John Woolman—Origins, ends and the choices in between

The origins of things

Self-examination may need to have limits in order for anything to get done. As soon as a person has to rely on someone else to do something for them, whether cooking dinner, mending clothes or any sort of trade, compromise comes into things. John Woolman was also sensitive to the origins of things. Coloured cloth (because of its relation to slavery) was one example of this, and interesting because he tried to put thoughts of its origins aside

The apprehension of being singular from my beloved friends was a strait upon me, and thus I continued in the use of some things contrary to my judgement.

As you can imagine, this ended in troubles and he was taken sick. A sickness that only ended when he realised the cause of his illness was his “conformity to customs which I believed were not right.”

Inevitably, most of these customs (or enjoyments of the good life) had roots that could be traced back to slavery. On example was his refusal to eat sugar, because of the plantations. Another one arose when looking to take a boat to the West Indies, he experiences

… a continual trial for some months past …whether, after the full information I have had of the oppression which the slaves lie under who raise the West India produce … it is right for me to take passage in a vessel employed in the West India trade.

But every time I started thinking he’d gone too far, I thought of a modern parallel. For example, child labour making footballs for the World Cup, or the factory conditions for the assembly of Apple’s iPhone. Social responsibility is a real concern for modern business, at least annual reports and websites make proud mention of it; whether their social reposnsibility actually affects behaviour or extends further than a “tut” is questionable.

The rise of the internet can turn these “tuts” into “Tweets”, but this “clictivism” can also serve as a panacea, a dangerous substitute for action. The difference with John Woolman was that for him, a change in belief necessitated a change in action—not only for himself, but for everyone he came into connection with.

The ends of things

Just as the origins of things can cause problems for a sensitive conscience, so can the purpose to which things are put cause heart searching. Ben Franklin had mentioned instances of Friends who paid tax for the war efforts under various guises, calling it grain tax (code for gunpowder), or, even better, not enquiring for details of where it went. Again, John was a less pragmatic man, and stuck by his principles.

From the steady opposition which faithful Friends in early times made to wrong things then approved, they were hated and persecuted by men living in the spirit of this world, and suffering with firmness, they were made a blessing to the church, and the work prospered. It equally concerns men in every age to take heed to their own spirits.

Summing up: the personal trumps all

In the end, John Woolman’s conviction was that personal truth was of ultimate importance and that came from God. Like Ben Franklin, he believed that this did not always come naturally, and although he didn’t have a set of 13 rules, he believed that people needed to constantly practise self awareness.

That where a people who are convinced of the truth of the inward teachings of Christ are active in putting laws in action which are not consistent with pure wisdom, it hath a necessary tendency to bring dimness over their eyes.

Unfortunately, dimness isn’t always easy to recognise. It can come as we get busy, as we get families we need to care for, as we get obligations. Reading his journal, I kept thinking, that’s fine in theory, but in practice… But John Woolman had all of these, what he also had was his own set of priorities. Ultimately they are different priorities from mine, but he made clear that all these things are a matter of choice. They may not be easy choices. They may not be popular choices, but they are choices.

We may see ourselves crippled and halting and from a strong bias to things pleasant and easy find an impossibility to move forward; but things impossible with men are possible with God; and our wills being made subject to his, all temptations are surmountable.

At the risk of setting the foundations for a mid-life crisis, I agree there is no requirement to follow what society would have us do rather than what our inner voice tells us. We need to rediscover some sort of personal truth, some absolute, but to rediscover it for ourselves. The trouble is, as John Woolman’s points out, the absolute is usually the one thing we don’t want to see.

His solution is to turn to God.  It’s a poor substitute, but for now, my solution will be moving to the next volume in the five foot shelf.


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