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  • Abner Woolman's Written "Legacy" to His Children:A Reply to Daniel Gorman Jr.'s "Abner Woolman's Colonial World"
  • James Proud (bio)

Historical inquiry thrives on the questioning of "received" understandings and on offering fresh interpretations of earlier times as seekers apply modern skills and advancing knowledge to more carefully understand the past. The field of John Woolman studies has recently embarked on such an inquiry by a closer examination of a document attributed to Abner Woolman1—one of John Woolman's six brothers— written for Abner's children and sent by John to Philadelphia Monthly Meeting for Sufferings after their father's death. Abner gives no title to the document, but he opens it by addressing "My dear children" and then declares that "the following lines were wrote in tenderness" and that he is "easy" to leave them "as a legacy." The document, which I refer to hereinafter as Abner's memorial, is entirely in John Woolman's handwriting and consists of forty-two numbered chapters, each made up of one or a few short paragraphs, the whole being bookended within written statements by John. At the beginning of the work John simply wrote: "Some writings left by Abner Woolman." At the conclusion John, in a statement over three pages in length, declared that he was "sundry times with" Abner from "20th day 8th month 1771," after which Abner made no further "notes in writing" before his death on "4th day 11th month 1771 in the evening aged about 47." John also states that he was at Abner's side during the last five hours of his life.

Thanks to Daniel Gorman Jr.'s "Abner Woolman's Colonial World: Quaker Politics and Literature Before the American Revolution," recently published in Quaker History,2 there is now widening interest in this Abner Woolman memorial. The interest focuses on two intriguing issues: its literary category or genre and its authorship. Gorman opens his article [End Page 1]

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Woolman manuscript, courtesy of Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College, Haverford, PA.

[End Page 2] with the words: "The journal of Abner Woolman,"3 straightaway assuming the answers to the questions needing examination. As support for his assumptions that this is a "journal" and that Abner is its author, Gorman cites the work of several scholars, the most recent being studies by Thomas P. Slaughter and Geoffrey Plank.4 He also dismisses my contrary view (which he simply states he does "not support")5 that the document is a private communication at death to Abner's children which John, as he says in his letter to the Meeting for Sufferings, "collected the substance of sundry short chapters, part from a stitched book [of Abner's], and part from loose papers I found in such book," and then applied, to an unknown extent, his editorial hand to Abner's material, thus fulfilling Abner's expressed intention or desire for the creation of a memorial gift or "legacy" to his children.

Such fraternal collaboration in light of the unique relationship between John and Abner is entirely possible. Considering the circumstances of Abner's life, in my judgment, collaboration is the simpler and preferred explanation of how this poignant document bearing the unique grace and felicitous style of John Woolman, in which a dying father explains his life and faith to his young children, came into being. To cast the work as a "journal" by Abner, a "local intellectual, [who] used his journal to process the social and intellectual transitions occurring within the Society of Friends … before the American Revolution"6 gives it a weight and burden it cannot carry, especially when, if after a careful analysis is made of the known life journeys of John and Abner, something much richer is revealed. What follows is that analysis.

John Woolman and His Brothers and Sisters in their Parental Home

John and his six brothers and six sisters were the children of Samuel and Elizabeth Burr Woolman. Samuel, the first Woolman male child born in the Delaware Valley at the founding of its Quaker settlements, was an only son. Samuel's father, John, and his grandfather, William, each of...


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