John Woolman is Dead

Opening Prayer (from the bulletin?)

“John Woolman is dead.” These words may at first appear to be simply an obvious  statement, uninteresting and useless. For some, it may be meaningless.Who is John Woolman, anyways? For others, to say that the 17th century Quaker abolitionist is dead understates the obvious in a similar way to someone who says “We get rain in the Northwest.”

But these words, John Woolman is dead, holds more power than you might guess at first glance. These are some of the very last words written in his Journal which is now known as an American classic. Woolman is best known for almost bare-handedly wrestling the monstrous abolition beast, the way one might take on a wild boar! He is responsible for convincing countless Quaker meetings West of the Atlantic to stop supporting this unjust system. When, in 1757 Philadelphia Quakers wrote a  testimony against slavery, it was no small victory, yet it took much longer to convince those in the south that this was the right thing to do. So, he turned his attention south and got to work. Many also remember him for his equally important work with the Native Americans, his plain lifestyle and voluntary simplicity,  his refusing to pay war taxes during the French and Indian war, and his deep concern for the poor, animals and the environment. He stands as a looming figure in Quaker history, a saint by most standards today. Woolman was a man who believe that it only takes one person to make a difference, if that person was attentive to the Light. Not that it was done in isolation, it is obvious he was formed by a community and the Quaker tradition, but it was he who had to make the choice to follow his guide.

But even still, John Woolman is dead.

Abandoning Luxuries

In 1772 Woolman, a New Jersey born Quaker, set out for England to share his concern for Quakers to care for the poor and abolish slavery among them. He wrote in his journal, “Oh, may the wealthy consider the poor,” upon arriving in England. This was no pious claim to lip-service. Woolman was anything but a do-gooder. His life’s work was to constantly move toward an abandonment of what he saw as worldly luxuries, because he saw them as entanglements to following Christ. He wrote:

“To Turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.”

While he was crossing the Atlantic on a ship called the Mary and Elizabeth, making his way to England, he was struck by the luxury and vanity people indulged in on the ship,  “he did not feel easy to avail himself of the comparative luxury offered to cabin passengers,” (cf. BPD 76-77) so instead he made arrangements with the ship captain to travel with the steerage.  Reflecting on this experience and how this related to witnessing Christ to others he challenged those on the ship to:

“…abide in the love of Christ that being delivered from the love of money, from the entangling expenses of a curious, delicate, and luxurious life – that we may learn contentment with a little and promote the seafaring life no further than that spirit which leads into all Truth attends us in our proceedings.”

Woolman was a practicer of the testimony of plainness (or simplicity). Walter Williams writing about Woolman’s life notes how woolman practiced this testimony. He, “Personally, he gave up the eating of sugar, because it was a product of slave labor. Nor could he long wear clothes made of cloth that had been dyed, for slave labor had produced those dyes (Quaker gray!). He clearly saw how involved were the problems faced by a civilization part slave and part free. Yet, wrong could never be right; slavery must be put away” (132). Woolman felt that anything, whether work, luxury, food, or drink, that kept people from surrendering fully to Christ needed to be done away with. In this way, his life is a great challenge to us and in many ways he was far more strict about these things than we may ever feel comfortable with. Yet, his Christian faith is what led him to giving up such excesses, and we remember him some 200 years later as a result. It is apparent to me, in the life of John Woolman, how Plainness, as well as many other Quaker testimonies are a consequence of a life following after Jesus Christ. For him this was not just an act of voluntary simplicity. Thomas Kelly says that John Woolman:

“resolved so to order his outward affairs as to be, at every moment, attentive to that voice. He simplified life on the basis of its relation to the divine Center. Nothing else really counted so much as attentiveness to that Root of all living which he found within himself…[He] never let the demands of his business grow beyond his real needs. When too many customers cam, he sent them elsewhere, to more needy merchants and tailors. His outward life became simplified on the basis of an inner integration. He found that we can be heaven-led men and women, and he surrendered himself completely, unreservedly to that blessed leading, keeping warm and close to the Center (T. Kelly 116-117).

Our life is changed as we hand over the right to do as we please to this divine center Kelly talks about.

Woolman the Activist

I was initially drawn to Woolman because he was an activist.

In his time, he was not unlike Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Simone Weil or Martin Luther King Jr. was in ours. A person surrendered to a divine leading, unrelenting in seeing it through. But to see King, Day, Gandhi or Weil simply as activists is to be do them injustice as well. In both cases it would be to appreciate them as fruit from a tree without having any knowledge of what kind of tree the fruit came from or what the conditions were necessary to bear that fruit.

One of the turning points for Woolman the soon to be abolitionist was at a retail shop where he worked. The man who employed him was in the process of selling a slave to another Quaker, and asked John to participate in helping with the sale. Woolman had that sinking feeling in his stomach, he waited, and tried to figure a way out of aiding in the transaction. He knew there was no easy way to challenge his boss’ ethics and he did not want participate in this unwelcome task. He drew up the bill of sale and when it was ready he delivered it to his boss and the other Quaker, but spoke truthfully to them both, saying “that slave-keeping seemed to him not consistent with a profession of Christianity” (131).

Woolman the Minister

First and foremost then, we have to see John Woolman as a man of faith. He was a recorded Quaker minister and a birthright Friend whose own family growing up was steeped in Christian spirituality. He recalls reading the bible together as well as other religious writings with his family on Sunday afternoons. And at the age of seven he “began to be acquainted with the operations of divine love.”

Woolman’s spiritual development, like all of ours, was a long journey of disciplined work. Often he traces his forward steps in following Christ more fully, but equally often he names his missteps. And like all of us, if we desire to know Christ and follow his ways, we have to be opened up to our own rebellions against God and turn toward’s God’s Light.

As a young man he was on his way to a nearby friend’s house when he came upon “a robin sitting on her nest.’ He writes, ‘and as I came near she went off, but having young ones, flew about and with many cries expressed her concern for them. I stood and threw stones at her, till one striking her, she fell down dead. At first I was pleased with the exploit, but after a few minutes was seized with horror, as having a sportive way killed an innocent creature while she was careful for her young.”

He went on and killed her young in what he felt was an act of mercy so that they did not starve to death. This scene of death had a profound impact on him and troubled him for sometime. In that moment sensitive to what he had done, a passage from the book of Proverbs came to him, “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel” (Proverbs 12:10).

“Thus he whose tender mercies are over all his works hath placed a principle in the human mind which incites to exercise goodness toward every living creature…” When we are “signally attended to, people become tender-hearted and sympathizing, but being frequently and totally rejected, the mind shuts itself up in a contrary disposition.”

Much of his early life is this back and forth between surrendering and rebellion, between being tender-hearted and attending to Christ, and being closed off and contrary. Woolman understood that humans could be cruel, regardless of whether they said they were Christians or not. Many people he came across in his life professed faith, but had not surrendered their way of life to Christ. They were as yet, unawake to their own problems, bound to a duplicity that professes Christ but is not vulnerable to his leadings. in other words, there was a profession without possession, as the saying goes.

Neither is John Woolman an untouchable saint. He is one of us inasmuch as he too wrestled with these everyday questions. Temptations and trials were a part of his journey. He is an example for us because he kept getting back onto the path even if he took sometime away from it. His spiritual journey was one we should all be able to relate to. Just as a child learns to ride a bike by first experiencing what it is like to crash and fall off. This was how he matured in faith as well.

He was a traveling minister. Recorded by his Quaker community as being one who attends to the Holy Spirit and faithfully discerns the movements of the Spiritual Life well. He was a minister whose convictions were rooted in following Christ. For Woolman there should be no disconnect between “what we do” and “who we are.”And what he did, whether it was with African slaves, Native Americans or the poor, was an outgrowth of who he was as a person. ANd who he was, first and foremost, was a follower of Christ.

Martin Kelley writes:

…his contemporaries clearly saw and named him a minister…There are many instances where he described the inhumanity of the slave trade and he clearly identified with the oppressed but he almost always did so with from a Biblical perspective…Yes, he was a social activist but he was also a deeply religious minister of the gospel.”

What Woolman did, was inseparable to who he was as a Quaker. To follow Christ, was to have his whole life subject to God’s power and transformation.

John Woolman is Dead. The words penned in his journal as he lay sick upon a bed in England thousands of miles away from his wife and daughter. He was only 52. He heard these words whispered ever so softly in a melody that was, as he described it, “more pure and harmonious than any other voice I had heard with my ears before, and I believe it was the voice of an angel who spoke to other angels.” He thought he had died from the smallpox he suffered from.

Not knowing he was dreaming, next he was carried in his spirit to a group of miners. Describing the instance he writes that there were:

“Poor oppressed people digging rich treasures for those called Christians, and heard them blaspheme the name of Christ, at which I was grieved, for his name to me was precious. The I was informed that these heathens were told that those who oppressed them were the followers of Christ, and they said amongst themselves: ‘If Christ directed them to use us in this sort, then Christ is a cruel tyrant.”

Here at the end of his life is the key to understanding his earlier biography. For Woolman, those who are called Christians live as Christ’s body here on Earth. For these miners it was Christ who oppressed them because it was Christians who oppressed them. If Christ was no cruel tyrant than how could his followers be tyrants? How could they enslave others for their own gain? How could they participate in the vanities of the world if Christ himself did not do that in this?

To Woolman, following the “pure wisdom” of God must have integrity. This life begins in the inward parts of the soul, which rebells against God’s wisdom. That inward rebellion always bears fruits outwardly, even if we are ourselves too deceived to see it. Just as Paul writes in Galatians 6:

“God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (Gal 6:7–10)

Woolman worked his whole life to sow to the Spirit. It was that disciplined work of sowing, similar to the sowing of a garden, which requires the tilling of the earth, good composted soil, watering, plenty of happy seeds, good consistent sunshine, and the blessing of God, aligning our inward parts with our outward lives is to be the work of our lives. Again:

“To Turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.”

Too often Woolman saw people of faith, professing their religion, yet not acting upon it as was true in his vision of the miners. This is a picture of people whose lives are not yet dead to Christ.

John Woolman is dead. Four simple words whispered to the ears of a dying man. At first these words offered only confusion, but in reflection they offered the key to Christian discipleship. The words of Paul came to him in that moment:

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:19–20)

John Woolman is dead, and we too need to die to ourselves and let Christ live through us. As we decrease so that he can increase within us (John 3:30), crucified with him on the cross, our inner and outer lives begin to align. As we die to ourselves, what we perceive to be our individual rights, our rights to luxury, comfort, a good name, a crisis-free life, spirituality without struggle, devotion without cost, Christianity without Christ, we find that there is a deeper life, a deeper love than words can describe. As one Native American leader said having heard Woolman pray but not understanding English language: “I love to feel where the words come from.” May we strive to experience this truth for ourselves.

Then Christ’s Spirit takes root in us, and like a seedling with the proper amount of care, begins to sprout and grows up into the light. What we sow we shall reap. Woolman worked his entire life to sow a life of goodness, a life that truly surrender the self and became the hands and feet of Christ.

John Woolman is dead, quite literally now. But even while he was still alive he had died in Christ. He had surrendered himself to the cross of Christ, allowing his life to become a vessel through which God was able to work many wonderful things. Woolman’s inner life and outer life were aligned at the cross, this was not something he did on his own, but Christ’s work in him whom he surrendered to:

John Woolman may be dead, but Jesus Christ is risen and alive in you. Will you die (or continue to die) to yourself that he might live through you too?

Flickr image — link.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

2 thoughts on “John Woolman is Dead”

  1. Daniel,
    Thank you for this. I wonder if we could tie Woolman's vistion of justice to this from the NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/10/opinion/10herbe…. Herbert writes "listen to the soft-spoken new president of the U.A.W., Bob King.

    “My view of the labor movement today,” he said in an interview, “is that we got too focused on our contracts and our own membership and forgot that the only way, ultimately, that we protect our members and workers in general is by fighting for justice for everybody.”

    The fundamental issue is that “every human being deserves dignity and a decent standard of living,” he said, “and the whole point of the labor movement is to help make that happen.”

    In Mr. King’s view, the fight to organize workers and improve their wages and benefits is important, but it’s part of a much broader effort to improve the lives of individuals and families throughout the country and beyond. He is a believer in cooperative efforts and shared sacrifice, and is unabashedly idealistic as he outlines what can only be described as a new activism on labor’s part.

    He promised his members last month that the U.A.W. would be marching and campaigning and organizing — for jobs, for a moratorium on home foreclosures, for civil and human rights and against the mistreatment of immigrants, and for peace."

  2. I think that we Quakers are proud of our history in the antislavery movement, even though not all Friends embraced abolition. John Woolman in his deep convictions may never have represented the views of all Friends, but neither has his spirit (metaphorically speaking) left Quakers entirely. I have been feeling a deep leading from the Spirit to oppose modern day slavery, and have been looking anew at Woolman, and particularly at his commitment not to use any goods made by slaves. As the wealthy corporations of today's global economy exploit slave labor overseas, we Quakers might revisit Woolman's commitment, and take a hard look at the source of our chocolate, coffee, cotton and other goods.

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