LESSONS FROM JOHN WOOLMAN: Yesterday I was writing about people, including yes, our Prez, being able to make a choice between acting out of a sense of fear, or acting from a sense of optimism, possibility, and yes even grace. Today, for completely another reason, I re-read a little portion from the Journal of John Woolman which describes a nice instance of such a choice.
John Woolman was an American Quaker in the days before there was a United States. (He died in 1772.) He is one of my heroes as a social activist and an acute analyst of the evils of the social system of his day– engagement in slaveholding and slavetrading by many whitefolks, including Quakers; encroachments by whitefolks on the lands and resources of the Indians; perpetuation of a war-based system which allowed those other ills to continue; etc etc.
So in June 1763, most of Philadelphia was ablaze with war fever, as the Anglo colonists became increasingly “outraged” at news of atrocities committed by those heinous Indians and the French (who else?) Even some Quakers on the city council were starting to swing behind the raising of war taxes…
John Woolman had a different idea. He decided to set out and actually meet some Indians in the west of Pennsylvania, face-to-face.
Journal entry for June 12th: “It being a rainy day we continued in our tent, and here I was led to think on the nature of the exercise which hath attended me. Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth amongst them… “
This is such a powerful passage! “Love was the first motion” is a phrase much loved by Quakers, including myself. Simple, direct, and powerful. No complicated theology needed.
Then, “that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in”– just the desire for a simple human encounter, to feel with the Indians, that is, to share their life and burdens a little and strive for empathy with them.
“… if haply I might receive some instruction from them… ” This is truly mindblowing. Here’s JW, the product of centuries of European culture– and he is hoping that he may learn something from the brownfolks?!? What a guy! Are there many people in the U.S. or other rich cultures today who truly think they could learn anything much of value from poor people in the “Third World”?
And finally, very simply, “… or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth amongst them.” I love that. Note that he writes “my following the leadings of Truth”, not “my preaching the leadings of Truth”. In other words, he is not going there explicitly to preach any Gospel, but rather, quietly to live its teachings…
But the whole venture of his trip was also, above and beyond all that, predicated on a deep and serious belief in the power of optimism and possibility. JW sincerely believed that just going to meet the Indians, to reach out to them and talk to them, and to find out what was up with them and in their lives, what their concerns were– that that was a better way to respond to the general climate of insecurity than succumbing to the climate of whipped-up fear and hatred, and joining in the preparations for war.
And I think he was right about that– just as he was right about the evils of slavery.
He was a simple Quaker fruit farmer. But he could see all around him, in his daily life and dealings, that most of the whitefolks in and around his community near Philadelphia had enough material goods to give them the basis for a decent respectable life. They didn’t need more “stuff”. (Indeed, he was one of the first to point out that material “stuff” creates its forms of bondage.) And meanwhile, he saw that the same system that gave the white colonists such material assurance was based on taking lands, resources, social integrity, and personal dignity away from the “Indians”, as well as on taking all the essential attributes of personhood away from the enslaved Africans.
So he worked to understand all the different kinds of people caught up in this system as well as he could. But more than that: he sought through persistent efforts at persuasion to persuade the power-holders in the system– that was, the whitefolks themselves– to see the error of their ways, and to behave differently.
With respect to the Quakers and slavery, he and a small group of fellow-activists succeeded in making a serious difference through persuasion alone. He, Antony Benezet, and other Quaker abolitionists successfully persuaded most American Quakers to dissociate themselves from the institutions of slavery; and it was that development, that happened at around the same time as American Independence, that laid the basis for the Quakers’ heroic involvement in the broader anti-slavery campaigns of the 19th century.
But JW’s work with respect to the American “Indians” is less well remembered. With the U.S. now all set to enter a new phase of trying to impose its will on broad swathes of the “Third World”, it might be good for would-be Americans reformers to remember some of the essentials of Woolman’s approach to the “Indians”. Above all, his simplicity, his humility, his respectfulness, and his rough-hewn sense of grace.

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