Quaker Theology #16  -- Fall-Winter 2009

Thomas Hamm & Carole Spencer: An Exchange On
Holiness, The Soul of Quakerism, by Carole Spencer


Holiness: 2.5 Cheers
Thomas Hamm, Earlham College

Those of us in the little world of Quaker historians have long known that this book was coming. I got an inkling in 1990, when the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists was held at George Fox College and Carole Spencer presented a paper on women and the holiness movement among Friends. My then recently published book, The Transformation of American Quakerism, was one of the works that, as I put it then, was "weighed in the balance and was found wanting." (1)

Now Spencer has expanded that work into one of the most ambitious books on Quaker history in recent years. Holiness is wide-ranging, boldly argued, and provocative. Spencer argues that the key to understanding Quakerism, its most vital, most distinguishing doctrine, is not the Inner Light, or immediate revelation, or silent worship, but instead, holiness, "the soul of Quakerism." She offers a succinct definition early on: holiness is "a spiritual quality in which human life is ordered and lived out as to be consciously centered in God." She continues: "For early Quakers holiness was centered in and with God as participation and union. Union with God, or union with Christ, or ‘Christ in me’ for the Puritan was metaphorical and analogical–God and human really could not touch–but for the Quaker those phrases were not metaphors but reality, ultimate union unus spiritus." (2)

I think that Spencer got most of the story right. I agree with her that understanding holiness is vital for Quaker history, especially before 1900, and I agree that most Quaker historians have not given it the attention it deserves. At that point, however, Spencer and I differ. Some colleagues have seen her work as an attack on my The Transformation of American Quakerism. If it is an attack, it is a restrained and respectful one. As I acknowledged in 1990, if I had it to do over again, I would do some things differently. In particular, I would give more attention to how the "Great Revival" and the accompanying changes in organization and worship affected the status of women among Friends. But we do disagree on some points where I remain convinced that I got things right in the 1980s. I see two issues: the nature of the revival movement in which Spencer and I agree holiness was central between 1870 and 1900; and, especially, the place of Hannah Whitall Smith in it.

By arguing that holiness is the "soul" of Quakerism, Spencer implicitly rebukes generations of Quaker historians and theologians who have seen the Inner Light, or Direct Revelation, as the heart of Quaker faith and practice. While I am not sure that it is profitable to try to isolate any one facet of Quaker belief as the most important, I agree with her that it is impossible to make sense of Quaker faith before 1900 without understanding the place that holiness, sanctification, or perfection, terms that Friends used interchangeably, occupied in Quaker life. Every chapter but one in Transformation includes some discussion of the subject. I differ her with her on some aspects of her treatment of Friends before 1860–for example, I think that Hicksites maintained a commitment to holiness longer than she concludes. But I want to focus on the period from 1870 to 1900.

Spencer makes clear her disagreements with my work in her chapter on "Quakerism and the Holiness Revival." It focuses on the last third of the nineteenth century, when a revival movement grounded on holiness swept through all of the Gurneyite yearly meetings except Baltimore. This movement, taken from the largely Wesleyan interdenominational movement of the period, argued that all Christians should undergo two distinct, instantaneous experiences, both the fruits of faith in the efficacy of the Atoning Blood of Christ: first, conversion, or justification, and then sanctification, or holiness.

When I wrote of it, I argued that the revival’s success left no doubt that it met a deep need in the lives of thousands of Friends, but that it was a radical break with the recent Quaker past that minimized Quaker distinctiveness and brought, in many places, a loss of identity whose consequences are still with us.

Spencer, however, concludes that: "the holiness revival met the spiritual longings of so many Friends because of its strong connections to the Quaker holiness heritage of early Friends, a heritage rooted in a Christ-centered mystical vision of perfection." (3)

I have two major reservations about Spencer’s case: the Friends she profiles, and the narrowness of her sources. The result is a partial portrayal that minimizes the damage that the holiness revivalists wrought, in spite of their undoubted accomplishments.

Spencer makes her argument through studies of three Friends: Joel Bean, Walter Robson, and Hannah Whitall Smith. Bean was a Friend who deeply disagreed with the version of holiness that the revival taught while Robson, an English Friend, was a sympathetic observer who apparently never embraced the experience of sanctification. I will discuss Smith in some detail later. Spencer ignores holiness Friends everyone recognized as central to the revival movement: David B. Updegraff, Nathan and Esther Frame, Luke Woodard, Calvin and Esther Pritchard, John Henry and Robert W. Douglas, and, above all, Dougan Clark.

All left significant bodies of writings. Dougan Clark is still revered by conservative holiness groups today. And no one at the time questioned his status as an articulate and influential Quaker theologian of holiness through works like The Offices of the Holy Spirit and The Holy Ghost Dispensation. Spencer men-tions Updegraff and Esther Frame only in passing, while ignor-ing the others. To write about holiness revivalism among Friends without discussing these Friends is like writing about evangelical Christians and politics in late twentieth-century America and giving little attention to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. What we have is a partial portrait, and one that because it is partial presents only the most positive aspects of the revival. (4)

Spencer’s treatment of Joel Bean is largely fair and accurate, although I offer two qualifications. First, Spencer casts Bean as a "Quaker modernist." By the end of his life, he certainly was in unity with modernists like Rufus Jones. Yet it is important to keep in mind that, at least until the time that Iowa Yearly Meeting removed him from the ministry, Bean’s personal faith remained deeply evangelical. In 1893, when required, he affirmed that he was born again, that the Scriptures were inspired and to be believed in their entirety, that salvation came through the blood of Christ, and that he accepted the fall of man and "the depravity of the human heart resulting therefrom." The issue for Bean was the insistence of Iowa Yearly Meeting’s leaders on holding up their version of holiness through revival as the only true way.(5)

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