In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John Woolman

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Criticism

American Literature John Woolman
Jay David Miller
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0228


John Woolman (b. 1720–d. 1772), a Quaker shopkeeper, tailor, and farmer from West Jersey, traveled extensively throughout colonial America as an itinerant minister and produced writings on the most important social problems of the era. Woolman was part of a group of ministers working for increased discipline and broad reform among Friends. He cared deeply about the right conduct and purity of Quaker meetings for worship, and these concerns informed his social thought, as did his various livelihoods. His experience selling goods from his store and the produce of his farm made him increasingly aware of how the transatlantic economy depended on enslaved labor, and in his early twenties he began to think seriously about enslavement as an evil with which Quakers needed to reckon. Witnessing plantation slavery on a journey to Virginia and North Carolina in 1746 reinforced Woolman’s concerns and inspired his first antislavery essay, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes (1754). Woolman began composing a journal recounting his life for the moral and spiritual edification of Friends in 1756, during the violence of the Seven Years’ War. This imperial conflict radicalized many Quakers in colonial America, as Friends took a firmer stance against war, helped to negotiate on behalf of Indigenous people, and approved stricter measures against coreligionists who practiced enslavement. This trend can be seen in Woolman’s second antislavery essay, Considerations on Keeping Negroes . . . Part Second (1762), in which he took a stronger position against enslavement by focusing on the violence of the African slave trade. In the last decade of his life, Woolman would write about a growing range of social issues. His 1763 journey to the Native settlement of Wyalusing to visit the Munsee leader Papunhank made clear to him the plight of Indigenous peoples dispossessed from their land. As Woolman focused less on the business of storekeeping and more on farming, he also wrote against the oppression of tenant laborers by wealthy landowners. His last essay published during his lifetime, Considerations on the True Harmony of Mankind (1770), is a theological reflection on social ills of wealth. Woolman died while traveling in ministry among Quakers in England, and his journal was published posthumously as part of The Works of John Woolman (1774). No other colonial American writer wrote with such clarity and theological conviction about the injustices of the transatlantic economy and the need for reforms to address them.

General Overviews

Woolman’s life and writings have long attracted interest, but until recently it has been common for even scholarly treatments to have a hagiographic tone. An example of an approach that combines admiration for Woolman with historical research is Slaughter 2008. The best general overview of Woolman and the development of his thought is Plank 2012, which foregrounds the importance of both British imperial and Quaker contexts. While Woolman is perhaps best-remembered for his writing on social issues, Kershner 2018 offers a crucial and comprehensive account of the theological underpinnings of this work, and Werge 1984 also makes suggestive observations in this area. Finally, Heller 2003 collects essays on a variety of topics related to Woolman from an interdisciplinary group of scholars.

  • Heller, Mike, ed. The Tendering Presence: Essays on John Woolman. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Press, 2003.

    Collection of twenty essays from disciplinary perspectives such as economics, English, peace studies, religious studies, and sociology, which presents a multifaceted picture of Woolman. It is divided topically, focusing on Woolman’s spirituality, the contexts of his work, his social vision, and the contributions of some prominent Woolman scholars. While the essays are academic, the collection invites contributors to reflect on how the study of Woolman has affected them personally.

  • Kershner, John. John Woolman and the Government of Christ: A Colonial Quaker’s Vision for the British Atlantic World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190868079.001.0001

    Innovative theological overview that is unique in Woolman studies. Argues that Woolman’s theology is an underappreciated driver of his alternative vision for life in the British Atlantic world. Building on careful study of Woolman’s corpus, emphasizes that his theology was in continuity with the apocalyptic focus of early Friends, calling into question the characterization of 18th-century Quakerism as quietist.

  • Plank, Geoffrey. John Woolman’s Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812207125

    Seeks to undo the image of Woolman as a singular, saint-like figure by drawing on detailed archival research and carefully tracking the development of Woolman’s ideas and concerns over the course of his life. Organized into loosely chronological thematic chapters, shows how Woolman was embedded in both the culture and institutions of Quakerism and the politics of the British Empire.

  • Slaughter, Thomas P. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008.

    Biography written for a general audience that focuses on Woolman as a social activist and moral exemplar. While a work of history, sometimes constructs imaginative speculations on Woolman’s life, and dedicates significant space to analyzing the dreams reported in the Journal.

  • Werge, Thomas. “John Woolman.” In American Colonial Writers, 1735–1781. Edited by Emory Elliott, 274–290. Dictionary of Literary Biography 31. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.

    Gives an excellent brief overview of Woolman’s life and writings. Does an especially good job situating its subject in the broader contexts of Christian spirituality and theology.

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