John Woolman’s Journal – A puritan, personal truth

John Woolman’s Journal presents a distillation of the puritan side of Ben Franklin. The two men were very similar in many ways, but if given the choice, I would much rather have Ben over for dinner. Whereas Ben Franklin was pragmatic in accepting of the weakness of human beings (as in his non-judgemental discussions of the ways reason can be shaped to meet the most desirable end or the fable of the shiny axe), John Woolman was a lot less forgiving. On the other hand, his cause was one where there wasn’t much room for negotiation.

The love of ease and gain are the motives in general of keeping slaves, and men are wont to take hold of weak arguments to support a cause which is unreasonable.

Knowing thyself: the importance of a personal truth

To be fair, he was unforgiving on himself more than anyone, and was often in a funk as he weighed what his conscience told him was correct against the mores of his time.

John Woolman followed the dictate to “know thyself” in that his journals are full of soul searching. But if external actions are what counts, then he comes out of it all with top marks. He was a retailer, and as aware as any that goodwill and presenting a nice face to customers is important. But despite his constant internal struggles as to what might be the best thing to do in any situation; his ultimate decisions were all based on what was the right thing to do, rather than what was expedient.

Tradesmen and retailers of goods, who depend on their business for a living, are naturally inclined to keep the good-will of their customers; nor is it a pleasant thing for young men to be under any necessity to question the judgment or honesty of elderly men, and more especially of such as have a fair reputation. Deep-rooted customs, though wrong, are not easily altered; but it is the duty of all to be firm in that which they certainly know is right for them.

Most people seemed to recognise his sincerity (or knew enough of his obstinacy), and when he explained his reasons for decisions (and he was always ready to enter into conversation and examine his motives), they were accepted.

About this time an ancient man of good esteem in the neighborhood came to my house to get his will written. He had young negroes, and I asked him privately how he purposed to dispose of them. He told me; I then said, “I cannot write thy will without breaking my own peace,” and respectfully gave him my reasons for it. He signified that he had a choice that I should have written it, but as I could not, consistently with my conscience, he did not desire it, and so he got it written by some other person. A few years after, there being great alterations in his family, he came again to get me to write his will. His negroes were yet young, and his son, to whom he intended to give them, was, since he first spoke to me, from a libertine become a sober young man, and he supposed that I would have been free on that account to write it. We had much friendly talk on the subject, and then deferred it. A few days after he came again and directed their freedom, and I then wrote his will.

He is very aware that his truth is a personal one, even though it may have come to him from God. This meant that other people were still practicing the “old” ways, and the fact that some of these people were older, richer and more esteemed than him, made changing their ways a difficult matter.

Through the humbling dispensations of Divine Providence, men are sometimes fitted to his service. The messages of the prophet Jeremiah were so disagreeable to the people, and so adverse to the spirit they lived in, that he became the object of their reproach, and in the weakness of nature he thought of desisting from his prophetic office; but saith he, “His word was in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I was weary with forebearing and could not stay.” I saw at this time that if I was honest in declaring that which truth opened in me, I could not please all men; and I laboured to be content in the way of my duty, however disagreeable to my inclination.

Conscience is sacrosanct

But just because something is hard, or painful, or might mean offending others, is not reason not to do it, regardless of the consequences. He admired the martyrs, men like John Huss, who

contended against the errors which had crept into the church … He modestly vindicated the cause which he believed was right; and though his language and conduct towards his judges appear to have been respectful, yet he never could be moved from the principles settled in his mind. To use his own words: “This I most humbly require and desire of you all, even for his sake who is the God of us all, that I be not compelled to the thing which my conscience doth repugn or strive against.” And again, in his answer to the Emperor: “I refuse nothing, most noble Emperor, whatsoever the council shall decree or determine upon me, only this one thing I except, that I do not offend God and my conscience.” At length, rather than act contrary to that which he believed the Lord required of him, he chose to suffer death by fire.

One of the difficulties with attending to the inner life is the difficulty of knowing whether it is the voice of God, or something telling you what you want to do; some form of distorted reason that rather than asking you to do something you don’t want, is a reverse pride or self mortification, asking you to do something beyond what is required. John’s family may have felt some of this, as his life seemed to be lived constantly on the road travelling around the country, attending meetings and sharing his vision.

Time and again his belief in the importance of truth and the inner life trumped everything else.

In the difficulties attending us in this life nothing is more precious than the mind of truth inwardly manifested; and it is my earnest desire that I this weighty matter we may be so truly humbled as to be favoured with a clear understanding of the mind of truth and follow it.

In other words, once we had found out what God wants of us, there is no escape from it. In some ways it might be better never to have known, because ignorance (perhaps labelled innocence) is at least some defence.

Should we now be sensible of what he requires of us, and through respect of the private interest of some persons, or through a regard to some friendships which do not stand on an immutable foundation, neglect to do our duty in fairness and constancy, still waiting for some extraordinary means to bring about their deliverance, god may by terrible things in righteousness answer us in this matter.

The truth can be a pain and oblige us to do things we don’t want to do at times. It is not always convenient, but in John Woolman’s mind there is no shirking from it. The truth is better made clear, and damn the consequences.


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