This Sunday we celebrate Reformers of the Church, usually Martin Luther. Lately we’ve been looking at others who changed the world by their understanding of Scripture, in particular today, John Woolman (1720 – 1772), of the Society of Friends of Colonial New Jersey. Please see the inset below for more information about John Woolman.
October 27, 2013
Every year on the last Sunday of October, we remember and celebrate the actions of Martin Luther, the first reformer to survive in his questioning of the Christian Church which at that time was the Roman Catholic Church. He was tormented by his inability to live the Christian life, until, as a professor of Biblical Studies, he found the passage from Romans that we have before us today. The realization that God’s people live out of God’s love, freely given, and that their sins and imperfections are washed away by God’s grace, released his tormented soul. Finding the peace of God’s grace caused him to question many of the practices of his church. In his role as pastor he saw the despair and their fear of facing the fires of hell. In his urgency to spread the news of grace, found through Scripture, and practiced in a life of faith, he stood up to the Church, and defied its attempts to silence him. In his stand on word alone, faith alone, and grace alone Martin Luther not only changed the Church, but changed how society thought of the Christian life.
But Martin Luther is not and was not the only person who changed the world by his deep immersion in Scripture and the actions to which his faith compelled him. People in every age have found themselves at odds with their culture and their Church based on the teachings of their faith. Today I’d like to talk about John Woolman, a member of the Society of Friends – the Quakers – in Colonial New England. Woolman’s deep immersion in Scripture touched his conscience. In his tradition, the community is prepared to acknowledge the urgings of God in the lives of ordinary believers, and each meeting is an opportunity for those who feel such urging to speak to the community. The community then “tests the leading” of the speaker. If the leading is from God, then nothing that we do can stop it, but if it is not, it will soon pass away. The issue that tormented John Woolman most particularly was slavery. He found it inconceivable that one who followed Christ, and was created in God’s image, could buy and sell another human being. Woolman’s ‘leading’ was a bit of a shock to the prosperous Quaker gentry of his Meeting, many of whom owned slaves. Slavery was never condemned outright in the Scripture. It was an everyday fact of life, and much of the goods and services available to middle-class people were the products of slave labor. Woolman’s teaching was a severe test of his community and its faithfulness.
John Woolman ended up giving up his own living as a merchant as he came to despise luxury built on the backs of oppressed labor, and lived a more and more simple life. He was not just a preacher, he was a walking example of the life he espoused. Over twenty-five years, he traveled the Colonial coast and traveled to England, preaching against slavery. And the whole time, his Meeting did not come to accept his teaching, and nothing but unanimous acceptance would do for them.
The thing that makes me think that John Woolman’s story is a story for our times is that gap; that twenty-five year period between his teaching in his home Meeting, and the acceptance of all the Meetings in the Colonies of his leading. In that time the Friends supported his family while he traveled and preached. And they tested and prayed and talked. And Woolman never turned his back on his church, leaving in frustration or disgust with their inability to accept his leading. He didn’t start his own church, or try to get into another one. Both Woolman and the Quakers, poles apart at the beginning, waited in the tension of disagreement until more and more people came to respect Woolman’s teaching and agree that it was indeed God’s Spirit at work in him and among them.
That patience, that willingness to wait for the Spirit to speak to each heart impresses and moves me. In a day and age in which civil discourse has all but disappeared from our daily experience, it is even more astonishing that prayer and talk and waiting for each heart to turn could continue over such a long period of time. Today our churches are more splintered than ever, and scathing judgmental speech is not uncommon from one Christian believer against another.
Our world is so different from the world of my youth, and our church is changed as well. The church many of us grew up in no longer exists, and often we are so sad about its absence that we have failed to ask where the Holy Spirit is leading us now. We are so busy clinging to what was, that we might not be able to see what is. We may be standing in the same kind of gap that faced John Woolman and his faithful Friends. What kind of church is God calling us to be? What does the world need from us believers that it cannot find anywhere else? How will we live the call to care, to pray, to talk to the people who don’t agree with us, and be peace-makers in Christ’s love? This Reformation Sunday we stand in that gap between the church we knew and the church we are called to leave for our children and their children, for the future. How will we be faithful to the early Christians, the Reformers, the John Woolmans of our world who stood against the errors of the past in order to face a future more grounded in God’s grace?
May we truly celebrate the Reformation by being willing to be reformed into God’s messengers of hope for all humanity as we bear God’s peace into our daily journey. Amen.
Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
The John Woolman Story
John Woolman (1720-1772) was a Quaker who lived in colonial New Jersey. His co-religionists were merchants and farmers who proclaimed belief in the equality of all people but whose affluence was built on slave labor. Wooolman, a tailor and merchant by trade, received a “leading from God” that slavery was a moral abomination and that Quakers should free their slaves. He took his concern to his Meeting, asking Friends to “test his leading.” Though Woolman’s personal integrity was never in doubt, many Friends remained unwilling to free their slaves. However, because they were committed to a decision-making process that prohibited voting and majority rule, the Meeting was unable to lay the issue down.
As long as the “sense of the Meeting” was divided on matters involving God’s will, they had to keep talking and praying until unity was achieved.
In 1746, Woolman launched a long-term traveling ministry to share his leading with Friends throughout the Colonies. The Meeting often supported his family while he traveled for nearly twenty years. He completely “walked his talk” with every step, fasting at the table rather than eating food prepared by slaves and offering to pay for the labor of the slaves if he found he had inadvertently benefitted from their labor. He dressed in white homespun, as most dyed clothing was the work of slaves.
About this time an ancient man of good esteem in the neighborhood came to my house to get his will written. He had young Negroes, and I asked him privately how he intended to dispose of them. He told me. I then said, “I cannot write your will without breaking my own peace,” and respectfully gave him my reasons for it…And so he got it written by some other person. A few years later, there being great alterations in his family, he came again to get me to write his will. His Negroes were still young. And since he first spoke to me, his son, to whom he intended to give them, was turned from a libertine to a sober young man. He supposed that I would have been free on that account to write it. We had much friendly talk on the subject and then deferred it. A few days later he came again and directed their freedom. I then wrote his will. Walk Humbly with God, Selected Writings of John Woolman, (Upper Room Books, Nashvile, 2000) pg. 24
Woolman’s message was not always well-received by Friends, as adept as anyone at contradicting their own beliefs. Freeing their slaves would have caused considerable financial burden for the well-heeled gentry. Woolman held a profound tension as he traveled, standing in the gap between the Quaker belief of “that of God in every person” and the reality of Quaker practice. But he held the tension all those years until Quakers in colonial America reached unity on emancipation. On Woolman’s last journey, to England, his witness was so persuasive that London Yearly Meeting “included a statement condemning slavery in it Epistle” for the first time in its history.
Quakers were the first religious community in the U.S. to free their slaves, doing so some eighty years before the Civil War. In 1783, they petitioned the Congress to correct the enslavement of human beings. From 1827 onward, they played a key role in developing the Underground Railroad. Woolman’s story, like all such stories, invites us to reflect on the dynamics of personal and communal witness in our own moment in history, asking, with the prophet Ezekiel, “How then shall we live?” Parker Palmer, “The John Woolman Story”, Weavings, Vol XXIV, No 2.
My heart was deeply concerned that in future I might in all things keep steadily to the pure truth and live and walk in the plainness and simplicity of a sincere follower of Christ. Walk Humbly with God, Seleted Writings of John Woolman, pg.52