Reading John Woolman 3: The Isolated Saint

Read­ing John Wool­man: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 (miss­ing)

It’s said that John Wool­man re-wrote his Jour­nal three times in an effort to excise it of as many “I” ref­er­ences as pos­si­ble. As David Sox writes in Johh Wool­man Quin­tes­sen­tial Quak­er, “only on lim­it­ed occa­sion do we glimpse Wool­man as a son, a father and a hus­band.” Wool­man wouldn’t have been a very good blog­ger. Quot­ing myself from my intro­duc­tion to Quak­er blogs:

blogs give us a unique way of shar­ing our lives — how our Quak­erism inter­sects with the day-to-day deci­sions that make up faith­ful liv­ing. Quak­er blogs give us a chance to get to know like-minded Friends that are sep­a­rat­ed by geog­ra­phy or arti­fi­cial the­o­log­i­cal bound­aries and they give us a way of talk­ing to and with the insti­tu­tions that make up our faith community.

I’ve read many great Wool­man sto­ries over the years and as I read the Jour­nal I eager­ly antic­i­pat­ed read­ing the orig­i­nal account. It’s that same excite­ment I get when walk­ing the streets of an icon­ic land­scape for the first time: walk­ing through Lon­don, say, know­ing that Big Ben is right around the next cor­ner. But Wool­man kept let­ting me down.

One of the AWOL sto­ries is his arrival in Lon­don. The Journal’s account:

On the 8th of Sixth Month, 1772, we land­ed at Lon­don, and I went straight­way to the Year­ly Meet­ing of min­is­ters and elders, which had been gath­ered, I sup­pose, about half an hour. In this meet­ing my mind was humbly contrite.

But set the scene. He had just spent five weeks cross­ing the Atlantic in steer­age among the pigs (he doesn’t actu­al­ly spec­i­fy his non-human bunk­mates). He famous­ly went out of his way to wear clothes that show dirt because they show dirt. He went straight­away: no record of a bath or change of clothes. Sto­ries abound about his recep­tion, and while are some of dubi­ous ori­gin, there are first hand accounts of his being shunned by the British min­is­ters and elders. The best and most dubi­ous sto­ry is the theme of anoth­er post.

I trust that Wool­man was hon­est­ly aim­ing for meek­ness when he omit­ted the most inter­est­ing sto­ries of his life. But with­out the con­text of a lived life he becomes an ahis­tor­i­cal fig­ure, an icon of good­ness divorced from the minu­ti­ae of the dai­ly grind. Two hun­dred and thir­ty years of Quak­er hagiog­ra­phy and latter-day appeals to Woolman’s author­i­ty have turned the tai­lor of Mount Hol­ly into the oth­er­world­ly Quak­er saint but the process start­ed at John’s hands himself.

Were his strug­gles mere­ly inte­ri­or? When I look to my own min­istry, I find the call to dis­cern­ment to be the clear­est part of the work. I need to work to be ever more recep­tive to even the most unex­pect­ed prompt­ing from the Inward Christ and I need to con­stant­ly prac­tice humil­i­ty, love and for­give­ness. But the prac­ti­cal lim­i­ta­tions are hard­er. For years respectibil­i­ty was an issue; rel­a­tive pover­ty con­tin­ues to be one. It is ask­ing a lot of my wife to leave respon­si­bil­i­ty for our two small boys for even a long weekend.

How did Wool­man bal­ance fam­i­ly life and min­istry? What did wife Sarah think? And just what was his role in the sea-change that was the the “Ref­or­ma­tion of Amer­i­can Quak­erism” (to use Jack Marietta’s phrase) that for­ev­er altered Amer­i­can Friends’ rela­tion­ship with the world and set the stage for the schisms of the next century.

We also lose the con­text of Woolman’s com­pa­tri­ots. Some are named as trav­el­ing com­pan­ions but the col­or­ful char­ac­ters go unmen­tioned. What did he think of the street-theater antics of Ben­jamin Lay, the Abbie Hoff­man of Philadel­phia Quak­ers. The most widely-told tale is of Lay walk­ing into Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing ses­sions, open­ing up a cloak to reveal mil­i­tary uni­form under­neath, and declar­ing that slave-made prod­ucts were prod­ucts of war, plunged a sword into a hollowed-out Bible full of pig’s blood, splat­ter­ing Friends sit­ting nearby.

What role did Wool­man play in the larg­er anti-slavery awak­en­ing hap­pen­ing at the time? It’s hard to tell just read­ing his Jour­nal. How can we find ways to repli­cate his kind of faith­ful­ness and wit­ness today? Again, his Jour­nal doesn’t give much clue.

Read­ing John Wool­man Series

  • Part One: “The Pub­lic Life of a Pri­vate Man”
  • Part Two: “The Last Safe Quaker
  • Part Three: The Iso­lat­ed Saint (this page)
  • Part Four: I Real­ly Do Like Woolman!

Picked up today in the Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing Library:

PYM Librar­i­an Rita Var­ley remind­ed me today they mail books any­where in the US for a mod­est fee and a $50/year sub­scrip­tion. It’s a great deal and a great ser­vice, espe­cial­ly for iso­lat­ed Friends. The PYM cat­a­log is online too!

  • I sus­pect that you’re ask­ing a lot of ques­tions of John Wool­man that Wool­man would have con­sid­ered the wrong ques­tions — most notably “Were his strug­gles mere­ly interior?”
    After Fox’s Jour­nal, Woolman’s Jour­nal is a very dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence. Both see their mes­sages as cen­tral to the sto­ry, but Fox is much hap­pi­er describ­ing his own par­tic­i­pa­tion in that mes­sage, while Wool­man seems to remove him­self from the sto­ry as much as he can.
    Per­haps I was lucky to be read­ing Fenelon before I read Woolman’s Jour­nal, since I would have had a hard time get­ting through Woolman’s Jour­nal with­out it. Read­ing things like this:
    The chief thing is not to lis­ten to your­self, but silent­ly to lis­ten to God; to renounce all van­i­ty, and apply your­self to real virtues; to talk lit­tle, and to do much, with­out car­ing to be seen.
    give me some sense of why Wool­man made his choic­es (and wrote his Jour­nal) the way he did.
    Maybe Qui­etism is just too alien to the way we think today to be amenable. You write that:
    But with­out the con­text of a lived life he becomes an ahis­tor­i­cal fig­ure, an icon of good­ness divorced from the minu­ti­ae of the dai­ly grind.
    I don’t think Wool­man set out to become a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure (or an icon) — he just want­ed to make sure his mes­sage got across, and his Jour­nal reflects that.
    I was upset at first at the lack of con­text, his few men­tions of his wife and daugh­ter, and all the pieces peo­ple have said are miss­ing. At this point, though, I think it’s pret­ty clear that Wool­man accom­plished what he set out to do, and that very suc­cess is what makes it hard for mod­ern read­ers to enjoy.
    Howard Brin­ton point­ed out some of the com­pli­ca­tions this caus­es for read­ers who expect Wool­man to talk more about jus­tice as well:
    But how, the activist will ask, can we heal a sick world when we are advised to “retire from all out­ward objects and silence all desires in the pro­found silence of the whole soul”…? The answer is that there is no peace with­out until there is peace with­in. A man who is inward­ly dis­or­dered will infect all about him with his inner disorder.
    John Wool­man, a New Jer­sey tai­lor of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, fol­lowed with­out reser­va­tion the type of reli­gion por­trayed in The Guide to True Peace, yet he was one of the world’s great­est social reform­ers. When he went about per­suad­ing the Quak­ers, a hun­dred years before the Civ­il War, to give up their slaves, he did not say much about suf­fer­ing and injus­tice. He sim­ply point­ed out to the slave­hold­ers that they felt no inner peace.
    The his­to­ry of the Soci­ety of Friends shows that almost always this search for inner peace is the dynam­ic of Quak­er pio­neer­ing in social reform. True peace comes, not by inac­tion, but in let­ting God act through us. (The Guide to True Peace, x-xi)
    It’s a heavy mes­sage, not one that fits with mod­ern per­spec­tives, includ­ing many Quak­er per­spec­tives. It makes read­ing and under­stand­ing peo­ple like John Wool­man dif­fi­cult, even for his fans.

  • The most widely-told tale is of Lay walk­ing into Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing ses­sions, open­ing up a cloak to reveal mil­i­tary uni­form under­neath, and declar­ing that slave-made prod­ucts were prod­ucts of war, plunged a sword into a hollowed-out Bible full of pig’s blood, splat­ter­ing Friends sit­ting nearby.
    So, what you’re say­ing is, Quak­erism can be fun!?

  • Hi Dave Carl: I’ve nev­er struck deep into the his­to­ry, but I think Lay was actu­al­ly dis­owned for these sorts of pranks. So no, at least Eigh­teenth Cen­tu­ry Quak­ers weren’t allowed to have that much fun. I’m in Bar­nesville right now, at Ohio (Cons) ses­sions, maybe this is a good chance to see if blood splat­ter­ing is okay (though now that the clerk is a blog­ger he might see this and stop me before I can throw open my cloak).
    Simon St.Laurent: I cer­tain­ly under­stand Quak­er qui­etism and have a good amount of respect for the care it’s always insist­ed needs to go into rightly-led dis­cern­ment. I just don’t find Wool­man as help­ful in my own walk as some­one like Samuel Bownas.

  • PR

    Hi, Mar­tin

    I have a lack of under­stand­ing that per­haps you can help me quench. I found your blog by jux­ta­pos­ing “Quak­er” and “Saint” in a Google search.

    You may won­der why I chose to do this. I have a ques­tion for you. Is there any par­tic­u­lar teach­ing about Quak­ers being titled saints? Would that be a con­tra­dic­tion in terms, since Quak­ers like to think of all as being equal before God? I’m not being rhetor­i­cal. There is dis­cus­sion of hav­ing a friend of mine who was a very ecu­meni­cal Quak­er can­on­ized as a Catholic saint. With deep respect for both Quak­ers and Catholics, I find this very dis­tress­ing; most­ly because I believe it would dis­tress my friend to be thought of this way. Would you mind shar­ing your thoughts on the sub­ject? Per­haps you could direct me to some writ­ten mate­ri­als that would clar­i­fy Quak­er beliefs about sainthood. 

    • Hi PR, I don’t know too much about this. The term “saint” comes from the Bible – ear­ly Chris­tians were often called saints. I looked up Barclay’s Apol­o­gy (http://​www​.qhpress​.org/​t​e​x​t​s​/​b​a​r​c​l​a​y​/​a​p​o​l​o​gy/), which is the fullest treat­ment of “offi­cial” Quak­er the­ol­o­gy and the word “saint” shows up a lot. Of course Bar­clay isn’t talk­ing about offi­cial Catholic saints. The for­mal can­on­iza­tion process is very involved and can take cen­turies; I can’t imag­ine any Friend would qualify. 

      • PR

        Well, the first step has been tak­en. A Saint needs to have passed away, and my friend is no longer with us. He nev­er offi­cial­ly joined the RC church, but some say he had the bap­tism of inten­tion. My under­stand­ing is that he would have to be nom­i­nat­ed and a com­mit­tee of sorts would exam­ine his life to see if he had lived with the nec­es­sary “hero­ic virtue.” Then two strict­ly proven mir­a­cles would be need­ed to show that he was a Saint: which , as you say, may take a very long time. You may find it inter­est­ing that his “hero­ic virtues” were large­ly ones of Quak­er ori­gin – sim­plic­i­ty, social activism, ecu­menism, gifts to char­i­ty. http://​www​.fum​.org/​Q​L​/​i​s​s​u​e​s​/​9​8​0​4​/​m​u​l​l​i​n​s​.​htm

        Richard Mullins gets quot­ed a lot, and here is one quote of his:

        “If my life is moti­vat­ed by an ambi­tion to leave a lega­cy, what I would prob­a­bly leave is a lega­cy of ambi­tion. But, if my life is moti­vat­ed by the pow­er of God’s spir­it in me and the aware­ness of the indwelling Christ, if I allow His pres­ence to guide my motives, that’s the only time I think we real­ly leave a great legacy.”

        I just won­dered what a Quak­er might think of the idea of a fel­low Quak­er inter­ced­ing on behalf of the rest of us sin­ners. Giv­en my friend’s pen­chant for tip­ping sacred cows, I almost won­der what kind of scrapes he would have even­tu­al­ly encoun­tered had he ever joined the RC church.