Document Type


Publication Date



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 (177 4 ). 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.


Originally published in American Literature, September 22, 2021.

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199827251-0228