We May Not Be Meek. But Our Nation is a lot Better Off because Some People Were.

It’s that time of year again, when everyone in our society begins to obsess about two critically important decisions in life:  1) how can we outflank the other aggressive shoppers on Black Friday and  2) what specific thing to be thankful for on Thanksgiving.  (Actually, wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we all put as much energy into the latter as we do the former?)

Ah, aren't you glad we have this holiday to think about what is really important in life?

Ah, aren’t you glad we have this holiday to think about what is really important in life?

If you obsessing about the shopping part, I’m afraid I can’t help you.  You and the other 4538 crazed shoppers who descend on Walmart on Friday morning (Thursday night?) will just have to fight it out among yourselves.

However, I have something new and different for you to be thankful for:  humility.  Not your own.  You can try to be thankful for that, but it won’t work, for some reason.  No, I mean the humility of good people who have gone before us.  They have given a great gift to us.

How?  Consider the abolition of slavery.  Several years I posted a piece about how we all ought to be thankful for those who worked to eliminate slavery.  Because of them, slavery is not only illegal in American society, but we all actually believe slavery is wrong.  We have all inherited that idea.  We did not come up with it ourselves.  We don’t get any credit for taking a stand on that one, folks.

It’s hard to believe, but through most of human history, nobody thought that slavery was an institution that people ought to be actively campaigning against.  Slaves, of course, hated the system and wanted to get away.  A number of people thought it was bad.  But they saw it as an unfortunate part of the world that we all had to live with, like poverty.

And then, in the early eighteenth century some people actually got this crazy idea that slavery violated God’s intention for the world and that God wanted them to do what they could to eliminate it.

Now, I admire William Wilberforce, God bless him, but he did not actually single-handedly abolish slavery and he didn’t start the whole thing.  Decades before he came on the scene, some other people got the ball rolling.

One of those persons, whom I think historians and Christians alike have not paid enough attention to, was a man named John Woolman.  (I’m guessing you’ve never heard of him unless you are a Malone University alum who remembers Woolman dorm.  Even then, the name might not have even meant anything to you.  Sigh.)

Woolman was a Friend (Quaker) from New Jersey who became convinced that he needed to do what he could to convince others to give up slavery.

So, if you were John Woolman with this crazy idea, how would you do it?  Would you debate slaveholders and convince them through evidence and the superior power of your reasoning that they were wrong?

No.  And here is bad news for those of us who love to post on Facebook.  Or, (ahem), write blogs. Argument and debate rarely ever change anybody’s mind.  The only time argument really works is when all involved are less concerned with scoring points and more concerned with wanting to try to gain deeper understanding, which includes a willingness to consider that one might be wrong about something or other.  That doesn’t happen very often.

Here is where humility comes in.

Before going out to discuss slavery, John Woolman prayed that the Lord would strengthen him and help him set aside “self-interest.”  He confessed in his journal that often when he went to speak to others, he realized that he himself was guilty of desiring things for his own benefit.  (Scoring points, perhaps?  Greater holiness?  Superior grasp of the truth?)

And then, do you know who Woolman went to talk to?  Fellow Christians.  Fellow Quakers, in fact.  When he addressed them, he spoke of how they all needed to work together in “brotherly love.”   They should all “promote the pure spirit of meekness and heavenly-mindedness.”  He pointed out that they all needed to be “truly humbled as to be favored with a clear understanding of the mind of truth.”

And then he urged them to put aside their self-interest and consider what it is that God wants.


Prayer.  Self-searching.  Confession of one’s own selfishness.  Seeking meekness.  Admitting that one does not always see the truth clearly.  Showing brotherly love with those one disagrees with.


I don’t know why those of us who are Christians should be surprised by this, but I think if we were honest with ourselves we would have to admit that the most surprising thing of all is this:

It worked.

imgresOver a period of a couple of decades, the Quakers managed to eliminate all slave-holding among themselves.  Not only that, they had an incalculable influence on non-Quakers who worked against slavery:  former slaves, evangelicals, William Wilberforce, and secular-minded abolitionists who followed them, just to name a few.   Woolman and his Friends started the movement.

Let me point out that it was not just John Woolman who demonstrated humility.  Perhaps we should give even greater credit to the Quaker slaveholders who voluntarily freed their slaves. They had to give up wealth and status to do that.  And before they even reached that point, they had to give up something that we all hold on to even tighter:  pride.  They had to consider the suggestion that they were wrong.  And then admit it.

So, yeah, there are a lot of things here we can learn for our own lives.

A place to start:  on Thursday we should thank God that his grace worked through John Woolman, the other Quakers, and all the other people who were humble enough to actually admit that they were often selfish, muddled in their thinking, and did not love others as much as they should.  And then that they went and did something with their chastened hearts.

We should be thankful for that.  Because we have all benefited from their humility, even though we don’t really deserve it.

Something You Were Forced to Do, For Which You Should Be Thankful

If you are reading this post, somebody probably made you to go to school somewhere along the line.

Most likely, you found yourself in school before it occurred to you that you might have a choice in the matter.  All the kids you knew went to school.  You did not ask where school came from.  You did not hire the teachers, you did not assemble the curriculum, and you did not pass the laws that compelled kids like you to go to school.  You just went.

Maybe in third grade you protested and asked your mom or our dad why you had to go to school.  Your protests did not matter.  School was inevitable.

It has not always been this way.  For most of human history, formal education was a privilege for the elites.  In fact, there are still places in the world today where children do not have the opportunity or the economic resources to go to school.

In some ways, it is odd that the United States requires all children to attend school.  Americans believe in liberty, rights, limited government, the freedom of individuals to make choices, and the chance for people to live their lives the way they want.  And yet, parents can be punished for not sending their children to school.  Isn’t this a violation liberty, limited

Calvin (of the Hobbes variety) would not have been happy with the Puritans.  John Calvin, however, would have approved.

Calvin (of the Hobbes variety) would not have been happy with the Puritans. John Calvin, however, would have approved.

government, freedom of individuals to make choices, rights, and the chance for people to live their lives the way they want?  Disgruntled third graders (if they stayed in school long enough to learn about such things) might make this argument.  But there it is:  in the land of the free, everyone is compelled to go to school.

There are, of course, good reasons for mandatory education.  Imagine how different society would be if only a handful of people could read.  Imagine how you would be different as a person if you could not read.

You should be thankful, then, for mandatory primary school education.  And you should be thankful for those persons in history who built this system.

Disgruntled third graders (if they stayed in school long enough to learn about such things), would be correct to lay much of the blame for this system at the feet of the Puritans.  American Puritans, who even required people to engage in leisure activities, had a knack for passing laws that kept individuals from straying from the Puritan way.  Believing that a conversion experience was necessary for the elect, the Puritans practiced spiritual disciplines like Bible reading in order to pave the way for conversion and holy living.  They also believed that they held a covenant with God that would bring judgment on the whole community if they strayed from the path.  By golly, then, Puritan children better learn how to read the Bible.  So they passed laws requiring each town to provide a schoolteacher who knew Greek and Hebrew.  (I have a Ph.D., but I would not be qualified to teach first grade in colonial Massachusetts).  As a result, Puritan New England ended up with some of the highest literacy rates in the world – literacy rates that included females, I should add.

Nor would Calvin (of the Hobbes variety) have been happy with Horace Mann.

Nor would Calvin (of the Hobbes variety) have been happy with Horace Mann.

In the early 1830s, the common school movement sought to make education mandatory for children across the United States.  Who spearheaded the movement?  Yankees from Massachusetts, who were building upon two centuries of educational practice.  Their purposes had shifted somewhat from their Puritan ancestors.  Horace Mann, who led the charge, believed that mandatory education was necessary for good citizenship, democracy and the health of society.  Today, purposes have shifted somewhat again, as Americans tend to think of mandatory education as necessary for a strong economy.  We differ on the ends of mandatory education, but a theme of the common good runs through it all.

This is no small development.  With the assistance of plenty of non-Yankees, the idea of mandatory education has spread throughout the world.  It is hard to imagine how a modern economy could function without widespread education.  It is still seen as necessary for democracy.  It is difficult to see how reform movements, like abolition, women’s rights, or civil rights, just to name a few, could have gained traction without widespread literacy.  In the modern world, Christian ministries could not function without widespread education; churches simply assume that their congregations are literate.  Biblical translation has proven to be a critical component of the spread of Christianity beyond North America and Europe.

In fact, so much of what we consider to be good in the historical developments in the world from the past two centuries have been built upon education, that a person of faith would have to say that God must be behind it all in some way.

And so, give thanks that somebody forced you – and others — to go to school.



An Ethical Conviction That You Hold, For Which You Should Be Thankful

You and I believe that slavery is wrong, but neither of us came to this conclusion on our own.  We did not reach this conviction by wrestling with complicated ethical, economic, political and theological issues.  We did not risk our lives to escape our own enslavement and we did not campaign tirelessly against powerful institutions to abolish an unjust system.  Neither of us have ever been confronted with the reality that we would lose a large proportion of our wealth, should our society decide that slavery were wrong.

Instead, we grew up in a culture where we did not see legalized slavery around us anywhere.  We were raised in a society that told us in thousands of ways, explicitly and implicitly, that freedom was good and this system was wrong.  We accepted this great truth without thinking about it.  It cost us nothing.

You and I have not contributed anything to the principle that slavery is wrong.  Oddly, though, we may still cast a smug eye on earlier generations.  We may consider ourselves to be morally superior to those from centuries ago who held slaves.  Or we might be bothered to discover that great Christians from earlier centuries held slaves, good people who loved God, like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.  What was wrong with these people, we silently wonder?  Without thinking deeply, we assume that if we were born in 1703, we would understand that slavery was an evil and unjust system.  And we would be wrong about ourselves.

The conviction that slavery is wrong is a gift.  We did not pay for it, work for it, achieve it through intellectual effort, or earn it through our own righteousness.  And yet those of us who live in 2012 hold on to this conviction firmly, without quite realizing how it ended up here in our hands.

This is how grace works. This truth was given to us by God.

It happened somehow through the processes of history.  God worked through many different people who, seeing through a mirror dimly, struggled to come to terms with a truth that was not obvious to them.  Some of them then battled formidable economic, political and social powers, in order to eliminate an unjust system.  The results, quite frankly, are stunning.

In 1776 slaves could be found in every single colony and region in the Americas, from Canada to Chile (and each of the original 13 states).  An overwhelming majority of people in North America, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, Central America and Africa accepted slavery as a fact of life.  They might not have thought it a pleasant system, but they were convinced that this was how the world operated.  In fact, the acceptance of slavery had been the default mode for all of humanity, for slavery could be found in some form in all regions of the world throughout history.

And then, in a blink of an eye (by historical reckoning), slavery was abolished.  By 1886 it had been eliminated in the Americas.  By that time, the vast majority of people of the transatlantic world agreed it was an unjust system.  This way of thinking spread throughout the world.  For the first time in history, the acceptance of slavery was no longer the default mode of thinking.

You and I have inherited that conviction.  We should be thankful for this particular gift.  Thankful that many people came before us who worked and wrestled and died and argued and committed themselves to abolition.  And thankful to God who, in His mysterious manner, worked through these people in history, so that we might think this way, without even realizing that we think this way, or why we think this way.

Oh, and one more thing.  Let us also be thankful that, regardless of our thinking, we are not enslaved in this way and do not live in a society that enslaves others in this way.