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Quaker Theology #15

Silence in Heaven: The Revelation to John Woolman

Michael Birkel

We might call theology a conversation between present and past. Theology seeks to address contemporary concerns but does so as part of a historical community. So we look to our communal elders of ages past and to their gathered wisdom as a resource for our own theological work.

Among Friends, John Woolman–the Quaker tailor, mystic, and voice for social justice in colonial America–looms large as a spiritual forebear who reflected deeply on matters that are as alive in our day as they were in his: greed, the abuse of power, social oppression, arrogance, divine judgment, the profound human capacity for self-deception, and inward prayer.

This essay will focus on two short, adjacent paragraphs from John Woolman’s Journal. These passages have not been the subject of much attention, perhaps in part because their language is fairly condensed–well, to be honest, it is downright difficult. Yet, written at a crucial moment in his life, they offer significant insights into human nature, its penchant for injustice, and the hope for redemption. John Woolman is good theological company to keep.

John Woolman was a careful writer and a meticulous editor, striving for greater clarity for the sake of his reader. In the critical edition of his Journal, editor Phillips Moulton’s numerous footnotes preserve John Woolman’s changes in the various copies that he made of his text. So when his expression grows more opaque, it often indicates that he is struggling to find adequate language to express an experience such spiritual depth that it lies at the edge of human capacity for meaningful utterance. These passages can require effort to understand, but the resulting insights are worth the effort.

John Woolman’s utterances as he recuperated from a nearly fatal bout with pleurisy are at first challenging, though a careful reading of them yields a fuller portrait of him as prophet, visionary, and mystic. Although he does not write of this until his death from smallpox is imminent two and a half years later, this illness is the occasion when he experiences his vision of suffering deeply with the oppressed and hearing the voice of an angel announce that John Woolman was dead.

He comes to understand this pronouncement as the death of his own will, which gives way to a rising with Christ. Led by divine power, he quotes from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (2:20): "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me."

In a state of physical weakness but acute spiritual sensitivity, John Woolman feels moved the next night to speak and asks a "solid friend" to write down these words, which like the dreams that he records in his Journal, he offers without comment for the readers’ spiritual edification:

4th day, 1st month, 1770, about five in the morning. I have seen in the light of the Lord that the day is approaching when the man that is the most wise in human policies shall be the greatest fool, and the arm that is mighty to support injustice shall be broken to pieces. The enemies of righteousness shall make a terrible rattle and shall mightily torment one another. For he that is omnipotent is rising up to judgment and will plead the cause of the oppressed. And he commanded me to open the vision. (Moulton 160).

These words are filled with Biblical echoes. For John Woolman, Scripture was the language of the soul. More than simply an account from the past, the stories of the Bible are also our inward stories–of captivity and of liberation, of betrayal and of faithfulness, of loss and of fulfillment, of death and life. Attention to the Biblical images in John Woolman’s words opens a way to hearing the deeper layers of meaning in his use of them.

John Woolman notes the time of day: "about five in the morning." Just as the light of the physical day is about to dawn, John Woolman sees "in the light of the Lord" that a new spiritual day is approaching.

The light of this day will show the truth of things. What appears wise in the present dim, shadowy light will be revealed as utter foolishness. Here John Woolman echoes the language of the apostle Paul, who in 1 Corinthians describes "the wisdom of this world" as "foolishness with God" (3:19), while the wisdom of God seems foolish to many. The particular wisdom that Paul has in mind (1:17-31) is the message of the cross, which looks like sheer weakness yet is more powerful than any human strength.

Early Friends, who felt the power of the God within them and yet had no political power, realized the truth of this paradox. The apostle Paul writes, "When I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:19), strong because he is lifted by divine strength rather than human endeavor. Remember that John Woolman, only the day before, repeated Paul’s words of being crucified with Christ, which he says opened the mystery of the vision in which he had heard the words "John Woolman is dead." (Moulton 186)

He then specifies what he regards as "the most wise in human policies": "the arm that is mighty to support human injustice." Again we hear the echo of Paul on strength and weakness. God’s power, which is love, is shown in the utter vulnerability of the cross.

For John Woolman the redemptive power of the cross is to a great extent made manifest in redeeming us from that selfish spirit which tempts us to oppress others. The gospel always carries its social dimension for John Woolman. In his words "the arm that is mighty to support injustice," we can hear an allusion to Job 35:9: "Because of the multitude of oppressions people cry out; they cry for help because of the arm of the mighty."

John Woolman continues in what sounds very much like an oracle of judgment from the Biblical prophets. The prophets maintained the covenant in ancient Israel. Through the covenant, the people had entered into a sacred relationship with God in which the Israelites had promised to be faithful to God and to create a just society. When their co-citizens fell to temptations of idolatry or social injustice, the prophets called for a return to the ideals of the covenant. In these passages from his Journal, John Woolman speaks in the tradition of the prophets. "Broken to pieces" is in fact, a phrase used repeatedly, for example by Jeremiah, a prophet with whom John Woolman felt a particular identification.

"Broken to pieces" uses what one of my colleagues calls "the exculpatory passive." It doesn’t say who does the breaking. Is it divine wrath, or is this simply how the world works? Is it that evil’s destructive power is ultimately self-destructive? These questions need not be mutually exclusive.

Jeremiah addresses his words to the inhabitants of Judah, whose country had just been destroyed by the invading armies of Babylon, and he speaks of breaking in pieces the kingdom that oppresses them. (Jer. 51:21-24) The expression is also found in the book of Daniel, which speaks of a series of oppressive kingdoms that will come to their end. (Dan. 2:36-55)

Perhaps the most striking use of the expression is from the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, where after proclaiming that God "raises up the poor out of the dust," she declares that God’s adversaries will "be broken to pieces." The prediction that God will rise to advocate for the oppressed is a common theme among the prophets. John Woolman also echoes here a line from the book of Proverbs that says not to rob the poor, for God will plead their cause. (Prov. 22:22-23)

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