History: August 2002 Archives

The Journal of John Woolman


Among the great classics of religious literature is this remarkable, slim volume. Written by a prerevolutionary Quaker, it is the story of a man who felt drawn to give up nearly all of his material goods in order to follow God. It is also a kind of window into a discussion that was very prominent in the founding of our republic--the evils of slavery. This excerpt comes from the record of a journey undertaken in 1746.

Excerpt from Woolman's Journal Two things were remarkable to me in this journey: first, in regard to my entertainment. When I ate, drank, and lodged free-cost with people who lived in ease on the hard labour of their slaves, I felt uneasy; and as my mind was inward to the Lord, I found this uneasiness return upon me, at times, through the whole visit. Where the masters bore a good share of the burden, and lived frugally, so that their servants were well provided for, and their labour moderate, I felt more easy; but where they lived in a costly way, and laid heavy burdens on their slaves, my exercise was often great, and I frequently had conversation with them in private concerning it. Secondly, this trade of importing slaves from their native country being much encouraged amongst them, and the white people and their children so generally living without much labour, was frequently the subject of my serious thoughts. I saw in these southern provinces so many vices and corruptions, increased by this trade and this way of life, that it appeared to me as 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. I express it as it hath appeared to me, not once nor twice, but as a matter fixed on my mind.

Joseph Ellis, in Founding Brothers, chronicles further evidence of this underlying opposition. The chapter entitled "The Silence" talks about a very early move toward abolition, proposed, once again by Quakers, in the 1790s.

True humility, true Christianity, means an uncompromising grappling with the present and obvious evils of this world. It means a deep self-knowledge that helps to understand that the evils we see around us are often exacerbated by our own actions. It also means taking definitive action, no matter how small, to help right some of these wrongs.

But true Christianity stems from a relationship with God. Such a relationship starts in prayer, continues in prayer, grows in prayer, and ultimately ends in prayer. And prayer itself grows, it grows from an endless listing of our needs and wants, into a meditative, voiceless prayer, and finally into a prayer of waiting on the Lord.

Too often, we do not pursue this track of growth. Too often, the riches of prayer are left unexplored. Too often our sense of God is confined to a place or event. Too often we deprive ourselves of the sense that God is everywhere and in everything. Too often, it seems, we are afraid to grow. We need to find our security and stability by holding onto the goods of this world. In so doing we limit our progress in prayer. St. Ignatius said (I paraphrase) that we should use the goods of this world insofar as they move us toward God. Once such goods begin to inhibit our progress, we need to cast them off.

John Woolman is an example of a non-Catholic Christian who followed this ancient, well-established path to closeness with God. If more of us did the same here and now we could change the world in prayer. We could serve as beautiful beacons of light and true receptacles of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer is God's perfect gift of communication. He is always listening, always ready to hear from His children. He is always eager to hear from us and to send us many gifts of His love.

As the saints are our models in living, they are also our models in prayer. When we imitate their exterior actions without interior preparation, we may do good works, but we do not do perfect works. And perfect works are what God is after. Our growth in perfection is the life of the world in God. It is our contribution to making the kingdom of heaven present on Earth. This closeness to God is a gift open to all of God's people here on Earth. Not all achieve it in the same way or to the same degree; but, it is in achieving it that we in some small way fulfill Christ's commission to us to go and spread the gospel to all the world. The only way to spread the gospel is in Union with God and in perfect love for all the people around us. God doesn't expect perfection overnight, but He does expect that we would work toward this perfection. As an ardent Lover, God expects that we would delight in returning the myriad gentle signs of His love.

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This page is a archive of entries in the History category from August 2002.

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