So Many Lessons from one Quaker Meeting

Who would think that with my "reformed" background I would be so blessed and challenged by the simple writings of an unassuming Quaker? While my last post, the one about reviling, was still echoing in the ears of my heart I continued my reading in The Journal of John Woolman. (By the way, Woolman was an approximate contemporary of Jonathan Edwards, who was 17 years older. Both lived in Colonial America. Both died in their fifties, of smallpox, before the Revolutionary War.)  I found myself with Woolman at the 1760 Newport, Rhode Island Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends (Quakers), feeling his desire to glorify Christ, along with his deep trepidation, as he contemplated how to broach the subject of the slavery in their midst. He agonized over the great evil of the African slave trade, and also over his love for these brothers and sisters in Christ, his fellow Quakers. It was in his heart to suggest, if he could find his way clear, that the assembly present a petition against slavery to the Legislature. When his chance came he gathered the courage he would need to touch as he would be the personal interest and livelihood of his hearers. He addressed the group meekly and with deep affection:

"'I have been under a concern for some time on account of the great number of slaves which are imported into this colony. I am aware that it is a tender point to speak to, but apprehend I am not clear in the sight of Heaven without doing so....' such was the exercise of my mind that to move it in the hearing of Friends when assembled appeared to me as a duty, for my heart yearned towards the inhabitants of these parts, believing that by this trade there had been an increase of inquietude amongst them, and way had been made for the spreading of a spirit opposite to that meekness and humility which is a sure resting place for the soul; and that the continuance of this trade would not only render their healing more difficult, but would increase their malady." (emphasis mine)
He left the essay he wished to present to the Legislature with the Society for their approval,  and then, while courage remained, moved on to another matter that had been deeply troubling him, a practice apparently just as socially ingrained, profitable, and widespread as slavery in colonial America: lotteries.

Yes, lotteries:
"...And now...the hearts of some solid Friends appeared to be united to discourage the practice amongst their members, and the matter was zealously handled by some on both sides. In this debate it appeared very clear to me that the spirit of lotteries was a spirit of selfishness, which tended to confuse and darken the understanding, and that pleading for it in our meetings, which were set apart for the Lord's work, was not right. In the heat of zeal, I made reply to what an ancient Friend said, and when I sat down I saw that my words were not enough seasoned with charity." (emphasis mine)
With the discussion of reviling so fresh in my mind, I was eager to hear how Woolman would handle his remorse over his less-than-charitable behavior, but I really couldn't just pass by this lottery business. I mean, really, lotteries? Surely the word must have meant something different back then. I had to look this up. Here is what I found:

"After the first English lottery approved by King James I in 1612 that granted the Virginia Company of London the right to raise money and therefore found the original settlement, lotteries in the colonies continued to be popular. In fact lotteries played a significant role in the financing of building and improving the colonies. Records show that over 200 lotteries were permitted between 1744 and the American Revolution, these played a vital role in the funding of roads, libraries, churches, colleges, bridges, and other public works. Princeton, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania began by being financed by lotteries. Lotteries also played a part in supporting the war efforts during the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution. Rare lottery tickets with George Washington's signature can still be found and are worth about $15,000 today.
Alexander Hamilton wrote that " Everybody...will be willing to hazard a trifling sum for the chance of considerable gain...and would prefer a small chance of winning a great deal to a great chance of winning little." while the Continental Congress employed lotteries to aid in the war effort. The lotteries were especially useful in raising funds as taxation was a sensitive issue among the colonists, unfortunately this practice also led to the belief that lotteries were/ are a form of hidden tax." (History of Lottery. com , emphasis mine)
Call me naive, but first of all I was stunned, and even a bit sickened, to learn that the foundations of our country and even our American churches had rested their weight so heavily on the financial supports of gambling and the greed that drives it. I didn't want to believe it. Yet as it soaked in, I realized that it makes perfect sense. America has been since its inception a nation and an economy driven largely by the self-interest, greed, and discontent of its people. Loathe to give (in the form of taxes) a certain amount for the good of all, we are willing to take risks for the slightest hope of great personal gain. We are not only reaping what our forefathers sowed, but continue to sow the same seeds into future generations.

With that in mind, I was able to better understand Woolman's point: "the spirit of lotteries was a spirit of selfishness, which tended to confuse and darken the understanding...". In an earlier place in his journal he had this to say:
"If selfish views or a partial spirit have any room in our minds, we are unfit for the Lord's work..."
The defenders of the lottery system in their meeting had stirred up self-interest, stoking the flames of passion, and quenching the work of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Woolman himself was caught up in the moment, upset by what he was seeing, and his own love faltered, leading him to speak too harshly to an elderly man in the group. And here I was brought back to my discussion of reviling, and wondered what Woolman would do, having reviled a man publicly. Would he chalk it up to the heat of the moment? Would he consider himself justified because he was in the right? Would he excuse it because he behaved no different than anyone else in the assembly? After all, he was in the right. If he admitted fault he would risk undermining his argument in the eyes of the congregation. Would he let it go, or would he deal with it?
"Some time after this minute was made I remained uneasy with the manner of my speaking to the ancient Friend, and could not see my way clear to conceal my uneasiness, though I was concerned that I might say nothing to weaken the cause in which I had labored. After some close exercise and hearty repentance for not having attended closely to the safe guide, I stood up, and, reciting the passage, acquainted Friends that though I durst not go from what I had said as to the matter, yet I was uneasy with the manner of my speaking, believing milder language would have been better. As this was uttered in some degree of creaturely abasement after a warm debate, it appeared to have a good savor among us."
I think there is a lesson to be learned from Woolman's predicament. We are all sinners, and yet, like Woolman, God holds us all responsible to stand up for what is right. How can such dreadfully flawed people be standard-bearers for the Kingdom of God? How do we handle that inevitable moment when we sin in the carrying out of God's work? What do we do when we realize we've spoken God's truth without God's love? We would do well to follow Woolman's example: humbly confess our sin, restore the warmth of fellowship, and continue speaking the truth. In his case his sin was public so he repented of it publicly. Humbling himself, he testified to the wrong he had committed before the very souls who had witnessed it and stood in danger of being affected by it. In doing so, he reintroduced meekness and humility - those harbingers of the Spirit of Christ - to the assembly.
"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1 John 1:8-10)

"Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.' Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." (1 Peter 5:5b-7)
So often I choose to read men of great learning, enjoying the challenge their intellects provide. In Woolman I'm finding a challenge of a different kind: the challenge of a humble man's submission to the Spirit and teaching of Christ, the witness of one who led in the upside-down manner of God's kingdom where the greatest gains are gotten through humble service, where God's strength is perfected not through intellectual prowess, but through weakness.


Simple Mann said…
That is some really interesting history on the lotteries, Laurie. Thanks for sharing. Interestingly enough, I just got a book in the mail that I ordered last week. It is entitled "How Much Is Enough?" by Arthur Simon, and deals with this same spirit in our culture today. I'm hoping to read it with my family... or at least use it for a source book of ideas for devotions.

I thought it was interesting that one reviewer on Amazon wrote, "I took a class and had to read this book--it will make you think and realize just how selfish and greedy we as a society have become."

I think the truth, though, as you pointed out, is not that we have *become* selfish and greedy... we actually started out that way. Interesting paradigm shift to realize that. And the lotteries are really not all the surprising if you think about it. I mean, buying and selling lottery tickets seems pretty tame when you consider that these same people were selfish and greedy enough to buy and sell human beings just as easily.

I will have to check out this book. I have really enjoyed the two posts you've written so far that have been inspired by it. Thanks!

Peace & Blessings!

Simple Mann
Laurie M. said…
I'm glad you're enjoying these posts. I've been really blessed and challenged by Woolman's faith, and it's extension into all aspects of life. I'm at a point now where he is discussing his contemporaries' practices regarding the Indians. He was very distressed by what he saw. I think that may be the topic of my next post. What some these days like to call "revisionist" history, is not revisionist at all. It was how things were in the eyes of at least some Christians at the time. Unfortunately those voices of love were drowned out by greed and feelings of white superiority.
MensaBunny said…

I found your post about Woolman's conscientious objection to slavery by Googling those four words.

I was looking for anything that connected objection to slavery with its violation of anyone's (even a slave's) right to serve only God, as in "no man can serve two masters" and as in Christ's stated reason for rejecting Satan's promise of wealth and power, namely his own adherence to the order, "him (God) ONLY shalt thou serve."

Now that you've introduced me to Woolman, I am amazed by the spiritual connection I, too, feel to him! Now I'm wondering whether I inherited my strong conscience from the long line of Quakers in my family tree or whether my ancestors chose to be Quakers because by nature, in their hearts, they were alot like me.

Wish me luck with my project. I'm a writer, hoping to find and articulate the answer to "WWJD about today's increased pressures --even legislation!-- for us all to bow down to mammon, to accept cuts to funding of social programs in the name of "deficit reduction," and -in order to do that- to forget the Eleventh Commandment, along with our Divine charges to "Feed [my] sheep!" and "Feed my lambs!"

I was sure I wasn't alone in finding the whole business troubling. Woolman's thoughts about the "disquieting effect" of the slave trade on his Friends and the worsened prognosis he associated with its practice if they could not be "healed" gave me a fresh perspective.

Your blog has brought me a welcome "meditative break!"
So, thanks, Laurie!

Carole Kronberg
in Detroit

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