Woolman says loving your kids too much supports slavery

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John Woolman--18th Century American Quaker, reformer, mystic, abolitionist, writer, wandering preacher--argued that excessive love contributed to the institution of slavery. Yes, that's right--excessive, gluttonous, kinship love. The argument is quite simple: parents who had slaves could save more money for their childrens' futures; they could give them more stuff, provide a secure life for them. John Woolman, of course, thought this was narrow-minded, immoral love; not a Christian love at all. It's loving one person at the expense and misery of another. And he wasn't arguing against the sort of slave-holder you think about. He was arguing against his fellow Quakers who had slaves! They were the guilty kind, the kind who wouldn't beat their slaves, who perhaps didn't like the institution alltogether; the kind who said "necessary evil" and "at least it's a way to convert them to Christianity". John Woolman loved his children too. But he loved them as he loved everyone else (I know that's hard to comprehend, but the biography portrays his life that way...he barely mentions his family in his own autobiography; he is a rare man indeed).

Woolman's life-long project to end slavery by literally walking around America talking to the slave-holders themselves, is only a fraction of his beautiful soul. Much like Martin Luther King Jr. thought that racism was part of a larger problem (hence, he devoted his life to anti-war, pro-union, anti-poverty projects too), Woolman's life was filled with nothing more than an obsession to purify his heart of sin, to figure out God's Will, to be humble, to wait for God to speak to him, to pray, to travel across the world. What amazed me so much was this man's obsession to be morally perfect in God's eyes, as he understood it along the way. The title of the book--The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman--is apt. For him the big things and the little things mattered. At one point he realized that an unbleached hat would last longer than a bleached hat. This was practically a moral crisis for him. For the rest of his life he wore completely unbleached (white) clothes (which made him look very weird). He had similarities with the saints that William James analyzes in Varieties of Religious Experience. But what makes his soul most beautiful is his character, how he chose to carry himself: humble, meek, mild, understanding, loving, patient, hopeful, steady, grateful. He showed love to the slave-holder; that's why he was successful in changing their minds.

This is not the best written biography by far, although it's good scholarship. It repeats a lot, and reads much like a long, extended commentary of Woolman's own Journal. But the subject matter is fascinating and worth it.


The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman

Posted by Matt Smith at 12/09/2012 01:57:15 PM | 

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