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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Is Truth Unchanging Law?

[T]he general disadvantage which these poor Africans lie under in an enlightened Christian country having often filled me with real sadness, and been like undigested matter on my mind, I now think it my duty, through divine aid, to offer some thoughts thereon to the consideration of others.

 - John Woolman,  Considerations on the keeping of Negroes (1754)


When John Woolman died just shy of his 52nd birthday in 1772, the Leeds Mercury wrote:

[He was] an eminent preacher among the people called Quakers. His life exhibited a very singular and striking example of humility and self-denial, adorned with an amiable sweetness of disposition, and affectionate good will toward mankind universally. His feelings for the bondage and oppression of the poor enslaved negroes were so exquisite, that he conscientiously refused every accommodation, both in diet and apparel, which was produced by their labor. He was upon a religious visit to his friends in this nation, and has left a wife and family in America.

It is true that he wore simple clothes--Gandhian in a way, if I might be anachronistic, possibly inspired by the Nicholites--and was one of the first abolitionists.  As John Whittier wrote in his "appreciation" a century later:

The annual assemblage of the Yearly Meeting in 1758 at Philadelphia must ever be regarded as one of the most important religious convocations in the history of the Christian Church. The labours of Woolman and his few but earnest associates had not been in vain.

A deep and tender interest had been awakened; and this meeting was looked forward to with varied feelings of solicitude by all parties. All felt that the time had come for some definite action; conservative and reformer stood face to face in the Valley of Decision. John Woolman, of course, was present, a man humble and poor in outward appearance, his simple dress of undyed homespun cloth contrasting strongly with the plain but rich apparel of the representatives of the commerce of the city and of the large slave-stocked plantations of the country. Bowed down by the weight of his concern for the poor slaves and for the well-being and purity of the Society, he sat silent during the whole meeting, while other matters were under discussion...

When the important subject came up for consideration, many faithful Friends spoke with weight and earnestness. No one openly justified slavery as a system, although some expressed a concern lest the meeting should go into measures calculated to cause uneasiness to many members of the Society. It was also urged that Friends should wait patiently until the Lord in His own time should open a way for the deliverance of the slave. This was replied to by John Woolman. "My mind," he said, "is led to consider the purity of the divine Being, and the justice of His judgments; and herein my soul is covered with awfulness."
This solemn and weighty appeal was responded to by many in the assembly, in a spirit of sympathy and unity...At length, the truth in a great measure triumphed over all opposition; and, without any public dissent, the meeting agreed that the injunction of our Lord and Saviour to do to others as we would that others should do to us, should induce Friends who held slaves "to set them at liberty, making a Christian provision for them..."

Indeed, in his Journal from 1761:

In visiting people of note in the Society who had slaves, and labouring with them in brotherly love on that account, I have seen, and the sight has affected me, that a conformity to some customs distinguishable from pure wisdom has entangled many, and that the desire of gain to support these customs has greatly opposed the work of truth...

I believe He hath provided that so much labour shall be necessary for men's support in this world as would, being rightly divided, be a suitable employment of their time; and that we cannot go into superfluities, or grasp after wealth in a way contrary to His wisdom, without having connection with some degree of oppression, and with that spirit which leads to self-exaltation and strife, and which frequently brings calamities on countries by parties contending about their claims.

Being thus fully convinced, and feeling an increasing desire to live in the spirit of peace, I have often been sorrowfully affected with thinking on the unquiet spirit in which wars are generally carried on, and with the miseries of many of my fellow-creatures engaged therein; some suddenly destroyed; some wounded, and after much pain remaining cripples; some deprived of all their outward substance and reduced to want; and some carried into captivity. Thinking often on these things, the use of hats and garments dyed with a dye hurtful to them, and wearing more clothes in summer than are useful, grew more uneasy to me, believing them to be customs which have not their foundation in pure wisdom.

And as an anonymous observer wrote in 1772:

[H]e said the cause why he appeared so, was that he beIieve[d] it to be his duty to bear a testimony not in words only, but to be a sign to the people, to testify against the pride and extravagancy of those days, which greatly abounded with superfluities.

So it's not entirely clear to me: was the Truth about Woolman that he did everything--wearing undyed cloth, foregoing sugar--with an eye toward abolishing slavery, or was that merely a component of his person and passion to be a better, more spiritual man as well as an example for others to follow him in Faith?  Did the Mercury and others view his abhorrence of slavery as more important than his concern over "superfluities" because that's what they valued most?

I guess it doesn't matter so much now.  He did live as a sign to the people, and he convinced a lot of Quakers and others about the evils of slavery through his Witness.  Something I always keep in the back of my head as I hear people misuse our history of slavery to justify their political agendas.


October 19, 2013 in Conscience | Permalink


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I don't see the two as being anything but different ways of looking at the same thing. We separate them artificially in order to try to understand the situation, to classify it when all of it was contained in the one person, John Woolman. I think that division of the entire person is the wrong direction to go in achieving something like understanding, and in the case of trying to understand a person, especially a saint, someone whose genius is expressed in something as resistant to logic as putting themselves at a disadvantage for other people, animals, the entirety of living beings. John Woolman came close to explaining himself when he said, "Here we have a prospect of one common interest from which our own is inseparable, so that to turn all we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.”

Posted by: Anthony McCarthy | Oct 20, 2013 9:10:06 AM

That seems about right.

Posted by: NTodd Pritsky | Oct 20, 2013 2:12:00 PM

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