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Ecumenical thoughts from John Woolman

On a blog somewhere (alas, I can't find it now), someone in comments wrote of their belief that John Woolman was one of the founders of liberalism in Quakerism. I suspect the writer meant Elias Hicks, but that comment has given me a rather different perspective in reading Woolman's Journal.

Every now and then Woolman pauses to talk about other Christians - Jan Hus, Thomas a Kempis - who weren't Quaker, but who seemed to him to have been on the right path, "both sincere-hearted followers of Christ." In Chapter VI, he has an opening at the 1759 Yearly Meeting:

Near the conclusion of the meeting for business, way opened in the pure flowings of Divine love for me to express what lay upon me, which, as it then arose in my mind, was first to show how deep answers to deep in the hearts of the sincere and upright; though, in their different growths, they may not all have attained the same clearness in some points relating to our testimony.

And I was then led to mention the integrity and constancy of many martyrs who gave their lives for the testimony of Jesus, and yet, in some points, they held doctrines distinguishable from some which we hold; that, in all ages, where people were faithful to the light and understanding which the Most High afforded them, they found acceptance with Him, and though there may be different ways of thinking amongst us in some particulars, yet, if we mutually keep to that spirit and power which crucifies to the world, which teaches us to be content with things really needful, and to avoid all superfluities, and give up our hearts to fear and serve the Lord;

that if those who were at times under sufferings on account of some scruples of conscience kept low and humble, and in their conduct of life manifested a spirit of true charity, it would be more likely to reach the witness in others, and be of more service in the church, than if their sufferings were attended with a contrary spirit and conduct.

In this exercise I was drawn into a sympathizing tenderness with the sheep of Christ, however distinguished from one another in this world, and the like disposition appeared to spread over others in the meeting.

Great is the goodness of the Lord towards his poor creatures. (94-5)

Perhaps Woolman is the (best-known) start of Quaker liberalism. I haven't seen anything quite like that in Fox or what I've read so far of other 17th-century Quakers, though it may well be there, since I wasn't reading them with a close eye for it.


I just finished up Woolman's journal a few days ago and I find it's a very hard document to pin down. He just leaves out so many important stories.

My understanding is that Woolman was very instrumental in tightening the discipline and narrowing acceptable behaviors for Friends. He was at least partially responsible for rounds of disownments in the Society. So while we have this tenderness towards other Christians (and other religions entirely), we also have a relative strictness around Quakerism.

I don't think this is what we think of as Quaker liberalism today. If Woolman were around writing a blog he'd be roundly denounced by the chatteratti not only for his strong Christian language but his insistence on enforceable Quaker standards.

Now that I'm through the Journal, I'd like to read more. Any suggestions for a book that gives a good overview of the stuff his journal omits?

I haven't heard of Woolman's participation in disownments, though given the tendencies of the 18th (and 19th) centuries, that's not especially surprising.

(I've been realizing as I re-read Woolman's Journal that my knowledge of Quaker history plunges after 1691 and only really picks up again in the 1820s. Most of what I've read about the period in between is about Philadelphia, but rarely about Woolman himself.)

Online, I can't find anything about that in either the Wikipedia entry on John Woolman or in the links coming from it. Most of what's out there seems to repeat what's in the Journal, adding little. I'll let you know if I find something that breaks out of that pattern.

On Woolman's ecumenical tendencies, I think he may have something in common with early Quakers: special difficulty in working with those with ideas close to his own, but not quite the same. I quoted this bit of First Among Friends earlier, and it echoes in this conversation:

Curiously, they got on better with the aboriginals, despite the gulfs of cultural differences and language, than they coould with each other or with those of their own people with whom they disagreed on theological matters; each, in other words, only practiced tolerance up to a point of ideological closeness. Fox thus reserved his choicest anathemas for any adherent who dared carry his principles too far, while Williams, unable to vouch for his wife's salvation, refused to take communion with her. (238-9)

I'm not sure what Woolman would be saying today. There's a general problem with reaching back and grabbing these people into the present, assuming that they'd say identical things to what they said in 1675 or 1759.

It seems likely that people closely attuned to the Light would find different inspiration today than they did then. (Woolman, for example, could certainly find undyed clothing today, but slavery - at least in the forms he knew it - is gone.)

As much inspiration as I take from the early Quakers, I think it's a dangerous stretch to assume that if they were here now, they'd have the same opinions they did then.

Hi Simon,
I totally agree that you can't just pluck someone from 1759. But you really see that as a common problem? I know few people I'd consider literalists (I've seen people
claim someone else is a literalist but that's usually little more than an under-the-belt rhetorical parry).

It seems much more common that Friends wrap themselves up in the flag of the departed and claim that if the name-dropped saint were alive today they'd be just like us. This is especially true for Woolman, who is claimed by everyone. Do we connect with the past to justify our own notions and kiss off any discrepancies to different times? Or do we engage with the differences and know it's perfectly okay to disagree.

I liked Woolman, even though I disagree with him. I find his scruples way over-developed. When he decides he's going to spend six weeks in steerage because of the pretty carvings in the ship cabins, I just have to shake me head. When he confronts an inn owner for allowing a traveling magician to host a show, I just moan "Joooohnn!" He wasn't of our time but he is of our Society. I looked through the FGC bookstore shelves and only Mike Heller's collection "The Tendering Presence" really seems to have anything that contextualizes his life. Strange there's not more?

The histories of eighteenth-century Delaware Valley Quakers are a good place to look for context on Woolman. There are many good ones: Frederick Tolles, MEETING HOUSE AND COUNTING HOUSE: THE QUAKER MERCHANTS OF COLONIAL AMERICA; Jack Marietta, THE REFORMATION OF AMERICAN QUAKERISM, 1748-1783; Richard Bauman, FOR THE REPUTATION OF TRUTH: POLITICS, RELIGION, AND CONFLICT AMONG THE PENNSYLVANIA QUAKERS, 1750-1800; and Arthur Mekeel's opening chapter in John M. Moore, ed. FRIENDS IN THE DELAWARE VALLEY, are a good place to start.

I don't think that I would subscribe to the foregoing discussion in its entirety. At its best, the Friends' disciplinary process was not about disownment; it was about a way of restoring harmony and unity to the fellowship, when a cause for disharmony had been identified. An apology to the Monthly Meeting was much more desired (and desirable) than the termination of membership that happened with disownment. Jean Soderlund and others have pointed out how slowly and painfully the discipline procedures developed in relation to slaveholding, even after Woolman and others had forced decisive action from their Yearly Meetings in the late 1750s. My reading is that there was no less anguish in other areas.

I would also keep these points in mind: Eighteenth-century Quakers had a wholistic vision of what constituted the world that God would have us reside in; and, these Quaker forbears weren't burdened with the division between social and individual sins that have characterized Christianity, especially since the rise of the Social Gospel.

In retrospect, the challenge to us might be how to raise our voices and have them heard without the kind of withdrawal and marginalization that the Quaker Reformation of Woolman and others seemed to end up in. How can we engage others with our wholistic Quaker vision for the twenty-first century?

Martin - on your concern that:

Friends wrap themselves up in the flag of the departed and claim that if the name-dropped saint were alive today they'd be just like us.

I share the concern. It's probably worth a full post rather than a comment, and hopefully I'll get to that in the next few days.

(There may be a bit of foreshadowing in my latest post, but I don't think that addresses your concern directly.)

The Truth that Christ/the Light moves the hearts of all people, and will--if heeded--save even those who have never heard the name of Jesus, is as old as Fox. See the introduction of Doug Gwyn's very fine book, Apocalypse of the Word (p XV). In fact, read the whole thing. It may surprise both Liberal and Evangelical Friends to learn where Fox actually was coming from.

Also, there are several references to this true meaning of Quaker "universalism" in the works of Penington (see, eg, Volume II of Works, pp 339,

"This is the Word which we feel working faith in us now; yea and which worketh it in all tose in whomsoever it is wrought; though they may not know what works it; year this is the seed of life, from which every spritual thing springs and grows in the heart"


"This is the double knowledge of Christ; outwardly, by a relation concerning him, and inwardly, by feeling the virtue o fhis nature. Now thus many know Christ, who know him not outwardly."

also see pp 348, 365 and many other references.

Barclay (p 82 of Frieday's version of the Apology) states that there is a day of visitation for all--"...Jew, Gentile, Turk or Scythian, Indian or Barbarian, or of whatever nation, country or place. During that day or time of visitation it is possible for them to be saved and to partake of the fruit of Christ's death" It does not say that they must be baptized acknowledge "Jesus Christ as their personal Lord ande savior" or any other tired Christian propositions/ideoldogy as true. Barclay makes clear that responding to the Light--not "being a Christian"--is what transforms people.

The idea that the light shines into the hearts of ALL people comes from the book of John and classic Quakerism recognized--before Woolman--that one need not be a Christian to be saved by it (even though it is the Christ described in the Bible and by classic Quakerism that is at work).

This is the actual definition of "universalism" in Quakerism is that the light shines into all hearts and, if heeded, saves even non Chrisitians. The contemporary notion--popular in Liberal Quakerism--that all religions are "equally good" or "lead to the same place" is a modern invention and a good example of how modern usages of a word can cloud what was meant when 17th Century people used the same word. (other such words include "liberty," and "community.")

This idea is not "Liberal" Quakerism. It is classic Quakerism--as old of the vision on Pendle Hill.

I regret that Friends today do not strive to go deep into the experiences of "the departed" and attempt, through sharing those experiences, to be transformed as and into what they were.

While Fox again and again stated that he wanted to take people to Christ and leave them there to be taught, directly, I think that those who have been taught elsewhere could also use a thorough grounding in the writings of classical Quakerism (or perhaps a nodding acquaintance)--at least to gain an idea of what Quakers really believed--is essential.

Many Friends today read the Christian language of classical Quaker literature and assume that these people believed the same things that Protestants believe today. That's just not true.

Worlds apart and different.

As Mr. Fager has written--the thirty nine years that preceded the Toleration Act (during which the ancestors of today's Protestants cruelly persecuted Quakers--including executing them) was not some kind of misunderstanding. The actual misunderstanding is thinking that George Fox would have been at home in evangelical Protestantism in the US, today.

Hi Stephen: nice to see you on the blogs! Thanks for the bibliography, I have some of these and have been wanting to read the others for awhile now. Your recommendation will give me some impetus.

Thanks too for the thoughts on Woolman and eighteenth-century views of disownment. All I know are fourth-hand things I've heard, always colored by later developments or present schisms. Woolman-era discipline certainly must have contributed to the nineteenth-century schisms so we have the hindsight of history to help us along as we appraise all this. I don't hope to return to either century (what!, and give up my wikipedia?!?) but rather to see how we might learn both useful and cautionary lessons about definining Quakerism and the edges of our community for the twenty-first century.