<DIV><DIV><P>1</P><P>Revelations</P><P>1720–28</P><P>I have often felt a motion of love to leave some hints in writing of my experience of the goodness of God, and now, in the thirty-sixth year of my age, I begin this work.</P><P>I was born in Northampton, in Burlington county in West Jersey, A.D. 1720, and before I was seven years old I began to be acquainted with the operations of divine love [and often found a care upon me how I should please him].* Through the care of my parents, I was taught to read near as soon as I was capable of it [and it was even then of use to me]; and as I went from school one Seventh Day, I remember, while my companions went to play by the way, I went forward out of sight; and sitting down, I read the twenty-second chapter of the Revelations.1</P><P>On the particular Saturday, what Quakers call Seventh Day, in about 1727 with which John Woolman’s spiritual autobiography begins, the weather permitted a boy to sit outdoors reading the Bible. The author states the year and his age vaguely, in keeping with his view that time is an earthly measure of secondary significance to the spirit’s immortality. He offers "hints" of his spiritual experience, because he cannot find earthly words to describe what he felt. The reader should not expect temporal precision or attention to material details in Woolman’s Journal. The subject is not his life but his experience of God, and "hints" are the closest he can bring others to the divine.</P><P>*Bracketed phrases are from manuscript drafts of the Journal that were deleted for the first published edition. West Jersey was a Quaker colony from 1676 and was united with the colony of East Jersey in 1702 as the colony of New Jersey. The Quaker association with West Jersey survived into Woolman’s generation.</P><P>Tolerance of dampness, heat, and cold was greater in the eighteenth century than ours is today, and Woolman is not giving us much context, which readers must infer. When he writes that he sat down to read, Woolman embraces invisibility for himself and for his surroundings. "I went forward out of sight," he writes, a simple clause that encapsulates a core message. The forward movement is a self-conscious image about traversing space and time that implies spiritual growth; it suggests that the writer has already gone beyond the spiritual horizons of his peers, beyond what they can see, in more ways than one.</P><P>The Journal is rich in such subtle, artful expression. Whether the choices of words were divinely inspired is an unanswerable question for us. Woolman attributed his progress to God’s invitation, and he believed that the Journal derived from the same source. Words poured from him; his hand and quill were conduits for a message that emerged from deeper inside Woolman than he could consciously know. It is not unusual for writers to be unable to explain where their creative impulses come from, to attribute their words to a transcendent source. So we can read the Journal on Woolman’s terms, as inspired literature, and as a text where he lurks, invisible only to himself, the literary equivalent of a toddler who believes that no one can see him when he covers his eyes. Whatever he thinks, Woolman does not truly disappear into the passive voice and spiritual mist. Autobiography is not a good place to hide from oneself or from readers; we might also wonder whether Woolman’s schoolmates knew perfectly well where he was and what he did on the day when he went forward ahead of them.</P><P>Both the filter of memory and the formulaic structure of Quaker spiritual autobiographies and of the genre going back to Augustine affect Woolman’s retrospective view of his early life. We read about an idealized fall and rebirth of the sort that Catholics had reported for a millennium, and Protestants since the Reformation, and the account undoubtedly exaggerates and may even contort the writer’s memories. Events were hooks on which Woolman hung spiritual lessons that he believed transcended physical experience. Some of those lessons were distinctively his, others he borrowed; but all were fashioned of new and old, never whole, cloth that he stitched with his own thread.</P><P>We can tell from the Journal’s opening vignette that Woolman wanted readers to see him as a serious, spiritual boy who achieved an impressive level of literacy at a young age. Readers can infer that the weather was unremarkable and that the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of his youth were irrelevant or forgotten by the time he wrote, twenty-nine years after the fact. Growth from within is the book’s plot. Woolman was all about spirit, visions others could not see, and soulful interiors.</P><P>Even if Woolman’s recollection is true to his memory, that does not explain why he saw the event as a defining moment in his life or why he omitted other stories about himself as a young child. After all, it is not uncommon for an autobiographer to include information that predates his earliest memories or even his life. Benjamin Franklin and John Bunyan recount family history; Augustine "recalls" learning to talk.2</P><P>But to the early American Quakers, including John Woolman, entertaining stories such as those Franklin told (created and embellished too) were frivolous, the written equivalent of idle chatter and therefore sinful. Woolman husbanded his words as a farmer rations winter feed. Only incidents that bore directly on his spirituality made it into his book.</P><P>Woolman started his Journal with the story about reading Revelation because that was how he thought a spiritual autobiography should begin. Such introductions were formulaic in Quaker journals, of which hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, had been written during the preceding century. The first paragraphs declare the journals a record of God’s grace in the autobiographer’s life. "That all may know the dealings of the Lord with me," the Journal of George Fox (1624–91) began. John Churchman (1705–75), a "public" Friend (that is, a formally recognized minister) from Chester County, Pennsylvania, also wrote of "the reaches of divine love ... of which I am a living witness." Elizabeth Ashbridge (1713–55), an English-born Quaker who immigrated to America from Ireland as an indentured servant in 1732, "thought proper to make some remarks on the dealings of divine goodness to me." Woolman was conforming to the model when he wrote that before the age of seven he "began to be acquainted with the operations of Divine Love." A manuscript draft shows that he added "and often found a care upon me how I should please Him" to finish the thought.3</P><P>With the extended phrase the passage equates "Divine Love" and "Him," which accounts for the uppercase usage in Woolman’s handwritten drafts. God was divine love to Woolman. He wants readers to understand that he lived to please God more than he worked to satisfy his teacher, parents, classmates, or himself. When he wrote this down, he knew his intense focus on the divine was remarkable for a person of any age. That is why he wrote, and that is also why a committee of Quakers edited and then published Woolman’s Journal in 1774, two years after his death.</P><P>The passive voice—"my mind was drawn to seek"—is revealing. Woolman sustains the passive mode throughout the Journal. He is not telling readers how he became great, as Franklin did in his autobiography, or even how he became good, as Augustine did in The Confessions. The Journal is about God and how he bestowed divine love on John Woolman. It is less about Woolman’s struggle, although there is some strife, than about his acceptance of what God gave him.</P><P>This quality marks Woolman’s Journal as typical of Quaker spiritual autobiographies yet also gives a clue to its uniqueness. Men’s memoirs in the Western European tradit <BR><BR><i>Continues...</i> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition</b> by <b>Slaughter, Thomas P.</b> Copyright © 2009 by Slaughter, Thomas P.. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. 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