John Woolman and Discerning the Voice of God
By Matt Forster, Director of Admissions & Communications, Houston Graduate School of Theology
When people begin looking into Houston Graduate School of Theology for the first time, they often stumble upon this tidbit from the school’s history:
Houston Graduate School of Theology had its beginnings in the Friends Institute of Religious Studies which offered continuing education courses for students and pastors in the Evangelical Friends Church (Quaker) beginning in 1976.
The information almost always raises more questions than it answers: Quaker? Quaker State? Quaker Oatmeal? What does the guy in the powered wig and funny hat have to do with seminary? Or, if they have heard of the Friends church or Quakers, they wonder if an education here is aligned with their theological commitments: If I earn an MDiv from HGST can I serve in a Baptist church? (For the record, the answer is yes.)
My admittedly limited experience of the Quaker tradition goes back to a class I took in college, Early American Literature. We studied the poems of Anne Bradstreet, the speeches of John Winthrop, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, and the Journal of John Woolman. It was the writing of John Woolman, the “quintessential Quaker,” that resonated with me. Born in 1720, died in 1772, Woolman was a merchant, tailor, and traveling preacher. He was one of America’s first abolitionists. He traveled tirelessly entreating fellow Quakers to free their slaves, care for the poor, treat Native Americans with dignity. He also preached simplicity and non-violence.
Beneath his championing for the enslaved and mistreated lay a deep commitment to discerning the voice of God and to acting only in concert with the movements of divine love. When first establishing himself in business, he was asked to draft a will which would leave a man’s slaves to his sons. It was inspecting his initial discomfort that led Woolman to his convictions regarding slavery. But he sought God’s direction even in less weighty matters, like the timing of a trip:
Having felt my mind drawn towards a visit to a few meetings in Pennsylvania, I was very desirous to be rightly instructed as to the time of setting off. On the 10th of the Fifth Month, 1761, being the first day of the week, I went to Haddonfield Meeting, concluding to seek for heavenly instruction, and come home, or go on, as I might then believe best for me, and there through the springing up of pure love I felt encouragement, and so crossed the river.
Throughout The Journal, Woolman describes moments of discernment: being uneasy in spirit; waiting for God to open a door before he speaks in a meeting; beseeching God to “to open my understanding that I might know His will concerning me”; and interrogating his very dreams for spiritual guidance, asking all the time, What is God saying?
Working in the admissions office of a seminary, I meet people in their own moments of discernment. They feel a call to prepare themselves for careers in professional ministry. Some see themselves in the pulpit; others want to minister in hospitals and prisons; others would sit beside hurting people in their darkest hours. These are not easy paths.
It seems appropriate to me then that working in this office, at a school with roots in the Friends church, that my first encounter with the Friends tradition was with the life and work of John Woolman, a follower of Christ who did not pursue an easy path, but instead pursued the will of God in all things.