Quaker Universalist Conversations

Would John Woolman be a blogger?

In response to the question—“Is blogging Quakerly?”—Steven Davison, a member of Yardley (PA) Friends, wrote this entry, using as an example the 18th century American Quaker John Woolman, known for his opposition to slavery, concern for the poor, and deep spirituality.

I’m glad you raised this question. I am reminded of a section in Woolman’s journal in which he thinks out loud about the progress of new technologies:

       “In the woods we lay under some disadvantage. . . [“no fire-works,” “the mosquitoes being plenty and the ground damp”]
       “Thus lying in the wilderness and looking at the stars, I was led to contemplate the condition of our first parents when they were sent forth from the garden, and considered that they had no house, no tools for business, no garments but what their Creator gave them, no vessels for use, not any fire to cook roots or herbs. But the Almighty, though they had been disobedient, was a father to them; way opened in process of time for all the conveniences of life. And he who by the gracious influence of his spirit illuminated their understanding and showed them what was acceptable to him and tended to their felicity as intelligent creatures, did also provide means for their happy living in this world as they attended to the manifestations of his wisdom.
        “To provide things relative to our outward living in the way of true wisdom is good, and the gift of improving in things useful is a good gift, and comes from the Father of Lights. Many have had this gift and from age to age there have been improvements of this kind made in the world. But some, not keeping to the pure gift, have in the creaturely cunning and self-exaltation sought out many inventions, which inventions of men, as distinct from that uprightness in which man was created, as in the first motion it was evil so the effects of it have been, and are, evil. That at this day it is as necessary for us constantly to attend on the heavenly gift to be qualified to use rightly the good things in this life amidst great improvements, as it was for our first parents, when they were without any improvements, without any friend or father but God only.” (Journal, Moulton; p. 72)


“Creaturely cunning and self-exaltation” says it all, I think. Blogs were practically invented for the purpose of self-exaltation and certainly they constantly present the temptation to toot your own horn. But they do all the good things you’ve cited, too.

        One thing, though. You say “our Quaker process is based on radical trust in the goodness of each human being,” and I read our history and tradition differently. The practices we now call “Quaker process” were based on the experience of direct, unmediated relationship with God, both as individuals and as a community. (And by “God” I mean the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience, whatever that experience is.) I know that Universalists have abandoned the divine source for Quaker faith and practice and relocated that source in the individual, so your post faithfully represents the Universalist leading on this matter. Maybe it even represents the way most liberal Friends think. But I think the testimony of integrity requires that we represent the wider Quaker tradition, and especially its historical roots, more carefully, so that we narrow such statements from a broad restatement of our tradition to a statement of a new leading that’s being tested in the lives of some Friends.

     I personally think that universalist Friends have more work to do in testing your leading. Quaker universalism seems to abandon virtually all of our tradition, replacing our traditional language and revising our “theology” by, for example, using “Quaker process” instead of “gospel order” or “speaking in meeting” instead of “vocal ministry”, and by redefining meeting for worship as a process of consensus building between individuals who are speaking truth from the Light within them rather than as a group seeking the truth under the guidance of the holy spirit. Cut off from its roots, bereft of its vocabulary, emptied of its content, of the ideas, the intellectual framework that used to hold the tradition together—it’s like Quakerism has had a stroke and lost its memory and identity.

      This offers a unique and exciting opportunity to start over and really build a new tradition, which the Fellowship has been at for a while now. I’ve not kept up with your literature in the past few years, I must admit, so maybe you’re farther along than I think. But there are a zillion questions to be answered. If, for example, meeting for worship is a gathering of individuals who each bring their measure of the Light, what is happening in a gathered meeting? If it is not gathered by the Spirit (or, traditionally, Christ, of course), what causes the exhilarating psychic sense of sharing ineffable truth, of a “presence in the midst,” of the transformative wheeling of the meeting out of discord and confusion into clarity and unity around a difficult decision? I could imagine talking about Jung, archetypes, the collective unconscious as one possible approach. What do universalists say?

     Even more to the point: Liberal and universalist Friends consistently ground the new leading about Quaker faith on the phrase “There is that of God in everyone.” It’s actually in the footer of your website. What does “that of” mean? What does “God” mean in this context? What does “that of God” mean?  If you’ve abandoned “God,” why use this phrase?

     Most Friends I’ve talked to about this have not thought about it much; they don’t really have an answer. The answers they do give suggest that they do not know what Fox meant when he said it and they reflect a mutation of Quaker thinking that diverges considerably from historical tradition, one that is vaguely neo-gnostic, having to do with a divine spark. I’m not saying this new leading is wrong; just that it’s untested and undeveloped and is way too thin a pillar to balance an entire tradition upon, especially one as rich and deep as ours.

     I guess what I’m saying is, do Quaker universalists have an emerging humanist ‘theology’ with which to articulate our experience?


Steven Davison is a member of Yardley Friends Meeting in Yardley, Pennsylvania. A writer by both vocation and avocation, he is deep into four books, writes two blogs and has published several essays in Friends Journal, Quaker Life and Quaker anthologies on earthcare and economics. In the spirit of independent Quaker ministry, he is an avid student of the Bible and of Quaker history and spirituality, faith and practice, written tradition and secondary literature. He holds a BA in Studies in Religion from Rutgers University and was the 1996 Patrick D. Henry Scholar for written ministry at Earlham School of Religion.

Blogs: BibleMonster and Through the Flaming Sword

Book titles:

How Long Will the Land Mourn: Principles and Practice of Christian Earth Stewardship

Good News for the Poor: The Economics of Redemption in the Common-wealth of God

Spiritual Ecology: Technology, Ecology and the Origins of Western Religion

Quakers and Capitalism: Contributions and Contradictions in the Economic History of Friends


John Woolman was a serious communicator. He wrote pamphlets, letters, and a journal. He traveled widely in North America and England, speaking with individuals in their houses and with Quakers and non-Quakers gathered at meetings. Twice he attempted to organize lobbying legislatures in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. He used the technology available at the time: he had things printed, sometimes at his own expense. He avoided using forms of communication that worked against the good he sought to promote. He didn't use the English post, which involved cruelty to horses and riders, and he didn't ride in English stagecoaches, and he didn't travel in a "first class" or "business class" cabin or in a ship that was engaged in the slave trade. That slowed him down. Slowing down, he found, brought him closer to the spirit of universal love, and into right relationship with all the creatures. He found walking more conducive to spiritual well being than traveling quickly. I think the question he'd ask about blogging would be, how does blogging affect blogger and bloggee spiritually? Does it make our hearts and souls more spacious and less greedy for experience? If it enlarges our spirits and brings us closer to one another to God, then it's a welcome addition to the web that knits us together in solidarity with all beings. If not, not.
Steve writes: "I know that Universalists have abandoned the divine source for Quaker faith and practice and relocated that source in the individual, so your post faithfully represents the Universalist leading on this matter." I find this a highly offensive gross generalization about an entire group of people. Have you conducted a poll of every Quaker Universalist asking them if they have abandoned the Divine Source? What were your statistical results? Probably not! Universalism among Quakers is a diverse movement encompassing believing Christians and Atheists, not mention Buddhist and Pagan Friends. That is its goal, embracing all who will in a communion of peace. Diversity isn't abandoning anything, it is embracing all beyond words and labels.
I woke up this morning thinking about my comment on your blog about whether blogging was Quakerly and had another thought. In his original entry, Anthony cites several correspondences between Quaker culture and the culture that's building on Web 2.0 technologies, including blogs: As 'diaries,' blogs are based in experience, rather than dogma or creeds. They are open, public and interactive, like Quaker meeting for worship. And they build egalitarian community. These correspondences are mostly about process. They connect, on the one hand, to the ways that blogs and online participatory culture work, how they're structured. On the other hand, they connect to Quaker culture also defined as process, to a Quakerism defined in terms of how we work and behave, and what our values are. This is perhaps the defining characteristic of liberal Quakerism, that we root our identity in our process and our values—essentially, the 'practice' side of faith and practice—rather than our content. Meanwhile, blogs are ultimately about content. The technology enables a new and exciting process for speech, and that gets all the press, but ultimately the technology still serves speech—it's about having something to say. In this regard, blogs often are like popcorn meetings: short and fast back and forth without much discernment. Woolman, and also Rachel in her comment, are focused on the deep spiritual potential of content, on how what we do and say affects others and ourselves. Meanwhile, on the other side of the comparison, liberal Quakerism is pointedly not about content. Practically the only content we have left is that "there is that of God in everyone." As Pink Dandelion has so brilliantly described in his work, we explicitly define ourselves over and against creed as a screen for abandoning our content, while adopting and enforcing a creed about process, behavior and values. This leaves us flummoxed when someone asks us: "What do Quakers believe?" We usually start with a bunch of disclaimers about the diversity of Quaker belief, the importance of individual experience, and the fact that we have no declared creed. Then we move on to "that of God in everyone" and maybe the testimonies—and then we run aground. We tend to start off negative and then go almost nowhere positive. The dilemma is especially ironic because we have so much great content. We have so much good stuff to say! I think we need our content. We need to be able to articulate our faith and our experience with clarity, confidence and integrity. We need to be able to answer Fox's challenge: "What canst we say?"
I resonated with your question about what we mean when we talk about that of God in everyone. I am a member of a liberal unprogrammed meeting, and we had a hard, good conversation a few months ago about belief and practice as we were trying to create informational materials for people who might visit our brand-new meetinghouse. One thing I came away from that conversation wondering about is why we have such a strong consensus that the defining feature of Quakerism--the thing we almost all say, first off, if someone asks us about Quakerism--is that "we believe there is that of God in everyone," when we don't have any kind of consensus about what God is or whether God exists or whether, if something exists, "God" is the word for it. It made me wonder whether the mouthing of that sentence is something of an empty ritual for us. As Quakers, should we really be repeating rote phrases without thinking about what they mean?
I'm puzzled by your statement that liberal Friends are not about content. My impression is that all Quakers, as George Fox did, should share what we have learned through our own spiritual experience. We are not trying to profess what someone else preaches to us, so it doesn't always condense into a compact statement. In my experience, ministry grows over time, and in the context of the spiritual friendships that grow in community. Maybe it's harder to communicate that in brief written form than in a long heart-to-heart talk about how God is working in each of our lives. My Quaker friends (mostly unprogrammed, from Pacific YM) often speak about this more mystically than theologically. The content is absolutely there. Sometimes it can be captured and communicated in the blog medium.
Oops, some of us are coming out of long and enduring Quaker roots and have found that liberal Quakerism is most like the centered lives we were taught to espouse from our infancy—and this is from a birthright member Iowa YM Conservative. Apparently I was carried across the snowdrifts to attend meeting—and curiously it stuck. I am still a Friend, educator, author. I feel no need to defend liberal Quakerism; our lives speak for themselves. Being raised to think for ones self provides all avenues for the soul—however one wishes to define it.
You're right. My remarks were a gross generalization and an indiscriminate characterization of a very diverse community. Thanks for firmly eldering me. I am especially grateful that your reply brought me to your own website, since it looks like we share a strong interest in the interception of ecology and economics, among other things. I look forward to diving into your site to learn more.
I believe that blobbing can be appropriate. The main issue raised by Stephen is what liberal Friends believe. Is there sufficient spiritual depth in how God is conceived of or perceived? George Fox's statement "There is that of God in everyone, ....." is apparently a referrence to Chapter 1, Verse 9, in the Gospel of John of the New Testament: "The Light that lights every man was coming into the world." My belief, and I believe that of early Friends, is that the Christ or Messiah is that Light and represents the full revelation of the will of God for Man. That means that everyone has Messiah or the Truth (of God) or God or the Inner Light. When one turns to that Inner Light -- acknowledges and follows the Light -- one becomes an offspring of God. This Light is the fullness of both grace and truth. According the the apostle Paul, Christ was in the pillar of smoke by day and fire by night in the Exodus in the wilderness. They and all who listen for and to God have the Messiah or Christ. As Barcay, the early apologist stated, there have always been Friends. "Who is approved by God? He who trembles or quakes at his word" (Isaiah 66:5) A truly gathered Friends Meeting will have the Light and the Truth according to these criteria.
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