Being Practically Spiritual: Margaret Fell and John Woolman on Integrating the Inward and Outward Life

By Michael Birkel

Michael Birkel is a professor of religion at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. The crowd of Earlhamites greeting Michael over the course of North Pacific Yearly Meeting’s sessions attests to the popularity of his Quakerism 101 class, often taken by freshman at Earlham. Michael began his address with a slew of wildly funny Quaker jokes- which, sadly, are not captured here, but his delight in sharing the life still found in the writings of our Quaker ancestors shines through quite clearly.

It was a delight to communicate with North Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends to consider a theme for this plenary. We settled on the title “Being Practically Spiritual.” That expression is meant a bit playfully—“oh, those Quakers, they’re practically spiritual”—but it points toward what I believe is a persistent challenge for contemporary Friends.
This probably doesn’t happen in your meetings, but in the meetings that I’ve been a part of, often there are two tendencies. On one side there are the contemplatives, the mystics, the spirituality types. People who could spend all day doing nothing for God’s sake. (If it sounds like I’m making fun of these people, let me assure you that I do so from within. I know these people well because I am one of them.) On the other side stand the activists, the people who, to quote from the vision statement of FCNL, “seek a world free of war and the threat of war, a society with equity and justice for all, a community where every person’s potential may be fulfilled, an earth restored.”

Again, these are tendencies. There are people in the middle who do both.
It’s good to have both sorts. But the challenge is that a lot of us are one or the other, not both. Sometimes these two groups do not always see eye-to-eye. Each group is sure that their camp represents the real Religious Society of Friends and wishes that the other side would simply smarten up and realize this.
How can we integrate the inward life of worship and devotion and the outward life of service and activism? How can we be practically spiritual? Fortunately, we have some good examples from our Quaker past that may help us to understand our Quaker present and to imagine our Quaker future.
I discovered some years ago that my calling in life as a historian of religion is to be a guide to the Quaker attic. Houses in my part of the world often have attics, places where old things get stored. Maybe your place of residence has an attic, or a basement, or a storage area—a place to put things. My job is to go up to the attic, poke around in old boxes and trunks, and to see what’s inside. I’ve dug around in some old chests, and I’ve come back downstairs with two bits of writing that I hope may shed some light on our topic of integrating the inward and outward life.
Fell’s Quiet Faithfulness
My first treasure is a letter from Margaret Fell. She is often remembered as a very practical, outwardly active Friend. When her first husband, Judge Thomas Fell, was on the circuit, Margaret skillfully managed the household and holdings of Swarthmoor Hall. When she came among Friends, Margaret opened Swarthmoor Hall to the early traveling Quaker ministers. Her house became Communication Central for these spreaders of the Quaker message. They could count on a place to stay, much-needed meals, and edifying spiritual conversation at Swarthmoor Hall. A few years later, when the monarchy returned and local trouble turned into state-sponsored persecution, Margaret Fell helped to organize and promote a structure that could endure these efforts to wipe out Quakerism. For these reasons, she is often remembered as the Mother of Quakerism. Clearly Margaret Fell was practical, a doer, but she could also write letters of spiritual counsel that have a way of inviting one into a mindful awareness of the presence of the Spirit.
Here is a passage from an epistle that she wrote in 1654, two years after George Fox’s vision on Pendle Hill.

Dear Brethren, in the unchangeable, everlasting, powerful truth of God. My love salutes you in the heavenly union. I am present with you, who are obedient to the measure of the eternal Light, which never changes, and who abides in the oneness of the Spirit, and in the bond of peace, which never can be broken nor taken from you. Here is freedom, which the world knows not. To the measure of God in every particular made manifest, and obeyed, and lived in, doth my love flow freely to you. My dear hearts, be faithful in every particular to your own measure of grace, made manifest and enjoyed; and in that which is eternal, wait continually… so you may come to receive living virtue from the living God, and be fed with the living bread, and drink of the living water of the spiritual rock, which they drank of in the wilderness. And be subject and patient and do not look out…Therefore stand faithful and bold for the truth upon the earth. (from Mary Garman [and others], Hidden in Plain Sight: Quaker Women’s Writings 1650-1700, p. 462.)

First, we might note that there is a lot of love in this letter. It might even be said that this is a love letter, of a spiritual sort. This is enhanced by the feeling that she has of being present with them, the powerful sense of unity with them.
She offers spiritual counsel, instructing them in a spiritual method: wait, be silent, turn inward, not looking to outward forms; wait and then see, see what is manifest; be nourished, then act. She concludes with the admonition to be faithful and bold for truth upon the earth, to act.
In this letter I find a beautiful integration of the inward and outward life. We know that Margaret Fell was a courageous voice for justice. Later in Quaker history, when they were not under constant threat of persecution from those who wanted Quakerism to be wiped out, they were more likely to advocate for justice for non-Quakers, and early Friends also did this to a degree. But in these early years, when the continued existence of Quakerism was an open question, their call to justice was often on behalf of other Friends.
When the English monarchy was reestablished and the state Church of England once again dominant, and when a vengeful Parliament passed a series of laws designed to render dissenting groups like the Quakers extinct, Margaret Fell the activist went to work. She described her activism in these words:

In the year 1660, King Charles the Second came into England, and within two weeks after, I was moved of the Lord to go to London, to speak to the King concerning the truth, and the sufferers for it, for there were then many hundreds of our Friends in prison in the three nations of England, Scotland and Ireland, which were put in by former powers. I spake often to the King, and wrote many papers and letters unto him, and many books were given by our Friends to the Parliament, and great service was done at that time. And they were fully informed of our peaceable principles and practices. I staid in London at that time one year and three months, doing service for the Lord, in visiting Friends’ meetings, and giving papers and letters to the King and council…a general proclamation from the King and council was granted, for setting the Quakers at liberty. Then I had freedom in spirit to return home to visit my children and family.
(from Margaret Fell. The Life of Margaret Fox, Wife of George Fox: Compiled from Her Own Narrative and Other Sources ; with a Selection from Her Epistles, Etc.)

Margaret Fell is one model from our tradition of someone who integrated the inward and outward life. For her, action grows out of contemplation. Her advice is to be quiet, to wait, and see what to do. Then do it. Be faithful to the measure of Light. Stand bold for the truth.
Woolman’s Exemplary Life
My second treasure from the Quaker attic is from the Journal of John Woolman, who lived an ocean away and in the eighteenth century. (Margaret Fell lived from 1614-1702, John Woolman from 1720-1772.)
John Woolman is attractive both to contemplatives and to activists because both sorts can see their concerns reflected in his eloquent life. He saw no separation between the two. His example calls both sides to a deeper commitment without asking them to abandon either path.
As John Woolman saw it, the inward principle that moves us to worship is that same principle that moves us to “exercise justice and goodness” in the wider world. What moves us to love God, he says, moves us to love other people and all creation, and to work for a better life for all. To use his words, he writes that he was convinced that:

…true religion consisted in an inward life, wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learn to exercise true justice and goodness, not only toward all men but also toward the brute creatures; that as the mind was moved on an inward principle to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being, on the same principle it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world; that as by his breath the flame of life was kindled in all animal and sensitive creatures, to say we love God as unseen and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature moving by his life, or by life derived from him, was a contradiction in itself.
(Pg.28 All passages for John Woolman’s Journal are from Phillips P. Moulton, editor. The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman)

True religion is both inward and outward. The most repeated word in this passage is “love”–love for God, love for neighbor, love for all God’s creation. All these types of love come from the same source and are intimately interwoven: where there is one, there are the rest, at least when religion is most true to itself.
One task of an Annual Session is to discern the shape of the Yearly Meeting’s collective ministry for the coming year. It seems fitting, then, to hear what John Woolman says about ministry. He writes in his Journal,

From an inward purifying, and steadfast abiding under it, springs a lively operative desire for the good of others. All faithful people are not called to the public ministry, but whoever are, are called to minister of that which they have tasted and handled spiritually. The outward modes of worship are various, but wherever men are true ministers of Jesus Christ it is from the operation of his spirit upon their hearts, first purifying them and thus giving them a feeling sense of the conditions of others. (31)

John Woolman, always the careful writer, packs a lot into this brief passage, so let’s spend some time listening carefully to it.
First, he offers us an understanding of an inward, spiritual process, it begins with an experience of purifying.
Purifying can be a difficult word for some of us today. Does “purity” mean the same thing today as it did in his? Does it imply that we are naturally “dirty”? A careful reading of John Woolman’s writings shows that for him the opposite of purity is not usually dirtiness but rather “confusion,” or “mixture.” Purifying is a cleansing but it is also a clarification, a process of becoming clear.
What is it that needs to be purified, and what purifies it? John Woolman would say that our will (our capacity to desire and to make sound decisions) is not pure. Our desires have gotten out of hand; they are not in accord with divine love, or with the design of creation. They are not in harmony with pure wisdom.
Our motivations are not pure. They are mixed. We need to ask ourselves: why do we want what we want, even when it seems good? Because our motives are mixed, there is the ever-present risk of self-deception, projecting our own needs onto the wider world, being so attached to a cause that it serves our own sense of self-importance more than the injustice or wrong itself.
We’ve all met people like this, at times even in our own meetings. Their working assumption seems to be: if you love me, then you’ll love my leading. And, conversely, if you don’t love and support my leading, then you don’t love me. If meeting budgets are tight and we need to exercise some trimming, cutting their pet program is taken as a personal assault. Our motives can be mixed, not pure.
Purification requires a resignation (to use a traditional expression), a letting go. This is not a killing, not an act of violence on oneself, though it can be called a death. We let go, not to have less but to experience more. The traditional term for this among earlier Quakers, drawing on the language of the apostle Paul, is dying and rising with Christ.
The agent of purification, according to John Woolman, is the purifying love of Christ. It is not wrath. That makes the prospect of purification less frightening. Our vision is purified, and so is our heart.
As a result of this process, according to Woolman,

…a new life is formed in us, the heart is purified and prepared to understand clearly. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” [Mt. 5:8]. In purity of heart the mind is divinely opened to behold the nature of universal righteousness, or the righteousness of the kingdom of God. (177)

And, he writes, there is:

…a reformation in our souls, manifested in a full reformation of our lives, wherein all things are new and all things are of God [2 Cor. 5:17-18] …This is the name by which he shall be called: the Lord our Righteousness. [Jer. 23:6] Oh, how precious is this name! It is like ointment poured out. (177)

When our vision is improved, we come to see the nature of God in a way that we had not before. The very identity of God is wrapped up in righteousness. The Biblical prophets frequently paired righteousness and justice. In the New Testament, the word for righteousness is the same as the word for justice.
We let go, we see God anew, we discover what justice really is—as something inherent to the identity of God—and our response is love. That’s the fundamental process of spiritual transformation, as I understand John Woolman.
To speak of purifying or becoming pure, we should also consider one of John Woolman’s favorite phrases for divine activity: pure wisdom.

Pure wisdom, John Woolman says, sets right bounds to our desires. Our selfishness gets out of hand, but under the influence of pure wisdom we find that our desires have boundaries. This is not a miserable experience. It is simply that we are no longer so interested in the things that once possessed us. We now realize that things, such as the desire for wealth, for power, or for a good reputation with the powerful, were a poor, fearful substitute for the direct experience of God, who satisfies our deepest desires. That’s what he means by pure wisdom setting right bounds to our desires. This purification is what we seek to do in worship. We set aside all else, simply to be present to God, to experience God’s love, and to be receptive to divine guidance.

“From an inward purifying, and steadfast abiding under it”
We have a need for vigilance, for interior watchfulness, to be aware of our own motives, to stay close to the Guide. A leading can be clear, though the expression of it can change and grow, that’s why you have gathered here for your yearly meeting. Our basic testimonies are clear, but the world changes, and we need to be guided in our response to those changes. John Woolman’s advice here is “Dwell deep.” To dwell deep is to come to the place of sound discernment.
“From an inward purifying, and steadfast abiding under it, springs a lively operative desire for the good of others.”
What might a lively operative desire for the good of others look like? Here is an inspiring statement of Quaker ideals on peace:

Peace is the state in which we are in accord with God, the earth, others, and ourselves. We know that true, lasting peace among us can finally be attained only through unity in the life of the spirit. We work to create the conditions of peace, such as freedom, justice, cooperation, and the right sharing of the world’s resources.
As we work for peace in the world, we search out the seeds of war in ourselves and in our way of life. We refuse to join in actions which lead to destruction and death. We seek ways to cooperate to save life and strengthen the bonds of unity among all people.
Do we live in the virtue of that life and power which takes away the occasion of all war?
Do we refrain from taking part in war as inconsistent with the spirit of Christ?
What are we doing to remove the causes of war and to bring about the conditions of peace? Where there are hatred, division, and strife, how are we instruments of reconciliation and love?
How do we communicate to others an understanding of the basis of our peace testimony?
As we work for peace in the world, are we nourished by peace within ourselves?

If these words sound familiar, that might be because they are taken from North Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, from the Advices and Queries on Peace. This is one example of what a lively, operative desire for the good of others can look like.
But for that desire to be truly guided, it must be preceded by purification. Otherwise it might not be lively; it might not come from life and give life. It might not be operative; it may not work. For example, we may be acting out of guilt, which is backward looking, rather than love, which I see as forward looking.

“The operation of his spirit upon their hearts, first purifying them and thus giving them a feeling sense of the conditions of others”

People become ministers from the operation of Christ’s spirit upon their hearts, first purifying them and thus giving them a feeling sense of the conditions of others. What John Woolman had earlier described as a “lively operative desire for the good of others” is in parallel with “a feeling sense of the condition of others.” This is a phrase used by earlier Friends to describe a deep moment in worship, when, after coming to an inner stillpoint, a door opened to experience the collective dimension of the worshiping body. By “dwelling deep” during worship, Friends in John Woolman’s era experienced that they could come to a sense of the meeting as a whole, or of individuals in the meeting.
As they came to this “feeling sense of the condition of others,” Friends might feel an unspoken joy or pain in the community at worship. Silently, or in words if so led, they would rejoice with that joy, or they would be courageously and gently present to that suffering, surrounding it with the love of God, and even entering into that suffering, bearing the burden of those who suffered. This silent suffering with others could assist in bringing about a renewal in the inward life, a renewal so powerful that they dared to call it redemptive. Out of this deep place spring the wells of ministry.
Among some Friends in our day, this corporate sense of meeting for worship has diminished somewhat as we have succumbed to the emphasis on the individual in our wider culture. But such experiences are still known. In worship, a person might still feel that a particular message is given to the gathered body, without knowing to whom in particular or why. Such messages do not always come with a nametag, but they arise out of the collective dimension of worship. Perhaps you have come to meeting at times feeling burdened, yet after the time of worship you feel that your burden has somehow lightened, without a word spoken about it.
Milder forms of this experience of the communal dimension of worship were and still are known. For example, in meetings for worship people still often have the experience of almost rising to speak but then hearing someone else offer substantially the same message—both worshipers attuned to the same Spirit at work in the body of those gathered.
This gift of ministering to the suffering of others helps the community to come to a more vital spiritual life. It serves to build up community and to increase love. The gathered meeting still happens among the faithful.
Friends have used the term “ministry” to refer both to inspired vocal utterances in meeting for worship and to labors in the gospel ministry—in the case of John Woolman, his labors on behalf of justice. Here, I believe, we come to the spiritual brilliance of John Woolman. He enlarged this collective quality of worship to extend beyond the walls of the meetinghouse, eventually to embrace all human suffering and injustice.
John Woolman extended the language of meeting for worship, of “a feeling sense of the condition of others,” to describe his labors as he traveled in the ministry. In his travels, he came to have a feeling sense of the condition of those who bore the burden of captivity in slavery. He spoke of coming to a feeling sense of the condition of the Native Peoples of this land who suffered injustice at the hands of colonial settlers. He had a feeling sense of the condition of the poor in the colonies and elsewhere.
He wrote of God’s kindness “in some degree bringing me to feel that which many thousands of my fellow creatures often suffer.” (173) He found his heart enlarged to yearn to enter into such an understanding of all suffering people:

Desires were now renewed in me to embrace every opportunity of being inwardly acquainted with the hardships and difficulties of my fellow creatures and to labor in his love for the spreading of pure universal righteousness in the earth. (172)

John Woolman enlarged the walls of the meetinghouse. The world became his meetinghouse. In doing this, he invited us to act for justice out of that sacred center that we encounter in worship. Just as he beckons us to a deepening of our experience of worship, he shows us a way to be social activists whose efforts grow out of the feeling sense of the condition of others.
Margaret Fell and John Woolman challenge us to bridge the divide between contemplatives and activists referred to at the start of our time together. If divine love is at the root of our worship and of our leadings to work for a better world, then both the contemplative and the activist are invited to see the other in a new way.
If I’m more of a contemplative bent, then I am invited to see spiritually-led activism as a form of worship, rooted and grounded in divine love. If their activism is how they experience divine presence, then it is a species of worship. If I’m more of an activist, then I am invited to see the spiritual practices of the contemplatives in my meeting as a genuine form of activism. If prayer and worship are centered in the love of the God whose identity is revealed in justice, then they in some unseen, mysterious way contribute to a world restored.

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