Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism

A review and further reflections on Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism by Carole Dale Spencer

I’m trying to remember where I first heard of this book, and I can’t recall. I do know that I asked for it for Christmas in 2008, and thanks to my beloved Chris M., it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since, waiting for me to finish it.

I finally did it, because Spencer is coming to Quaker Heritage Day in Berkeley next week. It’s a tough read, if you’re not used to the academic style, but it gets easier near the end. And I’m really, really glad I read it.

A lot of the book is Spencer running through a series of individuals through Quaker history and showing how they are or are not exemplars of Quaker holiness. There’s more than 20 of them over 350 years, so if you want to know who they all are, read the book. Some of the history doesn’t agree with what I’ve learned – but then I only know what others have said about most of them. I agree with her interpretations of the ones I’ve read first hand: Hannah Whitall Smith and Richard Foster and Thomas Kelly. Elias Hicks, Joseph John Gurney and John Wilbur, these are three I’d like to read more of. (I’ve got the new version of Hicks’ Journal, which I understand addresses some of her criticisms.) I wouldn’t call myself a Beanite Friend, partly because I think that sounds silly, partly because I don’t think of myself as a follower of a particular Quaker ancestor, and partly because I don’t know enough of Joel Bean’s actual work to have a valid opinion. More and more I think I should read his work myself.

But I’m less interested in the historical aspects than in my own affinity for the key elements of Quaker holiness. I think this could be a key to what holds convergent Friends together in my mind. Or maybe it’s just the key to my own spiritual journey.

I think it’s important to separate the current iteration of non-Quaker holiness movements from what Spencer and I are talking about. Apparently, Quakers have always had a slightly different definition of holiness from the religious mainstream. Meaning we don’t have to equate holiness with American rightwing politics and religious fundamentalists. Actually quite the opposite, in some cases.

Spencer teases out eight separate elements of traditional Quaker holiness. I’ll list them here, because I’m copying them from the book: Scripture, Eschatology, Conversion, Evangelism, Charisma, Suffering, Mysticism, Perfection.

Spencer also explains how these elements relate to evangelical concepts like justification and sanctification, but I can’t keep them straight. Frankly, I think that Conversion and Evangelism are two parts of the same thing, and that Suffering and Perfection are another inseparable pair. And if you’ve got an hour or two, I’d be happy to sit down and explain why I think so and discuss it with you. I could use the help in working it all out in my own head. But for the purposes of this book review, let me just encourage you to read Spencer’s explanations of what each means.

Personally, I can only manage to keep three aspects in my head, in part because I think they are all inter-related and they all cycle around to each other.

1) Perfection, meaning holy obedience, spiritual growth, acting like Jesus, living up to the Light we’ve been given, actually doing what we know is right
2) Mysticism – listening to God, hearing Christ Jesus speak to my condition, cultivating and holding close to the intimate relationship with God
3) Witness, which in my mind includes spreading the word, sharing the Good News, working to improve the world, teaching and healing like Jesus.

The desire for holy perfection and faithful witness, the understanding of their meaning, and the strength to accomplish them come from our mystical relationship with God. I think that when Friends have kept close to that guide, then we have avoided falling into the rigid and rulebound forms of religion. I think that scripture is a tool to be used with our mystical interpretation. The Bible may not be perfect, but it’s the best description of Jesus’s teaching and actions that we’ve got.

I have three examples of how perfection and witness are related, but none of them comes from Spencer’s book so don’t blame her if they don’t speak to you. One is that we know that having a low flow showerhead isn’t going to save the world, but it helps to have your own house in order before you try to change farmers’ wasteful irrigation practices. Second, you can’t effectively protest factory working conditions while wearing clothes made in sweatshops. Third, people are more likely to listen to you tell them how Jesus is a blessing in your life if you are a blessing to your family and friends.

Now I know that these aren’t strict rules, and it’s not true that we can’t say anything about the wrongs of the world until we’re free from all our sins. But we have to be actively examining our own lives for the seeds of war and continually doing something about our own lives as we go along. And then we can speak with Truth and Power. Part of this is the confidence that comes with not feeling like a hypocrite and the recognition from one’s opponent that one is walking the walk. But I truly think there is something divinely inspired that makes a person a better advocate who has removed the beam from her own eye without getting bogged down in that process. Jesus offers us some good examples of looking at rules, and acting with love, even if, on occasion, that contradicts a generally useful rule. (Like healing on the Sabbath, for example.)

I think Spencer is right that our various forms of worship are culturally and temporally specific, not divinely mandated. What’s important is that our worship enables us to achieve communion with God – to hear God speaking to us. Hours and hours of silence seem intensely important to me, and absolutely fruitless to others. I’m willing to accept that other people experience God in other ways. (I don’t believe this is divided along lines of race, class or geography, but I know that what we’re used to makes a big difference.)

What is missing from this book is the growing holiness movement among unprogrammed Friends in the last ten to twenty years. That’s probably because we don’t call it that usually. But I think that Lloyd Lee Wilson’s book, Essays on a Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, fits all of Spencer’s criteria for Quaker holiness. I think some (not all) of our Quaker environmentalists are actually part of a holiness movement. In my local world, I think that the reason that Chris Moore-Backman’s and Carl Magruder’s ministries are so attractive to some and so off-putting to others is because they are actually preaching Quaker holiness. They’re just not using that word.

And then there’s me. Not that I am such a stellar example of Christian perfection. But I want to affirm that I’m really trying, on all these points. I’m just now understanding that this Quaker holiness is what calls to me in the Friends that I would call convergent. Do you feel the same way?

In all the branches of Friends, in all eras, there have been examples of Quaker holiness, real people who have touched the lives of the people around them, even if they didn’t publish any books or start any new movements bearing their names. Think about who you know that you admire as a Quaker. In what ways do they exemplify Quaker holiness? In what ways do they contradict my theory? You don’t have to name them here on this blog, but I’m really curious whether this idea resonates with other Friends or not.

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Blogger Martin Kelley said...

I'm interested in your take on unprogrammed Quaker holiness. I should reread the book with those eyes. I had gotten bogged down by some of the earlier chapters, esp some historical episodes which felt pretty revisionist. It might be more productive for me to start from the back, with Holiness in the Twentieth Century.

I see a lot more evangelical influence among liberal Friends than we're comfortable talking about. Ironically, I think those most turned off by EFI Friends on a political/cultural level are the ones most influenced by some of the underlying theology. Then I think there are those of us, like yourself and I think myself, who are increasingly comfortable talking with at least some evangelical Friends. It's interesting to wonder if holiness is part of that glue.

4/05/2010 12:45 PM  
Blogger Gregg Koskela said...

This is an insightful post! You've done more than a review, you've added your own very helpful and thoughtful insights.

I've got to read Carole Spencer's book. I'm embarrassed that I haven't already. But I think you are definitely on to something with holiness and convergent Friends. You are on to something with (my words) authentic faith that both lives what it says and calls society to account.

Robin, you have so much to offer to this conversation, and I truly see you as offering insights that apply to many different parts of the Quaker family tree. Thank you.

4/05/2010 2:12 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Martin and Gregg, I really wish that both of you could be here on Saturday so we could talk about this more directly. But thank God for the internet that gives us an opportunity to share our ideas anyway.

Martin (and others who will read this too), do you think that liberal east coast Quakers can get over the word holiness? I'm afraid that it's in the same category with righteousness, that has been saddled with the overtones of self-righteousness, rather than sounding like a positive thing. And that it's too closely aligned with some of the more hateful forms of Christianity.

Gregg, I'm curious whether Spencer's interpretation of Everett Cattell is a common one or a brand new one among evangelical Friends. I'm also curious whether the word holiness has some of the same effect on progressive evangelicals as it does on liberals? Or is this a word we can reclaim from the historical bin to use to mean something important to us today?

4/05/2010 3:15 PM  
Blogger Gregg Koskela said...

I'll have to read the book before I can answer about Cattell. In the 80's, when I was a college student, many people were passing around Cattell's "The Spirit of Holiness". I haven't read it for a long time.

As for the word holiness...it does bring up some very difficult connotations for me. In our YM, for a long time, there were opposing "camps" that could be labelled "holiness" vs. "Quaker".

4/05/2010 3:57 PM  
Blogger Chris M. said...

I'm sorry to have to miss Carole's talk. San Francisco Meeting is opening its neighborhood food pantry that day, and I'd like to be there to help. Later on, Eight Year Old has a baseball game he'd like to play in.

I do hope to make the after-talk potluck, though.

And now it's my turn to read the book!

4/05/2010 4:53 PM  
Blogger Linda J Wilk said...

Friend, thee speaks my mind, and I too shall take a turn to read this book!

4/06/2010 7:50 AM  
Anonymous Little Spirit said...

Hello Robin-

I have so thoroughly enjoyed this post. It has given me so many thoughts, feelings.

I guess the thought I will express is I hope you know your own holiness. How beautiful, wonderful, sacred you are.

Next I would add that all Creation is Holy because It all is God/Spirit. The only time it isn't holy is when some one is in denial. Then it is all just a matter of how far down the hole you are.

There are many things I could say about Carole Spencer's book. I liked the book. It gave me an aspect of historical Quakerism that I had not really seen. And I am working on rereading to try and get some of that 'technical' stuff down.

I wish you Gratitude!
Little Spirit

4/06/2010 9:46 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

So, from the comments here and a couple of emails I've received separately, I'm hearing that the word holiness is really a problem for people. I personally find it a beautiful word, but maybe that's because I don't have much history with it, so it's not so tainted for me.

Gregg, Chris and Linda, I'll be curious to hear your impressions of Spencer's take on holiness whenever you're ready.

Little Spirit, thanks for your kind words. This post and book have given me a lot to think about too.

4/07/2010 3:23 PM  
Blogger juju said...

That reminds me of something that happened when I was a 14-year-old teacher in the Mormon Junior Sunday School. One of my students said to the Sunday School president, "I love my teacher, because... uh, because Sister Moberly is a very holy lady."

That 7-year-old girl made me want to live up to her exaggerated evaluation of my inner qualities!

4/12/2010 2:12 AM  
Blogger Chuck Fager said...

Robin, I read the book and did not find her analysis persuasive. Her 8 features of holiness seemed incomplete and to some extent arbitrary, and the interpretation of the impact of the holiness movement on American Quakerism particularly skewed and sanitized.

I'm not alone in some of this response. If you look at the online issue #16 of the journal Quaker Theology, you can find both a review of the book and an exchange between her and Tom Hamm.

Hamm in my view is just about the best active Quaker historian in the US, and his account (in his prize-winning book "The Transformation of American Quakerism") of the impact of the holiness movement -- which Spencer tries hard to debunk -- is still more convincing to me. Tom is about the most gentle guy around, but as you'll see, he isn't buying her version.

You asked about Everett Cattell. I've read a lot of the relevant items, and have a sharply ambivalent response. It seems clear he was more irenic in his approach to some other Friends than many of the Evangelical leaders of his day. He was also prepared to speak openly and critically of corruption in foreign missions, which most evangelical leaders sedulously avoid mentioning. Props to him for that.

Yet, on perhaps the most important occasion for showing this, the 1970 St. Louis Conference of all the branches, he took a very hard line against anything non-christocentric among Friends. It read to me like drawing a line in the sand, and that apprehension has been corroborated many times since then by similarly situated leaders. Not much "convergence" there.

Carole's book is important, though, if only because of its broad sweep and depth of research. Few US Quaker scholars, certainly among the unprogrammed, have tried anything similarly ambitious; alas, I think that's because too few of them take Quaker history and institutions seriously enough to put in the necessary work.

Here's the link to the "Quaker Theology" issue, and its Table of Contents:


It's free.

4/12/2010 12:10 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Juju, while it's good to be aware of how we fail to be holy, it's also good to be reminded that others are looking up to us.

Chuck, thank you very much for the link to the journal articles. I will take more time to read them before I comment further, but it's helpful to see how other people have understood this book. Especially since I don't have enough historical knowledge of the 19th century to have a valid opinion one way or the other about Spencer's historical analysis.

I was disappointed (but probably shouldn't be surprised) by the short discussion of holiness among contemporary Friends. I am curious about whether you see the concept of Quaker holiness as useful (in any way) to Friends today?

4/12/2010 10:34 PM  
Blogger Chuck Fager said...

Robin wrote:

<< I am curious about whether you see the concept of Quaker holiness as useful (in any way) to Friends today? >>

Not much overall, Robin. Spencer's notion, as I said, seems incomplete and skewed to a definite theological agenda, an approach which has a very tragic (& long) record of making trouble for Friends (one Spencer glosses over). "By their fruits . . ." So it doesn't appeal to me.

(More on this in the articles I mentioned; hope you'll check them out.)

Generally, though, what passes for "holiness" seems to reflect a certain kind of temperament among Friends (& others), which works for them, and that's fine. But it does not thereby qualify as a template for "true" or "authentic" or "normative" Quaker spirituality, something we should all aspire to, or be judged by.

This temperament fits a number of the archetypal Conservative/Wilburite folks. Some of them have projected it back onto earlier Quaker history as the "authentic" model of Friends spirituality.

My study suggests a more pluralistic version. As my time in the RSOF lengthens, I'm more impressed with the truth of John 14:2 "In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you."

Or, in the Contemporary Sylvester Stewart rendering, "different strokes for different folks."

Among the faithful Quakes I've known, some are:

- like sages (from the Wisdom books);
- or intellectual in their religious sentiments (as in Ps. 119:97: "O how I love thy law! it [is] my study all the day." Such "laws" can be the physical "laws" of the universe as well as specifically religious commandments);
- or prophets, raising holy hell;
- or quiet mystics (Spencer describes her "holiness" as a variety of mysticism);
- activists, who worship by doing;
- even skeptics.

And, not least, many of us are kind of a mixed bag; I think that's where I find myself.

I don't think any one of these is the "right" way to be Quaker; which "room" fits thee best?

4/15/2010 11:17 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Chuck, thank you for your explanation. I think you're right that there are different ways to be faithful, I will think if I have others to add to the list, and where I fit. And I printed out the Spencer/Hamm/Fager articles, but I haven't been home in the evening yet this week, so I'm hoping to read them this weekend.

4/16/2010 12:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I did not find Carole`s version of holiness in accordance with that of Fox or scripture. Nor do I find that of the great revivals in Evangelicalism scriptural. Fox`s version was the same as that of the early fathers and Christian mystics who taught a 3 step way not a two step one. The ones teaching the 2 step one say that they are not teaching sinless perfection whereas the others are like Fox.

The three step way is purgation illumination and then union and we are not in Christ till we are united and share the same nature which is holy. This is not about rules, this is something that is above human language. You must be in the same spirit to understand and Fox was in the same spirit as the apostles but many teaching holinss are not and desiring holiness is not the same as living in it.


4/16/2010 9:32 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hello Friends, it's taken me a while to respond properly here because last week was just one of those times when other things took precedence over blogging. But I've been thinking more about this quite a bit.

Brenda, I agree that true holiness is above rules and human language, and that desiring holiness is not the same as living it.

Thank you, Chuck, for both the links to the very interesting journal articles and your personal reflections.

I still don't know enough about the history to have an opinion about what REALLY happened in the 1800s, but I appreciate the opportunity to hear more from Hamm and Spencer directly. I do know that Hamm would not be the first (or the last) historian, Quaker and otherwise, to downplay the role and status of women in history, even without intending to (referring to Whitall Smith). I agree that Spencer only covered the positive heritage of Quaker revivalism and ignores the negative impacts on Quakerism today (but perhaps she's right that people already know quite a lot about that and it was time for a corrective in the other direction). I think it is possible for both of them to be right, in that the holiness revival spirit appealed to the longstanding theme in Quakerism AND that the revivalists got too carried away with Methodist means and lost track of Quaker balances to the holiness movement. I've never met Chuck Fager in person, but I suspect that part of his angle in his review was to stir up more controversy between Hamm and Spencer than really exists.

I still don't see the clear distinctions between Spencer's eight points. I suspect they were necessary to develop data points for her dissertation research, and may not have much use beyond that. And I agree that social justice should be on the list. But I think her synthesis of what holds Quakerism together is extremely valuable.

In Fager's review, he quotes Kenneth Boulding as saying that the number of saints in any generation is what determines the vitality of that period. What is a saint but a person who exemplifies holiness? Which in my mind includes both listening for God's direction and carrying it out into the world. Mysticism in this sense is not necessarily dramatic earthstopping visions, but the gentle guiding hand of knowing right from wrong. I would say that divine guidance IS the rule rather than the exception. This is the Inward Light. It is one of the keys to Quakerism.

I think all of the types that Chuck Fager lists in his comment can illustrate the three core elements in differing measures, but without any one of them to some degree, the Quaker stool is wobbly.

I think Spencer is on to something, even if her first book isn't perfect. As Hamm and Fager have both pointed out, it's gone a long way towards raising new questions and opening new fields of thought. For them and for me.

I wish I had more time to work on this theory. If anyone would like to support my family so that I could spend more time reading and writing and praying and discussing these topics, please let me know. As it is, it is going to take me a long time to work out the right way to articulate the glimpses of Truth that are floating in and out of view in my mind.

Chuck, I hope you will continue to comment here, to stir up more thinking, to offer more resources for consideration and edification!

4/20/2010 12:40 AM  

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