Monthly Archives: March 2009

Thomas Slaughter. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition

Thomas P. Slaughter. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. Hill and Wang, 2008.

John Woolman, the Quaker “saint” who died in 1772, is certainly worthy of continued attention–as is given in this careful and thorough biography. Woolman strongly opposed slavery in a time when even many Quakers were slaveholders. He also opposed warfare and materialism. He wrote a spiritual classic, his Journal, which continues deservedly to be read widely.

I approached this book with great anticipation because while I have known of Woolman’s witness for years, I still didn’t know much about the man and his life.

Slaughter, a history professor at Rochester University in New York, writes a very close-grained account of Woolman’s life, making the most out of the fairly scarce resources we have about this exceedingly modest and spiritually rigorous Friend. So, this book makes an important contribution in giving us the details of Woolman’s outer life that shaped the inner life so powerfully expressed in the Journal.

The Woolman that Slaughter recovers for us (and I should emphasize that Slaughter seems quite sympathetic to the subject of his book–this is neither hagiography nor a hatchet job) does not come across as an overly attractive person. In particular, Woolman seems fairly hateful toward fleshly human life and even his own family ties. He departed on his one trip across the Atlantic to witness to British friends well aware of his delicate health. He expected to die (as he did) while following his calling, loved ones notwithstanding.

My biggest disappointment with this book is Slaughter’s lack of attention to the broader context of Woolman’s life–both in the sense of the dynamics of the world in which Woolman lived (e.g., I wanted desperately to know more about the retreat of Pennsylvania Quakers from political life in their colony–a retreat that reached fruition during Woolman’s life and one that was, apparently strongly encouraged by his own ministry; we are only given glancing hints concerning this event by Slaughter) and in the sense of Woolman’s impact those who followed after him (e.g., one of the big issues pointed to by the book’s title is the abolitionist movement and the transformation among Quakers from tolerance toward slavery to total opposition–Woolman seems to have pioneered these changes but we are not given much of a sense of how).

So, I finished the book wishing for something quite a bit different that what I received. I recommend it only with strong qualifications. It’s pretty long, not particularly engagingly written, and too narrowly focused. We do learn a lot about the details of Woolman’s life–he’s important enough (though Slaughter doesn’t tell us enough about why) to warrant our attention. But so much more could be done with the fascinating story of John Woolman, his life and times, and his legacy.

Peace Theology Book Review Index

King David and the Ambiguities of Power

Here is the eleventh in a series of Bible studies that present the Bible as being in the side of pacifism. In this essay, “King David and the Ambiguities of Power,” looks at the story of King David’s rise and fall. Even though Samuel had spoken sharply in opposition to the elders of Israel asking God for a human king (to be “like the other nations”), with David’s emergence, we get the sense that the institution of kingship might indeed follow the pattern of Deuteronomy 17. However, over time David succumbs to the allures of excessive power and ends up fulfilling Samuel’s warnings by taking–most overtly, Bathsheba, the beautiful wife of his loyal soldier Uriah. David’s fall marks the long descent of kingship to a pretty complete fulfillment of the worst of Samuel’s warnings. As we will see, in the end to linking of God’s promise with the nation state ends in the rubble of Judah’s king’s palace and the temple.  But the promise does not end….

Around the Internet

The Economist is not my favorite periodical. I recently signed up for a free subscription and am now trying to cancel. The point of view is way too sanguine about the corporate world, “free” trade, militarism, and the like. However, the March 7, 2009 issue contained some exceptionally good material on the failed “drug wars.”  The lead article has some good wisdom and persuasively makes the case for decriminalization.


February 2009 Links

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