In several places, Parker Palmer tells the story of John Woolman(1720–1772), a Quaker who livedin colonial New Jersey. His story is of special interest because Quakers—who believe that majority rule is a form of violence—have always madedecisions by consensus, and the decision at stake in Woolman’s story wasone of immense moral urgency.
A tailor by trade, Woolman lived among Quaker farmers and merchants whose religious beliefs held all human beings equal in the eyes ofthe politics of the brokenheartedGod but whose affluence depended heavily on slave labor. Woolman received “a revelation from God” that slavery was a moral abominationand that Quakers should set their slaves free. He took his concern to his Meeting, asking Friends to “test his leading.” Two things soon became clear: Woolman’s personal integrity was beyond doubt, but many Friends remained unwilling to free their slaves. Because they were committed to a decision making process that prohibited voting and majority rule, the Meeting was unable to lay the issues down. For as long as the “sense of the Meeting” was divided on matters involving God’s will, they had to keep talking and praying until unity was achieved.
For twenty years, at greatpersonal cost, Woolman devoted himself to sharing this revelation withmembers of his religious community, “walking his talk” with every step.When he visited a remote farmhouse to speak of his conviction, he wouldfast rather than eat a meal prepared or served by slaves. When he discovered that he had inadvertently benefited from a slave’s labor, he would insist on paying that person.
Woolman’s message was not always well received by his fellow Quakers,who were, and are, as adept as anyone at contradicting their own beliefs.In the words of a self-satirizing Quaker quip, “We came to this countryto do good and ended up doing well.” Woolman’s message, if embraced,would require the comfortable Quaker gentry to make a considerable financial sacrifice.
John Woolman held a terrible tension as he traveled from town totown, farm to farm, meeting to meeting, speaking his truth and standingin the gap between the Quaker vision of “that of God in every person”and the reality of Quaker slaveholding. But hold the tension he did, fortwo decades, until the Quaker community reached consensus that it wascalled to free all of its slaves.On one level, this is the story of a Christian community that embracedevil and clung to it far too long. Yet the Quakers were the first religiouscommunity in this country to free their slaves, fully eighty years beforethe Civil War. In 1783, the Quaker community petitioned the Congressof the United States to correct the “complicated evils” and “unrighteouscommerce” created by the enslavement of human beings. And from1827 onward, Quakers played a key role in developing the UndergroundRailroad.
Quakers took a stand against slavery early in American history partlybecause one man, John Woolman, was willing and able to hold the tension between belief and practice. But it is important to note that the entireQuaker community was willing and able to hold that tension until itsmembers were opened to a way of life congruent with their deepest convictions. They refused to resolve the tension prematurely either by throwing Woolman out or by taking a vote and allowing the slavery-approvingmajority to have its way. Instead, they allowed the tension between visionand reality to break their individual and collective hearts open to justice,truth, and love.