Quaker icon John Woolman balanced activism with an inward contemplative spirituality. Michael Birkel, Professor of Christian Spirituality at Earlham School of Religion, shares more.
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- Have you read any of of John Woolman’s writings? How did they speak to you?
- Michael Birkel points out that Woolman balanced two elements of the religious life: contemplation and activism. Where do you fall on this spectrum? How do you balance out the two?
“Here we have a prospect of one common interest from which our own is inseparable – that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channels of universal love becomes the business of our lives.”
Who is John Woolman?
John Woolman was a Quaker from colonial New Jersey. He lived from 1720 till 1772, so he died before the American Revolution. So it was the final years of the colonial experience and he lived through the the the final years of William Penn’s holy experiment in Pennsylvania.
John Woolman’s Writings
John Woolman’s writings have spoken to Quakers and many others ever since they were first published. I believe this is because he holds together two elements in the religious life that often are not so successfully integrated. In religious communities you find people who are very much of a contemplative frame of mind. Their inclination is toward prayer and meditation, toward exploring the inward dimensions of life. And then in religious communities you also find people whose energy is drawn toward remaking the world, reforming society, promoting a better, more just human experience.
John Woolman held these two together. He didn’t make a choice between them. He integrated the two. He was on the one hand a very mystical kind of person. He felt a tremendous sense of of nearness and intimacy with the divine and at the same time he gave decades of his life to reforming human society.
John Woolman’s Concerns
His concerns for social reform began with issue of slavery in his day, and in his work he tried not only to labor on behalf of the external freedom of those who were enslaved but he sought also to liberate those who held others in slavery from the greed that drove them to oppress others. So he wanted to liberate both the the enslaved and the slaveholders.
From that issue his concern for the world came to embrace also the the plight of the native peoples of North America who were mistreated by many of the English colonists and he also came to be quite concerned for the poor among the English colonists themselves.
And so he is model of someone who speaks very self-revealingly about his own inward life, who reflects courageously and deeply about one’s own inward impulses toward good or evil as well as how society might be put together in a more just way, and he is a model for someone who can be who is who exhibits an openness to new leadings, because throughout his life, his concern for the oppressed only grew.
And so what I find in the words of John Woolman is an invitation. An invitation for those who are of a contemplative bent to embrace the life of an activist, and for those who lean more toward the activist side of the religious life, to cultivate their own inward experience.
The views expressed in this video are of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views of Friends Journal or its collaborators.