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Historical texts  >  Journal of John Woolman  >  An Appreciation by John G. Whittier, Part 2


JOHN WOOLMAN

AN APPRECIATION

BY JOHN G. WHITTIER

(Part 2)


(Continued from Part One)

  The influence of the life and labours of John Woolman has by no means been confined to the religious society of which he was a member. It may be traced wherever a step in the direction of emancipation has been taken in this country or in Europe. During the war of the Revolution, many of the noblemen and officers connected with the French army became, as their journals abundantly testify, deeply interested in the Society of Friends, and took back to France with them something of its growing anti-slavery sentiment. Especially was this the ease with Jean Pierre Brissot, the thinker and statesman of the Girondists, whose intimacy with Warner Mifflin, a friend and disciple of Woolman, so profoundly affected his whole after life. He became the leader of the "Friends of the Blacks," and carried with him to the scaffold a profound hatred of slavery. To his efforts may be traced the proclamation of Emancipation in Hayti by the commissioners of the French Convention, and indirectly the subsequent uprising of the blacks and their successful establishment of a free government.

  The same influence reached Thomas Clarkson and stimulated his early efforts for the abolition of the slave-trade; and in after life the volume of the New Jersey Quaker was the cherished companion of himself and his amiable helpmate. It was in a degree, at least, the influence of Stephen Grellet and William Allen, men deeply imbued with the spirit of Woolman, and upon whom it might almost be said his mantle had fallen, that drew the attention of Alexander I. of Russia to the importance of taking measures for the abolition of serfdom, an object the accomplishment of which the wars during his reign prevented, but which, left as a legacy of duty, has been peaceably effected by his namesake, Alexander II. In the history of Emancipation in our own country, evidences of the same original impulse of humanity are not wanting. In 1790, memorials against slavery from the Society of Friends were laid before the first Congress of the United States. Not content with clearing their own skirts of the evil, the Friends of that day took an active part in the formation of the abolition societies of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Jacob Lindley, Elisha Tyson, Warner Mifflin, James Pemberton, and other leading Friends, were known throughout the country as unflinching champions of Freedom. One of the earliest of the class known as modern abolitionists was Benjamin Lundy, a pupil in the school of Woolman, through whom William Lloyd Garrison became interested in the great work to which his life has been so faithfully and nobly devoted. Looking back to the humble workshop at Mount Holly from the standpoint of the Proclamation of President Lincoln, how has the seed sown in weakness been raised up in power!

  The larger portion of Woolman's writings are devoted to the subjects of slavery, uncompensated labour, and the excessive toil and suffering of the many to support the luxury of the few. The argument running through them is searching, and in its conclusions uncompromising, but a tender love for the wrong-doer as well as the sufferer underlies all. They aim to convince the judgment and reach the heart without awakening prejudice and passion. To the slaveholders of his time they must have seemed like the voice of conscience speaking to them in the cool of the day. One feels, in reading them, the tenderness and humility of a nature redeemed from all pride of opinion and self-righteousness, sinking itself out of sight, and intent only upon rendering smaller the sum of human sorrow and sin by drawing men nearer to God and to each other. The style is that of a man unlettered, but with natural refinement and delicate sense of fitness, the purity of whose heart enters into his language. There is no attempt at fine writing, not a word or phrase for effect; it is the simple, unadorned diction of one to whom the temptations of the pen seem to have been wholly unknown. He wrote, as he believed, from an inward spiritual prompting; and with all his unaffected humility he evidently felt that his work was done in the clear radiance of

"The light which never was on land or sea."

It was not for him to outrun his Guide, or, as Sir Thomas Browne expresses it, to "order the finger of the Almighty to his will and pleasure, but to sit still under the soft showers of Providence." Very wise are these essays, but their wisdom is not altogether that of this world. They lead one away from all the jealousies, strifes, and competitions of luxury, fashion, and gain, out of the close air of parties and sects, into a region of calmness, --

                        "The haunt
Of every gentle wind whose breath can teach
The wild to love tranquillity," --

a quiet habitation where all things are ordered in what he calls "the pure reason"; a rest from all self-seeking, and where no man's interest or activity conflicts with that of another. Beauty they certainly have, but it is not that which the rules of art recognise; a certain indefinable purity pervades them, making one sensible, as he reads, of a sweetness as of violets. "The secret of Woolman's purity of style," said Dr. Channing, "is that his eye was single, and that conscience dictated his words."

  Of course we are not to look to the writings of such a man for tricks of rhetoric, the free play of imagination, or the unscrupulousness of epigram and antithesis. He wrote as he lived, conscious of "the great Task-master's eye." With the wise heathen, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, he had learned to "wipe out imaginations, to check desire, and let the spirit that is the gift of God to every man, as his guardian and guide, bear rule."

  This volume does not contain the entire writings appended to the old edition of the Journal, inasmuch as they mainly refer to a system which happily is no longer a question at issue. I content myself with throwing together a few passages from them which touch subjects of present interest.

  "Selfish men may possess the earth: it is the meek alone who inherit it from the Heavenly Father free from all defilements and perplexities of unrighteousness."

  "Whoever rightly advocates the cause of some, thereby promotes the good of the whole."

  "If one suffer by the unfaithfulness of another, the mind, the most noble part of him that occasions the discord, is thereby alienated from its true happiness."

  "There is harmony in the several parts of the divine work in the hearts of men. He who leads them to cease from those gainful employments which are carried on in the wisdom which is from beneath, delivers also from the desire of worldly greatness, and reconciles to a life so plain that a little suffices."

  "After days and nights of drought, when the sky hath grown dark, and clouds like lakes of water have hung over our heads, I have at times beheld with awfulness the vehement lightning accompanying the blessings of the rain, a messenger from Him to remind us of our duty in a right use of His benefits."

  "The marks of famine in a land appear as humbling admonitions from God, instructing us by gentle chastisements, that we may remember that the outward supply of life is a gift from our Heavenly Father, and that we should not venture to use or apply that gift in a way contrary to pure reason."

  "Oppression in the extreme appears terrible; but oppression in more refined appearances remains to be oppression. To labour for a perfect redemption from the spirit of it is the great business of the whole family of Jesus Christ in this world."

  "In the obedience of faith we die to self-love, and, our life being 'hid with Christ in God,' our hearts are enlarged towards mankind universally; but many in striving to get treasures have departed from this true light of life and stumbled on the dark mountains. That purity of life which proceeds from faithfulness in following the pure spirit of truth, that state in which our minds are devoted to serve God, and all our wants are bounded by His wisdom, has often been opened to me as a place of retirement for the children of the light, in which we may be separated from that which disordereth and confuseth the affairs of society, and may have a testimony for our innocence in the hearts of those who behold us."

  "There is a principle which is pure placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names; it is, however, pure, and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion, nor excluded from any, when the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, they become brethren."

  "The necessity of an inward stillness hath appeared clear to my mind. In true silence strength is renewed, and the mind is weaned from all things save as they may be enjoyed in the divine will; and a lowliness in outward living, opposite to worldly honour, becomes truly acceptable to us. In the desire after outward gain, the mind is prevented from a perfect attention to the voice of Christ; yet being weaned from all things, except as they may be enjoyed in the divine will, the pure light shines into the soul. Where the fruits of the spirit which is of this world are brought forth by many who profess to be led by the Spirit of truth, and cloudiness is felt to be gathering over the visible Church, the sincere in heart, who abide in true stillness, and are exercised therein before the Lord for His name's sake, have knowledge of Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings; and inward thankfulness; is felt at times, that through Divine love our own wisdom is cast out, and that forward, active part in us is subjected, which would rise and do something without the pure leadings of the spirit of Christ.

  "While aught remains in us contrary to a perfect resignation of our wills, it is like a seal to the book wherein is written 'that good and acceptable and perfect will of God' concerning us. But when our minds entirely yield to Christ, that silence is known which followeth the opening of the last of the seals. In this silence we learn to abide in the divine will, and there feel that we have no cause to promote except that alone in which the light of life directs us."

  Occasionally, in "Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes," the intense interest of his subject gives his language something of passionate elevation, as in the following extract: --

  "When trade is carried on productive of much misery, and they who suffer by it are many thousand miles off, the danger is the greater of not laying their sufferings to heart. In procuring slaves on the coast of Africa, many children are stolen privately; wars are encouraged among the negroes, but all is at a great distance. Many groans arise from dying men which we hear not. Many cries are uttered by widows and fatherless children which reach not our ears. Many cheeks are wet with tears, and faces sad with unutterable grief, which we see not. Cruel tyranny is encouraged. The hands of robbers are strengthened.

  "Were we, for the term of one year only, to be eye-witnesses of what passeth in getting these slaves; were the blood that is there shed to be sprinkled on our garments; were the poor captives, bound with thongs, and heavily laden with elephants' teeth, to pass before our eyes on their way to the sea; were their bitter lamentations, day after day, to ring in our ears, and their mournful cries in the night to hinder us from sleeping, -- were we to behold and hear these things, what pious heart would not be deeply affected with sorrow!"

  "It is good for those who live in fulness to cultivate tenderness of heart, and to improve every opportunity of being acquainted with the hardships and fatigues of those who labour for their living, and thus to think seriously with themselves: Am I influenced by true charity in fixing all my demands? Have I no desire to support myself in expensive customs, because my acquaintances live in such customs?

  "If a wealthy man, on serious reflection, finds a witness in his own conscience that he indulges himself in some expensive habits, which might be omitted, consistently with the true design of living, and which, were he to change places with those who occupy his estate, he would desire to be discontinued by them; whoever is thus awakened will necessarily find the injunction binding, 'Do ye even so to them.' Divine love imposeth no rigorous or unreasonable commands, but graciously points out the spirit of brotherhood and the way to happiness, in attaining which it is necessary that we relinquish all that is selfish.

  "Our gracious Creator cares and provides for all His creatures; His tender mercies are over all His works, and so far as true love influences our minds, so far we become interested in His workmanship, and feel a desire to make use of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted, and to increase the happiness of the creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest from which our own is inseparable, so that to turn all we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives."

  His liberality and freedom from "all narrowness as to sects and opinions" are manifest in the following passages:

  "Men who sincerely apply their minds to true virtue, and find an inward support from above, by which all vicious inclinations are made subject; who love God sincerely, and prefer the real good of mankind universally to their own private interest, - though these, through the strength of education and tradition, may remain under some great speculative errors, it would be uncharitable to say that therefore God rejects them. The knowledge and goodness of Him who creates, supports, and gives understanding to all men, are superior to the various states and circumstances of His creatures which to us appear the most difficult. Idolatry indeed is wickedness; but it is the thing, not the name, which is so. Real idolatry is to pay that adoration to a creature which is known to be due only to the true God.

  "He who professeth to believe in one Almighty Creator, and in His Son Jesus Christ, and is yet more intent on the honours, profits, and friendships of the world than he is, in singleness of heart, to stand faithful to the Christian religion, is in the channel of idolatry; while the Gentile, who, notwithstanding some mistaken opinions, is established in the true principle of virtue, and humbly adores an Almighty Power, may be of the number that fear God and work righteousness."

  Nowhere has what is called the "Labour Question," which is now agitating the world, been discussed more wisely and with a broader humanity than in these essays. His sympathies were with the poor man, yet the rich too are his brethren, and he warns them in love and pity of the consequences of luxury and oppression: --

  "Every degree of luxury, every demand for money inconsistent with the divine order, hath connection with unnecessary labours."

  "To treasure up wealth for another generation, by means of the immoderate labour of those who in some measure depend upon us, is doing evil at present, without knowing that wealth thus gathered may not be applied to evil purposes when we are gone. To labour hard, or cause others to do so, that we may live conformably to customs which our Redeemer discountenanced by His example, and which are contrary to divine order, is to manure a soil for propagating an evil seed in the earth."

  "When house is joined to house, and field laid to field, until there is no place, and the poor are thereby straitened, though this is done by bargain and purchase, yet so far as it stands distinguished from universal love, so far that woe predicted by the prophet will accompany their proceedings. As He who first founded the earth was then the true Proprietor of it, so He still remains, and though He hath given it to the children of men, so that multitudes of people have had their sustenance from it while they continued here, yet He hath never alienated it, but His right is as good as at first; nor can any apply the increase of their possessions contrary to universal love, nor dispose of lands in a way which they know tends to exalt some by oppressing others, without being justly chargeable with usurpation."

  It will not lessen the value of the foregoing extracts in the minds of the true disciples of our divine Lord, that they are manifestly not written to subserve the interests of a narrow sectarianism. They might have been penned by Fenelon in his time, or Robertson in ours, dealing as they do with Christian practice -- the life of Christ manifesting itself in purity and goodness rather than with the dogmas of theology. The underlying thought of all is simple obedience to the divine word in the soul. "Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of My Father in heaven." In the preface to an English edition published some years ago, it is intimated that objections had been raised to the Journal on the ground that it had so little to say of doctrines and so much of duties. One may easily understand that this objection might have been forcibly felt by the slaveholding religious professors of Woolman's day, and that it may still be entertained by a class of persons who, like the Cabalists, attach a certain mystical significance to words, names, and titles, and who, in consequence, question the piety which hesitates to flatter the divine ear by "vain repetitions" and formal enumeration of sacred attributes, dignities, and offices. Every instinct of his tenderly sensitive nature shrank from the wordy irreverence of noisy profession. His very silence is significant. The husks of emptiness rustle in every wind; the full corn in the ear holds up its golden fruit noiselessly to the Lord of the harvest. John Woolman's faith, like the apostle's, is manifested by his labours, standing not in words but in the demonstration of the Spirit, -- a faith that works by love to the purifying of the heart. The entire outcome of this faith was love manifested in reverent waiting upon God, and in that untiring benevolence, that quiet but deep enthusiasm of humanity, which made his daily service to his fellow-creatures a hymn of praise to the common Father.

  However the intellect may criticise such a life, whatever defects it may present to the trained eyes of theological adepts, the heart has no questions to ask, but at once owns and reveres it. Shall we regret that he who had so entered into fellowship of suffering with the divine One, walking with Him under the cross, and dying daily to self, gave to the faith and hope that were in him this testimony of a life, rather than any form of words, however sound? A true life is at once interpreter and proof of the gospel, and does more to establish its truth in the hearts of men than all the "Evidences" and "Bodies of Divinity" which have perplexed the world with more doubts than they solved. Shall we venture to account it a defect in his Christian character, that, under an abiding sense of the goodness and long-suffering of God, he wrought his work in gentleness and compassion, with the delicate tenderness which comes of a deep sympathy with the trials and weaknesses of our nature, never allowing himself to indulge in heat or violence, persuading rather than threatening? Did he overestimate that immeasurable Love, the manifestation of which in his own heart so reached the hearts of others, revealing everywhere unsuspected fountains of feeling and secret longings after purity, as the rod of the diviner detects sweet, cool watersprings under the parched surfaces of a thirsty land? And, looking at the purity, wisdom, and sweetness of his life, who shall say that his faith in the teaching of the Holy Spirit -- the interior guide and light -- was a mistaken one? Surely it was no illusion by which his feet were so guided that all who saw him felt that, like Enoch, he walked with God. "Without the actual inspiration of the Spirit of grace, the inward teacher and soul of our souls," says Fénélon, "we could neither do, will, nor believe good. We must silence every creature, we must silence ourselves also, to hear in a profound stillness of the soul this inexpressible voice of Christ. The outward word of the gospel itself without this living efficacious word within, would be but an empty sound."(6) "Thou Lord," says Augustine in his Meditations, "communicatest Thyself to all: Thou teachest the heart without words; Thou speakest to it without articulate sounds." Never was this divine principle more fully tested than by John Woolman; and the result is seen in a life of such rare excellence that the world is still better and richer for its sake, and the fragrance of it comes down to us through a century, still sweet and precious.

  It will be noted throughout the Journal and Essays that in his lifelong testimony against wrong, he never lost sight of the oneness of humanity, its common responsibility, its fellowship of suffering and communion of sin. Few have ever had so profound a conviction of the truth of the Apostle's declaration that no man liveth and no man dieth to himself. Sin was not to him an isolated fact, the responsibility of which began and ended with the individual transgressor; he saw it as a part of a vast network and entanglement, and traced the lines of influence converging upon it in the underworld of causation. Hence the wrong and discord which pained him called out pity, rather than indignation. The first inquiry which they awakened was addressed to his own conscience. How far am I in thought, word, custom, responsible for this? Has none of my fellow-creatures an equitable right to any part which is called mine? Have the gifts and possessions received by me from others been conveyed in a way free from all unrighteousness? "Through abiding in the law of Christ," he says, "we feel a tenderness towards our fellow-creatures, and a concern so to walk that our conduct may not be the means of strengthening them in error." He constantly recurs to the importance of a right example in those who profess to be led by the spirit of Christ, and who attempt to labour in His name for the benefit of their fellowmen. If such neglect or refuse themselves to act rightly, they can but "entangle the minds of others and draw a veil over the face of righteousness." His eyes were anointed to see the common point of departure from the divine harmony, and that all the varied growths of evil had their underlying root in human selfishness. He saw that every sin of the individual was shared in greater or less degree by all whose lives were opposed to the divine order, and that pride, luxury, and avarice in one class gave motive and temptation to the grosser forms of evil in another. How gentle, and yet how searching, are his rebukes of self-complacent respectability, holding it responsible, in spite of all its decent seemings, for much of the depravity which it condemned with pharisaical harshness! In his "Considerations on the True Harmony of Mankind," he dwells with great earnestness upon the importance of possessing the "mind of Christ," which removes from the heart the desire of superiority and worldly honours, incites attention to the divine Counsellor, and awakens an ardent engagement to promote the happiness of all. "This state," he says, "in which every motion from the selfish spirit yieldeth to pure love, I may acknowledge with gratitude to the Father of Mercies, is often opened before me as a pearl to seek after."

  "At times when I have felt true love open my heart towards my fellow-creatures, and have been engaged in weighty conversation in the cause of righteousness, the instructions I have received under these exercises in regard to the true use of the outward gifts of God, have made deep and lasting impressions on my mind. I have beheld how the desire to provide wealth and to uphold a delicate life has grievously entangled many, and has been like a snare to their offspring; and though some have been affected with a sense of their difficulties, and have appeared desirous at times to be helped out of them, yet for want of abiding under the humbling power of truth, they have continued in these entanglements; expensive living in parents and children hath called for a large supply, and in answering this call the 'faces of the poor' have been ground away, and made thin through hard dealing.

  "There is balm; there is a physician! and oh, what longings do I feel that we may embrace the means appointed for our healing; may know that removed which now ministers cause for the cries of many to ascend to Heaven against their oppressors; and that thus we may see the true harmony restored! -- a restoration of that which was lost at Babel, and which will be, as the prophet expresses it, 'the returning of a pure language!'"

  It is easy to conceive how unwelcome this clear spiritual insight must have been to the superficial professors of his time, busy in tithing mint, anise, and cummin. There must have been something awful in the presence of one endowed with the gift of looking through all the forms, shows, and pretensions of society, and detecting with certainty the germs of evil hidden beneath them; a man gentle and full of compassion, clothed in "the irresistible might of meekness," and yet so wise in spiritual discernment --

"Bearing a touchstone in his hand
 And testing all things in the land
   By his unerring spell.

 Quick births of transmutation smote
 The fair to foul, the foul to fair;
 Purple nor ermine did he spare,
   Nor scorn the dusty coat."

  In bringing to a close this paper, the preparation of which has been to me a labour of love, I am not unmindful of the wide difference between the appreciation of a pure and true life and the living of it, and am willing to own that in delineating a character of such moral and spiritual symmetry I have felt something like rebuke from my own words. I have been awed and solemnised by the presence of a serene and beautiful spirit, redeemed of the Lord from all selfishness, and I have been made thankful for the ability to recognise and the disposition to love him. I leave the book with its readers. They may possibly make large deductions from my estimate of the author; they may not see the importance of all his self-denying testimonies; they may question some of his scruples, and smile over passages of childlike simplicity; -- but I believe they will all agree in thanking me for introducing them to the Journal of John Woolman.

J. G. W.

AMESBURY, 20th 1st Month, 1871.

Chapter One ...>>


Notes and Links

(6)
"However, I am sure that there is a common spirit that plays within us, and that is the Spirit of God. Whoever feels not the warm gale and gentle ventilation of this Spirit, I dare not say he lives; for truly without this to me there is no heat under the tropic, nor any light though I dwelt in the body of the sun" (Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici).