"Too much clogged with the things of this life."
I have been struck by the number of people who in the past few weeks have told me how much the January column, "Don’t get caught up in things," meant to them. Being a descendant of generations of Quakers, I have long been attracted to Quaker thought. Thirty-five years ago I published a piece about John Woolman in a Quaker magazine, Inward Light, and I thought some excepts of that article might be of interest to some of us here at Lakeside.
John G. Whittier, the "Quaker Poet," concluding his introduction to the 1871 edition of the Journal of John Woolman, "the Quaker Saint," wrote: "I am not unmindful of the wide difference between the appreciation of a pure and simple life and the living of it, and am willing to own that in delineating a character of such moral and spiritual symmetry I have felt something like rebuke from my own words."
Perhaps all who seriously read Woolman’s Journal feel a similar rebuke arising from both their ability to recognize and their inability to act. John Woolman was a completely good man; and this is our problem. We can recognize and appreciate the goodness of his pure and simple life, his simple peace, his gentle, all-embracing love, but we are unable to go beyond recognition and appreciation of his goodness to the quiet practice of goodness in our own lives. With any attempt to compare our goodness to his, we perhaps feel awkward, embarrassed, uncomfortable. Occasionally we try to satisfy ourselves or at least to relieve ourselves of the absolute human responsibility somehow implied in the recognition of goodness—we intellectually profess obedience to the voice within; we profess functional simplicity; we profess all-embracing love. But we cannot settle it upon our own hearts. We are victims of deep-rooted habit which, as Woolman recognized, "though wrong, are not easily altered." We are "too much clogged with the things of this life."
Men and women attracted to Woolman recognize goodness and love as more than intellectual, as more than idea. Woolman’s love was all-embracing, universal, and perhaps most important, was a practical love. It had effects, changing people and institutions. Like Emerson’s practical thinker, Woolman’s goodness "had some edge to it." With gentleness, selflessness, and compassion Woolman worked to improve the condition of the Negroes, Indians, poor workingmen, sailors, English post boys or any group in society that was exploited and made to suffer for the benefit of another group. Softly, quietly attempting to reform established institutions, Woolman refused to be an accomplice in any way to the forces producing the conditions he recognized as evil. He refused to pay a tax (we are perhaps reminded of Thoreau) to support wars against Indians and refused to accept official payment when he was forced to lodge and entertain military troops. In England, he witnessed the miserable lives of English post boys and promptly directed his friends at home not to send letters to him on any common occasion by post.
Woolman is remembered historically chiefly as the prime force behind the early Quaker abolishment of slavery. Active as a scrivener, he refused to draw up wills or documents that included slaves as items of property or exchange. During his travels (in which he preached against slavery) it was occasionally necessary to accept food and lodging at the home of a slaveholding Friend. Woolman felt uneasy under these circumstances and paid the Friend (generally against his host’s will) for his food and lodging; and he would often give the owner money to be distributed to the slaves, or distribute it himself.
Woolman hated the evils in society, refused to be an accomplice, worked for reform, but he never ceased to embrace the evildoer in his love. Trevelyan writes: "And when the Friends found that they could not answer John’s questions, instead of poisoning him or locking him up as an anarchist, they let their slaves go free!" Woolman’s love was clearly an outward-directed emotion—an active, practical love. He was unconcerned with the selfish salvation of his soul and professed in words and acts that "Conduct is more convincing than language." Woolman recognized "the real substance of religion" is "where practice doth harmonize with principle."
Like all genuine seekers of truth, Woolman’s life was outwardly simple. And perhaps all true goodness is rooted in simplicity. Like Thoreau, he lived the simplicity he professed. Thoreau, after developing a superior graphite pencil and opening the way to fortune, left the complications of business forever. Woolman, seeing his retail clothing and supply business expand and prosper, gave it up, fearing it would soon control him. He declared "Every degree of luxury hath some connection with evil," and advised that if people "were content with a plain way of life, they had ever more peace and calmness of mind than they who, aspiring to greatness and outward shows, have grasped hard for an income to support themselves therein." Like the Quaker-born Walt Whitman, Woolman in later years restricted his clothing to un-dyed homespun. To luxury, John preferred "the simplicity of the everlasting truth."
Woolman led a simple life in obedience to the light within. Sensitivity to the voice within, to absolute human values, somehow demands simplicity. The simple life of goodness often has very productive effects because nothing is ever over-complicated; nothing stifles the decision to act.