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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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