Faces on Faith: Challenging the injustices of a generation
How fortunate that faith has faces! In the Hebrew-Christian tradition, our story is not merely words on a page, but the witness of people, who, in their ordinary and common life, came to embody and give expression to truths that transformed individual lives, and, in some instances, changed the societies in which they lived.
A few miles from where I live in New Jersey, there is a little house, now a museum, in Mt. Holly. It was once the home of the Quaker John Woolman. John was born Oct. 19, 1720. In his adult life he was a tailor. As a young man he came to understand that his Christian faith, his way of believing about God and people, would not permit him to engage in the accepted economic practice of holding slaves. His inner conviction found public expression the day he refused to write a bill of sale for a slave. His personal anti-slavery conviction – born of prayer, devotion and worship – was unequivocally expressed in his words to others: “The only Christian way to treat a slave is to set him free.”
Woolman was passionate about what he believed. He preached and wrote against slavery during a time when the practice was little questioned and his testimony caused Quakers of the Philadelphia yearly meeting (1776) to denounce the practice. As a result of his efforts, many Friends, even some in the southern colonies, chose to free their slaves.
Woolman also preached and wrote against the abuse of Indians, the ill-treatment of the poor, and conscription and taxation to support the war effort. He was a prophetic voice to Colonial America, but his influence was only significantly felt among the small population of Friends.
Yet a century after his death, his writings (“Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes” and his Journal) made a significant impact upon the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century. Woolman’s call to the deeper spiritual life, the defense of the helpless, and the denunciation of selfishness, is for Christians of all centuries.
Yesterday, in my devotional reading from “Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals,” I was reminded of this man on the anniversary his birth, and the role one person can play in challenging the injustices present in a society and who can be a ‘face’ on faith. This quiet man from a small South Jersey town became, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, the change he wanted to see in the world. He is for all of us a face on faith and an inspiration to be one, too.
This children’s hymn expresses my thought this way:
I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true,
Who fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green;
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.
-Lesbia Scott, 1929
-Pastor George E. Morris, Captiva Chapel by the Sea