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:
- The Reformation of American Quakerism, by Jack Marietta
- John Woolman Quintessential Quaker, by David Sox
- The Tendering Presence: Essays on John Woolman, edited by Mike Heller
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!