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Themes from John Woolman


In our final study session on John Woolman's Journal at 57th Street Friends Meeting (Chicago), I invited Friends to discern and share what they found as major, recurring themes in his life, which showed themselves in the last two chapters -- a kind of retrospective and summary as we reflect on what he has told us of his previous 50 years, now that he is describing his final voyage and travel in the ministry. I found it helpful to jot the following observations, and welcome others to clarify and correct my own perceptions, and to add to a list of central, distinctive characteristics which they find in Woolman's life, thought, and ministry.

1. Woolman's main focus and company was the Religious Society of Friends, and it was important that he travel and speak only "in unity with Friends" -- that is, seeking clearness from his own Meeting(s) [Monthly, and sometimes Quarterly and Yearly] -- and duly presenting his credentials and having them accepted before preaching, or accepting the hospitality of Friends.

2. His concern for the poor and the oppressed was deep, passionate, emotional, and was expressed at innumerable opportunities. It arose not originally out of an abstract theory, but from close empirical observation, from which he later evolved an analysis. His close association with those who were laboring and suffering lead to an unabashed identification with them; I don't perceive it to be from-afar or patronizing, nor do I find his class-origins to be much of a barrier to his sense of solidarity. For example, his choice to travel in steerage with the common sailors, against the concern and advice of fellow-Friends, comes across not as a slumming-adventure or morbid fascination or an exercise in expiating guilt, but rather as an opportunity to learn more of the Truth about what is involved in shipping and commerce, as it affects human beings: what are the real, material conditions underlying the pursuit of profit.

3. His systematic approach to dealing with poverty, exploitation, suffering, and inequality was different from the assumptions of many modern liberals or radicals, and yet I find it to be fundamentally radical in its courage, consistency, and depth:

He directs his pleadings to the conscience of those who have [relative] wealth and economic power, appealing to their senses of reason, compassion, common Christianity, place in the community of all, standing as Friends to whom others look as an example, stewards of the welfare of their progeny. He expects that they have the capacity to change their sensitivities and behaviors (implying a particular doctrine of "the will" which I briefly address later), and can take an active role in the betterment of humankind.

Woolman, unlike predecessor Levellers and subsequent social-revolutionaries and Marxists, does not urge the oppressed classes to organize, revolt, or take secular power. He certainly does not romanticize their plight, endow them with a greater morality than their masters, nor see them as the engines of social change. He has various visions of a coming bloody apocalypse, a clear judgment of God against the evil of oppression, and yet he sees this as something to be avoided by a conversion to righteousness rather than a strategy of class warfare to be pursued.

(It is less clear how he views the role of the state, the attitude toward which was undergoing change among Friends during his lifetime. We do find examples of his either urging, or engaging in, lobbying. My own sense is that he would not be opposed to looking for some legislative ameliorations of oppressive conditions and institutions, although he was not primarily oriented toward politics.)

Although I can imagine the sneers of some of my contemporaries alleging the naivete of such an analysis, and can anticipate the claims to greater sophistication of so many "movement" people including some Quakers, I tend to believe that the judgment of history is on the side of John Woolman as to how a person with a religious vision, a personalist strategy, a pacifist/humanist ethic can -- through a lifetime of dedicated, consistent, single-minded ministry -- turn around an entire social institution (Quakerism) to give leadership in opposing another social institution (slavery). It was, of course, only when they freed themselves of complicity in this Great Evil that they were then free to witness to the broader world, a generation ahead of an organized anti-slavery movement.

4. His increased understanding of the intertwined socio-economic relationships -- the cause-and-effect chains between consumers and producers and the desires and necessities and markets driving the economic order -- leads not just to writing essays or making speeches or preaching sermons. Rather, he embodies his heightened conscioss in changed personal behavior, even at the risk of appearing weird ("singular"). He uses his r as a consumer, and the power of consistent visible example, to challenge practices and institutions which are broadly supported by custom. He invites others to do the same, but doesn't wait for them.

In earlier chapters we saw how he tried to dissociate from any complicity with or benefit from the slave economy. In Ch's XI & XII we see him renouncing use of the stagecoach and postal system (in sympathy for the plight of horses and drivers) and urging others not to mail letters to him; also, he refuses to use silver service in accepting Friends' hospitality (going beyond a traditional testimony of simplicity, to grasp an analysis of the suffering involved in mining and refining precious metals). His broadened awareness of the conditions of life and dulling of moral sensibilities of merchant seamen leads him to question a reliance on international trade, especially its role in upholding "the entangling expense of a curious, delicate, and luxurious life."

5. In these matters of personal discipline and faithfulness, he continues to be sensitive to the humanity of those with whom he has a disagreement, those who are practicing ways that are (albeit unwittingly) entangled with the interests of known oppressors. Trying not to publicly shame or embarrass others, he seeks opportunities to speak with them privately, seeking their redemption as well as reformation. Giving credit to God, he says that he has been preserved "in such a tender frame of mind that none, I believe, has ever been offended at what I have said" on the occasion of his refusing something customarily accepted, tho ultimately oppressive.

6. Woolman continues to note the occasions on which he seeks out the young people, attending their Meetings and visiting with them in homes, laboring with them in hope and sympathy (see repeated notations on p. 182, Moulton.*) His reflections on the month at sea close-by the young sailors ends with a struggling around issues of education (apprenticeship), to which he has addressed himself on several other occasions. He doesn't particularly elaborate on why this is an emphasis of his, other than his having described his own adolescent struggles in the early chapters.

7. The universality of his tender concern with life, stemming from a strong sense of connectedness with a universally-loving Creator, goes beyond loving fellow-Quakers or those particularly like himself. His empathy extends to all humankind regardless of sociological status, and even beyond to the animal realm, because of the compassion of a God to whom the death of a single sparrow is not insignificant.

In these chapters we read his detailed observations of the welfare (specifically the lack thereof) of the horses on land and the chickens at sea, and may be reminded of the formative experience with the poor robins when he was a mischievous lad. However, in contemplating animals Woolman doesn't just grieve, but rather draws strength from watching the birds and the sheep in the harmony of (rural) nature, and more than once expresses a wistfulness for country life against the widespread ugliness and suffering of most creatures in the newly-arising industrial order.

And yet we are not reading a merely economic or cultural critique or a humanitarian case for vegetarianism. I believe, rather, that central for Woolman is a vivid sense of The Peaceable Kingdom: a spiritual/material vision presaged by Isaiah (Ch. 11) wherein "they shall neither hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain." We have a clear responsibility for the "right use of things" (see thesis on p. 185) in the spiritual/material economy; and when we attend to the love of God and subject ourselves to the spirit of Christ we will have a tenderness toward all creatures and will participate in the sweetness of life intended for all (pp.178-9).

8. I can't do justice in a brief outline to Woolman's apparent doctrine of human will and agency as it relates to the Divine Will. It has been a persistent and controversial challenge in Christian thought. But a theme consistent thru Woolman's journal is quite evident here, in which he feels impelled by a humility in which he is driven to subject his will to that of God. He often uses the language of "resignation" and exemplifies the mode of obedience. He has deathly visions in which the lesson is that John Woolman must experience the death of his own will, even as Christ concluded "not my will, but Thine be done." If we read Appendix H, the account of his final weeks of illness, we see that he continues to labor to lay aside his own will, and be content to rest in God's Will: He asks no more than to be "kept steady and centered in everlasting love."

I had the sense (and need the correcting guidance of historical theologians to test this) that Woolman was close to the perspective of Augustine, who saw that there is a "bondage of the will": The problem is not that we don't or can't KNOW The Good, but rather that our selfishness leads to a corrupted will in which we lack the willingness or ability to DO God's will.

We see this in Woolman's analysis of cause and cure of injustice: It is put in the conditional about the choices of the rich, implying that they could "choose life" in the ancient Hebraic tradition: IF they would dwell in the love of God, would "take heed and beware of covetousness... learn of Christ who is meek and low of heart," THEN "in faithfully following him he will teach us to be content with food and raiment without respect to the customs or honours of this world. Men thus redeemed will feel a tender concern for their fellow creatures..." (p. 176).

9. The outcome of spiritual transformation is material and tangible and social. Woolman, in my reading, does not succumb to the perils of an overly-spiritualized pietism, which stops at a concern for individual salvation in the world to come, aberrations of a later evangelicalism. Submitting to the Divine Will which is beneficent (and we could explore parallels here to Islam) leads to such outcomes as the payment of just and decent wages by those who "have great estates", lessening the daily suffering of the poor whose extra effort goes to supporting the extravagant life-styles of the rich and the upwardly-mobile middle-class. We are all tied together in the social relations described by Woolman, (surely the potential subject of extensive doctoral research!): but the responsibility for repentance (in the sense of changed behavior in redeemed lives) is not confined to any one class.

The goal for Woolman's life and prophetic ministry, I continue to believe, is not personal purity, remaining unspotted by the world: rather, it is the transformation of the world in its very worldly, material aspects, to where Jesus' prayer is answered: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The sequence (p. 173-4) includes our being "redeemed from the love of money and from that spirit in which men seek honour one of another." We must follow our Safe Guide "in all business by sea or land" and thus "may show forth examples tending to lead out of that under which the creation groans!"

I found other concise statements of Woolman's thesis of what's wrong and how we can overcome the structures of Evil, a delineating of a chain of logic and events over which we may and must take some control: p. 175, including the alternate text in footnote 57 (Moulton); p 177, including footnote 63; and p. 184. Repeatedly, I am moved at how well he integrates those strands of the Christian Gospel which tragically got separated in the 19th century, between "social gospel" and "evangelical" emphases. For Woolman there is an inherent connection between loving God and loving humankind, and one without the other seems inconceivable in the testimony of his life.

10. And finally, I would note our repeated awareness of how recurrent and how interchangeable are a number of Woolman's key phrases, for aspects of The Divine: True Wisdom, Universal Love, Righteousness, Harmony, Pure Truth (and a number of other variant wordings) are ever-present realities in his living and speaking. He doesn't waste any time in seeking careful definitions of terms nor of philosophical disputations -- he simply lives out these forces of God-ness in the world, claiming no credit for himself, pointing the viewer/neighbor/reader to the Source of such transforming power. Consistent with the Quaker witness, he would I believe have us know that the same Teacher is even now available to us, to challenge and enLighten us as to how we must participate in the redemption of the Earth -- all its people and all its institutions.

-- David Finke.

Notes and Links

* - References are to Phillips P. Moulton, ed., The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1989). (Back)