Reading John Woolman: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 (missing)
I’ve finally done it. I’ve read John Woolman’s Journal. Here I’ve been an activist among Quakers for almost two decades and I’ve read one of our Big Books.
I have tried before. Many’s the time over the years where I cracked open Moulton’s edition to settle myself down. Chapter one read, chapter two read. Then to chapter three, opening with:
About this time, believing it good for me to settle, and thinking seriously about a companion, my heart was turned to the Lord with desires that He would give me wisdom to proceed therein agreeably to His will, and He was pleased to give me a well-inclined damsel, Sarah Ellis, to whom I was married the 18th of Eighth Month, 1749.
And that’s it. One run-on sentence about courting and marrying his wife. I always put the book down here. I tuck a bookmark in with all good intentions of continuing after dinner. But the book sits on the coffee table till a week or so goes by, whereupon it’s moved to the library area for a month or so until it’s finally reshelved. The bookmarks stays put until a year or two passes and I re-start the Journal with renewed determination.
I know why the sentence stops me. Throughout my twenties and early thirties a lot of my emotional energy was drained in the (mostly Quaker) dating scene. In theory I thought it a good time “for me to settle” and would have been quite content with a well-inclined damsel. But the chaos of my personal family history combined with the casual dating culture I was part of combined to keep me distracted with the largely-manufactured drama of relationship roller-coasters. For better or worse, if and when I ever write a journal I will have to find a way to talk about the ways this dating era both fed and stunted my spiritual growth.
One of the lesson I learned back in the early 90s when I was editor at New Society Publishers was that I should pay attention when I put a manuscript or book down. The temptation is to chalk it up to tiredness or a busy life but I found there was usually something going on in the text itself that caused me to drop it. When I picked the manuscript back up and re-read the passages on either side of my abandoned bookmark, I found some sort of shift of tone that weakened the book.
I appreciate that Quaker journals are not racy memoirs; they have a specific religious education purpose. But I think it’s natural to look to them for clues about how to live our lives. Samuel Bownas talks a bit about his engagement and David Ferris turns meeting his future wife into quite a humorous story. Perhaps Woolman was such a saintly aesthete that Sarah was simply presented to him with no futher questions. But still, there’s a level of privacy in Woolman’s writings that separates him from us; I’ll return to this is part three.
Before I go: so how did I get through the journal this time? Two things are different now: first, my five year wedding anniversary is only a few weeks away; and second: Woolman’s Journal is now always with me inside my Palm Pilot (courtesy the Christian Classics Etherial Library). A few weeks ago I found myself on the train without reading material and started reading!
Next Time: Wrapping ourselves in the flag of Woolman