By Geoffrey Plank
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, 320 pp.,$39.95
Existing studies of John Woolman, his beliefs, and his anti-slavery ministry focus mainly on the man and his closest associates. Now, however, Geoffrey Plank has also provided Friends with an analysis of the culture which shaped Woolman and his associates, and which they, in turn, influenced. Their world was a colony of the British Empire — a world of imperialism, warfare, and laissez-faire capitalism, which utilized black slaves. Woolman’s world was also a world of change: old ways and ideas were grudgingly giving way to new ones, and Friends living in idyllic New Jersey were not immune to Indian uprisings and Europe’s wars.
Woolman himself grew up as a sensitive, active youth; gradually becoming obsessed with purity of heart, plain living, and consistency of behavior. His sense of rectitude was frequently disturbed by his own conduct and that of his fellow-Quakers, from young Friends with a taste for fun and fashion, to their elders, who hung out in taverns, owned slaves, and were even involved on the edge of the slave trade. Driven to eschew worldly ways, he nevertheless discovered that, in order to carry out his ministries, he had to conform and compromise with the world. He refused to wear dyed clothing, use or sell slave-made products, and, in England, walked rather than ride coach. But, he could not avoid crossing the Atlantic on a ship, despite bunking with the sailors until he got in their way! Woolman and his followers symbolize the God-inspired individual facing the overwhelming power of culture and the state. Yet, in the long run righteousness persevered and prevailed and continues relentlessly to do so in our day!
I was pleasantly surprised that Plank mentions Evanston and Oak Park Meetings in Illinois. I served as Pastoral Secretary of Evanston Meeting (1956-58) and also remember visiting Oak Park. The “family of Friends” is a small world!