During the Eighteenth Century, many Quakers were wealthy, conservative slave owners. John Woolman, a Quaker, dedicated his adult life to eliminating the practice of slavery among his brethren. He spent more than twenty years visiting Quakers along the East Coast. He did not criticize people, nor did he make them angry. He merely asked questions like, “What does it mean to be a moral person? What does it mean to own a slave? What does it mean to will a slave over to one’s children?” Driven by his vision, he influenced a whole generation of people to give up slavery. By 1770, a century before the Civil War, not one Quaker owned a slave.
Certain individuals, like John Woolman, have that kind of irresistible and flaming influence that brings out the best in others. Their influence is like a fire on a cold, lifeless piece of iron. While many attempts have been made to break the iron, all have failed. But the small, soft flame curls around the iron, embracing it, and never leaving the iron until it melts under the flame’s irresistible influence.
What characterizes influencing people?
1. An undeniable dream. Woolman’s vision was to rid the world of slavery. All influencing individuals know where they are going. They have a clear sense of direction. A reason for living. A clearly defined purpose for life. Victor Hugo, the French poet, wrote, “There is nothing like a dream to create the future.”
2. An unflappable tenacity. Woolman devoted much of his adult life to his dream. Influencing people refuse to quit. Nothing will discourage them. They possess remarkable staying power. They know that life cannot deny itself to the person who gives life his all. When faced with a mountain they keep on striving until they climb over, find a pass through, tunnel underneath or turn the mountain into a gold mind.
3. An undaunted faith. Woolman believed that his fellow Quakers would see the moral light. Influencing people will not allow their principles to be compromised. They are never victims of circumstances, but victors over circumstances. They are optimistic about tomorrow. They know that when one door is shut another door that is bigger and wider a little farther down the road will be opened.
4. An unyielding compassion. Woolman saw that all people regardless of skin color deserved to be free. Influencing individuals demonstrate a care and compassion for the people they are around. Love keeps the flame of influence burning brightly. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said it this way: “The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.”
John Woolman possessed each of these characteristics. Because of his efforts the Quakers were the first religious group to denounce and renounce slavery. In recounting this story, Robert Greenleaf pointed out: “One wonders what would have been the result if there had been fifty John Woolmans, or even five, traveling the length and breadth of the Colonies in the eighteenth-century persuading people, one by one, with gentle nonjudgmental argument that a wrong should be righted by individual voluntary action. Perhaps we would not have had the war with its 600,000 casualties and the impoverishment of the South, and with the resultant vexing social problem that is at fever heat 100 years later with no end in sight. We know now, in the perspective of history, that just a slight alleviation of the tension in the 1850s might have avoided the war. A few John Woolmans, just a few, might have made the difference.”
Woolman hated the idea of slavery and found it intolerable. He was determined to change the minds of his fellow Quakers. His vision, courage, and persistence transformed his church, his state, and ultimately his country.
One person can influence a marriage, family, school, church, community, nation, and world. What if each Christ-follower had such passion and conviction? What if each church had such a desire to change the world? Who will be the John Woolman in this generation?