- John Woolman and the Government of Christ: A Colonial Quaker's Vision for the British Atlantic World by Jon R. Kershner
With the publication of John Woolman and the Government of Christ, Jon Kershner has made a major contribution to Woolman and eighteenth-century Quaker studies, as well as to scholarship on colonial American religious history, and the British Atlantic world. This book is the first in-depth theological analysis of Woolman's understanding and experience of the Kingdom of God. This careful, well-researched, and nuanced study of Woolman's theology will challenge many readers' long-held views of Woolman. Kershner's analysis is provocative because it calls for a reassessment of Woolman.
Because Woolman did not explain his theology in any formal sense, it is difficult to unravel his religious understanding. As Kershner writes, "Woolman is a complex character for theological study because of his integration of action and Spirit, mysticism and the prophetic, social justice and personal piety" (15). Kershner has analyzed the corpus of Wool-man's writings, including his dreams, to argue that Woolman's religious faith was based upon a comprehensive, alternative vision, which distinguishes him from his Quaker peers: "The theological and spiritual underpinnings of this alternative vision for the British Atlantic world purported nothing less than a direct, spiritual Christocracy on earth—what [End Page 52] Woolman referred to as the 'Government of Christ'" (1). While previous studies discussed the importance of "submission to God's will," this apocalyptic analysis examines Woolman's beliefs about sin, apostasy, God's judgement, and the eschaton (that eon when "God's revealed purposes would be fulfilled" ). These are not the topics that come to mind for many readers of Woolman's Journal, who are especially drawn to Wool-man's expressions of "a motion of love." Kershner argues that Woolman's understanding of revelation is a "realizing" eschatology, "because it was at once a present reality and still unfolding" (88). Like George Fox, he was drawn to the metaphor of Babylon in the book of Revelation. Woolman believed that Babylon "was fully represented in the transatlantic marketplace" (94), which included the slave economy. Woolman framed his criticism of the greed-based systems of the British Atlantic world in terms of their being counter to the Government of Christ.
The structure of Woolman's theology, in Kershner's analysis, involves five overlapping areas: Woolman's understanding of the Government of Christ in terms of divine revelation, propheticism, eschatology, perfectionism, and divine judgment. These are the topics of the book's central chapters. This apocalyptic understanding was based on divine revelation; it was not an apocalypse of "destruction of the present order" but of "the hopeful creation of a new order" (9). Woolman believed that God had initiated a reformation in history for all humanity, and Christ was sent to fulfill this purpose. Kershner particularly draws upon Woolman's later essays to demonstrate his propheticism, his experience of divine revelation, which made claims on himself and others to fulfill what the new order entailed for human destiny. Kershner writes that "God's will could be accomplished on earth, the faithful could know a state of perfection in God and were God's agents in accomplishing the divine will on earth" (15). Woolman expressed humanity's universal connection with the divine Spirit as a "principle" in the human mind: "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 from God" (32). This principle is expressed by Woolman as "The mind of Christ" being in us: "Now this mind being in us, which was in Christ Jesus, it removes from hearts the desire of Superiority, worldly honours or greatness … where every motion from a Selfish spirit yieldeth to pure love" (120). Resignation to God's will held central importance for Wool-man, who, like other great mystics...