- John Woolman and the Government of Christ: A Colonial Quaker’s Vision for the British Atlantic World by Jon R. Kershner, and: Warner Mifflin: Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist by Gary B. Nash
These two new publications attempt to provide redress for the overlooked, neglected, and forgotten. In many ways, these two books make a perfect pairing and provide valuable insight into eighteenth-century religious thought and history, Quaker studies, and antislavery in early America. Both are historiographically ambitious, intensively researched, and well-written.
Jon R. Kershner’s John Woolman and the Government of Christ: A Colonial Quaker’s Vision for the British Atlantic World is the first book that approaches the life of this famous Quaker from a purely theological perspective. Until now, Woolman’s contributions as a theologian have been overlooked: “Despite the theological tenor of his writing, scholars do not consider Woolman an important American theologian in any formal sense. As a result, he is a neglected example of popular colonial American religious thought” (3). Further, as Kershner studied the full body of Woolman’s work, he noticed a “consistent and coherent theological theme of apocalypticism running through them all, uniting them conceptually” (6). In John Woolman and the Government of Christ, Kershner argues that Woolman’s apocalypticism was directly related to his strong antislavery beliefs and his ultimate vision for the British Atlantic world. Kershner’s contribution is innovative because, unlike other books written on Woolman, his is not a hagiography, historical biography, or literary study of Woolman’s Journal; it is instead the first book to examine Woolman’s life from the perspective of apocalyptic theology.
John Woolman and the Government of Christ is written for those familiar with the fields of theology and religious studies. Although the book is exceptionally well-written and well-organized, the layperson would find it inaccessible. With that being said, John Woolman and the Government of Christ is an immensely useful book that can greatly contribute to the study of religion within colonial America and can also contribute to a significant literature on the importance of religion to the abolition of slavery. Although the book does not offer a comprehensive account of Woolman’s antislavery beliefs or activism, it does help to better contextualize Woolman’s antislavery from a broader theological perspective: “Woolman’s antislavery views were one important part of a larger theological [End Page 115] vision that entailed the transformation of all social relations and the reorienting of human affairs based on the direct governance of Christ” (7).
Kershner uses five main themes to characterize Woolman’s apocalypticism and to structure the book: divine revelation, propheticism, eschatology, perfectionism, and divine judgement. The reader will note the strong emphasis on revelation, propheticism, and the theme of resignation—giving oneself up to God. According to Kershner, Woolman took up the role of prophet: “Woolman’s apocalyptic vision derived from his belief that God had placed him in a state of direct immediacy to God’s revelation” (59). Kershner also offers valuable insight into Woolman’s disdain for materialism, luxury, travel, and city living. Finally, Kershner’s approach is innovative in itself. Terming it “micro-theological,” he analyzes the entire corpus of Woolman’s writings, alongside secondary recollections of those who knew him and who crossed his path in any meaningful way. PMHB readers will appreciate the sources Kershner brings into play, particularly Wool-man’s Journal, essays, and letters, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) records, and firsthand accounts.
In Warner Mifflin: Unflinching Quaker Abolitionist, Gary B. Nash plucks the heroic and uncompromising Quaker abolitionist Warner Mifflin from obscurity. However, readers will learn that in his own time, Mifflin was anything but obscure. Founding fathers—Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison—all knew him. Luminaries of the European Enlightenment—St. John de Crèvecoeur, Jacques-Pierre Brissot...