Movings of Divine Love: The Love of God in the Letters of John Woolman

By Drew Lawson. Inner Light Books, 2020. 158 pages. $30/hardcover; $20/paperback; $10/eBook.

The subtitle of Movings of Divine Love is a little misleading. This is not primarily a collection of letters by John Woolman. Rather, in traditional terms, this book is an apology; that is, a formal statement, justification, and defense of the writer’s religious beliefs. It is Drew Lawson’s clear and carefully thought-out description of his religious and spiritual insights as they have been influenced by the writings of John Woolman, Thomas Merton, Leonardo Boff, and others. As Lawson states in his introduction, his purpose is to “encourage you [the reader] to reflect on your own spiritual journey and deepen your awareness of your relationship with the Divine.”

Lawson is an Australian member of both the Religious Society of Friends and the Roman Catholic Church. For 30 years, he has lived in an intentional community in the Whipstick Forest of rural Australia and was the founding director of Daybreak, an ecumenical spiritual center in Bendigo, Australia. He trained in spiritual direction at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Pennsylvania and conducted research on Woolman’s writings at Swarthmore and Haverford Colleges near Philadelphia, Pa. Lawson has spent many years in close engagement with the essential elements of Quakerism and of Christianity. The insights he has gained and shares in this book are worth our consideration.

Movings of Divine Love alternates between Lawson’s reflections and transcriptions of eighteenth-century letters by and about Woolman. In the personal contemplations, he focuses on the effects of Divine love in his life, the brokenness he sees as inherent in being a human creature, the faithfulness required to utterly abandon oneself to God, and both the price and the rewards of such devotion.

Lawson found a compatriot in Woolman: a traveler who walked the same road in his spiritual journey. He found in Woolman a spiritual guide who not only points the way but also challenges us to follow in it. Divine love for Woolman is not “warm and comforting” or “affirming and accepting” in the ways that many twenty-first-century Friends would have it. Divine love is above all a call to faithfulness. God loves us and hopes we will return that love by living lives of humility, obedience, and submission.

Woolman’s example is not one we can easily follow. Publicly, he tried to live a life aligned with God’s will, but in his private actions this alignment was revealed even more.

In 1772, Woolman chose to write a letter to Elizabeth Smith, a fellow Quaker. He had recently “signed thy certificate, expressing thee to be exemplary” but found that he was not easy with that action because “amongst thy furniture some things . . . are not agreeable to the purity of Truth” and that “many times since I signed it, I felt a desire to open to thee a reserve which I then, and since often felt.” Woolman was under no obligation to send such a letter—the certificate was signed and the process it involved was complete—but his devotion to “Truth” required him to do so. How many of us would have let it pass? I confess I certainly would not have chosen to write such a letter.

In keeping with this, we have an image of Woolman as above reproach; we commonly refer to him as a Quaker saint. He would be quick to correct us, as he corrected himself when others would have felt it unnecessary. Following his attendance at one quarterly meeting, Woolman wrote to Israel Pemberton, “I am sorrowfully sensible that I did not keep low enough in my mind so as to have my Speech & Conduct thoroughly seasoned with the Meekness of Wisdom.” Again, how many of us would take the time to write such a confession?

Drew Lawson never claims to have achieved the same level of self-awareness, brutal honesty, and utter faithfulness, but his book lays bare what is required to answer “Divine Love,” and it challenges each of us to simply try.

Paul Buckley is a member of Community Friends Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of numerous articles and books on Quaker history, faith, and practice. When possible, he travels in the ministry urging spiritual renewal among Friends. His most recent book is Primitive Quakerism Revived: Living as Friends in the Twenty-First Century.

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