Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2175
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 getting the Indians to sell their land for “trifling considerations” and inducing them to trade skins and furs on which they “depend for subsistence” for liquor.
Similarly, it is the unwillingness to be satisfied with a simple lifestyle that Woolman finds at the root of the great evil of slavery. For Woolman, fighting the injustice of slavery was a passionate concern to which he devoted a lifetime of effort. An early experience brought home to him the reality of slaveholding. As a young man he was asked by his employer to draw up a bill of sale for a woman while the buyer waited. Woolman felt uneasy at the recognition that it was a fellow human being who was to be sold. At the same time, he believed he had a duty to do as his employer directed. Finally, he reports, he gave way “through weakness” and wrote the bill of sale. Still, he was troubled enough to tell both his employer and the buyer he believed the practice of slave-keeping inconsistent with Christianity.
Part of the agony of this decision arose from the fact that both buyer and seller were members of Woolman’s own religious community, the Society of Friends. While Woolman’s conviction of the evil of slaveholding was not unique, it should be remembered that the practice was widely accepted and even defended by many fellow believers. From this time on, the mission of awakening the conscience of Friends to the evil of slavery became a central task in Woolman’s life. Traveling throughout New England and in the Southern colonies, he spoke to Quaker slaveholders about the inconsistency of the practice with the Christian faith.
This form of ministry was not easy for Woolman. He records repeatedly his reluctance to confront those he visited. However, he felt a task had been laid upon him by God, and often he could not rest easy until he had delivered the message. He speaks of feeling his mind “released from a burden” after humbly and tenderly laying the word of God before others, and, following Ezekiel, he compares his task to that of a watchman. One who accepts the work of warning the people will be faced with constant temptations to avoid the task or do it in a wrong spirit. Not least among the dangers to this ministry are the “snares of prosperity and outside friendship.”
The genuine servant of God must be attentive to the divine voice and open to new wisdom from him. Woolman’s attempt to do this often brought him into conflict with custom and accepted practice. He became convinced, for example, that the custom of wearing dyed hats and garments and “wearing more clothes in summer than are useful” was inconsistent with God’s intended simplicity. To act on the basis of this conviction was difficult because it would mean standing out from others in an embarrassing way. Furthermore, his going against accepted custom could easily be misunderstood because it “savored of an affected singularity.” Woolman found the uniqueness of his appearance to be a trial, particularly when friends unsure of his motives “grew shy” of him. Despite the suffering, he experienced “inward consolation” and was confirmed in the conviction that “things though small in themselves, being clearly enjoined by Divine authority become great things to us.”
In a similar spirit, Woolman refrained from the use of things that he believed supported oppression or unnecessary luxury. Hearing of the treatment of slaves in the West Indies, he refused to use products connected with the practice. He writes, “I . . . declined to gratify my palate with those sugars.” Similarly, Woolman judged it wrong to pay a tax to support war even though ne knew it would mean the confiscation of his goods. He notes that members of his Society usually paid the tax despite their pacifist views, and that going against the common practice was “exceedingly disagreeable.” On the other hand, to go against his conscience was even “more dreadful.” When during the war Woolman was required by authorities to quarter a soldier in his house, after deliberation he accepted the soldier, but he went out of his way to refuse payment and to explain why.
For Woolman, many occasions became opportunities for bearing testimony to his convictions. Trying to act in things great and small in a manner consistent with the calling of the Gospel was often a difficult trial. Time and again, however, he accepted inconvenience, discomfort, and financial loss as a way of maintaining his integrity. In matters that most would probably think too small to make an issue of, Woolman labored to bring his actions into conformity with the will of God.
Underlying these efforts is a firm conviction that God is actively involved in the affairs of life. For Woolman, the attitude of looking for the divine intention became second nature. On several occasions he interpreted his own illness as a means through which God wanted to teach him something. Difficulties were often regarded as chastisements intended for his purification. He even refers to smallpox as “a messenger from the Almighty, to be an assistant in the cause of virtue.” During one illness he felt the need for greater purification and consequently felt no desire for health “until the design of my correction was answered.” When there was complete surrender and resignation to God’s purposes, inward as well as outward healing could come.
Throughout the experience of various trials to faith, Woolman is acutely aware of the refreshment of God’s love. He speaks constantly of the grace and mercy of God and the sufficiency of his help. The sense of duty and judgment comes across so strongly in Woolman’s writings that it is easy to miss the fact that Woolman’s commitment is also a response to his sense of the goodness and love of God. For Woolman, however, the judgment of God on unrighteousness is not something separate or in conflict with God’s love and kindness. His judgment is an expression of a providential concern. The necessity of standing strict guard over our desires and concerns arises from the need to keep a clear path for his light to shine within us.
God’s tender concern for all creatures becomes for Woolman a motivation to cultivate his own concern. He gives as a partial reason for one of his journeys “that by so travelling I may have a more lively feeling of the condition of the oppressed slaves.” Throughout his life Woolman labored to keep alive his awareness of the poor, the dispossessed, and the oppressed. He became “desirous to embrace every opportunity of being inwardly acquainted with the hardships and difficulties of my fellow-creatures.” This was not simply an academic exercise. It was a crucial preparation for one who desired to be used as an instrument to spread God’s righteousness. Only an appreciation of the situation of others can prepare one to put aside the “spirit of selfishness” to which all are naturally inclined.
Woolman was never content with pious feelings divorced from consistent practice. His commitment to “universal love” led him to repudiate all actions conflicting with the well-being of his fellow creatures. Faithfulness to this vision often meant personal sacrifice, but for Woolman acceptance of personal loss was a small price compared to the danger of blocking God’s work with selfish motives. He saw the task of life as a matter of disentangling oneself from temporal concerns that crowd out the movement of Divine Love. Renouncing the desires or wealth, power, or comfort meant opening channels through which God’s love could flow.
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