John Woolman

At the library this week, I picked up my inter-library loan, The Journal of John Woolman. Interesting to read a few bits so far on his struggle to live according to his values, in this case paying a war tax and providing lodging for soldiers (pp. 124-132). Those may not be my top ethical issues of concern today, but his thoughts demonstrate that even internally there is much debate for the person attempting to live justly.

Right moral action is quite often not as obvious as we’d like. And even when we are convinced of the right thing to do, we may find it a struggle to stand for these convictions when a given culture or society or even one’s respected associates are moving a different direction. Clearly, his work against slavery fits this as well.

An excerpt:

A few years past, money being made current in our province for carrying on wars, and to be called in again by taxes laid on the inhabitants, my mind was often affected with the thoughts of paying such taxes…. I was told that Friends in England frequently paid taxes, when the money was applied to such purposes. I had conversation with several noted Friends on the subject, who all favored the payment of such taxes; some of them I preferred before myself, and this made me easier for a time; yet there was in the depth of my mind a scruple which I never could get over; and at certain times I was greatly distressed on that account.

I believed that there were some upright-hearted men who paid such taxes, yet could not see that their example was a sufficient reason for me to do so, while I believe that the spirit of truth required of me, as an individual, to suffer patiently the distress of goods, rather than pay actively.

To refuse the active payment of a tax which our Society generally paid was exceedingly disagreeable; but to do a thing contrary to my conscience appeared yet more dreadful. When this exercise came upon me, I knew of none under the like difficulty; and in my distress I besought the Lord to enable me to give up all, that so I might follow him wheresoever he was pleased to lead me. (pp. 124-125)


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