John Woolman

November 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’m reading The Wisdom of John Woolman, Reginald Reynolds, Allen and Unwin 1948.
John Woolman was an American Quaker, 1720 – 1772. He challenged some strongly-held practices amongst Quakers at the time – most significantly slave-owning Quakers in the USA and the UK, and also excessive wealth, bad business practices, racial prejudice, and general complacency. A most uncomfortable Friend!; and a loving peer – he was effective not through polemics or opposition but by visiting and meeting in a loving spirit those who whose practices he disagreed with.
How about this for a statement for creating radical community (translate the language as you wish):
“There is a principle, which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names; it is, however, pure and proceeds from God.—It is deep, and inward, confined to no forms of religion, nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root, and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.”
Quakers say that they live “in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all war”. Woolman went further: he urged Friends to look at their lives and possessions and “try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in them”. In our current context, I think his definition of war could readily include the negative aspects of globalisation.
I think it’s not true to say that John Woolman was “before his time”: his words have spoken to all times since his own, and – because of his strong awareness of his connection to the divine – his words are likely to remain relevant for centuries to come.
I don’t mean to place him on an unassailable pedestal. But in my reading about him he seems to me someone whose practice matched his words and his inner experience more completely than many in the world, and that in itself is unusual.
He died in York, England; and his grave is half a mile from my house – take you there one day, if you like.
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