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JOHN WOOLMAN: THE THEOLOGY OF A PUBLIC ORDER By Thomas E. Terrell, Jr. Historians who have studied the development of Quakerism in America would have no problem singling out men and women who have distinguished themselves in secular and religious contexts . But probably no single figure in that procession of Friends is as central to the American Quaker experience or has had as much impact upon his society as John Woolman. In his acute sense of the inwardness of the Quaker religious experience, in his outward lifestyle, and in his concern for mankind in general, Woolman emerges as the quintessential American Quaker of the eighteenth century. In fact, through his journal and essays, many have come to see him as the embodiment of eighteenth century Quaker thought, and in this sense his writings have become classic texts. After Woolman, the gradual splintering of Quakerism into various branches and the declining position of Quakerism in the American religious schema have, in many ways, impeded the emergence of another figure of Woolman's stature. Ironically, this honor goes to one whose outward life was relatively uneventful, which is one reason he has been called the "quietist radical in history."1 That Woolman was a quiet leader among 18th century Friends in the American colonies is not a point to dispute. It is noteworthy to point out, however, that despite his quiet, low-key manner, his influence was nevertheless felt. But whether he was a "radical" in any sense of the word is ambiguous . Generally, he offered no social theories that were distinct departures from any previous body of thought, nor did he offer anything new to Quaker theology. Instead of calling him a radical thinker, however, one would be more accurate to say that he prefigured some of the philosophical and theological currents that would later emerge in the 18th and 19th centuries. But in terms of religious and social thought, what Woolman *Thomas E. Terrell, Jr., is Assistant to the Dean, the Divinity School, University of Chicago. 1. Frederick B. Tolles, introduction to The Journal of John Woolman, The John Greenleaf Whittier Edition (Secaucus, N.J.: The Citadel Press, 1961), p. vii. 16 John Woolman : The Theology of a Public Order17 did accomplish was a reforging and a recasting of the already existing components of Quaker theology so that they held special relevance to his society, and in this respect one can discuss a body of thought and a social vision that was peculiarly John Woolman's. The strict application of these religious standards to the public order would have seriously uprooted many of his society's previously accepted customs and norms, and in this sense he could be considered radical. Additionally, Woolman's theology provided the foundation for his unique interpretation of the social, or public, order in such a way that separating his social from his religious views is usually not possible. This study first outlines the major aspects of Woolman's theology, and then proceeds to illustrate how Woolman's vision of the social order was a natural outgrowth of this theology. John Woolman, born in 1720, grew up along the Rancocas River in the conservative and intensely Quaker community of Northhampton, in Burlington County, New Jersey.2 His religious development was almost entirely the product of local Quaker and family influences mixed with intensive reading in the Bible and other religious works.3 His parents took care that Bible readings and study from other religious books were weekly family occurrences in the Woolman household, as was regular attendance at meeting for worship. Woolman's father was a strict disciplinarian who at all times demanded proper behavior from his children, an earnest piety and outward expression of faith that as a young boy Woolman often found difficult to maintain. By the time he was sixteen years old he began to "love wanton company" and gradually found himself straying from the rudiments and lifestyle ingrained in him as a younger child. The next four to five years were crucial to Woolman's spiritual growth as he continually struggled to balance the affairs of his outward life with what he inwardly felt to 2.See Edwin H. Cady, John Woolman...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1504
Print ISSN
0033-5053
Pages
pp. 16-30
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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