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Readings for Reflection: September 2006
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

Both the Bible and our Quaker "saints," such as George Fox and John Woolman, are often quoted selectively to support either political activism or the life of the spirit.  Ann Arbor Meeting's Phillips Moulton, now deceased, editor of the most authoritative edition of Woolman's Journal, knew Woolman's success as a reformer was dependent on both inner faith and outer action. Phil often spoke of his concern that both Friends and the wider society were drifting toward secular humanism and individualism, ignoring the deep core of faith in God from which authentic action springs. The following is from his short essay, “The Contribution of John Woolman to Human Betterment.”


What Gives Purpose and Direction to our Lives?
Woolman's Quaker Contribution

Phillips Moulton


An especially important contribution of Woolman to our time is that he provides a much-needed antidote to the hedonism and narcissism that saturates our society. Slick magazines and TV advertisements extol self-expression. People resort to noise, speed, and motion to distract their attention from the void at the center of their lives. When Woolman turned self-ward it was to increase his sensitivity to the reality beyond himself. He was other-directed - to the transcendent God and to human beings with whose needs he identified. His ethical insight and inner strength were largely due to his reading of the Bible and devotional classics and to frequent periods of quiet reflection. He was sensitive to the still small voice that gave his life purpose and direction. This practice, integral to his life and to Quakerism at its best, is in direct contrast to some of the most destructive aspects of our society.

With a sound base in the Christian faith, a sure sense of mission, and keen ethical discernment, he combined in superlative fashion the inner life of the spirit with persistent social action. He attacked not only individual sins, but also the systemic evil embedded in the social structure - slavery, economic exploitation, and war. As one who embodied in his personal life the ideas and principles by which he judged contemporary mores, he provides us with a superb example of the Quaker contribution to human betterment.

Conference on Quaker Studies on Human Betterment Proceedings,
Swarthmore College, June 16-18, 1988
Reprinted in The Tendering Presence, Essays on John Woolman (Pendle Hill, 2003)

All Readings for Reflection
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