January 10, 2009

Guest Piece: Marshall on the historical nature of Quaker journals

What follows below is a couple of informative comments that Marshall Massey left on my previous post.

At one point in our exchange of comments, I posed to Marshall, "How can we know what it was that Woolman wanted to convey [in his journal] with that story?"--that story being the one where Woolman is worshiping with a group of Native Americans, offers some vocal ministry, and is met with with the words of Native American worshiper among them: "I love to feel where the words come from..."

In his thoughtful replies, Marshall describes the historical nature, purpose, and structure of the journals of early Friends and of journal writers long before--and since--that era. For any of us who might be keeping a journal, whether for personal reasons, for purposes of accountability, or out of a sense of God's leading, this post might be of interest.

I present this guest piece, then, with Marshall's permission. I have set it up as a sort of dialogue between him and me, since his comments emerge in response to my own questions. The hope is that by viewing my original questions, readers will understand the context out of which Marshall answers.

I have added line breaks and blockquotes in some places as well. Lastly, wherever convenient and available, I've included links to items that Marshall references.

LIZ: How can we know what it was that Woolman wanted to convey with that story--or did he explicitly say, This is why I'm writing this...?

MARSHALL: How we can know, dear Liz, is because this was the traditional purpose of Quaker journals, for a hundred years before Woolman and a hundred years after him: to record the evidence of divine grace working through the writer.

It was also the purpose of Calvinists' journals, from long before Quakerism got started through the time of Jonathan Edwards and beyond. The Quaker journal-writing tradition was, in fact, an adaptation of the Calvinist journal-writing tradition.

Woolman was working within a well-established, well-defined Quaker spiritual discipline. There is no evidence that he rejected Quaker discipline of any sort.

LIZ: As usual, I appreciate how you are able to put things into a larger historical and Quaker context. My guess is, though, that if I asked five other Quaker historians about why Quaker ministers kept journals, I might get another five or six answers!

MARSHALL: Hi again, Liz!

I would certainly encourage you to ask other Quaker historians about the reason, if you have the time.

Failing that, there is actually a wealth of scholarly opinion about the topic available in book form. Daniel B. Shea's Spiritual Autobiography in Early America (University of Wisconsin Press, 1968, 1988) might be a good place to start, since Woolman's Journal is one of the ones he examines.

Shea, who is regarded as a leading figure in this field, writes,
"The explicit arguments of early spiritual narratives were highly conventional. ... The spiritual autobiographer is primarily concerned with the question of grace: whether or not the individual has been accepted into divine life, an acceptance signified by psychological and moral changes which the autobiographer comes to discern in his past experience. ... Quaker journalists dealt less with the subtleties of the conversion process than with the witnessing life wrought by conversion. ... Each of these selections [reviewed in Shea's book] obeys conventions established for the journal in seventeenth-century England, in content and vocabulary, and in the vindication of Quaker habits and beliefs. ....Outbursts of originality were incidental, brief, and contained within the larger structure of the journal, which was already well established by 1700. Conformity to this structure resulted from a group mentality, but also of course from the common experiences of traveling Friends." (Pp. xxv-xxvii, 9-10, 39-40.)
If your quarrel is with my statement that "the traditional purpose of Quaker journals ... [was] to record the evidence of divine grace working through the writer," you might also want to give some consideration to the opening words of Woolman's Journal: "I have often felt a motion of Love to leave some hints of my experience of the Goodness of God...."

As Shea points out, these words are not very different from the opening words of the memoirs of Jane Reynolds and Elizabeth Collins; nor, I might add, from those of the memoirs of Elizabeth Ashbridge, Thomas Chalkley, Ruth Follows, John Griffith, Alice Hayes, Jane Hoskens, Henry Hull, Joseph Oxley, Jane Pearson, Joseph Pike, Elizabeth Stirredge, and many other Quaker journal-keepers.

The standard formula was something along the lines of
"[I have had it on my mind/I have felt drawings/It hath been in my heart] for many years to [write an account/leave some hints/leave a short testimony] of the [providence/precious visitations] and [tender/gracious/merciful dealings] of the [Almighty/Lord/All-Wise] with me from my youth up."
Often the writer adds this is "for the benefit of my children" or "for those who come after" or something similar.

A few writers elaborate the basic idea more fully, such as Thomas Shillitoe, who began, "Believing it required of me in my early life, to keep a record of the merciful dealings of the Lord with me, and the remarkable manner in which he, in his tender compassion, has followed me by his reproofs of instruction, accompanied by such offers of help, as when faithfully co-operated with, never have failed to be all-sufficient for every work and service He has been pleased to call me to perform...."

Or Daniel Wheeler, who opened by saying, "Having frequently derived much valuable instruction, from the perusal of the narratives of those who have long since exchanged an earthly for an heavenly inheritance, the thought has at times occurred to me, that a short memoir of my own life, — however evil 'the days of the years of my pilgrimage' have been; might, under the divine blessing, be made in like manner useful to others."

In every case, the words amount to the writer's own ideas of the journal's purpose, which is a fusion of (1) wanting to note how she has been a beneficiary of grace, (2) wanting to show that she has been blessed to be an instrument through which grace came to others, and (3) wanting the journal itself to serve as such an instrument. The three motives do not seem to me to be separable; they are, in fact, three aspects of a single motive driving the work.

Perhaps the other historians you have in mind will be able to offer the other understandings to which you refer. If so, I'll be most interested to read them!

With all good wishes —


Anonymous said...

One question I have is how parameters of "grace" might apply if the authors of the journals were not thinking in terms of "traditional Christianity." As I understand it, the stated purpose of Woolman's visit to the indians, for example, to see how the Spirit moved among them and not to convert them as stated by Marshall: "I've long thought it interesting that it wasn't Woolman who said, "I love to feel where the words come from," but a native American in an audience that Woolman was trying to convert to Christianity." On a question concerning theological diversity or acceptance of different theological bases, I think that has a great deal of bearing if my understanding is correct, but I'm no historian.
In His Love,
Nate Swift

Anonymous said...

Dear friend Nate,

Woolman's journey to visit the native Americans encamped near Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, is described in Phillips P. Moulton, ed., The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman (Oxford Univ., 1971; Friends United Press, 1989), pp. 122-34. He stated his motive at the very beginning, and it was not as you understand it, "to see how the Spirit moved among them", although he acknowledged that "I believed some of them were measurably acquainted with that divine power which subjects the rough and froward will of the creature." (Pp. 122-23.) Rather his motive was simply that he felt "inward drawings toward a visit to that place." (P. 123) In other words, he went to see the Indians because the Spirit told him to, with no further explanation given.

This was standard operating procedure for Woolman, as it was for Friends generally between 1644 and the late 19th century. As Woolman himself said a little later in his account of this same visit, "...Mine eye was to the great Father of Mercies, humbly desiring to learn what his will was concerning me...." (P. 128.) When he arrived in the country of the natives, he wrote, "as I believed I had under a sense of duty come thus far, I was now in earnest beseeching the Lord to show me what I ought to do." (P. 130.) Note that he wrote, "what I ought to do," not "what I was there to learn." He was very clear that he was there to be the doer, the actor, the vessel through which teaching was imparted to others.

So at this point he began gathering an audience for his preaching. "...On the 14th day, 6th month," he wrote, "we sought out and visited all the Indians hereabouts that we could meet with.... Here I expressed the care I had on my mind for their good and told them that true love had made me willing thus to leave my family to come and see the Indians and speak with them in their houses." (P. 130.) Note the direction of the energy: Woolman had come because he had a care for their good, not the other way around; this implied that they were to be the beneficiaries of the good, and he to be the servant through which it came to them. And accordingly, he had come to speak with them, rather than the other way around.

Woolman's meeting with the natives, when it finally took place, was in the context of a religious meeting sponsored by the local Moravian mission, at which the natives "expected the Moravian would speak". (Pp. 132-33.) Because this was so, Woolman felt it necessary to obtain the approval of the Moravian missionary for his speaking at what otherwise would have been a Moravian-dominated occasion (P. 133). Thus, this was a religious meeting at which Woolman replaced the Moravian as the preacher.

Woolman wrote of "the interpreters, endeavouring to acquaint the people with what I said" (p. 133); he made no mention of the interpreters endeavoring to acquaint him with what the natives were trying to convey. The communication, in other words, was basically one-directional, from him to them.

And now we come to the climax. At the end of the service, Woolman wrote, "feeling my mind covered with the spirit of prayer, I told the interpreters that I found it in my heart to pray to God and believed if I prayed right he would hear me, and expressed my willingness for them to omit interpreting...." (P. 133.) So Woolman at this point was engaged in oral ministry, without translation into the native tongue, and the natives were simply listening. "And before the people went out," Woolman wrote, "I observed Papunehang (the man who had been zealous in labouring for a reformation in that town, being then very tender) spoke to one of the interpreters, and I was afterward told that he said in substance as follows: 'I love to feel where words come from.'" (P. 133.)

I think this fully supports my contention as to what was going on.

Woolman was very much a traditional Christian, apart from the distinctives peculiar to the Quakerism of his time, all of which you may find spelled out in Barclay's Apology. He would not have denied the divinity of Christ, the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning Christ, the Virgin Birth, the Atonement, the Resurrection, or the Great Commission, all of which were simply taken for granted by Friends in his time. Controversies about such things did not begin to arise among Friends until forty-four years after Woolman's visit to the native Americans — and forty-four years is a long time among humans. It's been forty-four years from the inauguration of Lyndon Johnson as President, to the present day.

All the best,

Rich in Brooklyn said...

While I agree with Marshall's presentation of Woolman's purposes, I think that there is also some evidence that in addition he hoped to learn something from and about the Indians he visited. After all, his Journal also says "Twelfth of sixth month being the first of the week and rainy day, we continued in our tent, and I was led to think on the nature of the exercise which hath attended me. Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them; and as it pleased the Lord to make way for my going at a time when the troubles of war were increasing, and when, by reason of much wet weather, travelling was more difficult than usual at that season, I looked upon is asa more favorable opportunity to season my mind, and to bring me into a nearer sympathy with them. As mine eye was to the great Father of Mercies, humbly desiring to learn his will concerning me, I was made quiet and content.

Anonymous said...

My thanks to Rich for joining the conversation!

Yes, my summary of Woolman's visit to the natives definitely omitted quite a bit — not only the passage Rich quotes, which appears on p. 127, but also some fairly extensive ruminations on the plight of the native Americans (pp. 125, 126, 1128, 129, 133-34), on the situation of settlers along the frontier, on the violence between the native Americans and the settlers, on the obligation of Friends to keep clear from complicity in the evil of liquor trading, and on the positive "white man's burden" that the Quaker settlers were under to preach and work for the natives' benefit.

That last, which appears on p. 129, may perhaps be particularly pertinent: "...I did this day greatly bewail the spreading of a wrong spirit, believing that the prosperous, convenient situation of the English requires a constant attention to divine love and wisdom.... Nor have I words sufficient to set forth that longing I then felt that we who are placed along [the Atlantic] coast, and have tasted the love and goodness of God, might arise in his strength and like faithful messengers labour to check the growth of these seeds, that they might not ripen to the ruin of our posterity."

What I find notably missing from the account is any evidence that Woolman really did engage in substantive dialogue with the natives, or learned anything directly from them that was to his spiritual advantage. The passage Rich quotes was the only point at which he expressly considered such a thing, and it doesn't appear that his thoughts led to any concrete results.

Liz Opp said...

Just a quick acknowledgment and note of appreciation to those of you who are discussing this post a bit more thoroughly than when it was embedded in the last post's comments. Glad to know it's been of interest to a few other Friends.

And thanks to Marshall for being willing to respond to the comments!