John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire

John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire

John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire

John Woolman's Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire


The abolitionist John Woolman (1720-72) 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 the 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 or other forms of iniquity.

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 neighbors 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.


In 1847 the poet John Greenleaf Whittier published a series of essays entitled “Quaker Slaveholding, and How it Was Abolished.” Whittier identified 1742 as a critical year, when “an event, simple and inconsiderable in itself, was made the instrumentality of exerting a mighty influence upon slavery in the Society of Friends.” Some time during that year a shopkeeper in Mount Holly, New Jersey, sold a woman as a slave and asked his clerk to write up the bill of sale.

On taking up his pen, the young clerk felt a sudden and strong scruple
in his mind. the thought of writing an instrument of slavery for one of
his fellow creatures oppressed him. God’s voice against the desecration
of His image spoke in his soul. He yielded to the will of his employer,
but, while writing the instrument, he was constrained to declare, both
to the buyer and the seller, that he believed slavekeeping inconsistent
with the Christian religion. This young man was john woolman.
The circumstance above named was the starting point of a life-long
testimony against slavery.

Whittier’s essays detailed John Woolman’s antislavery work and suggested that he was the most influential opponent of slavery in his era, and indeed that his individual efforts had culminated with the Quakers resolving to denounce slaveholding and the slave trade.

In the decades following 1742, Woolman became one of the most insistent opponents of slavery in the British Empire. He began writing his first antislavery essay, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, in 1746, but he withheld the piece from publication for several years, apparently waiting until . . .

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