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Readings for Reflection: October 2011
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

John Woolman on the Responsibility of Sustainable Care of the Earth

Woolman was a man of his time, and so his thinking was consistent with the 18th-century views on the biblical text. However, his reasoning was also prophetic. In the 11th chapter of his major essay, A Plea for the Poor, he explores the condition of God’s gift of the earth to human beings: the principle of universal love in which no man has the right to deplete life on the earth and all are privileged to share in its bounty. – Thomas Taylor

“The heavens, even the heavens, are the Lord’s, but the earth hath he given to the children of men.”   Ps. 115:16

As servants of God, what land or estate we hold, we hold under him as his gift; and in applying the profits it is our duty to act consistent with the design of our benefactor. Imperfect men may give on motives of misguided affection, but Perfect Wisdom and Goodness gives agreeable to his own nature. Nor is this gift absolute, but conditional, for us to occupy as dutiful children and not otherwise, for he alone is the true proprietor. “The world,” saith he, “is mine, and the fullness thereof.” Ps. 24:1.

The inspired Lawgiver directed that such of the Israelites who sold their inheritance should sell it for a term only, and that they or their children should again enjoy it in the Year of Jubilee, settled on every fiftieth year. “The land shall not be sold forever, for the land is mine,” saith the Lord, “for ye are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev. 25:23), the design of which was to prevent the rich from oppressing the poor by too much engrossing the land. And our blessed Redeemer said: “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled” [Mt. 5:18].

Where divine love takes place in the hearts of any people, and they steadily act on a principle of universal righteousness, there the true intent of the Law is fulfilled, though their outward modes of proceeding may be distinguishable from one another. But where men are possessed by that spirit hinted at by the prophet, and looking over their wealth, say in their hearts, “Have we not taken to us horns by our own strength?” [Amos 6:13] – here they deviate from the divine law and do not account their possessions so strictly God’s, nor the weak and poor entitled to so much of the increase thereof, but that they may indulge their desires in conforming to worldly pomp. And thus where house is joined to house and field laid to field till there is no place, and the poor are thereby straitened, though this be done by bargain and purchase, yet, so far as it stands distinguished from universal love, so far that woe prefixed by the prophet will accompany their proceedings.

As he who first formed the earth out of nothing was then the true proprietor of it, so he still remains; and though he hath given it to the children of men, so that multitudes of people have had sustenance from it while they continued here, yet he hath never aliened it; but his right to give is as good as at the first, nor can any apply the increase of their possessions contrary to universal love, nor dispose of lands in a way which they know tends to exalt some by oppressing others, without being justly chargeable with usurpation.

From The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, Phillips P. Moulton, ed., pp. 256-57.

Note: Thomas Taylor is leading a five-part reading and discussion series on The Journal of John Woolman, starting October 17 (see announcement).

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