Colonial Mystic, Voice for Social Justice
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)
This remarkable utterance concludes, “And he commanded me to open the vision.” “To open the vision” is reminiscent of the language of opening the seven seals in the book of Revelation. In the book of Daniel, the prophet Daniel is told to “seal up the vision, for it refers to many days from now” (8:26), but in the book of Revelation (5:9), the Lamb is deemed worthy to open the seals. Since John Woolman is dead and the Lamb now lives in him, he is commanded to open the vision.
When he next feels his “mind livingly opened” and asks someone to take down his words, the book of Revelation is central.
Near a week after this, feeling my mind livingly opened, I sent for a neighbour, who at my request wrote as follows:
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. (Moulton 160)
These words begin, “The place of prayer is a precious habitation.” This passage is not a direct Scriptural quotation, though “habitation” is a common time, as in Psalm 71:3
Be thou my strong habitation,
Whereunto I may continually resort,
or Isaiah 32:17-18, a passage which John Woolman quoted in a letter to North Carolina Friends in 1757, urging them to refrain from slave keeping. (Moulton 69)
And the works of righteousness shall be peace; and the effects of righteousness, quiet and assurance forever. And my people shall dwell in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.
Since his vision and his utterance of the previous week were concerned with slavery and righteousness, it seems possible that he heard an echo of Isaiah in these words.
Additionally, John Woolman has a personal memory, so moving and in so attended with “sweetness,” that he opens his Journal with it. It is a memory of when his “mind was drawn to seek after that the pure habitation, which I then believed God had prepared for his servants,” (Moulton 23) as he sat and read, as a seven-year-old boy, from Revelation 22: “he showed me a river of water, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and the Lamb.” This is the new Jerusalem, the city of peace, the habitation of the faithful, understood by John Woolman as an inner dwelling place.
John Woolman then speaks of this heavenly throne from the Book of Revelation.
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.
This is a paraphrase of Rev. 8:1-4
And when [the Lamb] had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour. And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets. And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.
“And I saw.” Here John Woolman is identifying with another John, who described himself as “your brother and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ.” (Rev. 1:9) This ancient John also received revelations from angels, just as John Woolman did in the vision during his illness.
This first John was also commanded to open the vision, to reveal divine mysteries, and the result is the Book of Revelation. Just as the early Christian prophet named John announced tribulation and great conflict and suffering, followed by the peace of the new Jerusalem, so now the Quaker prophet named John, who has predicted a terrible rattle and a mighty torment, now turns to announce a quiet habitation.
The paraphrase of Revelation 8:1-4 was crossed out in the original manuscript of the Journal, apparently by John Woolman himself, according to Phillips Moulton, who, thankfully, has reproduced the passage in a footnote. (Moulton 160) It is telling that John Woolman identified so strongly with the author of Revelation–and equally telling that he then crossed these words out. John Woolman’s humility censored a sentence that would seem to claim such a special status in a published document. He practices just this sort of censoring elsewhere in his editing of his Journal. A hint of this experience, however, is preserved in his final Epistle, John Woolman’s farewell to Friends in colonial America, written just before he set sail for England in 1772. There he writes
But when our minds entirely yield to Christ, that silence is known, which followeth the opening of the last of the seals. Rev. viii. 1. In this silence we learn a patient abiding in the Divine Will, and there feel, that we have no cause to promote but that only in which the Light of Life directs us in our proceedings. (Gummere 484)
Rather than claim a special privilege, John Woolman here invites the reader into a similar experience, through which we too can learn to abide patiently in the Divine Will. Our sense of the Divine Presence becomes so overwhelmingly powerful that we find that we don’t will for much of anything else anymore. This seems to be at least a part of what John Woolman meant by the death of his own will.
After this identification with John the author of Revelation, John Woolman then describes the content of the revelation following the opening of the seal:
I saw that the prayers of the saints was precious incense. And a trumpet was given me that I might sound forth this lang-uage, 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.
It may be a bit challenging to picture John Woolman as a trumpeter, though early in his Journal he describes the motion of the Spirit to vocal ministry as that “which prepares the creature to stand like a trumpet through which the Lord speaks to his flock.” (Moulton 31) In both passages, the trumpet is capable of a form of speech.
The language of John Woolman’s trumpet (perhaps an echo of the “pure language” of Zephaniah 3:9) calls a troubled church to “gather to the place of inward prayer,” a safe habitation–again a faint reverberation of Isaiah 32.
In his final Epistle, John Woolman describes “a habitation of safety for the Lord’s people” as the “condition where all our wants are bounded by pure wisdom, and minds wholly attentive to the inward counsel of Christ.” (Gummere 487) “Pure Wisdom” is a common expression in John Woolman’s writings and has its roots in the Epistle of James, in which we find these profound words:
the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace. (James 3:17-18)
For James and for John Woolman, wisdom is intricately related to justice and to peace. The Epistle of James is a powerful critique of injustice for the poor and challenges the empty pursuit of wealth. John Woolman sees pure wisdom as putting boundaries to our otherwise unbridled desires so that our minds can be attentive to the “inward counsel.” Otherwise our desires are the thieves of our attention. We are not mindful of divine presence when our wants are out of hand. We are safe when we are mindful, when our spirits are focused.
John Woolman states that prayer “in pure resignation is a precious place.” Resignation or yieldedness is a term with a long history among the Christian mystics, some of whom John Woolman read. When he speaks of “pure inward prayer,” we may have a hint of that connection with mystics of the past.
Taken together, the message seems to be that the place of prayer, that is, the place where one is truly capable of acceptable prayer, is that safe habitation where all our disordered and disorderly desires are put in order by divine wisdom.
The theme of the safety of pure inward prayer may bring to mind mystics of previous centuries. Earlier spiritual writers, such as John of the Cross or Evagrius Ponticus, spoke of the soul as having various capacities or faculties through which temptation can reach a person. Since we are not by nature fundamentally evil, evil must find an entrance to the soul or the mind from the outside. By quieting ourselves, by turning within–away from our desires, our imaginings, even our thoughts–we become safe from sources of temptation. John Woolman did not share the same theological vocabulary as these earlier writers whom he could not read because they were not available in English in his day, but it may well be that he knew experientially the same truth about the safety of inward prayer.
A pure prayer cannot deceive because it is open. It has no content, apart from a willingness to be led, to consent to God’s presence, and whatever may accompany that presence.
Possibly jarring to some modern ears is the language of warning that lies behind this echo of Revelation. The book of Revelation is a comfort to afflicted, but it is also poses a threat to oppressors. In that book, when the seventh seal is opened and then the silence in heaven is over and the trumpet is sounded, all heaven breaks loose. The trumpets bring tremendous upheaval and divine judgment upon those who oppress the saints.
Many readers hear an echo of the plagues of Egypt from the book of Exodus in the disasters that follow the trumpet blasts: fire, hail, blood, locusts, and darkness. In Exodus these are the consequences for holding a people in slavery. That echo may not have been lost on John Woolman, who also believed that there would be serious consequences for the social sin of slavery. He spoke of slavery as a ” burden [that] will grow heavier and heavier till times change in a way disagreeable to us,” and as a “a dark gloominess hanging over the land; and though now many willingly run into it, yet in future the consequence will be grievous to posterity!” (Moulton 62, 38) This connection between Exodus, which is the story of freedom of the enslaved, and the book of Revelation may help to explain his attraction to that final book of the Bible.
In the chaos that will be in the wake of injustice, John Woolman issues an invitation to a safe place. Prayer is that place. In his last Epistle, John Woolman speaks of prayer and invites his readers to that worshipful place. Notice how his words from that epistle reflect his utterance from his sick bed. Both speak of a safe habitation amid external commotion:
This condition where all our wants and desires are bounded by pure wisdom, and our minds wholly attentive to the inward counsel of Christ, hath appeared to me as a habitation of safety for the Lord’s people in time of outward commotion & trouble. (Gummere 487)
What are the dangers from which prayer and worship offer a safe place? One is the temptation to self-deception. The commotion of the wider world seeks to entice us to enter it, to swallow its propaganda and its self-deception: “This war is different and excusable.” “This particular injustice is sadly necessary because it’s a tough world out there.” “We are reluctant warriors in a long and difficult struggle that we may have to go alone, but our former friends will thank us later when we have made the world safe.”
This is a collective self-deception that tempts our society at this moment. Our individual self-deceptions can look much subtler. John Woolman invites us to focus on the presence of God, rather than on our own mixed motives, where our desires can mislead us–even the desire to do good only to appear good to others. Wanting to look good is not the freedom of righteousness but the trap of self-righteousness.
A truly worshipful stance, where we, despite our fears, open ourselves to experience anew the grace of God and to be led by divine love, can provide us with the strength to resist these temptations. This is at least a part of what it can mean to call prayer a safe habitation.
This is the message that he is to proclaim with his trumpet, to call people to inward quietness where we can respond to that voice of love that invites us to participate in the redemptive power of love.
John Woolman sounded this trumpet in his final years of life through his writing. He revised his Journal, with the anticipation that it could be published. He published Considerations on the True Harmony of Mankind. He wrote Conversations on the True Harmony of Mankind (though this was not published until 1837), his final Epistle, and his last essays. The similarity in language between his utterances after his vision and these final writings suggests that his pen was that trumpet.
Finally, his journey to and travels in England, during which he sought both to exemplify for others what it meant to live in that safe habitation and to cry out against injustice in a prophetic manner, show how he lived out the edifying words that he felt led to speak as he lay in recovery, moving from near death to fuller life.
Phillips P. Moulton, editor, The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971; reprinted Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1989.
Amelia Mott Gummere, editor, The Journal and Essays of John Woolman. New York: Macmillan, 1922.