The “Principle that Proceeds from God”: Revelation, Conversion and Resignation

In the last post, I looked at some of the religious, economic and political events that influenced John Woolman’s life and witness, and some of the key moments of his life. The next four posts will look at the core of Woolman’s theology.

This post examines Woolman’s theology of revelation (i.e. how did he know of God what he claimed to know?)
3) Post three explores Woolman’s “propheticism,” or, the claims of divine revelation on human affairs.
4) Post four takes up the question of “eschatology,” or, how Woolman’s views of human faithfulness were wrapped up in issues of human destiny and the fulfillment of divine promises.
5) Post five looks at the implications of Woolman’s eschatology, namely that humans were capable of living in spiritual perfection such that their actions were consistent with God will. Moreover, Woolman believed God would judge humanity if they did not respond willingly to God’s messages.
6) Post six examines Woolman’s books and the influences that might have shaped his theology.

My approach to Woolman is that he was not only a socially significant figure, but that he was an important theologian who had a coherent and consistent way of understanding God and God’s will for human destiny. Because Woolman was intelligent, consistent, and coherent it is possible to describe his theology. By looking at Woolman’s entire body of writing, we can see the key theological themes that motivated him and guided his actions.

Woolman’s main goal in his writings was to show people how to have the relationship with God that he had. His writings are grounded in the historical situation, and demonstrate shared understandings of how God operated in the world with others of his day. Since his main goal was to share how to live faithfully, he did not spend much time laying out the foundations of his thinking. It is a great privilege to reconstruct from his writings his theology so that we can enter into his world.

Woolman was not a systematic theologian that is someone who recapitulates a certain predefined set of theological doctrines. Instead, he constructed a theology that addressed his deepest concerns for the world. His theology is derived from his Quaker tradition, from his life experiences and temperament, from his readings, and from his spiritual sense of God’s activity in his life.

It is my contention, that the theological framework that best describes Woolman’s theology is that of apocalypticism.

So let’s look at a couple terms, as we begin:

Theology: belief about God, God’s will for the world, and God’s relationship to humanity

Apocalyptic: revelation, unveiling, uncovering, the revealing of God’s ultimate purposes for the world

Welcome to the Apocalypse

In pop culture, the apocalypse is usually described in terms of a catastrophic destruction of the earth. Here are just a few examples:

2-1 Four Horsemen

“Four Horsemen of Apocalypse” (1887) by the Russian artist Viktor Vasnetsov

The “four horseman” of Revelation chapter 6 are famous characters whose role is to mete out plagues and destruction on the earth. These guys are supernatural agents of God’s wrath. In most Protestant thought, the “four horseman” appear when human sinfulness has tipped the scales against humanity and God needs to intervene to restore the creation. They are almost synonymous with apocalyptic thought in the West.

2-2 Nuclear Apocalypse

Apocalypses can also be the result of human causes. This image shows two nuclear power plants in a fiery hell-scape. Common human-caused apocalypses are drawn from ecological, nuclear and political crises. This is a very popular genre of apocalyptic thought.

2-3 Day After Tomorrow

In The Day After Tomorrow a climatologist predicts that human causes will result in a superstorm that sets off a chain reaction of natural disasters. This is another take on the human caused apocalypse. The earth itself is here seen as the agent of wrath. When human actions tip the scales irrevocably against an ecological stasis, catastrophe ensues.

Most western sources favor these catastrophic portrayals of the apocalypse in which the emphasis is on the destruction of the world. In contrast, eastern traditions tend to have more of a cyclical view of time and the cosmos, and thus have apocalypses that emphasize apocalypse as the progression of one epoch into the next.

2-4 Age of Aquarius

For example, the “Age of Aquarius” is an eastern-style apocalypse. The earth, time, and the cosmos are all at play in the creation of a new world, but the catastrophic destruction of the present world is not the prominent feature.

Apocalyptic literature will always feature the unveiling of a new world, but the amount of catastrophe will vary by theology and culture.

My aim is to describe an apocalyptic Theology. By this I mean that one’s faith and understanding of God can have particular themes that would combine together to form an apocalyptic framework. Here are the basic theological elements of apocalyptic:

– God speaks directly and intimately to humans (i.e. revelation)
– this divine revelation concerns God’s intent for human behavior and relationships. God is actively restoring God’s purposes on earth. God’s revelation concerns ultimate human and world destiny. The content of divine revelation is a disclosure of the new world God is bringing about.
– the human recipient of this revelation serves as a harbinger of the age to come
– the human recipient acts as a prophet who proclaims God’s intent for the world and who begins to enact God’s kingdom. The revelation of God’s ultimate purposes are not readily apparent. God’s true purposes are known only to the elect who have received the divine revelation. The job of the apocalyptist is to open the eyes of others to what God is doing.

This is an overview of what would constitute an apocalyptic theology, which I see represented in Woolman through the theological themes we will look at in depth over the next four weeks.

The three themes of Woolman’s apocalyptic theology:

– Revelation: God speaks directly and intimately to human recipients
– Propheticism: the inward voice of God making claims on outward affairs
– Eschatology: God’s ultimate will coming into being

These themes are impossible to separate from each other, they are intertwined so that they build upon each other. Revelation is the place to start though, because it is the transmission of knowledge from God to the human recipient that is the foundation for everything else. Propheticism applies the divine revelation to world affairs and eschatology describes the new world that is foretold in the divine revelation.

Revelation

A theology of revelation addresses the question of how people attain knowledge or convictions of God and God’s will. How do we come to know what we know about God? Philosophers call this “epistemology.”

Woolman’s theology of revelation is grounded in his belief that God approaches humanity, thus making God’s Self knowable. Woolman wrote:

Thus he whose tender mercies are over all his works hath placed a principle in the human mind which incites to exercise goodness toward every living creature; and this being singly attended to, people become tender-hearted and sympathizing, but being frequently and totally rejected, the mind shuts itself up in a contrary disposition (Woolman, Journal, Moulton edition, p. 25).

And,

There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds form God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren in the best sense of the expression. Using ourselves to take ways which appear most easy to us, when inconsistent with that purity which is without beginning, we thereby set up a government of our own and deny obedience to him whose service is true liberty (Woolman, Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, Moulton edition, p. 236).

Woolman believed God gave humans the capacity to understand the divine voice and obey it perfectly. In his journal, Woolman described a “principle” which God imparted to human beings. This “principle” is an innate connection point between God and humanity. The “principle” is not divine in itself, but it provides a line of transmission directly from God. This connection point is not God, but draws human beings toward God.

Woolman understood this connection point to give real knowledge of what God desires for human behavior. In other words, revelation was not only about feelings but about direct and explicit divine commands for living in the world. Moreover, Woolman viewed revelation as universal in that it transcends confessional distinctions, but it was exclusive in that it can be shunted and is only effectual for those who attend to it and obey it. The principle was “inward,” meaning that revelation was primarily spiritual rather than external, but the content of revelation was addressed into human affairs, and, so, had outward manifestations.

Importantly, for Woolman revelation always derived from God’s “principle.” It resides in humans, but it “proceeds” from God. Humans can bear this “principle,” but it’s value and power comes from God alone not from human capacity. So, Woolman believed God wanted to reveal God’s will in an imminent way to humanity and that humanity had a capacity to receive this revelation through the inward principle, but first they must be converted and resigned to God.

Conversion and Resignation

However, the principle must grow and begin to take over the life of the individual.

How did Woolman believe this was to take place? In the event of conversion Woolman’s will was “subjected” to God’s will, and after conversion he sought to live “resigned” to God’s will. “Resignation” was a spiritual state where human knowledge, effort, and status were relinquished and were subjected to God’s will. In the state of “resignation,” the human could perfectly know God’s will and perfectly enact God’s will.

Modern day readers will likely have some qualms with Woolman’s use of the word “resignation,” because it sounds passive and fatalistic. Yet, it is the lynchpin to his theology of revelation. In fact, some scholars have reacted negatively to Woolman’s spirituality of “resignation.” One of the greatest Quaker scholars of the 20th Century, Rufus Jones, has linked Woolman with those whose only hope for human action on earth was to “annihilate the self,” and retreat from all things pertaining to the creature. Jones’ said Woolman practiced a spirituality that was too pure to bear any real fruit in the day to day affairs of one’s life.

I think Jones’ critique of 18th century Quakers represents his own modernist biases. Jones witnessed the ascendancy of religious liberalism in American and European culture, and along with it was a strong sense of optimism about natural human capacities to enact modern values and the rightfulness of doing so. Woolman, however, was reflecting the long tradition starting with the Apostle Paul and throughout Christianity that was aware of the difference between life in the Spirit and life in the flesh and the need to be converted to the Spirit and live as a new creation. In the early 20th century when Jones was most active, especially before the Holocaust, theological scholarship had largely moved toward an unquestioned acceptance of historical progress and the human capacity to work redemptively and positively in themselves without the need for a transformation that was a work of God, as previous ages had. Jones’ scholarship has left a lasting impact on many understandings of Woolman, and has led many to gloss over Woolman’s spirituality of resignation. However, I hope we can pick it back up in order to understand the cohesion within Woolman’s theology.

Through resignation, the individual was transformed into consistency with God’s intention for the world.

I believed the hand of Providence pointed out this business [tailoring] for me and was taught to be content with it, though I felt at times a disposition that would have sought for something greater. But through the revelation of Jesus Christ, I had seen the happiness of humility, and there was an earnest desire in me to enter deep into it; and at times this desire arose to a degree of fervent supplication, wherein my soul was so environed with heavenly light and consolation that things were made easy to me which had been otherwise.[1]

Woolman does not mention “resignation” in this passage, but it speaks to the process of resignation in a very concise way. Here God revealed to Woolman a new way of living in the world, which is leaving merchandising and taking up tailoring. This new vocation was pointed out by God’s work in his life, what he here referred to as “Providence.” Obedience to this revelation was also made possible through God’s inward voice, “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” When he entered into God’s revelation, he was then able to see the world and his role in it in a new “heavenly light.”

“Resignation” then was both human activity and divine activity. Enabled by the extension of God’s self to the individual, the individual could then respond positively and enact a way of living consistent with God’s intent. “Resignation” was, for Woolman, an epistemology wherein God’s will was received and enacted transformatively on earth. “Resignation” was part of an apophatic spirituality that sought to become subject to the divine truth that redefined all of reality. Apophatic spirituality believes there is a limit to what human language can provide in the approach to God, and, so, usually values silence as a way to relationship with God. In Woolman’s “resignation” and “subjections” to God, he found himself to be integrated and aligned with divine purposes in such a way that he embodied God’s will on earth.

We saw something similar to this quote last week, where Woolman said the change wrought in him was beyond what words can convey. Here, though, the new life God had revealed to him and brought about in him was not only beyond words, it was an earthly state that correlated with eschatological events. In other words, Woolman’s conversion to a new state in God was not only a revelation of the best way to live, it was a revelation of the eschatological community that God was bringing about on earth.

This will be understood by such who have trodden in the same path. Some glances of real beauty may be seen in their faces who dwell in true meekness. There is a harmony in the sound of that voice to which divine love gives utterance, and some appearance of right order in their temper and conduct whose passions are fully regulated. Yet all these do not fully show forth that inward life to such who have not felt it, but this white stone and new name is known rightly to such only who have it.[2]

Woolman’s reference to a “white stone and new name” alludes to Revelation 2:17, where the post-Resurrection Christ inaugurated an eschatological community of the faithful with power to overcome Satan and rule over the nations.[3] The true-self, Woolman believed, was only discerned by those who were united with the revelation of God.[4] This secret knowledge of eternal and spiritual states existed in the physical world for those who “understood.”[5] Without that secret knowledge, granted by divine revelation, but hidden to the worldly, the transformed state was impossible.

This was a fully transcendent revelation unknowable through objective proofs or the criteria of reason and thoroughly apocalyptic.[6] Inaugurated at the moment of conversion, Woolman experienced a “change wrought in me” that was total in scope.[8] Not only did this change alter the standards of ethical behaviour, so that slave-keeping, abusive economic practices and pollution[9] were no longer tenable, but it initiated a new, true identity within the world and a new community of the faithful, able to discern God’s intentions and participate in the establishment of God’s government. For Woolman, not even benevolence could “fully show forth that inward life to such who have not felt it.”[11] The kingdom was only understood by those who had been transformed and given a new identity.[12]

The content of divine revelation

Now I want to shift to say something of the content of the revelation that Woolman received from God. So up until now we have been talking about process, now we are talking about content. Woolman does not ever record in one spot the whole vision for the new world he thought God had revealed to him and was already bringing about. He let’s it out in bits and drabs in response to the needs of the world around him. However, the following passage gives some interesting insights into the type of new world he thought would become normative in a remade society:

Under the humbling Power of Christ, I have seen that if the leadings of his Holy Spirit were faithfully attended to by his professed Followers in general, the Heathen Nations would be exampl’d [sic] in Righteousness. A less Number of People would be employed on the seas. The Channels of Trade would be more free from Defilement. Fewer People would be employed in Vanities and Superfluities.
The Inhabitants of Cities would be less in Number. Those who have much Lands would become Fathers to the poor.
More People would be employed in the sweet Employment of Husbandry, and in the Path of pure Wisdom, Labour would be an agreeable, healthful Employment.
In the Opening of these Things in my Mind, I feel a living Concern that we who have felt Divine Love in our Hearts may faithfully abide in it, and like good Soldiers endure Hardness for Christ’s Sake.[13]

Woolman was not a fan of the burgeoning imperial economy of his day, though his reasons for feeling that way were neither political nor nationalistic.[14] For Woolman, the “Power of Christ” revealed the apostasy of an economy driven by the profits of a luxury trade.[15] He envisioned a world where the followers of Christ dwelled in “the leadings of his Holy Spirit” and, by their faithful example, evangelized “the Heathen Nations.”[16]

Specifically, Woolman’s vision called for fewer people “employed on the seas” and in the production of what he felt were extravagant items and for fewer people living in cities.[17] While he did not dismiss all sea trade as sinful, he argued elsewhere that sea traffic should be “no more than was consistent with pure wisdom.”[18] In other words, he believed economy and trade itself should be dictated by God’s immediate revelation. Ultimately, his ideal was an agrarian society of farmers and moderate labour. This is not just the vision for world organisation towards which Woolman felt personal affinity, he gave it theological weight by claiming this vision was the result of divine “openings,” encapsulated “the Path of pure Wisdom,” according to God’s intentions for the world, and incited the faithful to be persistent, spiritual “Soldiers” in this cause.[19] “Abiding under” the leadership of Christ, Woolman believed, not only the larger social structures, but the daily choices of living, would be representative of God’s intentions for the world.[20] Woolman thought divine revelation carried social implications: “From an inward purifying, and steadfast abiding under it, springs a lively operative desire for the good of others,” he wrote.[21]

2-5 World Under Christ's Reign

The content of God’s revelation was received spiritually, but the message Woolman received framed every aspect of human affairs: political, social, economic and religious. For Woolman, the functioning of the world was dictated by the immediate presence and revelation of the Spirit. Society itself would be governed by Christ, and made to conform to God’s ultimate intent for human affairs.

In Woolman’s theology, God’s “leadings” were not confined to a purely subjective and personal spirituality. Rather, Woolman’s theology of revelation was equally spiritual and social, and subverted the dominant world order and left in its place a christocracy where all things were directly governed by the inward voice of Christ, revealed immediately to the faithful. Woolman called this apocalyptic revelation in which the world as it was was transformed and remade according to God’s perfect intent, “The Government of Christ.”

In conclusion, the foundation of Woolman’s theology was a view of revelation as supernatural, but available to human beings. It was transcendent in that it derived externally from God, but was received spiritually and inwardly. It gave real knowledge about God’s will for human affairs. It was not only a message of individual faithfulness, rather it sought to conform every aspect of world affairs to God’s reign on earth through the faithful. Woolman’s theology of revelation, then, was nothing less than a revelation of the new world God was bringing about on earth.

[1]Woolman, ‘Journal’, 35-36. Emphasis mine.
[2]Woolman, ‘Journal’, 29.
[3]Revelation 2:17, 26-29: “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it. 26 To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations— 27 that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’[b]—just as I have received authority from my Father. 28 I will also give that one the morning star. 29 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
[4]Early Quaker, Edward Burrough, signed his 1656 pamphlet, ‘by one whose name is truly known by the children of the same birth, Edward Burrough.’ Like Woolman, Burrough and other early Quakers believed that God had given them a new identity, a new name, which was only known through divine revelation. Dandelion argues that early Quakers lived in a duality of time and experience in which they were known by their outward and worldly names in the world, but truly only known by their new names by God. Woolman appears to share this sense of duality, believing that the real essence of the self was only knowable through revelation. Edward Burrough, A Trumpet of the Lord Sounded Out of Sion Which Gives a Certaine Sound in the Eares of All Nations, and Is a True Noyse of a Fearfull Earthquake at Hand, Which Shall Shake the Whole Fabrick of the Earth, and the Pillars of its Standing shall Fall, and Never More be Set up Againe (London: Giles Calvert, 1656), 1; Dandelion, Liturgies, 36.
[5]Woolman, ‘Journal’, 29.
[6]Schmithals writes: ‘The main concern in apocalyptic is a set of truths which are not generally accessible and do not at once result from the rational consideration of reality, but must be revealed to man, must be announced to him from beyond himself. What the apocalyptist has to say is therefore new to his hearers; the one truth, formerly unknown but now revealed.’ Schmithals, The Apocalyptic Movement, 14.
[8]Woolman, ‘Journal’, 29.
[9]Woolman, ‘Plea for the Poor’, 246.
[11]Woolman, ‘Journal’, 29.
[12]Likewise, in 1659, Penington foreshadowed Woolman’s theology of revelation: ‘for until ye know, and have received the thing itself, ye are at a distance from that to which all belongs.’ Isaac Penington, The Works of Isaac Penington, vol. 1, 4th ed. (Philadelphia, 1863), 314; cf. Pryce, ‘Tradition of Quietism in Early Quakerism’, 4; Woolman, ‘Journal’, 29.
[13]Woolman, ‘On a Sailor’s Life’, 505–506.
[14]Contrast Woolman’s rejection of the transatlantic marketplace with other colonial voices which eschewed economic dependence on England, while promoting material choice in itself.
[15]Woolman, ‘On a Sailor’s Life’, 505–506.
[16]Woolman, ‘On a Sailor’s Life’, 505–506.
[17]Woolman, ‘On a Sailor’s Life’, 505–506.
[18]Woolman, ‘Journal’, 158.
[19]Woolman, ‘On a Sailor’s Life’, 505–506.
[20]Woolman, ‘Journal’, 31.
[21]Woolman, ‘Journal’, 31.

Close