JohnWoolman was one of the most significant Americans of the eighteenth century, though he was not a famous politician, general, scientist, or man of letters, and he never held public office. This superb book makes it clear why he mattered so much.
A humble tailor known at first only to the other Quakers who encountered him at meetings in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and New England, Woolman became a prophetic voice for the entire Anglo-American world when he spoke out against the evils of slavery.Thomas P. Slaughter's deft, dramatic narrative reveals how it was that the mysticWoolman became an unforgettable public figure, his gospel infused with a benign confidence that ordinary people could achieve spiritual perfection. Placing Woolman in the full context of his times, Slaughter paints the portrait of a hero--and not just for the Quakers, social reformers, labor organizers, socialists, and peace advocates who have long admired him.
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Hill and Wang
October 01, 2009
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Excerpt from The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition by Thomas P. Slaughter
I have often felt a motion of love to leave some hints in writing of my experience of the goodness of God, and now, in the thirty-sixth year of my age, I begin this work.
I was born in Northampton, in Burlington county in West Jersey, A.D. 1720, and before I was seven years old I began to be acquainted with the operations of divine love [and often found a care upon me how I should please him].* Through the care of my parents, I was taught to read near as soon as I was capable of it [and it was even then of use to me]; and as I went from school one Seventh Day, I remember, while my companions went to play by the way, I went forward out of sight; and sitting down, I read the twenty-second chapter of the Revelations.1
On the particular Saturday, what Quakers call Seventh Day, in about 1727 with which John Woolman's spiritual autobiography begins, the weather permitted a boy to sit outdoors reading the Bible. The author states the year and his age vaguely, in keeping with his view that time is an earthly measure of secondary significance to the spirit's immortality. He offers "hints" of his spiritual experience, because he cannot find earthly words to describe what he felt. The reader should not expect temporal precision or attention to material details in Woolman's Journal. The subject is not his life but his experience of God, and "hints" are the closest he can bring others to the divine.
*Bracketed phrases are from manuscript drafts of the Journal that were deleted for the first published edition. West Jersey was a Quaker colony from 1676 and was united with the colony of East Jersey in 1702 as the colony of New Jersey. The Quaker association with West Jersey survived into Woolman's generation.
Tolerance of dampness, heat, and cold was greater in the eighteenth century than ours is today, and Woolman is not giving us much context, which readers must infer. When he writes that he sat down to read, Woolman embraces invisibility for himself and for his surroundings. "I went forward out of sight," he writes, a simple clause that encapsulates a core message. The forward movement is a self-conscious image about traversing space and time that implies spiritual growth; it suggests that the writer has already gone beyond the spiritual horizons of his peers, beyond what they can see, in more ways than one.
The Journal is rich in such subtle, artful expression. Whether the choices of words were divinely inspired is an unanswerable question for us. Woolman attributed his progress to God's invitation, and he believed that the Journal derived from the same source. Words poured from him; his hand and quill were conduits for a message that emerged from deeper inside Woolman than he could consciously know. It is not unusual for writers to be unable to explain where their creative impulses come from, to attribute their words to a transcendent source. So we can read the Journal on Woolman's terms, as inspired literature, and as a text where he lurks, invisible only to himself, the literary equivalent of a toddler who believes that no one can see him when he covers his eyes. Whatever he thinks, Woolman does not truly disappear into the passive voice and spiritual mist. Autobiography is not a good place to hide from oneself or from readers; we might also wonder whether Woolman's schoolmates knew perfectly well where he was and what he did on the day when he went forward ahead of them.
Both the filter of memory and the formulaic structure of Quaker spiritual autobiographies and of the genre going back to Augustine affect Woolman's retrospective view of his early life. We read about an idealized fall and rebirth of the sort that Catholics had reported for a millennium, and Protestants since the Reformation, and the account undoubtedly exaggerates and may even contort the writer's memories. Events were hooks on which Woolman hung spiritual lessons that he believed transcended physical experience. Some of those lessons were distinctively his, others he borrowed; but all were fashioned of new and old, never whole, cloth that he stitched with his own thread.
We can tell from the Journal's opening vignette that Woolman wanted readers to see him as a serious, spiritual boy who achieved an impressive level of literacy at a young age. Readers can infer that the weather was unremarkable and that the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of his youth were irrelevant or forgotten by the time he wrote, twenty-nine years after the fact. Growth from within is the book's plot. Woolman was all about spirit, visions others could not see, and soulful interiors.
Even if Woolman's recollection is true to his memory, that does not explain why he saw the event as a defining moment in his life or why he omitted other stories about himself as a young child. After all, it is not uncommon for an autobiographer to include information that predates his earliest memories or even his life. Benjamin Franklin and John Bunyan recount family history; Augustine "recalls" learning to talk.2
But to the early American Quakers, including John Woolman, entertaining stories such as those Franklin told (created and embellished too) were frivolous, the written equivalent of idle chatter and therefore sinful. Woolman husbanded his words as a farmer rations winter feed. Only incidents that bore directly on his spirituality made it into his book.
Woolman started his Journal with the story about reading Revelation because that was how he thought a spiritual autobiography should begin. Such introductions were formulaic in Quaker journals, of which hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, had been written during the preceding century. The first paragraphs declare the journals a record of God's grace in the autobiographer's life. "That all may know the dealings of the Lord with me," the Journal of George Fox (1624-91) began. John Churchman (1705-75), a "public" Friend (that is, a formally recognized minister) from Chester County, Pennsylvania, also wrote of "the reaches of divine love ... of which I am a living witness." Elizabeth Ashbridge (1713-55), an English-born Quaker who immigrated to America from Ireland as an indentured servant in 1732, "thought proper to make some remarks on the dealings of divine goodness to me." Woolman was conforming to the model when he wrote that before the age of seven he "began to be acquainted with the operations of Divine Love." A manuscript draft shows that he added "and often found a care upon me how I should please Him" to finish the thought.3
With the extended phrase the passage equates "Divine Love" and "Him," which accounts for the uppercase usage in Woolman's handwritten drafts. God was divine love to Woolman. He wants readers to understand that he lived to please God more than he worked to satisfy his teacher, parents, classmates, or himself. When he wrote this down, he knew his intense focus on the divine was remarkable for a person of any age. That is why he wrote, and that is also why a committee of Quakers edited and then published Woolman's Journal in 1774, two years after his death.
The passive voice--"my mind was drawn to seek"--is revealing. Woolman sustains the passive mode throughout the Journal. He is not telling readers how he became great, as Franklin did in his autobiography, or even how he became good, as Augustine did in The Confessions. The Journal is about God and how he bestowed divine love on John Woolman. It is less about Woolman's struggle, although there is some strife, than about his acceptance of what God gave him.
This quality marks Woolman's Journal as typical of Quaker spiritual autobiographies yet also gives a clue to its uniqueness. Men's memoirs in the Western European tradition are usually marked by their triumphs. They are about quests. There is action, movement across space, battles, courage, and victories. One autobiographical form descends from heroic quest narratives--think of The Odyssey as a model--through first-person travelers' tales, such as Marco Polo's, and down to the logs of explorers such as Christopher Columbus. Franklin's Autobiography and Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions were written within this secular tradition, and they too record triumphs over self and others. Many of the books in this genre, including Franklin's, are about fame and efforts to achieve worldly success. The rewards come after the protagonists have survived the sorts of self-inflicted wounds that might have bled them to death.
Rousseau and Franklin also show their legacy from inward-looking spiritual memoirs, and in Franklin's case the Puritan heritage contributed to a fusion of the two models. By the eighteenth century books of this kind were more introspective than in the previous century: self-absorbed, celebratory of self, and inwardly probing of the writer's distinctiveness, his special, even unique qualities. But such options were denied, at least in theory, to authors writing about their spiritual journeys who presented themselves as typical of their faith communities. A focus on self breaks from the traditional Christian goal of spiritual autobiography, which was to universalize from the author's experiences, the classic narrative presenting the protagonist as lost or fallen before the grace of God inspired a transformation. The spiritual triumph is noteworthy because it is not the result of any unique personal qualities. If the writer could be saved, so can the reader.
Franklin's autobiography is a transition in this regard, because he secularizes the approach without altering the form and because he adopts the traditional pose of the everyman author, while celebrating his extraordinary accomplishments. In his account he transforms himself into a good man, a great man, and recognizes himself as a genius, but he attributes his accomplishments to hard work and self-discipline rather than to his personal gifts or grace. The goal was still to present a model, yet to recognize in the self-analysis exactly how extraordinary the author was. His experiences were not available to all readers, although the model was instructive despite being, or even because it was, unattainable--even by Franklin. One could aim to become better by following the steps of such a man, and "better" is the key; the quest for self-improvement broke from the all-or-nothing, saved-or-damned condition of the traditional Christian memoirist.
Thus did spiritual autobiography become in the eighteenth century a tool for self-examination, for exploring the realm between collective identity and independence. The ideal was not literal representation of the writer's past--not a journal in the sense of a daily chronicling of events--but retrospective analysis. The autobiographer calls attention to his unique perspective rather than submerging his self in a collective identity, as seventeenth-century Puritan writers had tried to do. Indeed, he sometimes presents himself as alienated or in conflict with his closest social and spiritual groups, accounting for himself apart from, if not in opposition to, the world. Woolman was affected by such cultural change no less than his contemporaries Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin.4
Spiritual autobiographies in the Western religious traditions, Puritan and Catholic being the most instructive here, had long taken the quest inward. Jonathan Edwards's "great and violent inward struggles," recalled in his "Personal Narrative," were the genre's norm. Although from Augustine and Ignatius Loyola on, such narratives focused inwardly for reasons that had to do more with culture than with spirit, men's reflections on themselves usually dealt more with the subject's relationship to the world than women's did. Augustine "walked the streets of Babylon, and .. . wallowed myself in the mire of it." The public relationships could be localized or grand in scale, but the men were agents of their own spiritual victories, even when they reported that God's assistance was essential, and they were responsible for their defeats. They triumphed, with God's help, over their depraved natures and against worldly temptations.5
When Edwards was a boy, he found, like Woolman, a quiet place in the woods for reading and contemplation. Unlike Woolman but in conformance with the traditional male narrative, Edwards constructed his retreat and did so publicly, with help from his boyhood friends. "I, with some of my schoolmates, joined together and built a booth in a swamp, in a very secret and retired place, for a place of prayer," he wrote. Likewise, public events helped shape him spiritually. The flowering of the Great Awakening in his father's congregation "very much affected" him "for many months." That and his prayerful practice with friends were "remarkable seasons of awakening" that inspired spiritual growth.6
As a young man Edwards experienced "religious delights . . . totally of another kind" from those of his youth. He began to spend an "abundance of time in walking alone in the woods," embracing the effects of "divine love" upon him. The "former delights" of his childhood spirituality had "never reached the heart," he explains. While the Quaker Woolman gained access to grace as a child, original sin left Edwards in darkness until external forces lit his spiritual flame. The experiences of both men reflect their religious traditions; neither breaks from the genre forms typical of their faiths.7
Autobiographies by women and by Quaker men differ in important ways from those of Catholic and Puritan men, even though they share much ground. Scholars have suggested that the model for modern female autobiographers emerged in the eighteenth century from romances rather than from the classical quest stories that influenced men, and it is true that the romantic heroine in the Western tradition lacks the power to act on her own behalf. Women autobiographers generally do not even try to shape their own destinies. But women such as Teresa of Avila (1515-82) and Margery Kempe (ca. 1373-ca. 1440), who wrote long before the emergence of the romance, also were passive; things happened to them. Kempe "was touched by the hand of the Lord" and found it difficult "to tell of the grace that I was feeling; it seemed to come from heaven, to be well beyond the reach of my own power of reason." Teresa imagined herself a garden watered by God's grace. Her triumphs were God's gifts to her. "Whenever I have surrendered to obedience," she writes, "impossible things have become simple."8
Quaker men too wrote about the suppression and loss of their wills. The journals of both male and female Quakers are more about God than about the writers, or so is their intent. "In my early age I was sensible of the tender impressions of divine love," wrote Mary Hagger at about the same time that Woolman independently chose very similar words. Thomas Story (1670?-1742), of Cumberland County, England, a convert to Quakerism whose itinerant ministry eventually brought him to America, recorded "the tender mercies and judgments of the Lord; to relate my own experience of his dealings with me thro' the course of my life." And so it was with other Quaker spiritual autobiographies.9
Woolman might have started the story of his life with a dramatic narrative about formative experiences and triumphs over external and internal forces. Instead, he wrote about the action of divine love on him. Other events in his life were irrelevant in comparison, and to discuss them in the Journal would be an expression of ego or "vanity," as he saw it. In any event, the Quaker editorial committee that published his Journal revised and deleted passages that it considered deviations. Still, Woolman addressed his adult participation in public events and explored distinct aspects of his independent self. As a Quaker he embraced spiritual enlightenment even before his conversion experience and adopted a pose even more passive than is typical of Quaker men.
We might plausibly expect, in any case, that the rest of the Journal will have the same passive tone as the first paragraph and will tell only the events in Woolman's life that he can present as revelations of God's grace and will. Certainly most of the narrative tries to slant his story that way. Thus the Journal both is and is not distinctively John Woolman's. It is essential therefore that we look for his hand, for the editorial committee's, and for touches of his spiritual forefathers and mothers in what he wrote. That is how we can best understand who he was and what his Journal has meant to those who admire it. Embedded in this thicket of possibilities is a narrative of Woolman's inner life as it was formed in a public arena. He can be found in the Journal and his other writings; sometimes he is naked, and sometimes he is clothed in an obscurity that he could neither don nor doff at will.
THE story begins with the English Civil War, with the founding of Quakerism during those troubled times, with William Penn and the Quaker migration to West Jersey (later New Jersey) and Pennsylvania, with the settlement of Northampton, and with the three generations of American Woolmans--his great-grandfather, grandparents, and parents--who preceded John's birth. The Society of Friends, the Quakers' chosen name, was one of the radically democratic groups that rose from the ferment of the English Revolution from 1642 to 1651, during a time when people were questioning all forms of authority. A king was executed, democracy--some feared anarchy--was in the air, and the relationship between church and state was at play. The revolution established the absolute rights of property, devolved power on the landed classes, settled sovereignty on an elected Parliament and the common law, and sanctified the Protestant ethic. Quakers were at the radical fringe of the forces opposing the crown, and they shared a fundamental anticlericalism and a common people's theology with other groups that rose and fell during these difficult times. The difference between Quakers and some of the other radical sects is that the Society of Friends survived the English Revolution and continued to resist compromise, to aim for a recovery of the apostolic church, to challenge authority, and to run afoul of the law long after the monarchy had been restored.
Before the 1650s it was difficult to distinguish Friends from the other sects boiling in the revolutionary spiritual pot: Ranters, Baptists, Fifth Monarchists, Boehmenists, Seekers, and others. But Quakers were never millenarians, foretellers of the imminence of the judgment day promised in the Bible, and their evolving theology varied among ministers of the faith, whose claims of union with God, discussions of a mysterious "Light," and assertions of "perfection and freedom from sin" were controversial enough to ensure attacks from all theological sides. The Quakers' heritage included both the Puritanism from which they dissented and Continental mysticism.10
"Puritan" and "Quaker" both were epithets with disputed origins. The first appeared in the late sixteenth century as an insulting term for a member of the Church of England who espoused stricter, simpler forms of worship and doctrine--close to the Christianity of Christ's apostles--than those of either Roman Catholicism or the established English church. Puritans were considered arrogant and self-serving in their certainty that their own practices were pure. But the reform-minded Puritans persisted in their criticism of the Church of England as weak-kneed, a mere shadow of the fiery Calvinism known in Switzerland, France, and Germany. They became a powerful social force, central both to the reform of church and state and to the violence that racked England in the mid-seventeenth century.
Groups of dissident Protestants began to meet together as Friends apparently as early as 1644, but the exact year of Quakerism's birth remains a subject of dispute. The Friends' belief in an interior God may have originated with a 1646 book by a Baptist minister, and the Friends may have first spun off in 1648 from a Baptist congregation in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, but other traditions shared the same ideas and locales. Then in 1650, an unsympathetic judge in Derby mocked the defendant George Fox for being a "quaker" during his trial on blasphemy charges, because Fox had exhorted the court to "tremble at the word of the law." Eventually Friends adopted the epithet as a badge of honor. Among other explanations for its origins, quaking was a common physical expression of the ecstatic states experienced by adherents. And Quaker ministers warned those who threatened them to quake in fear of the Lord's vengeance.11
By 1652, when George Fox, Richard Farnworth, Thomas Aldam, Margaret Killam, William Dewsbury, and James Nayler preached in England's northern shires, the "People of God," "Children of the Light," or Friends had become a movement that appealed to a growing number of ordinary rural people, many of them farmers. The early converts tended to be young adults, both poor and prosperous, but they were not of the landed gentry or the nobility. Within a decade there may have been as many as sixty thousand Quakers, making them as numerous as English Catholics, but they never constituted more than 1 percent of the population.12
The early Quakers, like other Protestant groups during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, never intended to establish a new religion, and to his dying day Fox did not believe that they had. Like other Protestants, they envisioned a return to the early church's pure, vivid form of apostolic Christianity. The first Quaker ministers saw their followers as "seeds" that would blossom into this recovered universal church. Friends wanted to prune the accretions that had corrupted pure spirituality over the centuries: professional clergy, imposed doctrine, institutionalized sacraments, bureaucracy, hierarchy, rote prayer, iconography, elaborate architecture and vestments, hymns, and other interventions between believers and God.13