Geoffrey Plank, professor in the School of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, answers a few questions from our intern Grace Molloy about his third Penn Press book, John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire.
Having been raised a Quaker, I’ve been aware of John Woolman nearly all my life. After I became an early American historian, my interest in questions of war and peace led me to study wars. My first book, An Unsettled Conquest, examined the British conquest of Acadia in the early eighteenth century, and my second, Rebellion and Savagery, focused on the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the subsequent period of conflict that lasted through the Seven Years’ War. In both works I sought to demonstrate that the expansion of the British Empire in the eighteenth century was vigorously debated. The most rigorous, extended debates were between opposing camps of imperial expansionists. They disagreed, for example, about the role of the Acadians or the Scottish Highlanders in the expanding empire. My study of Woolman stemmed in large part from my desire to include a Quaker voice in such imperial debates. At various times in their early history the Quakers were imperial expansionists. This was most obviously true at the time of the founding of West Jersey and Pennsylvania, but it was also true in the mid-eighteenth century when figures like Anthony Benezet developed plans for a future empire without slaves. In some respects, Woolman’s prescriptions for the future resemble Benezet’s—but his extra-legal and noncoercive approach to politics makes it seem a little heavy-handed and inappropriate to call him an “imperialist.” Suffice it to say that he found a way to participate in debates over the empire’s future. In the long run, influential figures in the British Empire and the United States paid attention to him.
Did you discover anything about Woolman in your research that was particularly surprising or seemingly uncharacteristic?
I think I was most surprised by Woolman’s relative wealth and his commercial dealings. Woolman mentions in his journal that he was a successful draftsman and shopkeeper, but the implications of his financial success did not become clear until I examined his ledger books and worked out some of the details. In the mid- to late 1750s, at exactly the same time that Woolman was beginning to dramatize his opposition to slavery, he invested in hog production. He almost certainly sent pork to sugar-producing plantations in the Caribbean. Quaker abolitionists are often depicted as busybodies, interfering in the lives of distant people whose concerns were far from their own. This stereotype misrepresents most colonial-era Quaker abolitionists, who were intimately familiar with slavery in several contexts—in their homes, in places like the local iron works, in the American south, and in the Caribbean.
What led Woolman to become such a passionate abolitionist in a slaveholding society?
Two things—his vision of social harmony and his painful, direct encounters with the institution of slavery. Woolman’s ideals were informed by a literal reading of the Bible and the experience of growing up on a farm in New Jersey. He associated well-ordered, peaceful, pastoral landscapes with Eden and the Peaceable Kingdom that Isaiah foresaw as part of humanity’s future. The tensions and violence of slavery had no place in the world that Woolman hoped to see established. Early in his career, as servant to a shopkeeper and then as a will-writer, he was asked to facilitate the transfer of titles to slaves. The experience burdened him with a sense of guilt that increased over the rest of his life, especially as he learned more about slavery through his work as a draftsman, shopkeeper, and Quaker minister in New Jersey, and during his travels through the south.
John Woolman said, "I have often felt a motion of love to leave some hints in writing of my experience of the goodness of God." What hints do you think Woolman left of his experience of the goodness of God?
I think the most affecting hints Woolman left relate to his love of rural landscapes. He believed that plants and animals retained characteristics God gave them at the time of creation, and for that reason he thought we could learn a great deal about God’s designs by looking at the world outside. Woolman was convinced that God sent signs to people through natural phenomena like thunderstorms, and his fascination with such things is palpable and conveyed vividly in his writings. There were moments in his life when he seems to have felt a stronger emotional tie to oxen, sheep, and farmyard birds than to people. In the context of discussing human relations, Woolman’s conception of love could be almost terrifyingly self-effacing. In his advice to fellow Quaker ministers, he argued that in their pastoral duties they should devote themselves so thoroughly to their Christian duty that they should be able to say (quoting the Apostle Paul), “It is no longer I that live, but Christ that liveth in me.” Woolman strove for this kind of religious devotion, which gave him a dizzying sense of the importance of his work, but also provoked painful inner conflict because he never wanted to be self-interested or proud. Toward the end of his life he dreamed that he was carried toward the heavens only to hear an angel chanting, “John Woolman is dead.” He was happy to receive that message.
Are there any modern figures who are similar to John Woolman? Is there a contemporary movement that you see as a continuation of his work?
Woolman was not the first man or woman to struggle with the implications of striving for saintliness, nor would he be the last. He sought to lead an exemplary life, and in his journal he revealed just how difficult that project can be. Along with several Quaker contemporaries, he championed boycotts, and he sent a political message by refusing to eat sugar since it was produced with slave labor. He tried to initiate a similar campaign against silver to protest the abuse of laborers in the mines of Peru. Over the past twenty or thirty years in America, there have been many movements that have asked people to consider the moral implications of their consumer behavior and send a message through their choice of clothing, food, energy source, or what have you. Woolman was a pioneer of this protest strategy, but he was also keenly aware of the pitfalls of adopting it, especially if you fail to get everyone around you to follow your example. Ironically, given his peculiarity, Woolman never wanted to be unique.
Grace Molloy is a rising junior at Kenyon College. She is studying Comparative Literature, focusing on poetry in Spanish, English, and religious texts.