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A talk, “John Woolman and the Utility of History” will be given by Geoffrey Plank on Tuesday 30 April 2013, 6-8pm, Quaker Library, Friends House, 173 Euston Rd, London NW1 2BJ

John WoolmanJohn Woolman has been described as a “Quaker saint,” an isolated mystic, singular even among a singular people. But as historian Geoffrey Plank recounts, this tailor, hog producer, shopkeeper, schoolteacher, and prominent Quaker minister was very much enmeshed in his local community in colonial New Jersey and was alert as well to events throughout the British Empire. Responding to the situation as he saw it, Woolman developed a comprehensive critique of his fellow Quakers and of the imperial economy, became one of his era’s most emphatic opponents of slaveholding, and helped develop a new form of protest by striving never to spend money in ways that might encourage slavery.  Drawing on the diaries of contemporaries, personal correspondence, the minutes of Quaker meetings, business and probate records, pamphlets, and other sources, John Woolman’s Path to the Peaceable Kingdom shows that Woolman and his neighbours were far more engaged with the problems of inequality, trade, and warfare than anyone would know just from reading the Quaker’s own writings. Although he is famous as an abolitionist, the end of slavery was only part of Woolman’s project. Refusing to believe that the pursuit of self-interest could safely guide economic life, Woolman aimed for a miraculous global transformation: a universal disavowal of greed.

Geoffrey Plank will discuss the “moral utility” of studying history, with the abolitionist John Woolman (1720-1772) continuously at the centre of the analysis.  Plank will look at Woolman from two angles, examining how Woolman thought about history and invoked it in his effort to instigate reform, and also considering how Woolman became history and the uses that have been made of his life story to inspire subsequent generations.

Register for a free place at www.quaker.org.uk/quakerhistory

For all enquiries please contact the Quaker Library library@quaker.org.uk / or 020 7663 1135

Here’s an extract concerning John Woolman from my recent booklet on William Penn:

“John Woolman (1720-1772) was a Quaker campaigner who spoke out against slavery in the Northern States. In his time, the number of slaves in New Jersey was high, as late as 1800 they numbered 12,422. In Perth Amboy, New Jersey, newly imported Africans arrived and a long barracks was built to accommodate them. In 1734, when Woolman was fourteen, an insurrection of slaves took place at Perth Amboy. The slaves, in an alliance with Native Americans and the French, attempted to kill their British owners. Some years later a slave convicted of crime was burned alive at Perth Amboy and a huge number of slaves from all the neighbouring townships were made to witnesses his slow and painful death. It was these and other events, made Woolman speak out. In his Journal he records the process of deciding to actively campaign amongst his fellow Quakers against slavery.
“My employer, having a negro woman, sold her, and desired me to write a bill of sale….I felt uneasy at the thoughts of writing an instrument of slavery for one of my fellow-creatures, yet I remembered that it was my master who directed me to do it, and that it was an elderly man, a member of our Society [i.e. a Quaker], who bought her…. Sometime after this a young man of our Society spoke to me to write a conveyance of a slave to him, he having lately taken a negro into his house…. I spoke to him in goodwill; and he told me that keeping slaves was not altogether agreeable to his mind; but that the slave being a gift made to his wife, he had accepted her.”

John Woolman's house

John Woolman’s house

In 1746 Woolman set out on a 1,500 mile round-trip preaching on a number of topics including slavery. He visited fellow Quakers who owned slaves in Pennsylvania and attending Quaker meetings to speak out against human trafficking. In 1761 he wrote:
“…. In this visit I was at two Quarterly and three Monthly Meetings, and in the love of truth I felt my way open to labour with some noted Friends who kept negroes.”
In 1762 he wrote and had printed, “Considerations on keeping Negroes“. His distributed it to fellow Quakers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere and also, importantly, to slaves themselves:
“….members of our religious society in general, among whom are some who keep negroes, and, being inclined to continue them in slavery, are not likely to be satisfied with such books being spread among a people, especially at their own expense, many of whose slaves are taught to read, and such, receiving them as a gift, often conceal them.”