"A Quaker's View" first appeared in 1990, as a column in the WHF newsletter. Articles from that column are now available online (though some have been lost).

Nothing here is meant to be the last word in Quaker Orthodoxy. It is, after all, "A Quaker's View."

More on the Poor

Hello Friends and friends of Friends! I am your host, Pendle Hill. As you may remember, our topic for January was "George Fox's attitude towards the poor." Those of us who gathered to discuss that column seemed to run out of time before we ran out of things to say. So that our conversation might continue, this month's column will once again focus on Quaker attitudes towards the poor.

John Woolman was an American Friend who lived in the 18th Century. He worked to end the practice of slavery. With the outbreak of the French and Indian War, he worked to keep Friends mindful of their peace testimony. Although these are great works indeed, I direct you instead to his work as a tailor and merchant.

Woolman was a very successful businessman. By the time he was 36, he worried that his prosperous business would consume too much of his attention. And so, he began to refer potential customers elsewhere!

The pursuit of wealth exacts a hefty price. It consumes a person's time and energy. Although it seems like a very modern way of thinking, Woolman could also see that the pursuit of wealth placed a burden on the planet.

Woolman made a brilliant connection between our appetites and the suffering of others. He writes, "I feel a care that my craving may be rightly bounded, and that no wandering desire may lead me to strengthen the hands of the wicked."

Like George Fox before him, Woolman was far more concerned by the failings of the rich than by failings of the poor. After all, it is the love of ease among the rich that leads to an institution like slavery.

Woolman even placed a moral burden on the rich for tempting poorer people to steal. He writes, "I have often felt a care that no desire for riches, or outward greatness, may prompt me to get that in my house which may create envy, and increase this difficulty."

It is easy to think about "the Poor" in relatively abstract terms. The genius of John Woolman is his ability to translate the abstract into something very personal. He says, "My possessions may tempt others to steal. My economic decisions may support the oppression of others. My pursuit of wealth may blind me to God's call." His vulnerability makes us vulnerable, too. We see that his struggle is really ours as well.

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William Penn was among the first generation of Friends. Unlike John Woolman, William Penn had significant wealth. As the son of an admiral, Penn grew up in a privileged environment. He became the founder and first governor of Pennsylvania, maintaining estates in both England and the New World.

When not locked in the Tower of London for his religious beliefs, William Penn led a relatively luxurious life. Comfortable with the trappings of wealth in his own life, Penn nevertheless felt an obligation to care for the poor.

Care for the poor, Penn writes to his children, "is a debt you owe to God." All that we have is lent to us by God. And we have it, in part, so that we might alleviate the suffering of others. For Penn, there is absolutely no question: we must give to the poor.

Again, writing to his children, Penn recounts how he has been moved to see poor children "lie all night in bitter weather at the thresholds of doors." He concludes, "If you were so exposed, how hard would it be to endure?"

For Penn, therefore, care for the poor is a matter of good stewardship (because all that we have belongs to God). It is a matter of compassion (because we are moved by the pain of others). And it is a matter of consequences. Penn makes an explicit connection between the help we provide others and the help we receive from God. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat... (Matthew 25:35). Referring to this passage, Penn points out the reward which awaits those who give and, conversely, the "dreadful sentence" which awaits those who don't.

Here are some questions to consider:

1. To what extent is the problem of poverty really a problem of wealth?

2. What are the responsibilities of the wealthy? How wealthy do you have to be before these responsibilities apply to you?

3. Woolman offers a glimpse of his internal struggle. Penn argues on the basis of stewardship, compassion, consequences. Which approach speaks to you?