Quaker Universalist Conversations

John Woolman and the Affairs of Truth (2011), a new book edited by James Proud

Year by year John Woolman gains in worldwide stature as a prophet of Quakerism.  His published Journal and his lifelong activities devoted to gaining justice for slaves and for the poor have long been known to American Friends, but his correspondence and unpublished manuscripts are only now becoming generally available.  This is an important book.  It has been reviewed by Larry Spears, clerk of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship.—Rhoda Gilman

Reviewed by Larry Spears.


Editor James Proud has done John Woolman proud and given us a gift. Proud has compiled the non-Journal writings of John Woolman for our reading in John Woolman and the Affairs of Truth (2011). For most of us, this book is like finding a previously unknown Beethoven piano sonata. Life is enriched by these new findings for our pleasure and edification.

 Woolman addressed the universal issue of relating to the unfamiliar others in his life and culture, the outsiders, in remarkable ways. He educated himself about slavery by meeting slaves and slave owners. He wrestled with issues of war and world peace in his dreams and thought. He struggled with public policy about poverty in his colony as part of his reflection on his own efforts at self-discipline in his personal financial management of his life style with his family. As a writer, he appears as a person trying to understand, using the language of his culture, about the right relationship of persons in communities of the family, village, city and culture.

 This book starts with editorial essays on the role of the non-Journal writings in reflecting John Woolman’s life and times as our window on his ministry. It is a guide to understanding his other surviving documents, and the gathering in proper chronology of these diverse and often inaccessible texts into one accessible volume. The editor’s purpose is to link Woolman’s response to his experience with slavery, poverty and war as a resource for our reflection on our larger and compounded current public experience.

 These Woolman writings complete the body of his surviving works and are the companions to the Journal, which is more familiar today. The Journal was only known after his death. These other writings show Woolman as a public intellectual in a time when this role was little known. His writings stood out for their clarity and power to move readers. These epistles and essays were much appreciated in his day, and little known in our day, until their publication in this book. His lifetime writings provide a record of engagement with affairs of Truth primarily focused on slavery, poverty and war. He was committed to peace and determined in support of his view of Truth.

 Woolman was focused on the quest for Truth and the affairs of Truth. For Woolman, this vocabulary of Truth was another name for his perception of the reality and activity of God. Truth was the pointer to the ultimate reality of the universe and to the single source in a supreme being that was actively engaged with our lives. That Truth manifested itself around him in specific, practical forms of social justice, peace and equity. He describes this manifest activity in a simple and engaging prose style, reflecting on his experience and his tradition in scripture, which provided much of his vocabulary for expressing that experience in conversation with God.

 The editor provides a significant toolbox for reading these writings. He includes a subject index, a scriptural index and some 70 pages of supplemental appendices including a guide to the manuscripts of Woolman’s literary works, business records and epistles (Appendix 1), a summary of the history of the reforming implementation work of Woolman and Israel Pemberton in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) and the role of epistles as the then-current cutting edge technology for communication among Quakers (Appendix 2).

 Woolman is offered in this book as a model for thinking and acting biblically. For today, thinking biblically can be decoded for thinking clearly and acting rightly. Thinking clearly and acting rightly is another way of addressing the relationship of faith and practice. Our faith is what we believe to be true about the nature of the universe, about facts and values. Practice is how we live in relation to those beliefs. Woolman shows a model for how one person holds those two, faith and practice, together in a dynamic life.

 Woolman was a practical person in engaging in the practical, immediate implementation of his commitments. Woolman’s writings also show that he was a teacher. In 1769, Woolman wrote an elementary spelling book and reader. This educational reader reflected his Quaker sensibilities in the use of Psalm-referenced aphorisms and New Testament parables, which contrasted with the more strident catechisms provided for reading instruction for children by the Puritans of the colonies.

 Woolman penned a touching memorial to his brother Abner Woolman addressed to the Meeting for Sufferings (Appendix 3) and a “testament” (Appendix Text 11) for the children of his brother who died after a long illness. Woolman’s collection of Abner’s writings to his children for his children and his quiet narration of Abner’s death shows a caring brother addressing ultimate human events. The management of health and death in a time without meaningful medical options was a recognized and practical matter for preparation, resignation and trust. Written in the language of intimacy and dependence with God, Woolman describes Abner’s death as a comforting and quiet passing into no more.

 This book is a gem. It is a real, practical testimony to spiritual reflection and discernment by a Quaker in a practical world of ambiguity. We should be grateful, both to Woolman and to Proud for bringing these writings together in an accessible place for our edification.

 This book is available from Inner Light Books (See www.innerlightbooks.com) and several internet book sources.

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