968) deems Abner's journal valuable only for its insights into John's activities in 1770–72, and considers it "disappointing" that "so little of it [is] the original composition of John Woolman."13 James Proud (2010) takes the opposite view, deeming it likely that John wrote most of the Abner manuscript.14 Proud classifies the journal as part of John's ephemera. Thomas Slaughter (2008) and Geoffrey Plank (2012), like Cadbury, support Abner's authorship, while giving greater consideration to the journal. Plank highlights Abner's intellectual similarities to John.15 Slaughter deems the journal inferior to John's much-lauded Journal, but concedes that Abner's text is "a good example of the genre, reflects Abner's distinctive journey, and sheds light on John and on the brothers' relationship."16

I agree with Cadbury, Slaughter, and Plank in recognizing Abner's authorship, but I want to provide a more complete study of the journal's contents. I resist Hammond's description of singleness in regard to the Woolmans' literary voices. The revision of Abner's papers is a minor episode in John's career.17 Still, Abner should not be subsumed beneath John's reputation. Abner's prose matches the intensity of...


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pp. 19-61
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