We Are Not John Woolman

Colin Kaepernick. © Brook Ward, flickr.com, CC BY-NC 2.0

Most people are aware of Nike doing an advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick, the National Football League (NFL) player who “took a knee” during the U.S. national anthem to protest police violence against Black people. The ad states, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Nike decided to take a chance in the present moment to land on the right side of history.

Many conservatives and “support the troops” types of people are upset about the ad (and the protest). Some have asked for a boycott of Nike, and others are burning their Nike shoes and gear. The current president of the U.S. of A. has called Kaepernick and other NFL players “sons of bitches” and stated that they should be fired for their kneeling in protest.

Kaepernick has been blackballed from the NFL: no team has hired him since he became a free agent after the 2016 season, and he has filed a grievance against the owners for colluding to not hire him. But many people see him as a hero, a modern-day Martin Luther King Jr. The same thing happened to Mohammed Ali in the late 1960s: he was stripped of his World Boxing Association title when he refused to go to Vietnam because he considered it an immoral war. The media at the time ate him alive.

How Kaepernick has been depicted by the media reminds me of three of our Quaker heroes: John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and Benjamin Lay. In Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM), where they were members, we are told that Quakers should strive to be like these three Friends: they followed the Inward Light to do what was right, if not popular. Their ministries changed hearts and minds, the future of PYM, and thus all Quakers in America. We hold them up as proof of God showing us the way, through continuing revelation and discernment.

A young man had a vision that changed his life. He refused to have anything to do with slavery or to profit from the misery of enslaved people. He refused to use things made by them, or to have a more comfortable life because their lives were so bad. He traveled around speaking to people about slavery and land theft (colonization). Many people did not want to be around him, hear what he had to say, or give up their comfort for what was right. And we are not John Woolman.

A thoughtful and devout seeker wanted Friends to feel for a minute, an hour, a day what it felt like for the enslaved when their children were sold down the river. He would not wear anything, nor eat anything, made from the loss of animal life or provided in any degree by slave labor. Friends disliked him so much that they read him out of his meeting (this has recently happened to another Friend from the same quarter). And we are not Benjamin Lay.

An original feminist understood that these people who did not look like her were people to be respected nonetheless. Contemporary Quakers did not want to be around her. At one point, PYM refused to renew her minute of religious service, hoping it would shut her up. She put her life and her reputation on the line to really be an ally. And we are not Lucretia Mott.

So now Quakers love to talk about Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, and Benjamin Lay, but we don’t want to do what they did. We don’t want to be uncomfortable in our meetings; we don’t want to be “divisive”; and we don’t want our spirituality to be disrupted by worldly concerns.

What does being that kind of ally look like today in the face of Immigration and Customs Enforcement actions, police brutality, and failing schools? What would it look like for a Quaker to put on the cloak of Lucretia Mott and actually work to create the Beloved Community today?

Quakers came here, like all the other European settlers, and stole land. Quakers enslaved and used free labor and built up the land they had stolen. How did they miss the meaning of our testimonies about equality and simplicity? Very few Quakers realized this was wrong and worked against it. Even after emancipation, we still had the back bench in our meetings reserved for Black visitors and our Quaker schools were racially segregated.

So now Quakers love to talk about Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, and Benjamin Lay, but we don’t want to do what they did. We don’t want to be uncomfortable in our meetings; we don’t want to be “divisive”; and we don’t want our spirituality to be disrupted by worldly concerns.

Because he believed in that of God in everyone, Lay—were he a Friend today—would have the situation in Palestine paramount in his mind, along with Black Lives Matter, police brutality, sanctuary, and mass incarceration. He would support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. He would be concerned for people living with malaria and AIDS and for children held prey to child-sex rings. Hunger and the other effects of poverty and global climate change would occupy our Quaker heroes every day. What would we wear if we did not have slave labor to clothe us today?

Mott was willing to form relationships that grew from her understanding of “the other.” The average U.S. Quaker lives in a white neighborhood, works at a white job, and sends their kids to white schools. To what extent are Quakers today willing to live in different neighborhoods, send our kids to different schools, and support different causes?

It seems that Friends see pieces of ourselves in Woolman, Mott, and Lay. Yet, there is little that we do that matters to anyone who is not a Quaker.

Quakers love to tell the story of how we got the name Quaker. According to George Fox’s autobiography, Justice Gervase Bennet “was the first that called us Quakers, because [Fox] bade them tremble at the word of the Lord” during a 1650 blasphemy trial. I cannot even imagine a modern-day Friend who would tremble at the truth of the white supremacy our culture is so caught up in. Are we really pioneers or mavericks?

It seems that Friends see pieces of ourselves in Woolman, Mott, and Lay. Yet, there is little that we do that matters to anyone who is not a Quaker.

We want to hold Lay, Woolman, and Mott up as examples, but those Friends were always looking at the larger picture and they faced serious consequences for their actions. Look at how Lay died: alone, in a cave, and with few possessions. Kaepernick has lost millions of dollars by remaining unsigned for the 2017 and current 2018 seasons (he also has received death threats). Mott was almost burned alive while organizing. “Any great change must expect opposition because it shakes the very foundation of privilege,” she wrote. By contrast, what Friend is willing to give up anything that they have?

What would the United States look like if we had a current-day Woolman, Lay, and Mott? Are we willing to step up our game to find out?

The prophetic agitator is remembered and spoken of years later. The people that wanted them gone are forgotten today.

Where do you fall? Are we on the right side of history today, Friends? Who are the Quakers today that will be remembered in 200 years? What would the United States look like if we had a current-day Woolman, Lay, and Mott? Are we willing to step up our game to find out? Or are we content to be forgotten? To crush the prophet for what we see as dishonoring our equivalent of a flag?

Gabbreell James

Gabbreell James is a lifelong Friend of color, active in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Undoing Racism Group and at her monthly meeting, Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia. She wants to help Friends be truly welcoming to all people.

28 thoughts on “We Are Not John Woolman

  1. Thank you, Gabbreell, for the truth and strength of your words and the invitation they offer us to risk becoming more like the People we profess to be.

  2. Thanks, Gabbreell, for writing and FJ for printing. I deeply appreciate the earnest honesty and will hold this in my heart this year to strengthen my actions to make a difference. Happy new year!!

  3. Thank you Gabbreell for lifting up such an important truth that many of us can/are willing to relate to and work with. It’s good to have it in print for the wider audience and to help create the hoped for conversation which needs arise from it!
    Thanks too, to Friends Journal for this issue and for printing this. May our New Year embrace this conversation and challenge us into being our best selves in Friendship!

  4. I want to take a highlighter to this whole article, reflect on my answers to Gabbreell’s challenging and essential questions, share it with Friends everywhere, and get to work. Let’s challenge ourselves to be faithful enough to look deeply at ourselves, our meetings, our Society. “What Friend is willing to give up anything that they have?”

  5. What brilliant questions, laced with the stories of people that make sense of them: John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, Benjamin Lay and Colin Kaepernick. I ask myself these questions–and continue to wrestle with them. I don’t want to be remembered, truly, but I want to have the courage to be a Quaker. I knew a few with that courage in the early 1980s at the Womens Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice, and they converted me from non-Quaker. I had some of the courage I admired in others when I was a professor of theatre in Virginia, and a teacher in SDP, but since then have moved into the position of spectator. Spect-acting may have some value for people like me, and I have done it in workshop after workshop, but very little in the world.

    I know a few more Quakers with courage to create and live change now in and around PfFM and Pendle Hill. Like the 4 people you identify, they are mostly, but not only, Friends of Color. Has it always been so few who step forward? What if a larger ground swell rose up, willing to revitalize the Religious Society of friends with less tradition and more prophetic agitators? Will we be willing to let go of less effective practice and those who insist upon it?

    The more I read of this revolutionary issue of Friends Journal, the more I have hope. Thank you for writing, Gabbreell. Thank you for your Quaker faith and courage.

  6. Much as I would love to claim that my Quaker practice is akin to the Quaker greats I know I have blind spots and fall short. Thank to Gabbreell for this call to accountability and to better practice. I will no longer stand aside when I see or hear Friends using our practice to silence dissent. I will allow the Holy to nudge my awakening as I more deeply commit toundoing racism.

  7. Where do I fall? Through the appearance of the immanent inshining presence of God in my conscience and consciousness, I am come out of the process identification with and participation in outward political, religious, and social ideological constructs, opinion, agitation propaganda, and the leaders and institutions that profess and promote such outward forms, to inform human relationships and interactions. I am come out of the process of reflective thought to organize and manage relationships and interactions. I am come out of the process of looking to the reflections or mirrors people and institutions set up to guide and inform human relationships. Through the direct and immediate rule of immanent Presence itself in itself, these outwardly mirrored reflections are shattered, no longer informing human interaction. Truly, I am come into the thing itself and see passed outwardly established reflective forms to the thing itself as sufficient guide in itself. I do not look to outward forms to inform human relationships and interactions. I am come into the direct and immediate rule of the inshining Life itself in my conscience and consciousness. The outward ideological reflections and mirrors political agitators set up that people would look into them to guide, rule, inform, manage, administer, and influence the conscience and consciousness of others are no longer of influence as the image of immanent Presence itself in itself governs and is enthroned in the conscience; revealing a different way of human being, relationships, and interactions.

  8. “What would it look like for a Quaker to put on the cloak of Lucretia Mott and actually work to create the Beloved Community today?”

    That query shall sit with me today.

    Grateful for your ministry,

  9. This was my letter to the editor:


    Let’s All Kneel in Solidarity, Reverence

    To kneel is not unpatriotic. The football players show their sorrow for actions not worthy of flag or anthem. This is unpatriotic: to lie, call people names, bully.

    Sometimes a man kneels when asking a woman to marry him. O Holy Night has these words, “Fall on your knees.” Often people kneel when they pray. To kneel shows reverence. And who is it to tell us how to show our patriotism?

    Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island believed that, “Faith by its very nature must be a free act.” In other words, no one is to tell us how to worship. Likewise, no one is to force us to stand for the national anthem. Forced patriotism? That’s North Korea! That’s Hitler! If we want to get out a message by kneeling—if we want to honor the flag by kneeling, that’s our prerogative.

    Colin Kaepernick and NFL players: I commend you for your courage and your much-needed message. People need to know about the inequality, the tragic shootings, the incarceration and prisons of our justice system.

    For games, or wherever the anthem is played, let’s all kneel in solidarity, in reverence for our country and for the things that need to change.

  10. Interesting article. I am so glad it was written!. I left my Quaker meeting because it seemed to be buying the ‘form’ of being a ‘Quaker’ rather than the ‘content.’ I found ‘A Course in Miracles’ and even published an article in Universalist Friends in 2009 about the similarities of George Fox and the ideas within ‘A Course in Miracles.’ I do think Quakers today ought to take a serious look at this discipline, because it is all about the ‘indwelling light’ and respecting that in everyone. When we want to have our meetings support our agendas, but not someone else’s, what is really going on? Is it a popularity contest? Or true discernment and respect for each person and their light?

    I had wanted to start a Quaker meeting based on ‘A Course in Miracles’ as taught by Dr. Kenneth Wapnick (because ‘ACIM’ has been so distorted by people wanting to change it to how THEY see it – which often is what happens with everything!) It was too hard to explain why but I do think it has to do with what the original Quakers valued – ‘knowing thyself’ and not feeling coerced to join a movement because your meeting values it, or not be sponsored by your meeting because others do not share your vision! I know we can do better and I would like nothing better than to help create a space where this can be totally honored. Any interest?

  11. It seems that we live in a time of “Do what I say, not what I do.” Where most “do” little or nothing. The few of us in the US that are Quaker fold into the larger groups of activists and don’t stand out as upholding Quaker values. Without postulating we need to identify ourselves, not for fame or history, but so that others know there are Friends where it is safe to ponder and act upon these issues. I am of the belief that many who check the box “spiritual but not religious” are really Quakers and just don’t know it, yet. Mindfulness, meditation, settling oneself, are popular ideas now that we as Quakers have been doing since the beginning. Might there be a Mott, Lay, or Wollman out there right now and we just don’t know they are Quaker? We need to invite Kaepernick to a meeting. We need to join and support the activists of our time and proudly state that we are Friends.

  12. This Friend spoke my mind. I attend a university town meeting whose members seem to confuse meetings , discussions and abstractions about issues with doing something concrete, no matter how small and quiet .

  13. While I appreciate and support the larger message in your piece, I was troubled from the outset by your characterization of the “support our troops” types. To me it is completely within the Quaker testimony of pacifism, that we support the troops. What better way to support our troops than to work toward preventing the actions that could lead them into harm’s way. The big lesson we learned from Vietnam was not to hold those sent to fight accountable for the sins of those that put them in that position.

    I am from a long line of Quakers, and my mother, who served overseas in WWII, spent the remainder of her life supporting those troops who came home mentally wounded, at the same time she lobbied for peace. In her honor I donate to the USO every year, as I work for peace and social justice in my daily life. Surely Quakers and progressives care about and support the lives and well-bring those young men and women who for whatever their reasons have chosen to serve in this manner. This is hardly the purview of the conservatives.

  14. Ms. James, Quakers are not supposed to be so monolithic, as you describe, and I like to think that the one sided seeming is born of wiser heads being tolerant, rather than fearing to upset the apple-cart. Most of what I’ve seen are ready to worship John Woolman, and enjoy the annual Quarterly Meeting at Woolman Hill, but make a big thing out of sharing the guilt of earlier generations. I don’t know that Quakers engaged in stealing lands, but Pennsylvania Friends received lands from ultimately, the King of England, however he negotiated ownership. The people you’ve listed are heroic, but seem close to your own issues, I’d suggest visiting the estate of Squire Boone, who stood for the right of his children to marry without benefit of clergy, either The Friends Hospital in Philadelphia or the original Retreat, inspired by William Tuke, and then visit Kenya, where they see too few American Friends of Color.
    Just don’t try to guilt trip ol’ Gibril.

  15. Actually I think there are a good number of Quakers today who are doing prophetic witness like these four. I can name some myself. We should include more than just Americans. Perhaps Friends Journal could seek them out and report on them.

  16. Thank you for the clear writing and replies. While I am not officially a Quaker, I rely on Quaker words when I experience unfair leadership in what I used to call a Democracy. While I don’t go to church, I do donate. Keep up the good words.

  17. Thanks you for this. I am not a particularly religious person and I most relate to the Friends meeting which I grew up in (Fairhope AL). While I have put myself out on the line any number of times and am currently working as the Founder fo the Whitneyville Cultural Commons, creating space for social and economic justice I am clear I get to choose to engage every day or not. There are plenty of days I choose to not fully engage. This is one level of white privilage I get to exercise. My friends of color do not have the luxury to wake up one morning and choose “I feel like not being black today”. I do what I do and I leverage my white privilage when I see that I can make a difference and I still always have a choice and I know I am not constant, 100% committed as the legends would show John Woolman, etc to have been.

    The invitation is always there through to step up and step out. We first have to see it as a choice and then choose it.

  18. Remember the mentally ill. I am a interested in Quakerism, and am aware that earlier Quakers were active in improving the care and treatment of the mentally ill. Please renew this commitment. In the list of disenfranchised, marginalized and brutalized, include and please remember and pray for and seek to help the mentally ill.

  19. I come to this with a somewhat mixed background. First exposed to the Religious Society of Friends in 1963 when I first entered Haverford College, I did not finally apply for Membership in the Society at Langley Hill Monthly Meeting in VA until the Fall of 2002 (and as it turns out the chair of my welcoming committee was my freshman year roommate). Prior to that commitment I wandered through a variety of religious traditions.

    When I dropped out of Haverford the 1st time I enlisted in the Marines, because I believed I had an obligation to service and did not want someone to be drafted in my stead. While I would not make that choice today, because every Marine is first and foremost a rifleman prepared to kill, and while I have seen both in service and in the decades since people whose acts were evil and/or unthinking in the military, I nevertheless believe in respecting the willingness of those whose beliefs are different from mine and are willing to risk life and limb and psyche and soul. Even those whose rhetoric and actions are abhorrent to me are not beyond God’s mercy and should not be beyond mine: after all, Fox did teach us to walk gladly across the earth ANSWERING that of God in each man we met. Whether or not we aspire to be like Woolman or Mott, surely we can strive towards the ideal expressed by Fox, and thereby not contribute further to the divisiveness and lll will that currently permeates and dominates our polity.

    I am a child of privilege. I grew up in an upper middle class Jewish family in a comfortable suburb that had four elementary schools. I first encountered segregation on a winter trip to Miami Beach in December 1956 when I first saw segregated public facilities. I did not attend class with Black children until the 4 elementary schools came together in one common junior high school. I got to know some through sports and music, but by and large my life was very different from theirs. Similarly, my original class at Haverford had exactly one African-American, and he came from a prestigious NYC prep school. We also had two students from Japan. The rest of us qualified as White.

    Before I became a Quaker I became involved in civil rights work, in part because being of Jewish heritage, and having lost relatives in the liquidation of the ghetto in Bialystok Poland, I had an aversion to discrimination knowing it could lead to intolerance. I was sympathetic to women’s rights because my mother graduating 2nd in her class at Columbia Law in 1937 at age 21 could not at first get a job as a lawyer, both because she was Jewish and because she was female. I became sympathetic to gay rights much later, in part from living neighborhoods with large gay populations in Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights.

    My wife and I have no children. Our horizons have been expanded by the diversity in our extended families which include people who are African-American, Latino, and Native-American. For me, who became a teacher in my late 40s and is still in a classroom in his early 70s, I spent most of my time in classrooms where a majority of my students were Black, and the rest in classrooms that were very diverse, including Latino, East Asian, and South Asian students. I could not function as the teacher of such students if i did not value their backgrounds, and if I were not willing to see each child in my care as someone entitled to have “that of God” in them answered.

    I am not always successful. I often have had to compromise, meaning I do not approach the standard by which John Woolman lived. I am an omnivore, which of course would be disqualifying.

    But then I remember the words George Fox ostensibly offered to William Penn about whether to wear his sword:”I advise thee to wear it as long as thou canst.”

    I am shaped by those, as I am also shaped by the words of Hlllel in the first Century before the Common Era, from Pirke Avoth (the Ethiccs?Wisdom of the Fathers), 1:14:

    “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
    But if I am only for myself, who am I?
    If not now, when?”

    Hillel is also known for teaching that we should not do unto others what is distasteful to us, that is the whole of the Tora (law).

    As one who has actively been involved in politics since I was a pre-teen, I often have to step back and examine myself, so that in my passion to succeed I do not violate these tenets. Too often in the past, and even in the present, I realize that I have – not only in my politics but in my personal relationships, and in my day to day activities. I want to be forgiven my failings and not despair. If that be true of me, does not it also shape how I respond to others and what I perceive as their failings? Trust me, as a teacher of adolescents, this year 8th graders, I am put to the test on these principles multiple times daily.

    That does not mean we cannot offer our Testimony. In face we can and should, because that is PART of how we address “that of God” in another – we speak to what is best, even if the person to whom we address it seems oblivious to it.

    I am not sure the words I offer here are of any value. I could not for physical reasons make Meeting for Worship this morning, so I chose to read the article to which I am responding as part of a focus on important things. These words are thus offered somewhat in the spirit of a message in Meeting in response to one heard and pondered.

    Make of them what you will.


  20. I keep wondering…if we kneel to pray, how is “taking a knee” disrespectful? To me, it seems MORE respectful than merely standing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on Friendsjournal.org may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.