June 8: America's first fair-trader

Quakers like Woolman knew that you don't need a thermometer to know which way the wind blows. Wait.. No, that's right -- you don't need one.

Maybe you think you're pretty righteous. Maybe you don't wear clothes from Old Navy made from Chinese sweatship prison labor; instead, you wear clothes from Banana Republic made from Chinese country-club prison labor. Maybe you shun produce grown by organic farmers, if those farmers used to be investment bankers. Maybe you, and/or the rear bumper of your car, are unafraid to express your outre political positions.

Well, John Woolman (1720-1772) calls bullshit on your whited sepulcher, because you wear dyed clothing:
Through giving way to hiding dirt in our garments a spirit which would conceal that which is disagreeable is strengthened. Real cleanliness becometh a holy people; but hiding that which is not clean by coloring our garments seems contrary to the sweetness of sincerity... And if the value of dye-stuffs, and expense of dyeing, and the damage done to cloth, were all added together, and that cost applied to keeping all sweet and clean, how much more would real cleanliness prevail.
(I know, I know, how can the sepulcher be whited if it's also dyed? With God all things are possible, even mixed metaphors.)

John Woolman, according to both his HC introduction and his Wikipedia entry, was one of the first Americans to notice something hinky about the whole slavery deal, and then devoted much of his life to trying to get at least the Quakers to agree with him. But, as the clothes-dyeing episode suggests, this was just part of his overall concern with social justice:
Industrious women who spin in the factories get some fourpence, some fivepence, and so on to six, seven, eight, nine, or ten pence per day, and find their own house-room and diet. Great numbers of poor people live chiefly on bread and water in the southern parts of England, as well as in the northern parts; and there are many poor children not even taught to read. May those who have abundance lay these things to heart!

Post-boys pursue their business, each one to his stage, all night through the winter. Some boys who ride long stages suffer greatly in winter nights, and at several places I have heard of their being frozen to death. So great is the hurry in the spirit of this world, that in aiming to do business quickly and to gain wealth the creation at this day doth loudly groan.
Well, fortunately we seem to have everything squared away in re: the creation. It's not groaning any more. (Instead, it's turned to revenge.) We will always need Woolmans, even though you can see that a concern for social justice goes hand-in-hand with being a titantic pain in the ass:
I have several times been entertained at the houses of Friends, who had sundry things about them that had the appearance of outward greatness, and as I have kept inward, way hath opened for conversation with such in private, in which Divine goodness hath favored us together with heart-tendering times.
In other words, after you feed him, he complains about your dyed clothes, and your silver, which he is also against, because of the oppressive conditions in the mines. He's a hippie, straight up.

I remember thinking a few years ago that it would become hip to be a Mason, and, since the prediction is coming to pass (I don't think it is really -- if it's in the LA Times the opposite is likely true), I will now go out on a limb and predict that the Quakers will have a renaissance. In some ways it's the perfect liberal religion -- you're supposed to talk as much you want at Meeting.

But good on the Harvard Classics for including this early crusader among its works, although you might also say that that's just symptomatic of the New England sense of moral superiority that made John Kerry the most beloved figure on our national scene.

No comments: