Sermon 10-12-2014; “The Motion of Love”

I Thessalonians 1:2-8  NRSV

Philip Moulton, edit., The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, Friends United Press, 1971.

Sterling Olmstead, Motions of Love – Woolman as Mystic and Activist, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #312, Pendle Hill, 1993.

Leonard Kenworthy, Quakerism, A Study Guide on the Religious Society of Friends, Prinit Press, 1981.

Paulette Meier; Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong,CD, Quaker Press, 2010.


Welcome home to First Friends Meeting.  It is a blessing to welcome you to the Meetingroom today…  Fifty nine years ago, on an October morning much like this one, a group of Friends gathered here on a rough parcel of land, to break ground for this Meetinghouse.  The Ground Breaking Ceremony was held at 11:00 in the morning, Sunday, October 2, 1955.  We, and our Quaker forebearers have been breaking ground for a long, long time…

George Fox with his earth-shattering discovery that God speaks directly to each person.

William Penn with his crazy, wild and wonderful idea of an ‘Holy Experiment’ called Pennsylvania. A sign painter named Edward Hicks with a never to be forgotten vision of a Peaceable Kingdom full of animals, Indians, and Friends. Lucretia Coffin Mott, who angered her Hicksite Friends for working with non-Quaker reformers to abolish slavery and allow women legal rights. An orphan named James, adopted by a Quaker farm family – the Michener’s of Pennsylvania; he sold over 100 million books, all reflecting a Quaker aversion to racism and oppression. And of course, our friend, John Woolman. 

From The Living Witness of John Woolman: “Woolman was born in New Jersey in 1720.  He became a recorded minister in 1743.   He was married and had two children, only one of whom survived infancy.  Brought up on a farm, he pursued a variety of occupations: orchard grower, merchant, tailor, surveyor, scribe, conveyancer, teacher and author.  More important: he was the most notable of hundreds of traveling Quaker ministers in America and England between 1700 and the Revolutionary War.  In that capacity he traveled, during a period of 29 years in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Long Island, and New England… he died of smallpox [at the age of 52] while visiting England in 1772.”

John Woolman knew how to break ground… not with a shovel, but with a consistent life of integrity and love.  Woolman never stepped outside of himself.  A sensitive, caring person from the time he was a child, Woolman heard and felt God speaking in a direct and personal way. Again, Philip Moulton: “Basic to both his character and his methods of social action was the depth of his experience of God, leading to a sense of divine guidance, of providence, and of God’s love.”  Woolman’s concerns centered around slavery, participation in war, and the economy.

The Evils of Slavery: ‘Woolman’s larger desire was that persons should do the will of God in every aspect of life, thus fostering the spiritual and material well-being of all his children.’ Moulton

John Woolman:

‘My employer, having a Negro woman, sold her and directed me to write a bill of sale, the man being waiting who bought her.  The thing was sudden, and though the thoughts of writing an instrument of slavery for one of my fellow creatures felt  uneasy, yet I remembered I was hired by the year, that it was my master who directed me to do it, and that it was an elderly man, a member of our Society, who bought her; so through weakness I gave way and wrote it, but at the executing of it, I was so afflicted in my mind that I said before my master and the Friend that I believed slave-keeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion.’ P. 33

It wasn’t long before Woolman decided he could no longer work there – even though he was quite successful. He’d had several offers to establish himself in business, but chose instead to become a tailor, allowing more time for travel, and to work as he chose – not as the market forced him to.  He wrote in his Journal, ‘There was a care on my mind to so pass my time as to things outward that nothing might hinder me from the most steady attention to the voice of the True Shepherd.” And that voice was the motion of love. 

Just as God spoke to George Fox, to Rufus Jones, to Elizabeth Fry, to Levi Coffin, to Bayard Rustin, God spoke to Woolman, and God speaks to us.  And it always sounds like love.  And it often sounds like ‘move’.  Seeing a Friend buying a slave in that store sounded like ‘love’ to Woolman… love the slave, and love the man buying the slave… love the Quakers who knew that it was wrong to own a person just as you would own a plow or a some farm animal. But don’t just love these people… move to change the way they live.  Leonard Kenworthy writes, “By 1780, no Friends in the American colonies were slave owners – 80 years before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Such action by Quakers was the result of the slow growth of a corporate consciousness and concern, due in large part to Woolman’s efforts.”


Women’s Quartet – Sung in Canon; Music by Paulette Meier

“May we look upon our treasures, our furniture and our garments,

May we look upon our treasures, our furniture and our garments,

And try to discover, whether the seeds of war

Are nourished by these, our possessions.” 


Participation in War: ‘The ethics of participation in war also claimed much of Woolman’s attention, especially when the French and Indian War reached his territory.’ Moulton 

John Woolman:

"Twelfth of sixth month being the first of the week and a rainy day, we continued in our tent, and I was led to think on the nature of the exercise which hath attended me. Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them.”

The economy: The material needs of all would be met insofar as each person was guided by universal love to seek only what he really required… He was no devotee of poverty for its own sake, but sought to live on the lowest economic level consonant with fulfilling the life and mission to which he was called of God.’ [Moulton]

Woolman always identified himself with the oppressed.  One example is that he refused to wear dyed clothing. Another?  He removed sugar from his diet.  Both of these were produced by slaves.

He wrote in his Journal that God, in the perfection of his power, wisdom, and goodness had provided enough labor for each person’s support in this world.   P.120  One of his most loving instructions is that to ‘turn all we possess into the channel of universal love becomes the business of our lives.”

Always seeking, always listening, always moving… always motivated by love.  Just as the Christians in Thessalonica, John Woolman, Elizabeth Fry, William Penn, Edward Hicks, were drawn by the motion of love to break new ground… in prison reform, in governance, in the abolition of slavery, in women’s rights, in peace and justice, in economic reform… and especially to the understanding that God is present among us… the kingdom of God is at hand.  “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”

A little boy was at that Ground Breaking Ceremony in 1955.  His name was David Comer.  After the Clerk of the Meeting - Verne Osborn gave his greeting, after Isaac Woodard - the Clerk of Ministry and Counsel gave his, after Marilyn Overman - the Chairman of the Committee on Christian Education gave hers, and Jhone Anderson spoke for the Young People, David Comer spoke for the Children.  He recited a poem he had written:

Our dear church will be built

With love and work and prayer

So that all our friends and neighbors

Might find welcome there. 

David Comer spoke of the work it would take to build the church, yes.  But he first spoke of the love that would build it.  Love would be the first motion.  Every time we respond to the motion of love in our lives, be it direct or indirect, be it personal or corporate, be it immediate or waited upon for clearness before we act… every time we respond and move forward in love, we are fulfilling the message of the Gospel… and breaking new ground.  My question to you is, ‘Who’s got a shovel???’