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John Woolman's Journal

by John Woolman

The Journal of John Woolman is an autobiography by John Woolman (1720-1772) which was published posthumously in 1774 by Joseph Crukshank, a Philadelphia Quaker printer. Woolman’s journal is one of the longest continually published books in North America since it has never been out of print. This journal is being republished here from a 1922 printing by J.M. Dent. The Journal adds to his other published works and gives greater evidence to his character as he discusses ideas of anti-slavery and anti-materialism as well as discussing power’s ability to corrupt. The work also discusses God’s divine power and goodness for all on the earth. The work has remained in print due to its focus on making life simple and the hopeful message of God’s divine goodness. Woolman is one of the first early American writers besides John Smith who is a not a Puritan. Puritans were the most prevalent writers in Early America, and it was during the time of this publication that writing began to move away from being by only Puritan authors. Woolman’s writing is at the forefront of this transition. Woolman’s Journal focuses much on his decision to support anti-slavery. The struggle is first seen when he discusses how he was required to write a bill of sale for a Quaker friend who had sold a slave. He completed the bill of sale because it was part of his job and the man that sold the slave was also a Quaker however, after this even Woolman took a more official stance in regard to his opinion, even explaining during the actual event that he “believed slavekeeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion.” His journal shows his inner turmoil as he grapples with understanding how he truly feels about the selling and buying of slaves that eventually led to publishing works such as his Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes. Slavery is prominent in Woolman’s journal, and it returns again shortly after the scene with the bill of sale as he discusses further opinions he has on the subject. He takes time to discuss those who he visited that did not take care of their slaves and how that made him feel uncomfortable while visiting. In contrast, Woolman discusses individuals who did take care of their slaves and how that made him feel more at ease. Shortly after that comparison, Woolman moves beyond the treatment of slaves and reflects on the idea that even if slaves were well cared for, they were still taken from their homes. His continual discourse on slavery in his journal makes Woolman one of the first abolitionists. Woolman addresses one of the issues of slavery to be men having too much power: “men having power too often misapplied it…we made slaves of the Negroes and the Turks mades slaves of the Christians.” This is an idea already a large part of American heritage as many who traveled to America were seeking freedom of some kind. Woolman’s focus on how power corrupts will continue to be impactful as Americans push further away from England (which is what had been occurring when Joseph Crukshank published this journal). In his lifetime, Woolman did not succeed in eradicating slavery even within the Society of Friends in colonial America. However, his personal efforts helped change Quaker viewpoints during the period of the Great Awakening.


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