Re-reading Woolman after 20 years

Re-reading Woolman after 20 years March 9, 2011

The Journal of John Woolman is online. I guess that makes sense. It’s in the public domain now.

But reading Woolman’s Journal online seems strange to me, since it’s one of those books I turn to now and then when I’m looking for respite from online buzz and bother. His gentle, unpolished reflections — it’s a journal, after all — offer a kind of retreat.

Reading my copy of Woolman’s Journal isn’t just an encounter with this long-gone Quaker saint. I bought the book in my early 20s and read it with pen in hand. Reading it now, then, and encountering the underlining and marginalia I wrote there years ago is sometimes a bit like having a conversation with my younger self. Some of that conversation involves me looking back and thinking, “Good for you, kid,” but just as often it’s an illustration and reminder of the many ways in which my mind has changed and I have changed since then.

If you’re not familiar with Woolman, he was an itinerant Quaker minister who lived from 1720-1772.

The Quakers, as everyone knows, were abolitionists, staunch foes of slavery and advocates of emancipation with pay. From the founding of America up through the Civil War, the Friends were almost synonymous with opposition to slavery.

But that wasn’t always the case.

Go back further, into the earlier half of the 1700s, and you wouldn’t have found this antislavery sentiment as a primary characteristic of Quakers in the colonies. What you would have found, instead, were a great many Friends who owned slaves. Not just in the South, either, but in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and New York — places that we don’t think of as slave states, but which were once colonies where slavery was legal and commonly practiced.

So what brought about this huge transformation among the Friends? What happened to them to change their minds and their attitudes, their practices, their lives, their religion and their world?

John Woolman happened to them.

John Woolman believed slavery was unjust — that it was cruel for those in bondage and corrosive for the bondsman. So he wrote an essay explaining why (“Some considerations on the keeping of Negroes: Recommended to the professors of Christianity of every denomination”). And then, since he was sure that his condemnation of slavery was true, and that the truth of it was compelling, he set out to talk to those who disagreed.

One by one, meetinghouse by meetinghouse, home by home. He would speak to gatherings of Friends, or would arrive for dinner at the home of Quaker slaveowners, and he would talk to them about his “considerations” and concerns with this practice. After the meal, he would pay wages to those slaves who had attended him. And he would invite the slaveowners to liberate their slaves, paying them back wages for their years of service.

Crazy. But even crazier: This worked. Conversation, liberation, transformation. That was Woolman’s method and he continued it, unchanged, throughout his life.

Well, almost unchanged. He eventually switched to traveling on foot out of consideration that the stagecoaches he had been riding in were cruel to the horses.

If you live somewhere on the East Coast of the United States, anywhere in between New York City and Richmond, Va., then you’re probably not far from some old historic Friends Meeting House. John Woolman spoke there. He arrived there on foot and spoke about slavery until he had convinced the Friends who gathered there to condemn the practice and cease participating in it by emancipating their slaves and paying them for their service. And then he left on foot, heading for the next such meeting house or home to have that same conversation again, and again and again.

And that is how John Woolman changed the Friends, and how it came to be that the Friends would help to change America.

That really happened. That is really how it happened.

I find inspiration in the implausible miracle of Woolman’s story because I can relate to this. Not to Woolman himself, so much — he seems to me one of those unapproachable saints, like Francis or Gandhi, someone whose example is almost more daunting that inviting. But I can relate to those Quakers he visited, the Friends whose minds he changed.

My story is in many ways like their story. I have encountered visitors who have challenged me to view the world differently and invited me to change. And thanks to those conversations — many such conversations throughout my life — I did change, and I continue to change, coming both to experience and to participate in the liberation that follows.

And when that is your history — your own personal history — it guides how you approach the world.

I have changed. What does that mean? It means, for one, that change is possible — that we are not doomed to be forever locked into ideas that keep ourselves or others in bondage. If I changed, then others can change too. If they are hostile to the suggestion, well, I was once hostile to it as well. But I am forever grateful to those who patiently steered past that hostility to help me see that change was possible and necessary and good.

I hate to think where I’d be if they had given up on me. So another thing this means is don’t give up. The church ladies like to say that “God loves you just as you are, but loves you too much to let you stay that way.” That was the sort of love I think John Woolman showed toward the Friends with whom he disagreed, and it was the sort of love that was shown to me. And so it is also the sort of love I am obliged to show to others.

Conversation, liberation, transformation. That works. It has an effect on the world that makes the world better. That really happened. And it’s really still happening.

Sadly, I can’t find a readable version of Woolman’s “Considerations” online. But here’s a taste of how it begins:

The general disadvantage which these poor Africans lie under in an enlightened Christian country having filled me with real sadness, and been like undigested matter on my mind, I now think it my duty, through divine aid, to offer some thoughts thereon to the consideration of others.

When we remember that all nations are of one blood; that in this world we are but sojourners; that we are subject to the like afflictions and infirmities of the body, the like disorders and frailties in mind, the like temptations, the same death and the same judgment; and that the All-wise Being is judge and Lord over us all, it seems to raise an idea of a general brotherhood and a disposition easy to be touched with a feeling of each other’s afflictions. But when we forget these things and look chiefly at our outward circumstances, in this and some ages past, constantly retaining in our minds the distinction betwixt us and them with respect to our knowledge and improvement in things divine, natural, and artificial, our breasts being apt to be filled with fond notions of superiority, there is danger of erring in our conduct toward them. …

To consider mankind otherwise than brethren, to think favours are peculiar to one nation and exclude others, plainly supposes a darkness in the understanding. For as God’s love is universal, so where the mind is sufficiently influenced by it, it begets a likeness of itself and the heart is enlarged towards all men. Again, to conclude a people froward, perverse, and worse by nature than others (who ungratefully receive favours and apply them to bad ends), this will excite a behavior toward them unbecoming the excellence of true religion.

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  • Lou’s iPad

    My mother voice is on speed dial.

  • JJohnson:

    About the only thing that’s given me hope lately has been Wisconsin… I am hoping and praying that the people in Wisconsin (and to an extent nationwide) can see the naked greed and vindictiveness of the leadership of their own movement; and that some of the more reasonable people will go “Hey wait a minute, you never said anything about taking away my X” (Where X is a social program, rule or law that conservative took for granted and didn’t even think of it when railing against ‘entitlements’ or ‘greedy unions’ or ‘excessive regulation’.)

    One of my fellow adjuncts, a liberal Mormon and former Utah resident, agrees with you. His hope is that we’re witnessing the sort of brief up-welling of nastiness from the Right which will cause the majority of Americans to say “ugh, that’s Nasty! Go back to your slimy rock!” To that end, he’s hoping for a Palin/Bachman ticket in 2012.

    apis-mellifera: I have nothing to add, but wish to say that I love your procname and icon. I’ve just finished a lovely book on bees and honey (The Honey Trail – review on Friday), so you prompt an odd sense of synchronicity.

  • Anonymous

    Aaaaaand they just rammed it through.

    They stripped out every fiscal provision out of the “Budget Repair Bill” and then passed it without the quorum.

  • Froborr

    Here’s hoping this is remembered as the moment the revolution began.

  • Here’s my semi-educated take on this. First, I think that labour leaders were pretty much resigned to the fact that this was going to happen, one way or another. They had said as much, more or less – that even a loss would end up being a win, because the movement was energized in a bigger way than it has been for decades. Second, as my friend the labour historian said the other night, we’re having this fight now because we haven’t been having this fight for decades, when it might have been easier to win – “business” unions have basically become a provider of raw material, in the form of workers. Third, because the Republicans have made such a blatant power play here, they can’t continue to pretend that it was anything other than a power play – they can’t argue that it was really about the budget (which anyone who was paying attention already knew, but they hoped no one would notice).


    Here’s hoping this is remembered as the moment the revolution began.

    Indeed. (And it won’t be televised).

  • @cereselle

    Can one be mired in anxiety, as one is in depression?

    I tend to think of anxiety in terms of strings–so personally I’d tend to say “caught up” in anxiety. In a metaphor of terrain, I feel it’s more spiky and hard: perhaps a loose scree slope rather than a mire (scrambling rather than trudging). I don’t know how to verb that feeling though.

    Regardless, my sympathies to you. I wish I could offer more, but my strategies for handling anxiety has historically been alternately getting therapy and freaking out. If you want to talk about it, though, I can give you a friendly ear.

  • Gregoryclan2007

    A different version is in “The Friend’s Library” at Google books. Can’t seem to post the link.

  • Anonymous


    Oh god, I hope so. I hope those people in WI can keep their momentum and put everything back. But it’s always easier to destroy than to create.

  • Anonymous

    I know we’re generally ignoring the ‘Reply’ button, but I wanted to make sure you got these. /hugs

  • Anonymous

    Just want to mention how very amused I am that the GoogleAds ad is for Quaker Chewy Granola Bars. Because John Wollman was all about the granola.

  • Erp

    IIRC in regards to Quaker ministers, they were men or women which a meeting had endorsed as having a message worthy of being heard by other meetings or for a particular service (e.g., Elizabeth Fry in the early 1800s was a Quaker minister with prison reform as her message). They did not lead congregations.

  • Froborr: I love the idea of Tikun Olum, and have since I learned of it. I also love the perspective of each of us saving 23 square centimeters – it’s a lovely way of looking at the thing. Thanks for that.

    cereselle: I’m going through, well, not a crisis of faith, per se, but perhaps a re-evaluation of the structure of my belief. It doesn’t even begin to approach what you are experiencing, but it’s hard work all by itself; I can’t imagine dealing with it along with everything else you’ve got on your plate. So, hugs, if you want them.

    Morilore: The WI folks are not entirely on their own – labour and labour allies all over the country are more alert and angry than they’ve been in simply ages. These things spread. On the other hand, the US is big, and it takes an age to change anything – grass roots grow exceedingly long and exceedingly strong, but they also grow exceedingly slowly, and they do it under the ground where it’s hard to see them. Which is why it pays to be suspicious of any movement which seems to take off and take over too quickly – astroturf can be rolled out in a matter of days.

    re: ads and the reply button – I’ve got my ad block turned on, and I’m beginning to wonder if that’s a truly ethical thing to have done – thoughts? And I think, with threading removed, using the reply button is entirely fine – provided that you include some reference to what you are replying to; something we should all be used to, neh?

  • Geds [Today 01:29 PM
    I wouldn’t say that either of your friends was abusing the system. It was intended to help people (not that a sizable minority of people, most of them claiming to be Christians, isn’t doing its best to remove every kind of safety net it can reach, even when its members will be hurt themselves).

  • Greeaaaaaat. ;

    Well, there is one possible upshot here – this does show, nakedly, that they care more about busting unions than fixing the budget (which they broke to begin with). This may sway some Pro-Union republican voters (like the people in the Fireman’s union and Police union who endorsed Scott Walker; but then helped protest against this union busting bill, even though they were exempt.)

    There’s also a recall effort underway for 8 Republican state senators and the Governor. (I’ve heard the Governor one may not happen soon though, as the Wisconsin Governor has to serve one full year before being recalled. At least that’s what I’ve heard, I could be incorrect on that point.)

    So… on the one hand, this is a terrible, terrible bill. On the other hand, they might be overreaching so badly, and so heavily overplaying their hand, that they’ll get their tails handed to them in a special election or something.

    I’m hoping anyway – gotta hold on to that.

  • Y’know, this strikes me as a perfectly valid answer to the question “What’s Fred doing here anyway?”

    And I think it’s an entirely laudable thing for Fred to do. For Fred. Dragging us along with him, of course, is not something he’s really in a position to do.

  • JaneQNorth

    I just downloaded Woolman’s Diary for about a dollar on my Kindle (gotta love that Kindle) and I too have my ad-block turned on. I’m hoping in some way that this will lessen the tiny benefit to the Portal which comes from my footfall – while recognising that I’m a Fred-addict and I’d still turn up anyway.

  • Anonymous

    “We all know at least 15 people that are on welfare who are just milking the system.”

    I suspect, sadly, that this is more likely to be true of the sort of people who write this sort of thing than it is of you or me. The sort of people who write this sort of thing are also the sort of people who, if ever they were eligible for benefits, would game the system as far as they possibly could, because their sense of entitlement knows no bounds. It’s only other people who aren’t entitled.

  • Anonymous

    Okay, I hope I’m not overthinkijng this post of Fred, and I by no means wish to refan the fires that raged in the previous posts but… I can’t help but think that the message in this post, of a good christian that went to the houses of not-so-good christians and changed their minds is in part an allagory for the move of this blog to Patheos. Which is ok. If we can help turn Patheos in a fair and inclusive place like it wants to be, that’d be good.

    But I would like to talk about that in somewhat more practical terms. Is Fred planning to do anything? I he already doing something? Should WE all help do something? Shall we offer to re-write their atheism-section? (All that’s missing is mentioning Hitler, Stalin and or Mao, and I’d think it was written by that guy that made Expelled). Should we ask them to at least copy that section from Wikipedia untill they can get around to improving it? And what of the homophobic posts? Should we ignore that, not accepting hatred of gays as an equally valid position as our own that we can just debate about? Or do we need to wade in there, preferably with a group of slacktivists, to remind them that there are people who will not stand for it?

    I think this is a subject both Fred and the rest of us need to adress at some point. If we take this post as example: Woolman didn’t open up shop next to a group of slave owners and waited untill they stopped by to hear his message. If we dislike what Patheos is now, we’re going to have to take some action I think. So far, I’ve seen one visitor here that I’m pretty sure came from Patheos, and due to his anti-gay stance he was ripped to shreds by the regulars. I can sympathise with people like Kirstin who don’t want their basic human rights open for debate. But that poster has, as far as I can tell, left and is probably still convinced of his anti-gay stance. And all he needs to do now is never come back to slacktivist and his believes won’t be challenged again. You could say it’s good enough for the Slacktivist community, since he won’t bother us anymore. But if that’s all we want, then we really have no reason for being at Patheos. And since Fred decided to move, I doubt he wants to settle for that.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm. I agree with the general point: in order to change things some sort of action will have to be taken.

    Slight reservation: I can’t pretend to speak for Fred (like many people here, all I know of the man is his blog) but I’m wary of the idea that he wants us to do anything, in particular. The way you put this sort of sounds as though Fred were deploying us as an army. I’m… not comfortable with the idea that someone reading/commenting on the Slacktivist comment threads is automatically expected to go out and fight the good fight elsewhere on Patheos. I think it’s important that the comments here are, in themselves, a good example of what excellent internet dialogue can look like. That was pretty effective in drawing new people in and getting them to reconsider their opinins over on typepad.

    That said, since I’ve now got this nifty disqus account (er, for some values of nifty), I’m not averse to putting it to good use elsewhere on Patheos. I haven’t looked at the rest of the site because it’s taken all my free time to keep up with Slacktivist, lately, so I don’t know what actually needs to be done.

    Also, I’m a straight, white, Christian, so there’s not much I can contribute to correcting the information about atheism or bringing a voice from another faith. Unless there are people on the site who think Anglicanism is another faith? I suspect I’m just a miserable heretic, however. ;)

  • Anonymous

    @ alfgilu: No, of course the slacktivist community shouldn’t be turned into some conscript army where every member needs to fight in a minimum of 3 flame wars per month or anything like that. And I’m sure Fred didn’t move here with the idea that he could use us as a large group of liberal spam bots that can pass turing tests. I just wanted to avoid a situation where I am angrily complaining about stuff I don’t like on Patheos, and just demand that Fred does something to fix it for me. All I wanted was to bounce around some ideas between other slacktivists, to try and find something we can do if we’re unhappy with the way things are.

    Part of that question is because I have no idea how this site works. All we have is a vague statement from Patheos Admin that this place is ‘under construction’, with no idea what their time schedule for construction is, who’s building it, or what parts of the structure they plan to change. Now despite being an atheist I wouldn’t be able to write a good new section on atheism just like that either, let alone a good replacement for “chinese religions”. But right now I don’t even know if there’s a point to trying, or if Patheos only writes those sections by themselves.

    And another part if because unlike a number of posters, I’m not an ex-fundie. My parents aren’t religious and neither am I. I haven’t had long discussions with Evangelicals, and I have no idea if it would be effective to just go to another blog and start posting comments. I don’t even know what I’m getting into. Am I going to ‘just’ run into people who think gay marriage is a bad idea, or into people who think death is too good for gays? And, okay, I do think it would be usefull if more than one of us pokes our noses into those other blogs. Or we may just get a replication of that poster who stuck his hand in a hornets’ nest when he posted his comments here.

  • Anonymous

    I was talking about Fred but you got a point

  • Froborr

    I have definitely experienced a state that could be called “mired in anxiety.” I don’t actually have capital-A anxiety though, but some sort of a mix of AvPD, PTSD, and depression, so I’m not sure if it applies to full-blown panic-attack-level anxiety. (I only ever had panic attacks while driving, and I quit doing that a decade ago.)

  • Froborr

    I am willing to make some effort to improve the rest of Patheos, if someone can suggest a good way to do so.

    However, I do not think it’s appropriate to make a call for others to do so, nor do I believe that was Fred’s intent. I can read the post above as a justification for his choice to come to Patheos and try to improve it,* but given Fred’s past posts on Big Damn Heroes, I think he would be happy if some of us did likewise, but wouldn’t expect or call for it.

    *Although I don’t really believe that was his intent at the start, given how much he oversold it in his announcement of the move. But hey, doing what seemed like a good idea at the time and then self-justifying it after the fact is how everyone does very nearly everything, so I don’t hold it against him.

  • Froborr

    Well, volunteers could wander the site and occasionally post links in the comments thread to an offensive post or comment, and then other volunteers could all go swarm it. Thread-wanging for justice!

  • Kevinalexander

    >There is no such thing as a “bad atheist”<

    Ever heard of Ayn Rand?

  • Anonymous

    I made this same suggestion yesterday in the Dr Kroeger thread. There are many more commenters here than on the rest of Patheos, and this would be an entirely voluntary effort, and a pretty fair reaction to out new surroundings for those with the time and inclination to do so.

  • Anonymous

    Ever heard of Ayn Rand?

    Ayn Rand was a bad person who happened to be an atheist. Not exactly what I meant when I said “bad atheist.” I mean an illegitimate atheist; that is, a person who thinks she is an atheist but really isn’t. I think that’s what JJohnson was getting at.

  • Thank you very much. I need these a lot more than I used to think I did. *hugs back*

  • Thank you, Mike. I will say, the reenergizing of the labor movement in this country gives me hope, and hope is something I need badly.

  • Anonymous

    Google has a scan of The journal and essays of John Woolman and Considerations… is included.

    You can read it and download it at:

  • Madame Hardy

    Like you, I consider Woolman a Saint. When I tell his story, I always remind people that he was long (I looked it up; 18 years) dead before the American Society of Friends formally, as a whole, called for the abolition of slavery. He did not live to see the great fruit of his work, to see his co-religionists become a constant and reliable force opposing slavery. He continued to do the right thing, all his life, winning meeting by meeting, and did not see his victory.

    It can take more than a lifetime to bring about justice; more than several lifetimes. It’s still worth doing.

    Random Woolman fact: he became known for wearing undyed clothing, because indigo dye was made by slave labor. He boycotted cotton, silver, and rum for the same reasons. When I was growing up, a Friends family I knew was trying to boycott all of General Mills because of their participation in the Vietnam War. It didn’t change General Mills’s behavior, but that wasn’t really the point.

  • Kevin Alexander

    >I mean an illegitimate atheist; that is, a person who thinks she is an atheist but really isn’t<
    I see your point. It's actually what I meant too. She claimed to be an atheist but she still believed in magic, ie the magical power of the Will.
    I've been trying for the last forty years to get through Atlas Shrugged but I just can't do it. I see my responsibility as at least trying to understand the thinking(?) of the Right and Ayn Rand seems a good place to start.
    I usually get stopped at page 32 where someone makes a train run on time. Makes me laugh every time.

  • Anonymous

    She claimed to be an atheist but she still believed in magic, ie the magical power of the Will.

    Atheism simply means non-theism; a disbelief in gods. As I’ve said elsewhere, there are atheists who believe in horoscopes and homeopathy, does that make them theists? “The magical power of the Will” is certainly an unreasonable idea, but it doesn’t sound theistic to me.

  • Ugh. My immediate reaction was, “Shit. That sucks.”

    I have a personal stake in this because I’m a federal employee and Republicans want to dismantle my entire agency, especially my particular office. Because they don’t hate anything more than “green” technologies, except the EPA. They really hate the EPA.

    This is particularly disheartening because my boss was publicly railed at today while giving testimony by Rand Paul because his toilet apparently doesn’t work. The article made me ill: Not only did he manage to hit every square on the “greenies want to destroy everything” bingo card, he managed to do the same thing for the pro-choice movement.

  • Sorry – my previous response was in reference to the Wisconsin bill getting passed.

  • Anonymous

    Fred, your eloquence has, as usual, won the day.

  • thrum swarf

    JJohnson: Go read Gela’s comment near the beginning of the thread. I think you’ll feel better!

    Something I’m trying to remind myself of lately is that people rarely give you an outward indication that they are going to turn around the battleship of their worldview in real-time conversation. When I think about remarks, conversations, and incidents that really changed how I look at things, I don’t think the other person in the interactions has any notion that they had that effect on me. It usually has to sit and simmer; and if not I’m too afraid of losing face to admit “oh, my whole approach here is morally bankrupt” at a particular time- even though I do think that about some of my past beliefs.
    And some of my beleifs have changed strongly since reading Slacktivist; but I only started commenting here last week, so that was invisible to you all.

    Don’t mistake the absence of sitcom shocked reactions for the absence of real communication impact.

  • thrum swarf

    re: Quaker ministers

    Quaker practice is pretty diverse. (Two Quakers, three opinions). There are unprogrammed Quakers who sit in silence and wait to be moved to speak; and there are programmed Quakers who have ministers with sermons. (I think the programmed crowd likes to call themselves something else, but I can’t recall what). There are war-tax resister Quakers who take in refugees and hide them from the Feds; atheist Quakers; and evangelical Quakers who fight against abortion and the teaching of evolution. And most Quakers, today, are Kenyan. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to call John Woolman a Quaker minister any more than it is to call George Fox that.

  • cereselle:

    I also thought of 1 Cor. 13:13– “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” I may not have faith, but I have hope, and I have love. I have to figure two out of three ain’t bad.

    Holy crap. I never thought to see the chorus of Rush’s “Faithless” as a call-back to 1 Cor. 13:13 before.

    I don’t have faith in faith
    I don’t believe in belief
    You can call me faithless
    But I still cling to hope
    And I believe in love
    And that’s faith enough for me

  • Steve Morrison

    I’ve transcribed the “Considerations” pamphlet as a Word document. It should now be downloadable from this location:

  • Steve martin

    I also found Elizebeth Eliots “Shadow of the Almighty” journals of her husband inspiring.