Letters to Dear John

Reading John Woolman’s autobiography made me curious about how I would respond to his gentle but challenging ministry for fellow Quakers to abandon harmful social institutions and live in a way that carried no seeds of war. My musings took the form of these imaginary letters to Woolman.

Dear John,

Thank you for your short visit. I wish you had allowed me to send my Benjamin to fetch you, rather than walking the ten miles from town. It would have given us more time together, and I have so many questions raised by your request that I relinquish Benjamin. I cannot imagine operating my household without his labor. Also, I take exception to your generalization that there are “so many vices and corruptions” caused by our way of life. Others may abuse their property, but I keep Benjamin well, and it is his labor that frees me up for activities such as visiting the sick and widowed among us. You also argued that my customs “tend to stir up wrath and increase war and dissolution.” But I cannot see how my giving up Benjamin would change that. These customs are too ingrained in society for one person’s actions to make a difference. Relinquishing Benjamin will stop no wars.

Dear John,

I received your recent letter with joy and consternation today. I was shaken by your argument that “in laboring to support a way of living comfortable to the present world, the departure from that wisdom that is pure and peaceable hath been great.” I see that I have used the labor of Benjamin for luxuries, and have determined to simplify my life, which will mean less labor for Benjamin, and more time for me to devote to God. I look forward to sharing the fruits of this decision with you when we next meet.

Dear John,

I had hoped you would greet my decision to simplify my life with joy; instead, you admonish me for not doing away completely with Benjamin’s services. I cannot see how that would help. I need his labor to run my business. Giving him up would likely require me to leave this lovely home. It could ruin me financially. It would make me the laughingstock of the community. And what would you have me do with him? Sell him, and thus perpetuate the very practice you wish me to avoid? Leave him to sit idle until someone else sees his value and absconds with him? Either way, his life will not change for the better, and mine would most likely take a turn for the worse. You ask too much, my friend.

Dear John,

Thank you for your kind words of encouragement, and your recognition that change is difficult. I shall seriously consider your notion that I need to be “weaned from the desire of getting estates, or even holding them together, when truth requires the contrary.” Please have patience with me. I am slowly coming around to your view that a radical rethinking of our society’s values is needed, but that the leadership for this change must come from personal change. As you say, “conduct is more convincing than language.” However, I fear my faith is not yet strong enough to allow me to join those who, as you say, “may not only break the yoke of oppression but may know God to be their strength and support in times of outward affliction.” Pray for me, that I may gain the courage I need to change.

P.S. You inquired in your last letter about Benjamin’s origins. I have owned him for 16 years. He is a 1994 Toyota Truck.

Marsha Green is a member of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Meeting and serves on the Board of Trustees for Carolina Friends School. She and her husband, Michael, serve as Couple Enrichment Leaders for Friends General Conference.

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