Quaker Journals

Friends have always been known for emphasizing the practice of writing journals as well as reading the journals of deceased Friends. In this (long) posting, I hope to outline some issues surrounding journals and make some recommendations of good journals for others to read.

What is a Journal?

In this posting, I am using the word "journal" very loosely. Usually the word appears in the title of a particular book, such as the Journal of George Fox. However, in other cases, the title describes the book as an autobiography (fewer contemporary entries). Joshua Maule's journal was printed with an incredibly long title which is usually contracted to "Transactions and Changes" (but which is here called simply his journal).

Types of Journals

It can be tempting to think that ego is a major element in the keeping of a journal. The idea that a person would keep a series of entries in the hopes that after death hundreds of other Friends would publish and read it gives the more reserved Friends some pause. In fact, at least two Friends who kept journals destroyed them while alive to avoid this very pitfall – Thomas B. Gould and Elwood Dean. In the long run, succeeding generations have been deprived of much salubrious material as a result.

Most journals follow a set pattern. They begin with an introductory essay which describes the person's life from birth to the point where the official journal begins. Most of the time, this introductory essay is autobiographical, although in John Wilbur's case, his children wrote it after his death. The second part describes the spiritual awakening of the person in question, and succeeding chapters describe the person's life and progress in the Lord.

People who write or talk about journals usually discuss the two paragraphs I just wrote and leave it at that. However, I would like to suggest that journals fall into two categories.

  1. Private journals. These journals were kept solely for the reference of the writer and were not intended for publication. They are easy to spot due to the way they were written. In these journals, the writer wrestles much more with the inward struggle to be transformed by Christ. Chronology is important, but the details are not. Sentences are common such as "We visited Short Creek Meeting in the morning, Mount Pleasant in the afternoon, Harrisville on Second Day, and Concord on Third Day." In a private journal, additional information is only given if the author's memory required it. An author with excellent memory often writes little of what was said in worship, either by himself or others. Private journals often need footnotes to explain entries, as the author did not need to state the context of an entry. In general, private journals add a touch of mystery because the reader must consider issues such as "Why did he write this? What is the significance of this passage?"
  2. Public journals. In public journals, the author and/or an editor have prepared a full narrative of the person's life. Public journals assume that the reader has no information about the events being described. The little mysteries involved in keeping a journal are resolved, with information to explain the context of the entries. Often, travel itineraries are truncated to remove lists of meetings visited if there is no description of what occurred there. Public journals are usually better received than public journals, although for the historian they have almost always been more heavily edited.

Some Famous Journals

In this section, I provide a thumbnail sketch of eleven important journals. I begin with the two most-read journals and continue with nine lesser-known but very good journals.

John Woolman

John Woolman's Journal has probably been read by more people than any other journal. It is the story of a New Jersey minister who came to recognize the evils of slaveholding, his work in urging Friends to discontinue the practice, and his long travel to England, where he died in 1772. Woolman's journal is the most popular because it serves as an introduction to the mind of an eighteenth century public figure and to an extent as an introduction to the Society of Friends as well. I believe that this is an important journal but that is certainly surpassed by others.

George Fox

The Journal of George Fox is likely the second best known Quaker journal. It has gone through many iterations, some of which include portions of his letters. Fox's journal is one of two that I place in the category of "excellent." It is not the easiest to read, primarily due to Fox's sentence structure. However, what it lacks in difficulty is compensated by the abundance of interesting stories and interventions by Christ Jesus in his life.

Joseph Hoag

The other journal that I include in the "excellent" category is the journal of Joseph Hoag. Hoag was an early nineteenth century minister who was often given the gift of being able to read a person's mind or recite a conversation he did not witness. He also was given his vision of the Civil War in 1805, which was printed in his journal in 1859. The vision is dramatically accurate in its details. Hoag describes dramatic spiritual deliverances, interpersonal strife in meetings, and interesting conversations with ministers of other denominations. The book is especially helpful for current ministers, as Hoag's experiences provide some guidance for handling current situations.

William Evans

The journal of William Evans is one of two rather lengthy journals I describe here. Evans was a Philadelphia minister, a son of Jonathan Evans. His journal is very helpful in his description of the inward work of the minister. Not a quick evening read, but very well worth the effort.

Daniel Wheeler

Wheeler's journal is a second lengthy journal. It is comprised of two parts: the private journal, which occupies the first quarter, and the public part, which is mainly devoted to his two-year trip to the Indian Ocean. Wheeler often includes excerpts from his sermons, which is interesting reading. The journal includes several golden nuggets and inspired passages which makes the book well worth reading.

Ann Branson

Ann Branson is probably the best known of female ministers. Her journal is undoubtedly in the top five in terms of most read. Like Hoag, she had insights into the thinking of others around her, and often in her travels she followed a leading to go to a particular house in an unknown area just to find that a former Quaker lived there.

Mildred Ratcliff

A lesser known (and shorter) journal than Ann Branson's is that of Mildred Ratcliff. At Ratcliff's death, she entrusted Ann Branson with the originals, and Branson edited them for publication. I find Ratcliff's journal easier to read than Branson's journal and of a slightly higher spiritual quality. Ratcliff occasionally makes a very obscure scriptural reference, so be sure to keep a copy of the King James Bible on hand.

Elizabeth Ashbridge

The journal of Elizabeth Ashbridge is the shortest of the eleven that I discuss here. It is a quick gem which can be read on a long train ride. The journal has always been popular, and was in print most of the time since its publication.

Henry Hull

Henry Hull was a close relative of John Wilbur. He was a New York minister who was a spiritual mentor for Mildred Ratcliff. Hull was another spiritually insightful minister of the very early eighteenth century, and his journal was popular to the end of that century. When I have felt callings to travel among Friends, I read Hull's journal to help me weigh the calling.

Joseph Oxley

Oxley was an English Friend of the seventeenth century. He was one of the brighter lights of British ministry of that era, although one of the young Friends in his meeting who rebelled against him was Joseph J. Gurney. Oxley treats with subjects such as appropriate businesses for ministers and interesting local characteristics of meetings.

Joshua Maule

Maule's journal, which was printed as "Transactions and Changes," is the hardest to obtain of all journals in this list. It is an enjoyable narrative of Quaker politics of the time, beginning with the Elisha Bates affair and continuing through the dissolving of Ohio General Meeting. The journal is very popular among the so-called Neo-Wilburites, and in Ohio Yearly Meeting today it probably ranks #3 or #4 in terms of the most-read journal. Maule is the only person listed here who was not a minister, but he discusses the problems of ministers not keeping to the Guide and the ramifications of those decisions.


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