To John Woolman on John Locke & John Adams

This morning I came to see what seminal work the Friends were doing in 1755–1758.  You relate it well in Chapter Five of the Journal.  I notice that you and the editorial committee have brought together many of the entries you made on the scruples of Friends about war–particularly about paying taxes to support it.  Some of these events are taken from events that happened before the close of the previous chapter.

This grouping that has been done has been juxtaposed in my mind with the biography I’m currently reading about John Adams, the Massachusetts representative to the Continental Congress that convened in Philadelphia less than a decade later.  From Adams actions I came to see how they were learning to put the understandings on natural law of John Locke and other thinkers from the century before yours into plans and resolutions about government and its role in the lives of men.

The justice of the peace who visited you said,

Civil government is an agreement of free men by which they oblige themselves to abide by certain laws as a standard, and to refuse to obey in that case is of like nature as to refuse to do any particular act which we had covenanted to do.

Your reply was that,

in making covenants it was agreeable to honesty and uprightness to take care that we do not foreclose ourselves from adhering strictly to true virtue in all occurrences relating thereto.

My perception is that you were just starting then to discover how far the social covenants made by free people should extend.  How should they relate to the covenants we have with God?  When conflicts arise, which determines our actions?  Jesus’s teachings were given when his listeners saw Caesar as more divinely installed than governments were viewed by most in times since your own.  Your reservation of the uprightness of adhering to true virtue may be the initial post-Enlightenment statements that have led to our later understandings of the right of conscience.  Thank you for helping us recognize the issues and learn to faithfully follow the true Guide in our hearts.

About 70 years ago rights of conscience were legally recognized for the bearing of arms.  The extension to the acts of paying for war is still a matter of different views among Friends and others.  Some, myself included, feel led to pay with a heavy heart.  Some adjust their outward lives to avoid paying for war by moving to a country that has no army or keeping their income below a taxable amount.  Some refuse to pay actively and have their possessions taken by the government.

2 thoughts on “To John Woolman on John Locke & John Adams

  1. Thank you so much for this note.

    I enjoy seeing the two statements about “covenants” clearly set in the context of Enlightenment thinking.

    I am not sure whether John Woolman was pre-Enlightenment or post-Enlightenment or whether he just bypassed the Enlightenment entirely.

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