John Woolman and the Government of Christ

A Colonial Quaker's Vision for the British Atlantic World

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Jon R. Kershner
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The past decade has seen a remarkable flowering of works on John Woolman (1720-1772), the quintessential early-modern Quaker reformer who criticized the burgeoning Atlantic economy and its attendant warfare state, opposed slavery, and even called for animal rights. Yet, while previous studies have focused on Woolman’s life and times, preferring to place his activism in its proper historical context, in John Woolman and the Government of Christ, Jon R. Kershner has approached his study from a different angle—theology. Indeed, the author asserts, Woolman’s beliefs flowed directly into his “alternative vision for the British Atlantic world” (1). That vision,  incidentally, would only be completed when “a direct, spiritual Christocracy,” what Woolman styled the “Government of Christ,” was established on earth (1).

Much of Kershner’s book is dedicated to explicating the logic of Woolman’s theology. In a series of six chapters Kershner plumbs the depths of Woolman’s apocalyptic thought, explaining that Woolman, unlike many other Quakers of his age, saw himself in a prophetic light, called to preach to the world God’s revelations, which were put immediately into his heart. In a very real sense, Kershner writes, Woolman believed himself to be acting eschatologically. By this, Kershner means that the Quaker shopkeeper saw himself as participating in the process of bringing God’s kingdom to earth, in the here-and-now, not at some later, undefined moment of time. It was a kingdom which Woolman taught had already broken in upon his life, allowing him to become perfectly submissive to God’s will and purpose for himself and broader Atlantic world alike.

By necessity, the above summary is a brief redaction of the nuanced theological portrayal afforded Woolman in this work. As a rich description of an example of colonial “lay theology” (Woolman never trained for the seminary, though members of the Society of Friends did consider him a minister) (7), the volume is unparalleled. But what I find particularly intriguing about Kershner’s study is the way it increases our understanding of what historians today refer to as the “Quaker Reformation,” a purification movement which coursed through American Quakerism in the mid-18th century, resulting in Friends giving up political positions and the society disowning hundreds of individuals who failed to live up to the its standards. As Friends, particularly in Philadelphia, found themselves placed under suspicion by fellow colonists for refusing (in their eyes) to adequately protect Pennsylvania’s frontier from Native American attacks, they retreated inwards, attempting to cleanse the inward vessel of their society rather than seek to change society writ large—so the standard historical treatment reads.

Kershner’s study, however, reminds scholars of two important facts. First, Quaker quietism was never as all-encompassing as some previous authors have contended. Second, this major turning point in American Quakerism cannot be explained by worldly trends alone. When Friends found their own members wanting and disowned them for engaging in military activities, marrying outside of the faith, or otherwise acting contrary to the society’s discipline, they did so for coherent religious reasons. Kershner devotes an entire chapter to describing Woolman’s views of divine judgment, noting the various ways he believed God either chastised his children when they fell into apostasy. Though Kershner does not dwell on the disciplinary ramifications of the Quaker Reformation itself, the primacy he gives to theological belief as an agent of historical causation should act as a wake-up call to historians to reexamine this defining moment in the Society of Friends in this particular light.

Still, at points the book does falter. Kershner wishes to see Woolman as a lay theologian, and thus an example of the “religious heterogeneity” which bubbled up in America’s liberal “colonial religious environment” (4). Yet one does wonder fleetingly why we should care so much about Woolman’s peculiar religious views to begin with. To be sure, Kershner compares Woolman’s views to those held by Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and other Quaker leaders (none of whom, surprisingly, are female). At other times, the analysis is so focused on Woolman himself that the reader fails to grasp how his beliefs impinged upon the lived experience of his coreligionists as well as others beyond the pale of Quakerism. Such a critique can, of course, be overstated. Kershner’s chapter on Woolman’s prophetic impulses does attempt to ground Woolman’s life into broader historical contexts to remarkable effect. But, at times, the scales can appear to tilt too heavily towards Woolman’s “vision,” at the expense of its relation to “the British Atlantic world” itself.

On the whole, Kershner’s work is well worth reading for those interested in more fully understanding the vibrant nature of colonial religious thought, 18th-century Quakerism, or apocalypticism in general. If John Woolman had not dedicated the majority of his life to being a humble servant of the divine, surely he would have been proud to see his most cherished beliefs described with such passion and intellectual care.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Spencer Wells is a manager of the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion and the Forum on Religion and Democracy at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
March 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jon R. Kershner is Lecturer in the Department of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University.


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