Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Theology of John Woolman, part 6 of 6

Woolman's Books and his Peers:  Constructing Theology, Maintaining Tradition

This post concludes our look at the theology of John Woolman. In the first post, I introduced Woolman and his historical and cultural context. In the second through fifth posts, I described the theological elements that animated his social witness. I argue that these components constitute an apocalyptic theology, a radical vision of Christ's governance of human affairs. These elements are: revelation, propheticism, eschatology, and perfection/judgment. This final post does two things:

1: Compare Woolman to some of his reform minded Friends, to see how similar he was to them.  My contention is that Woolman’s theology was different from many of his peers.  It was not oppositional to his peers, but it was different, and we don’t see the same type of this-worldly eschatology in them that we do in him.

2: Look at some of the books that were on Woolman’s bookshelf to see if we can find any clues as to the main influences on him.  He read in the early Quakers, he read mystical literature, he also read some apocalyptic literature.  My argument is that Woolman innovated on his Quaker tradition and the larger mystical tradition to construct a theology that was not a passive replication of any one source, but that was within the tradition of his readings while pieced together in a way that showed individuality and theological acumen.

Woolman and His Peers

What we will see today is that even among the eighteenth century Quaker reformers there were differences of theology. There were differences of the role of Quakers in the world and differences regarding their expectations for the transformation of this world. Generally, eighteenth century Quakers are lumped together into two groups:  1) Reformers, and 2) non-reformers.  I will only be looking at reformers today, and you will see some real differences among them, even as they viewed each other as good friends and working on common causes.

Quakers and "the World"

One way we can track differences between Woolman and his peers is through the way they interacted with the broader world.  This directly relates to their theology and the role they thought Quakers would play in the world as a whole.

Woolman’s propheticism was centered around the concept that the inward revelation of the Government of Christ made claims on the outward world, and that the Government of Christ was an alternative ordering, a new world emerging in the present world.  As such, it was universal and applied to the whole of world structures.  But not everyone had this same understanding of the Quaker role in the world.  This becomes apparent, below, when we talk specifically about slavery. Some Quakers believed that antislavery was primarily about purifying Quakers from participation in the world’s ways and therefore was only a Quaker concern, not something to convince outsiders to be a part of.

British reforming minister, Samuel Fothergill (1715-1772), is an example of what I might call a sectarian-focused minister in that his writings were directly geared toward Quakers, but this sectarian focus did not preclude a larger scope of action and influence in non-sectarian arenas. However, for Fothergill and some others, the reforms made within Quakerism were viewed as a chance for non-Quakers to overhear their message and join in if they so desired. This is different from Woolman and Anthony Benezet (1713-1784) who saw their role as directly attacking social injustice everywhere with their religious convictions, and attempting to persuade people of all religious backgrounds to do likewise.

Here’s a telling example of Fothergill’s view of Quaker involvement in the world: In 1755 Fothergill exhibited considerable trepidation and uncertainty on the Quaker ability to act positively in the complex world of British geopolitical imperialism, and wrote that he was not concerned about the events of the French and Indian War because "it is not my business, and have found it my concern to deny my curiosity in inquiring after news." Instead, he desired to "draw Friends" minds to their own warfare, "that as our hands cannot be active [in outward war], so our minds cannot be embroiled [in it], consistently with our testimony."  Fothergill, here, seems detached from the events of the world around him. He expanded Quaker peace tendencies to such an extent that, to be faithful, Quakers could neither petition against the war, nor converse about it. In my experience, Quakers today would not even imagine that to be consistent with Quaker peace testimony they could not talk about a war, or work against it directly.

This example, though, shows a much more detached view of the Quaker relationships to the world.  The Quaker witness for Fothergill is not one of making claims on world affairs but one of erecting a hedge around Quakers within the world. Fothergill's position, here, is extreme, as I am not aware of any other Quaker minister of his era advocating this kind of willful ignorance about the course of human affairs. 

However, while Fothergill wanted Quakers to purify themselves from "the world," when he was dealing with non-Quakers he advocated social benevolence. Later in 1755, and into 1756, Fothergill began to pay more attention to geopolitical events, and reported news of the war in his letters home, interpreting political events within a providential framework of divine judgment.  Moreover, he later spearheaded a campaign among the affluent members of his home-town to raise money for poor relief.  Fothergill's original insular, sectarian position was not as absolute as it first appeared. Nonetheless, Fothergill's struggle to come to terms with the place of the Quaker minister in the realm of world events was not one that Woolman struggled with to the same degree.  Of the reformist journals and memoirs I have examined, none spent as much time reflecting on the claims of Christ on world affairs as did Woolman.


Differences among the leaders of the Quaker reforms is illustrated on the issue of slavery, because, as historian Jean Soderlund notes, for many ministers interest in the condition of blacks was secondary to their desire to purify Quakers.  Daniel Stanton (1708-1770), with Woolman, was one of the members of a committee commissioned by the leadership of Pennsylvania area Quakers, in 1758, to visit and dissuade Quakers from slave-owning; yet, he rarely mentioned slavery in his journal.  Fothergill, also, hardly mentions slavery, and only when he linked it to a general observation of spiritual depravity among Quakers. The leading American minister of the eighteenth century, John Churchman (1705-1775), only mentions the practice in reference to the divine judgment it will bring upon Philadelphia. 

While the antislavery activity of Stanton, Fothergill, and Churchman exceeds what they described in their writings, it is significant that they did not believe antislavery to be an important part of the spiritual autobiography they wanted to leave to succeeding generations. Slavery was of secondary concern to that of corporate purification for these ministers. However, the historical record of their activities demonstrates a greater degree of engagement with the events of the day than they admitted in their self-portrayal, but none of them cast the prophetic vision that Woolman did, which suggests they were not fully clear how their actions in the physical realm related to salvation-history. 

For Woolman, in contrast, prophetic self-identification, and an alternative vision for world affairs, were necessary parts of the apocalypse of the heart he had experienced and that was already spreading in world affairs. As such, Woolman mentioned slavery in his writings more than Stanton, Fothergill, and Churchman combined, and described, in both political and spiritual terms, life under the government of Christ.

The most dedicated antislavery PYM leader among Woolman's peers was Anthony Benezet, who did not leave a journal, but who did leave many antislavery letters and tracts.  Woolman was influenced by Benezet, especially in his incorporation of travel narratives into his antislavery tracts.  Benezet, was, also, influenced by Woolman and quoted from him in his own antislavery tracts. 
Yet, despite their friendship and common cause, Woolman and Benezet are strikingly different in motivations and methods. 

Anthony Benezet, 1713-1784
Woolman and Benezet emphasized differing perspectives on the best means of antislavery discourse, and their work was motivated by complementary but distinct convictions of God's will. The theological difference between the two is apparent when examining Woolman's unpublished notes and commentary on Benezet's 1766 pamphlet, A Caution and Warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies. Central to Benezet's tract was a philosophical argument that juxtaposed stated British philosophical ideals of freedom and happiness, with the harsh reality of slavery.
"Britons boast themselves to be a generous, humane people, who have a true sense of the importance of Liberty; but is this a true character, whilst that barbarous, savage Slave-Trade, with all its attendant horrors, receives countenance and protection from the Legislature, whereby so many thousand lives are yearly sacrificed." 

One of Benezet's greatest contributions to late-eighteenth century antislavery was his use of secular and philosophical sources. However, in his notes and commentaries on Benezet's tract, Woolman adjusted Benezet's secular and philosophical arguments to suit his own understanding of the grounds of antislavery: whereas Benezet quoted Enlightenment thinkers to demonstrate, on secular grounds, that the African had, by nature, the right of self-determination and must freely offer consent to be governed,  Woolman adjusted the secular argument to make it a religious one. Woolman reflected that “the nature of slave-keeping [was] like that of an absolute government where one man not perfect in wisdom and goodness gives laws to others.” 

However, for Woolman the problem with "absolute government" did not originate in republican ideals of the consent of the governed. Instead, human "absolute government" was a "snare" that usurped the role which belonged to God.  In other words, God alone had authority to rule over humanity.  As we have seen other places in Woolman’s writings, there was only one true government to which all other forms of authority were subject, and that was “the Government of Christ,” a state of absolute dependence on the inward revelation of Christ. Slaveowners, usurped the role that belonged to God and in so doing oppressed others, and pridefuly rejected God’s governance over all things. When Woolman read Benezet, he did so in a way that supported his own motivations for antislavery, in which slavery was wrong because it violated divine commands, and not because of any secondary philosophical concerns. Slavery, Woolman argued, was opposite to "the pure undefiled religion of Jesus Christ in which oppression has no [place]."  Woolman read Benezet's essay in a way that reinforced his apocalyptic concerns for the new world God was bringing about, not for the more compassionate and enlightened human governance Benezet advocated. This point represents a significant difference between Benezet's and Woolman's antislavery and theology.

There are exceptions in Woolman’s writing that prove this rule.  In Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, Part II, Woolman

adopts a more dispassionate, more reasoned tone similar in places to Benezet. He quotes from travel narratives, like Benezet. I think he is taking a page from Benezet here. As far as I can tell, the only time Woolman employs Enlightenment philosophy is in regard to antislavery, only after Benezet has already begun to publish, and only in places where Benezet has already shown a path forward.

Conversion and Perfection

The scope of conversion and the possibility of perfection is another way of tracing differences between Woolman and his peers.
Churchman believed it was not until his deathbed that he would claim perfection. For Fothergill the work of conversion was the work of a life-time, and not accomplished definitively in this life.  Thus, he would confess that he was not in a state of complete obedience to God's will, and that he continued to be in an estranged state, and, so, God must,

"again and again turn his hand upon me, until he hath purged away all my dross, and made me what best pleases him... But the Lord, who has done wonderful things for my deliverance, has mercifully regarded and reached unto me, while in a state of open defiance to his tenderly striving spirit."

Churchman, Fothergill, and Stanton have in common a theology in which their pre-conversion state was one of enmity to God's will, but in conversion that enmity was overcome and the convert was brought to a spiritual state in which it was possible to please God. However, their post-conversion state did not hold that the power of sin had "come to an end" in the believers life, as Woolman's did.  The moment of justification was separate from that of sanctification, which might only occur in death. This theology exposes Woolman's distinctiveness, who at the moment of conversion believed he related to the world in a new way and who saw his conversion as the moment where he was no longer subjected to the power of sin.

Claims of personal and spiritual transformation made by Woolman's peers after their conversion were much more modest than Woolman's. Woolman's theology of conversion was more intense, more transformative, and the end result was more comprehensive and complete. 

Woolman’s Reading

We don't know all the books that Woolman read, but we do know some of them. In a personal ledger, Woolman kept track of the books that he had lent out to others. So we know some of the books he owned based on the books people borrowed from him. He also references books in his writings, which add to the list of what he lent out. These known books give us some clues as to what might have provided him some food for thought.

For example, Woolman referenced the Catholic mystic Thomas a’ Kempis’ (1380-1471) and his book the Imitation of Christ in his
writings. Kempis teaches that the voice of Christ can be heard,  spiritually, with the same directness and certainty as of an auditory sensation: "...doubly blessed are they who hear the Sound of Truth, not only in the outward Administrations of the Word, but by the inward and familiar Communications and Motions of infused Grace."  Woolman, shared this belief in God’s direct presence.

This theme of inward revelation and conformity to the inward "motion" of the Spirit was also present in the writings of German cobbler and mystic, Jakob Boehme (1575-1624),  an edited summary of whose work was in Woolman's list of books lent, and who argued that Christ's act of submission to the Father's will – in the act of crucifixion – made salvation possible for all, and must be
mirrored in each individual's "yieldedness" to God's will.  Boehme's concept of 'yieldedness' carries connotations of submission, resignation, and relinquishing one's own will, and is most often translated from the German in those forms.  In a state of "yieldedness" the individual was united to divine love and redeemed from a state subject to divine wrath.   Boehme's spirituality of "yieldedness", or "resignation," shows overlap with Woolman's theology of "resignation," especially as it opens up a new spiritual state on earth that makes available eschatologcial promises.

"It is real Resignation," the editor wrote in the volume of Boehme that Woolman owned, "that brings a Death upon Self-hood, and that must continually be performed, that the Enmity being mortified, the resigned Will may become an Instrument in God's Hand..."

Woolman might have had this type of transformation of self in mind when he argued that in "ceasing" from attempts to accumulate prestige and material possessions, a person could be transformed spiritually.

Early Quaker leader William Dewsbury (1621-1688), who Woolman mentioned in his writings and who is on his list of books lent, urged Quakers to dwell,

"in the true silence of your Spirits, to wait in the Light for the unlimited Spirit of the Lord... to put an end to Sin, and to bring in everlasting Righteousness..." 

Woolman might have picked up on this idea that one could experience the end of sin in this life.

Woolman's religious reading was focused on those sources that reinforced the activity of the Spirit in the life of the believer, and that emphasized how this activity led to a different type of existence, one in which the promises of the perfected and harmonious heavenly life would be enacted on earth. Woolman read his books selectively, he did not pick up everything written by the authors he read, but he found in them some helpful tools for shaping his own theology and for constructing a vision of colonial society he thought was most in keeping with the emergence of the Kingdom of God.

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