Editor's note:

In Tes­ta­ment of Devo­tion, Thomas Kel­ly chal­lenges us to see the pow­er of a life shaped by Scrip­ture and attuned to the divine prompt­ings of the Spir­it. The life that intends to be whol­ly obe­di­ent, whol­ly sub­mis­sive, whol­ly lis­ten­ing, is aston­ish­ing in its com­plete­ness. Its joys are rav­ish­ing, its peace pro­found, its humil­i­ty the deep­est, its pow­er world-shak­ing, its love envelop­ing, its sim­plic­i­ty that of a trust­ing child. …it is a life and pow­er that can break forth in this tot­ter­ing West­ern cul­ture and return the Church to its right­ful life as a fel­low­ship of cre­ative, heav­en-led souls.”

In this excerpt from Life with God: Read­ing the Bible for Spir­i­tu­al Trans­for­ma­tion, Richard Fos­ter and Kathryn Helmers demon­strate the real­i­ty of Kelly’s words with a sto­ry from John Woolman’s life. 

—Margaret Campbell

Excerpt from Life with God

The qui­et pow­er of a life trans­formed by the grace of God is so explo­sive that it can redi­rect the course of human events. Con­sid­er the sto­ry of John Wool­man, a suc­cess­ful trades­man in colo­nial Amer­i­ca who pared down his busi­ness in order to live sim­ply and ful­ly in response to the pull of divine Grace upon his life.

Raised on a farm in a mod­est Jer­sey vil­lage, Wool­man had an unusu­al­ly sen­si­tive spir­it ear­ly in life, keen­ly attuned to the rhythms of the Divine Spir­it. Although he strug­gled anx­ious­ly with the temp­ta­tions and wan­ton­ness of youth, he was con­stant­ly aware of the oper­a­tions of Divine Love” with­in his own heart. His spir­i­tu­al under­stand­ing was charged with aware­ness of God’s ten­der mer­cy and love for all liv­ing crea­tures. So per­haps it was no sur­prise that in his itin­er­ant Quak­er min­istry, he became a gra­cious yet tire­less and uncom­pro­mis­ing advo­cate for con­cerns such as the abo­li­tion of slav­ery, just rela­tions with Native Amer­i­cans, an end to tax­a­tion in sup­port of war, and refusal to ben­e­fit from con­sumer goods pro­duced by slave labor and unjust trade practices. 

In his clas­sic Jour­nal, Wool­man reveals the ways in which he steadi­ly cul­ti­vat­ed a gen­tle recep­tive­ness to Divine Breath­ings” that forged his con­vic­tions and nat­u­ral­ly led him to take a stand on them in every aspect of his life. For a won­drous pic­ture of how the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines help reshape all of life around the divine Cen­ter, I rec­om­mend under­tak­ing an acquain­tance with Wool­man through his writ­ings. To whet your appetite, I will tell you just one sto­ry from his life. 

As back­ground to under­stand­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of this inci­dent, it is impor­tant to know that Woolman’s con­vic­tions about the evils of slav­ery grew over time, as again and again he was afflict­ed in mind” by this debas­ing treat­ment of fel­low human beings. His Jour­nal indi­cates that dur­ing this time he was spend­ing many hours in prayer and fast­ing, peri­ods of soli­tude and silence, med­i­ta­tion upon the Scrip­ture, ser­vice, sim­plic­i­ty of lifestyle and speech, wor­ship with oth­ers, and out­door study of God’s ten­der love for all liv­ing creatures. 

Our sto­ry finds John one Novem­ber evening in 1758, being host­ed in the home of Thomas Wood­ward after preach­ing pow­er­ful­ly against slav­ery at a Quak­er meet­ing. Please be aware that at this point Wool­man has earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a gra­cious man, not giv­en to shar­ing his opin­ions unless he feels divine­ly com­pelled to do so. And when he does speak, it is always qui­et­ly and respect­ful­ly, nev­er con­fronta­tion­al­ly. Because of his hum­ble and lov­ing man­ner, he exerts an unusu­al­ly pow­er­ful influ­ence upon others. 

When John enters the Wood­ward home, undoubt­ed­ly tired and hun­gry, he notices ser­vants and inquires as to their sta­tus. When he learns they are slaves, he says not a word. Lat­er that night, how­ev­er, he qui­et­ly gets out of bed, writes a note to his host explain­ing why he can­not receive their hos­pi­tal­i­ty, goes to the slaves’ quar­ters and pays them for the day’s ser­vice, and walks out into the night. His silent tes­ti­mo­ny pierces con­ven­tion­al atti­tudes and behav­ior like a care­ful­ly aimed arrow of the Spir­it. When the house­hold stirs to life the fol­low­ing morn­ing, Thomas Wood­ward — over his wife’s vehe­ment protests — sets free all his slaves. One more Friend has joined the abo­li­tion­ist movement. 

There are many such remark­able sto­ries in Woolman’s liv­ing tes­ti­mo­ny against the inhu­man­i­ty of slave own­ing. Col­lec­tive­ly, they form a wedge apply­ing steady pres­sure against the prac­tice of slav­ery — first among Woolman’s own denom­i­na­tion, the Quak­ers, and ulti­mate­ly through­out the West­ern world. 

I hope this lit­tle account gives you a glimpse of what can hap­pen when we are faith­ful to be doers” of the Word, not just hear­ers. But make no mis­take: we are doers of the Word, not doers of the super­nat­ur­al work of the Word implant­ed in our hearts. Much heartache and griev­ous error results from mis­tak­en­ly equat­ing these two in our lives. John Wool­man did not rise up one day and declare, I shall be a mighty force for God against the slave trade!” and then plot a min­istry plan to imple­ment his strate­gic objec­tive. No, he sim­ply and humbly attend­ed to Divine Breath­ings in the vari­ety of means that were avail­able to him. That is why when the moment came for him to speak, or to act, he was already pre­pared to do so. 

Think of Woolman’s evening at the Wood­ward home. As a nat­u­ral­ly shy and unas­sum­ing man, it would have been unnat­ur­al for Wool­man to behave as he did. Abo­li­tion­ist con­vic­tions had not yet spread among the Quak­ers, so hav­ing slaves did not seem cru­el or out of the ordi­nary to most peo­ple — hard as that is for us to under­stand today. We can, how­ev­er, under­stand the social pres­sure of con­ven­tion, of blend­ing in with the crowd. Wool­man was the kind of per­son who shrinks from giv­ing offense to oth­ers, espe­cial­ly in a way that could appear to pass judg­ment upon them. What gave him the strength to act against his own nat­ur­al incli­na­tions? What changed his nat­ur­al incli­na­tions into unnat­ur­al” tendencies? 

I will tell you what gave him the strength: life with God. His steady strokes of swim­ming in the deep waters of God’s mer­cy and love re-formed his nat­ur­al incli­na­tions. As his spir­i­tu­al prac­tices opened him to ever-deep­en­ing lev­els of trans­for­ma­tion through the Holy Spir­it, it became unnat­ur­al for him to act in ordi­nary human ways. 

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