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John Hunt as a historical reader

This summer I worked as an assistant at the Friends Historical Library, a repository of Quaker materials at Swarthmore College. I contributed to a project to make the lengthy manuscript journal of the Quaker minister John Hunt digitally accessible in Triptych, a digital library powered by CONTENTdm. My role was to develop textual conventions for the 500+ page transcription of the journal and edit the text to be published accompanying the digital image of each page in Triptych. I spent many hours reading the private thoughts of a peculiar man and thinking about what researchers would take away from an encounter with his journal. This blog post hazards a guess.

Spanning 1770 to 1824, John Hunt’s journal could be mined to develop scholarly perspectives on the Revolutionary War, Quakers and Native Americans, Quakers and slavery, and the intellectual and cultural history of Quakers in America. Additionally, because Hunt is also careful to record droughts and precipitation, blights of insects, and outbreaks of disease, the journal could also be used as a historical almanac. Still another way to consider his journal is as a record of a historical reader—not only what texts and editions he read but also, crucially, how he read them.

Clearly Hunt was deeply familiar with the Bible. He assiduously recorded the Biblical text given in testimony at meetings and frequently paraphrased Biblical verses in his own observations. His reading outside of the Bible included correspondence, journals, and memoirs of other Friends such as William Penn, Thomas Chalkley, and John Woolman; Quaker histories such as William Sewel’s History of the Rise, Increase, and Progress, of the Christian people called Quakers; and John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Many, but not all, of the editions he read were printed locally in Burlington, New Jersey or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Early in his journal he provided passing references to what he was reading; less frequently he compiled references or copied passages from texts that commented on something related to an event in his life. On November 29, 1783 he mentioned a “right smart shock of an earthquake jest [just] after we got to bed,” and within the same journal entry he compiled references to earthquakes made by George Churchman, Seneca, Thomas Chalkley, Cruden’s Concordance, and Samuel Bownas, as well as a verse meditation on the 1763 earthquake in Portugal. He did not, however, narrate a personal reaction to those texts beyond the terse comment “dreadful indeed.” The only clue to his reactions to these texts lies in how he might have seen them as relating to each other. Was this an exhaustive list of every mention of earthquakes he had ever read? Did he consider these texts to share the theme of “timely notice to an erring world,” as the poem responding to Portugal’s earthquake does? He did not say, not explicitly.

Later in his journal he stated more plainly the thread tying together his reading of several texts with each other and with his own experience. One of the most memorable passages comes on July 29, 1788, with this vivid introduction: “This day as I was raking hay—very catching weather, very wet—it came into my mind how that divers Friends’ families have been stripped of their children.” Strikingly, this time his compilation of passages by Thomas Chalkley and William Penn and others on the subject of losing children to untimely death is interspersed with anecdotes that he records from among his own friends and neighbors—Joshua Evans, Isaac Horner, and Mark Reeve. In this same journal entry, his meditations widen from the untimely death of young people to include the death and persecution of all kinds of pious individuals, families, and communities. The Hebrew tribes’ wars with the Assyrians, the plague in London, Queen Mary’s persecution of Friends, the institution of slavery, and John Foxe’s account of the sieges of Sancerre and Rochelle—as Hunt writes, “O what, not only lists of such instances, but whole volumes might be noted and collected which loudly calls for humility fear and preparation.” Both the books that he reads and the events of his own life serve as equally creditable evidence of a philosophy of living in readiness for death and judgment.

In time, then, I believe that Hunt began to view his journal as a textual source for the improvement of his own spiritual life. Early in his journal, John Hunt seems an exceedingly dour man. Often his impression of meetings is negative, expressed in obfuscating capitals as “V P D,” by which we have taken him to mean “very poor and dull.” Sometimes he is more generous, as on the sixth of the first month of 1771, when he allows that their meeting was “N[ot] S[o] D[ull] A[s] at Some O[ther] T[imes].” More and more, however, a simple positive or negative assessment of a meeting does not suffice; rather he must “search for the cause why it was so,” as he notes on June 11, 1784. Similarly, he writes on the June 13, 1790, “Was First Day but low water with me. I think I know something of the cause.”

Although a diarist’s principle of selection—what he chooses to include and what he chooses to pass over—may remain mysterious, I think we can gain a little bit of insight into Hunt’s evolving view of his own journal. From an early commitment to keep a journal so that he might simply learn to “number his days,” Hunt came to see his journal as a way to “read” his life in the same way that he read other spiritual accounts, and for the same purpose. As he exhorts himself regarding his own spiritual shortcomings on July 7, 1789, he must “search for the cause and labor to have it removed that the effect may cease.”

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