Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Theology of John Woolman, part 4 of 6

“On Earth as it is in Heaven”: John Woolman’s Apocalyptic Eschatology

The series of posts explores the theology of an eighteenth century Quaker minister, John Woolman. Woolman is most known as an antislavery proponent, but as we have seen his vision for the British Atlantic world was comprehensive and entailed the remaking of the world according to a radical vision of Christ's presence governing human affairs.

We have explored how he knew what he knew of God, his theology of revelation. We then explored how the inward, spiritual revelation led Woolman to outward socio-political embodiments, his propheticism. In this post, we will explore how the revelation of Christ's governance of all things was a revelation of ultimate human destiny, that is, his eschatology. Because eschatology is such an important and multifaceted part of Woolman's theology I have split it into two posts. This post deals with the nature of time and eternity, and how time impacts the life of faith. In the next post, I will explore two implications of Woolman's eschatology, his views of Christian perfection and impending judgment.


Here are three helpful terms as we get going:

  • Eschatology/eschaton: doctrine of ultimate things/end things.
  • Millennium: 1000 year reign of Christ 
  • Futurism: A view of eschatology that emphasizes a future, otherworldly, supernatural resolution to human history

Why does "time" matter?

Time is an important concept in Christianity, because Christian faith is related to events that happened in history. There are different schools of thought on this, but Christianity generally asserts that the present moment is dependent on God's sustenance and creative impulse in the past-but-ongoing sense of time. The resurrection of Christ, also a past event, is seen to transform the nature of time so that resurrection itself is somehow experienced in the present. Moreover, in the spiritual indwelling of Christ, God's future promises of the Kingdom are already present but not yet fully culminated. All of this is built upon a view of time that is not completely linear, but, rather, is pregnant, cumulative, and proleptic.

Moreover, Christian theology is uniform in that there is some sort of conviction that there is pain and sin in this world, but that God, who is perfect, will someway somehow bring the world to direct intimacy with God’s very self.  As the Apostle Paul would say, now – in this life – we see and know God dimly as in a mirror, but at some point, we know God as face to face. The creation will be restored and redeemed in God and the boundaries between God and humanity will disappear and along with that spiritual restoration, disease, suffering, heartache will also disappear.  The world will be made anew, made fresh, spiritually and physically. That’s what eschatology is all about. But there is considerable debate on how and when all this will take place. 

By way of illustration, here is a chart that attempts to outline the major views on eschatology:

 These views have implications for one's theology and for how one's faith is lived out. For example, futurist views of eschatology tend to diminish this-worldly, human agency as being significant in the establishment of God's ultimate intent. This is more so the case with premillennialism than postmillennialism. In premillennialism historical time is one that progressively leads to degradation, until God intervenes supernaturally in judgment. In premillennialism, humans have little capacity to enact the eschaton on earth, because it has already been foretold that God will only intervene at the nadir point of salvation history. Conversely, postmillennialism views the present age as one that builds toward the establishment of the millennium and Christ's heavenly reign. Human progress (social and religious) sets the conditions for the millennium. However, even the famous postmillennialist Jonathan Edwards said that in the present age the Spirit was given "but very sparingly." In other words, for both premillennialism and postmillennialism there is a rigid distinction between the present time in which God's presence is only known "sparingly," and the future eschaton that will harbor God's full presence. Postmillennialism is more optimistic of the human capacity to add something good to salvation history, while premillennialism is skeptical. All of this differs from Woolman's amillennialism in which there was no rigid distinction between the present time and a future time, the capacity to know God in history and the capacity to know God in eternity.

In short, differing view of time and how God is involved in time leads to differing views of human responsibility, hope, and providence. 

Woolman’s Spiritual Amillennialism

I think Woolman’s eschatology is best described as a spiritual amillennialism.  Woolman, though, was not well-versed in the debates about amillennialism, he didn’t know about its history in the Christian tradition.  He wasn’t trying to be an amillennialist, he was trying to make sense of his experience of God and fashion a theology that answered the questions he had of the world around him.  Because he was not trying to be an amillennialist, or any doctrinal category, he fits imperfectly within it.  Nevertheless, I think that amillennialism is helpful in framing how Woolman believed God to be present and active in the world.

Here is how I would visualize Woolman’s eschatology:

Woolman never talks about a “millennium” as a set apart, predefined time period like most other eschatologies, rather he views Christ as already present. For Woolman, the eschaton already available.

Night Visions

Woolman's eschatology comes to the fore in two dreams, or night visions, he experienced in 1770. These dreams are important because they depict him comprehending reality in ways that transgressed typical distinctions between epochs of time.

In the eighteenth century, dreams and night visions were seen as revelatory and so were given special importance. We might take such visions with a grain of salt, but in that day they were given extra authority. They were often recorded and shared, and retold with multiple interpretations of their meanings. There were even widely read reference books that gave interpretive keys to common imagery.
Two excellent treatments of the importance of dreams in this era are Night Journeys: The Power of Dreams in Transatlantic Quaker Culture and Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era.

Temporal Liminality

Woolman's eschatology, as seen in the dreams we are about to examine, demonstrate what scholars call "temporal liminality." Temporal liminality means that ages and times that are by definition distinguished from each other are seen as overlapping.  In experiences that show temporal liminality, people are made participants in events that occurred at such a time that there is no way they could have been there. Temporal liminality is especially important in apocalyptic understandings of time, because the apocalyptist views themselves as standing on the brink of the ages, and already present in both.  Fully present in the old world, with its corruption and apostasy.  Fully present in the new world, in the direct immediacy of divine revelation.  The shifting of time from historic time to eternity are both present to the apocalyptist.
This concept will be evident in Woolman’s dreams.

Vision One: Habitation with God

In a 1770 vision, an angelic mediator commissioned Woolman to participate in eschatological events. This dream is recounted on page 160 of Phillips P. Moulton's edition of Woolman's Journal. His earthly, temporal existence crossed for a time into an eschatological "habitation" and then brought the meaning of the vision, if not the literal events, back into his this-worldly existence. In other words, Woolman was a harbinger of the new world God was bringing about, and he was commissioned to proclaim that message to his fellow colonists.

The account of this experience in Woolman's Journal was heavily edited, either by Woolman or the editorial committee,  so that it only exists in full in a crossed out section of a Journal manuscript  and in footnotes in Moulton's critical edition of the Journal.  In fact, this entire vision was not carried over to the earliest print editions.

Quoted in its original entirety, with the redacted portion in brackets, the experience reads: 

The place of prayer is a precious habitation, for I now saw [and the seventh seal was opened, and for a certain time there was silence in heaven; and I saw an angel with a golden censer, and he offered with it incense with the prayers of the saints, and it rose up before the throne. I saw] that the prayers of the saints was precious incense. And a trumpet was given me that I might sound forth this language, that the children might hear it and be invited to gather to this precious habitation, where the prayers of saints, as precious incense, ariseth up before the throne of God and the Lamb. I saw this habitation to be safe, to be inwardly quiet, when there was great stirrings and commotions in the world. Prayer at this day in pure resignation is a precious place. The trumpet is sounded; the call goes forth to the church that she gather to the place of pure inward prayer, and her habitation is safe.
Here, Woolman had a vision of the true Church gathered at the foot of the glorified Christ offering prayers and incense, as described in Revelation 8:1-4. This biblical passage occurs directly after the seventh seal was opened by the Lamb and the book was opened portraying the vindication of the saints, who were represented wearing white robes, cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, in God's direct, unmediated presence.  After the seventh seal was opened, there was silence in heaven for half an hour in which the saints beheld God's glory and seven angels prepared to blow the seven trumpets of God's wrath. 

Interestingly, in Woolman's vision in the Journal, a trumpet is handed to him,  

"that I might sound forth this language, that the children might hear it and be invited to gather to this precious habitation..."

In other words, just as in Revelation, the angels blew the trumpets of God's wrath and rallied the saints, so, in his vision, Woolman himself called the Church to a position of direct mystical intimacy with God in the midst of world occurrence.  

Like the author of the Book of Revelation, Saint John, Woolman described himself as a witness and participant to/in these heavenly events as they occurred. He implied that God's faithful in the world were the white robbed saints of heaven, that the act of this-worldly prayer was the incense offered by the saints in the heavenly realm and that his prophetic ministry was the trumpet that called forth the Church for the consummation of God's purposes.  He interpreted  Revelation 7 and 8 to orientate his own actions eschatologically.  Woolman claimed that faithful actions in this world represented a type of living in the eschaton itself. Here the relationship between what was the state of affairs in the eighteenth century and what was yet to be in the eschaton, was not simply a matter of historical sequence, or chonology. Rather, both were already present in time itself and, thus, a unity existed between the future fulfillment envisioned in Revelation 7 and 8 and the latent, implicit, potential known to those who dwelled in God's "habitation."

I think this understanding of Woolman’s eschatology makes sense of his idealism, how comprehensive his vision for colonial society was, and his perfectionism – all these things begin to come into focus when we look at Woolman’s theology. If eternity and the presence of God were available in the present, and this-world was a place of eschatological transformation, then expecting the remaking of society as a whole makes sense.

The real presence of the kingdom within time, Woolman believed, meant that those under its rule would experience a "habitation", or state of being, that was an earthly fulfillment of the vision in Revelation 8.  This "habitation" was an alternative this-worldly order, hidden from most, but revealed by God to the true saints and which enabled a perfect obedience through which God's eschatological purposes could be enacted.
He did not proclaim the content of this vision just in his journal.  Two years later, British Friend, Elihu Robinson, recorded the following, after Woolman preached at London Yearly Meeting:

"[Woolman] made several beautiful remarks in this meeting with respect to the benefit of true silence, and how incense ascended on the opening of the seventh seal, and there was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour, etc." 

It is difficult to tell what details of this vision Woolman proclaimed, based on Robinson's brief summary, but it is sufficient to say the imagery of Revelation 8 featured in Woolman's preaching in 1772. The fact that Woolman sought to make this vision public would not be surprising, if Woolman took seriously the angelic commission to gather the world "to this precious habitation."  

The End of Sin

The “gathering” encompassed a whole new way to exist on planet earth, a way to exist within historical time as people who lived in eschatological time. In this new state old, fallen ways could no longer be supported.

If all things were really new, then it made no sense to act in old ways. In his spiritual amillennialism, the old eon of sin and religious alienation was already finished in his experience, and had given way to the kingdom.  In his short essay "On Loving our Neighbours as Ourselves," Woolman proclaimed that greed and materialism were finished because God had already reordered society in a new way:  

In the harmonious Spirit of Society, Christ is all in all.
    Here it is that Old Things are past away, all Things are new, all things are of God [2 Cor. 5:17-18]; and the Desire for outward Riches is at an End...
    Now this Matter hath deeply affected my Mind. The Lord, through merciful Chastisements, hath given me a Feeling of that Love, in which the Harmony of Society standeth, and a Sight of the Growth of that Seed which bringeth forth Wars and great Calamities in the World, and a Labour attends me to open it to others.
Woolman felt called to "open" his vision to others, that is, simply, to make known the revelation he had received. As an agent of the apocalypse, Woolman's commission was to relate it to others. Recreated by God as God's agents, the recipients of divine revelation participated in the full apocalypse of God's purposes on earth. The newness of the state of being Woolman believed himself to have entered was one in which individuals could perfectly embody God's global and eschatological vision. I’ll talk more about Woolman’s perfectionism next week, but perfectionism is indelibly linked to the way Woolman’s eschatology functioned.  Perfectionism makes sense if God’s eternal purposes were invading historical time.

Vision Two:  John Woolman is Dead

While traveling in England, in 1772, Woolman recorded a vision he had received a couple of years earlier, probably during his pleurisy attack, in 1770. This vision is on pages 185-187 of Moulton's edition of the Journal. In this near-death experience, Woolman,
saw a mass of matter of a dull gloomy colour, between the south and the east, and was informed that this mass was human beings in as great misery as they could be and live, and that I was mixed in with them and henceforth might not consider myself as a distinct or separate being.

He, then, heard the voice of an angel say, "John Woolman is dead," but the words were a "mystery" to him.  Like the first vision we looked at this one was also mediated by heavenly beings, a common characteristic of apocalyptic thought. 

Woolman's vision of worldly suffering and oppression coincided with the loss of his identity, "John Woolman is dead."  In this vision Woolman experienced the death of self which went hand in hand with the reception of supernatural revelation in a couple ways:
  • First, Woolman was confronted by God’s presence addressing him specifically;  
  • second, Woolman miraculously learned about people in places he had never been.
But revelation was more than just the passive dissemination of knowledge from God to God's agents, revelation changed the nature of the subject; gave them a renewed state.

Let me put that another way, revelation was not just about the transmission of information. Woolman’s experiences of God’s revelation was that of a transfer of states. The eschatological, “made new” state was applied to Woolman in his earthly condition, and then made him God’s agent. In the rest of this vision, Woolman experienced the revelation of himself as a "new creature," enraptured in God's will.

The initial"mystery" of these events revealed to him a foreknowledge of the condition of people in places he had never personally visited. John J. Collins calls these types of visionary travels an "otherworldly journey," which is, itself, a form of visual revelation.  Here, God's knowledge and purposes break into the physical realm, an event in which Woolman believed he was integrated into the divine will, so that his vision became tangible.

Woolman wrote,

I was then carried in spirit to the mines, where poor oppressed people were digging rich treasures for those called Christians, and heard them blaspheme the name of Christ, at which I was grieved, for his name to me was precious. Then I was informed that these heathens were told that those who oppressed them were the followers of Christ, and they said amongst themselves: “If Christ directed them to use us in this sort, then Christ is a cruel tyrant.” …My tongue was often so dry that I could not speak till I had moved it about and gathered some moisture, and as I lay still for a time, at length I felt divine power prepare my mouth that I could speak, and then I said: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ that liveth in me, and the life I now live in the flesh is by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” [Gal. 2:20]. Then the mystery was opened, and I perceived there was joy in heaven over a sinner who had repented and that that language John Woolman is dead meant no more than the death of my own will.

At this stage in Woolman's vision there is a confusion, or mixing, of the other-worldly and the earthly realm. Woolman has this spiritual experience of spiritual death leading to resurrection, but at the moment of resurrection in this dream he began to heal physically from his pleurisy and when he awoke from the vision he had a new conviction against the use of silver vessels, often the products of slaves. 

Here the lines between heaven and earth, the spirit and the physical, were blurred and Woolman believed himself to be on the threshold between God's eternal purposes and the fallen world, but he did not believe those two realms were so distinct because he could be in both at the same time. He believed he was already in that state in which "John Woolman is dead," and, therefore, he was literally alive in Christ. In that state, he thought he was prepared to speak and act directly as God wished, as God's agent on earth. 

Visions like this one highlight Woolman’s confidence that God's total reign over all aspects of human affairs was a present potentiality. The supernatural revelation disclosed to human recipients in the present order envisaged a counter ethic, an alternative social ordering, which would be typical of the world fully under God's leadership, but entirely available in the present.

Death and Resurrection

As he wrote, in 1772,
"In this state we are dead, and our life is hid with Christ in God. Dead to the love of money. Dead to worldly honour, and to that friendship which is at enmity with Him, and thus he is felt to be our Rock and our Safe Habitation."
Spiritual death preceded resurrection to a state which was at once in the world and in the eschaton. Inward spiritual convictions and outward behaviours were linked together eschatologically and integrated wholistically because belief in God's inbreaking reign required obedience:

"that in all business by sea or land we may constantly keep in view the coming of his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven." 

In that state in God's purposes, the faithful could experience on earth the spiritual state usually reserved for the eschatological future, and because that experience was already available, so the Spirit-inspired life of the saints in Revelation 8 could be known on earth.

Woolman’s vision for his community, the colonies, and the British Atlantic world was of a society caught up in the reality of God’s presence, and resurrected to live outwardly in ways consistent with the new creation God had already brought about inwardly. Time did not disappear in Woolman’s theology, but his spiritual amillennialism meant that the time was ripe for enacting the transformed world most colonists reserved for a future, distant world.


  1. I am co-author of a book in which University of Arizona Press has expressed interest and looking for reviewers. Jeff Dudiak introduced me to you last Fall via e-mail. The book is titled "Finding Right Relations: Quakers, Native Americans and Colonialism.
    Might you have time for/be interested in reviewing it?