July 24, 2006

John Woolman as Quietist

I mentioned John Woolman earlier as a strong figure in the age of Quaker Quietism. (Marshall Massey noted a number of others I need to learn about as well.)

While Woolman's Journal seems to involve nearly constant motion, as Woolman crisscrossed the American colonies ministering to Quakers, Native Americans, and others, the motivations for all of that action, discussed at one point in Chapter VII, are decidedly Quietist:

The poverty of spirit and inward weakness, with which I was much tried the fore part of this journey, has of late appeared to me a dispensation of kindness. Appointing meetings never appeared more weighty to me, and I was led into a deep search, whether in all things my mind was resigned to the will of God; often querying with myself what should be the cause of such inward poverty, and greatly desiring that no secret reserve in my heart might hinder my access to the Divine fountain. In these humbling times I was made watchful, and excited to attend to the secret movings of the heavenly principle in my mind, which prepared the way to some duties, that, in more easy and prosperous times as to the outward, I believe I should have been in danger of omitting. (124)

Fénelon would doubtless have approved of Woolman's concern that a "secret reserve in my heart might hinder my access to the Divine fountain." Woolman is constantly studying his motivations and actions to ensure that they correspond to God's desires, not his own, and when he finds the two have parted he strives to connect with God once again.

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.

July 22, 2006

But it seems crazy...

In First Among Friends, Larry Ingle pointed to some comments by William James questioning George Fox's behavior. James first praises Quakerism, then looks at George Fox as psychopath, but near the end of the chapter comes around to suggest that we need to look at this from a perspective beyond just writing Fox off as a psychopath.

There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric....

If you ask for a concrete example, there can be no better one than... George Fox. The Quaker religion which he founded is something which it is impossible to overpraise. In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gosel truth than men had ever known in England. So far as our Christian sects today are evolving into liberality, they are simply reverting in essence to the position which Fox and the early Quakers so long ago assumed. No one can pretend for a moment that in point of spiritual sagacity and capacity, Fox's mind was unsound. Every one who confronted him personally, from Oliver Cromwell down to county magistrates and jailers, seems to have acknowledged his superior power. Yet from the point of view of his nervous constitution, Fox was a psychopath or détraqué of the deepest dye. His Journal abounds in entries of this sort:

"As I was walking with several friends, I lifted up my head and saw three steeple-house spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither. Being come to the house we were going to, I wished the friends to walk into the house, saying nothing to them of whither I was to go. As soon as they were gone I stept away, and went by my eye over hedge and ditch till I came within a mile of Lichfield where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then was I commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter: but the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put off my shoes and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again, saying: Cry, 'Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!'

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