Though he was a tailor by trade and ran a successful dry-goods shop at Mount Holly, New Jersey, John Woolman’s central concern was to serve as a channel for divine love for all creatures, including the poor and oppressed. He visited fellow Quakers in the Southern colonies, convincing them of the evils of slaveholding, and in addition to his journal wrote a number of pamphlets, including A Plea for the Poor and Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes.
The overwhelming impression that greets the reader of Woolman’s Journal is of a life intent on obedience to God. With a sense of urgency and passionate concern, Woolman repeatedly accepted the hard way he believed God was placing before him, preferring it to the less demanding well-traveled paths. For him, the supreme danger was to block the divine work by allowing worldly desires to crowd out the “pure, universal love” that God would have govern us. He was never in doubt that for the Christian the way to be followed would be filled with difficulties, but he was equally convinced that learning to bear the cross opened the door to inner peace.
Woolman’s account of his own life reveals a constant struggle to hear the voice of God. He tells of an experience early in his life at a Quaker silent worship service. In such services, the custom was to wait in silence until the Spirit of God led one or more worshipers to minister audibly to the group. During one service, Woolman records that he spoke some words, “but not keeping close to the Divine opening, I said more than was required of me.” He was deeply troubled by his failure to attune himself with the Spirit’s leadership, and it was six weeks before he felt free to speak again in a service. Woolman describes the experience as a discipline that strengthened him to “distinguish the pure spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart.”
This incident illustrates the tenderness of Woolman’s conscience. Whether the issue is of great importance or relatively trivial, he is intent on guarding against motivations and actions that are contrary to the work of God. Later in life, after returning from a dangerous journey to visit the Indians, Woolman records that he had been striving during the trip to arrive at a place of “perfect resignation” and careful “lest I should admit any degree of selfishness.”
The concern for inner purity arises in part from a firm conviction of the dangers facing the believer. Toward the end of his life, Woolman writes, “O, how great is the danger of departing from the pure feeling of that which leadeth safely!” Christ is a sure guide, but the follower must be constantly vigilant, wary of the snares in the path. Often Woolman writes of his concern for young people who may be led astray by attractions that point them away from the true path. At times he sounds unnecessarily ascetic, reacting strongly to what many people would be inclined to think of as innocent frivolities. There may be truth in this reaction, but we need to read Woolman’s warnings against the backdrop of his keen awareness of the human potential for wickedness and of the eternal spiritual dangers. Perhaps Woolman is overscrupulous about “youthful vanities” and “merriment,” but perhaps he sometimes sees what is most likely to be missed by young people.
In his own life, Woolman exhibits a remarkable sensitivity to the many ways one may be pulled away from spiritual concerns. High on his list was the desire to make money. From observation he concluded that “with an increase of wealth the desire of wealth increased.” Furthermore, he learned by experience that business interests can absorb excessive amounts of time and attention if this is allowed. This may sound like the sort of conclusion one would expect from a man who was too spiritual to be of much use in practical economic matters. In fact, Woolman reports he had both a talent and a “natural inclination” toward business affairs. Besides his trade as a tailor, he was involved in selling retail goods. His trade increased each year and he diversified successfully until “the way to a large business appeared open.” However, reports Woolman, “I felt a stop in my mind.” Seeing that the growth of his business involved him “in cumbering affairs,” he deliberately took steps to decrease its size.
This decision is closely related to one of Woolman’s fundamental convictions, that people live best when they abandon the concern for unnecessary luxuries and content themselves with a simple lifestyle. In his own business, Woolman made it a practice to “buy and sell things really useful.” He was not eager to be involved with unnecessary luxuries or “superfluities,” regardless of whether they might sell well. Woolman reports that whenever he carried such items, “I found it weaken me as a Christian.” He was concerned neither to indulge in that which might draw him away from “the voice of the true Shepherd” nor to be an instrument for fanning the flame in others of the lust for more things.
In Woolman’s view the inordinate desire for unnecessary luxuries was a major cause of a number of social ills. When writing of a visit to the Indians, he noted that the addiction to wealth was responsible for such oppressive practices as...
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