Quaker Theology #16  -- Fall-Winter 2009

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


Response to Thomas Hamm: Holiness 2.5 Cheers
Carole Spencer, George Fox University

First of all I want to dismiss any notions that my book was in any way an attack on Hamm’s Transformation of American Quakerism. While we disagree on a few issues, his work was an important catalyst for the beginning of my exploration of holiness and Quakers almost twenty years ago. I had just finished reading Hannah Whitall Smith’s spiritual autobiography, The Unselfishness of God when Hamm’s book came out. I had also been researching women in nineteenth century Quakerism and was delighted to discover Hamm mentioned many of the mostly forgotten women I had been reading about, such as Rhoda Coffin, Elizabeth Comstock, and Esther Frame. But with Hannah Whitall Smith’s fascinating memoir of her spiritual journey fresh in my mind, I was surprised to find Smith barely mentioned. I continue to maintain that Smith was a central Quaker figure in the Holiness Movement between 1870 and 1900, yet her contributions and lasting significance and contributions have been under- recognized by most Quaker historians.

Like Hamm’s critique, most of the criticism I’ve received about my book targets what I left out of the story– in particular, not exploring in more depth the revivalists whom I would call the Quaker Holiness radicals. I will not disagree with Hamm that they comprise an important chapter in the history of Quaker holiness, and one that requires more exploration and analysis than I could give it in one chapter of my book, (an overambitious project to begin with, thinking I could adequately cover 300 plus years of Quaker holiness theology and experience in one volume). And I agree that it is an important chapter, yet to be written, precisely because it has so colored and shaped modern Quaker understandings (and misunderstandings) of holiness–negatively to many, and positively to others. I will accept the charge of the omission, but also defend my choice of Smith as the most representative of what I would call a return to a more "classical" Quaker holiness in that period. I maintain, in retrospect, that she understood and articulated a Quaker holiness truer to its original unifying form than Updegraff, Clark and other radicals, who were taking holiness in new and often non-Quaker and sectarian directions. Yet I also believe that the motivations of the revivalists, at least initially, were for a renewal of Quaker holiness with a focus on the dynamic, transformative aspects of the presence and power of the Spirit found in early Quaker spirituality.

I also concur with Hamm’s suggestion that the relationship of Updegraff and Clark to Quaker Holiness is analogous to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell’s relationship to 20th century Evangelicalism. And just as Robertson and Falwell and other right wing Fundamentalist Christians distort Evangelicalism, I would maintain that Updegraff and Clark and other radicals moved to an extreme position on Holiness that led to practices and beliefs that hurt, rather than helped, the promotion of holiness within Quakerism over time. While their influence carried the day for a while, other strong advocates of holiness, such as Hannah Whitall Smith (and other moderates) in that period, parted company with them. And as is often the case. the more radical rhetoric overshadowed the quieter, more humble and compelling vision of holiness, causing fragmentation and schism.

The radicals were preaching and writing about a type of holiness doctrine and practice, that I maintain departed from what I will now term "classical" Barclayan Quaker holiness. Smith’s writings conveyed a fresh understanding of holiness in the broader culture of her time (beyond the Quaker culture) but without rejecting her own Quaker roots. In fact she rediscovered and appropriated them in a fresh new and inclusive way. Though she loved the spiritual energy of camp meetings, she was not preoccupied with insisting on an instantaneous "second blessing" experienced through an altar call. She admits in her writings, that she herself never experienced sanctification as an emotional, instantaneous experience by treading to the altar, though her husband and many others experienced it in just that way.

Hamm differentiates Smith’s holiness from the fear-based and aggressive methods of promoting holiness of the more radical evangelists. Her opposition to the more radical leaders is used as support for his assertion that she was not a significant voice. I would argue from the same evidence that her understanding of holiness was true to the spirit of holiness within normative Quakerism, and thus she deserves to be the standard rather than the exception. Since the Holiness movement is so often caricatured and misunderstood, (often due to its own excesses) my purpose in my book was to identify the voices of those (such as Smith, Robson, and Rendel Harris) who promoted a Holiness spirituality that was not antithetical to its own Quaker roots. And as the revival within Quakerism became more polemical and doctrinally rigid, Smith distanced herself from those who were interpreting holiness in a narrow paradigm. She maintained an open, all–embracing, mystical vision of holiness, as the pure love of God, which explains at least in part, why she became a restitutionalist (a form of Christian universalism). She emphasized an inclusive and unifying vision of holiness, not an exclusive, individualized, privatized, legalistic form of piety. As she describes her experience of holiness in her later years, she echoes George Fox:

  • "I feel myself to have gotten out into a limitless ocean of the love of God that overflows all things... ‘God is love,’ comprises my whole system of ethics. I find that every soul that has traveled on this highway of holiness for any length of time, has invariably cut loose from its old moorings."

  • When holiness Quaker revivalists began to focus not on the fruits of holiness, but on determining who was in and who was out, and other doctrinaire forms of exclusivism, she began to lose interest in their approach. She states her concerns with this insightful comment, still applicable today:

  • "A very wise thinker among [the Quakers] said to me lately that in his opinion Friends were meant to be a strong mystic society, but he feared they were degenerating into a weak evangelical one; and I could not but feel there was too much truth in his word. " (The Unselfishness of God, 1903, 281)

  • Smith’s books Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life and the God of All Comfort (both still in print) continue to be read, discussed, and loved by spiritual seekers today across the branches of Quakerdom and beyond. And while devotees to [Dougan Clark’s] The Offices of the Holy Spirit and The Holy Ghost Dispensation may still "revere" them, are they still in print, and how widely are they read?

    So in exploring the river of holiness as it flowed through Quaker tradition, I maintain that Smith’s version is within the main stream, or trunk of Quaker holiness and Updegraff, Clark and the radicals, were in the end diverting the stream into sectarian and fundamentalist directions which eventually caused strong reactions against a dynamic spiritual path at the heart of Quaker identity.

    I confess that I present the more positive face of revival holiness, which has its dark side as well. Part of my goal was to reinterpret holiness for contemporary Friends–both evangelical and liberal-- who have written it off as obsolete. I did not have the space and time to sort out all the theological controversies of the period. That period needs an entire book of its own. Perhaps I can write it some day, or a younger scholar with more objectivity can do so. Despite my differences with Hamm concerning Smith’s role and significance, and his less robust interpretation of the role of Gurneyite women, The Transformation of American Quakerism is the still the most comprehensive and most fully and brilliantly researched treatment of this period.

    My purposes in writing were different than Hamm’s. I wanted to show those disaffected by the lingering unhealthiness of a portion of revival holiness how to hear from other voices, see its more positive aspects and understand its allure for nineteenth century Quakers. My goal was to help reconcile and unite Quakers around an authentic contemplative/mystical understanding of holiness that can be a point of contact and dialogue, not only among the various branches of Quakers, but across other spiritual traditions as well. Many of the controversies, such as instantaneous vs. process sanctification, that caused such divisiveness in its day do not seem to be of great importance today. Most evangelical Quakers are more than willing to say it is both crisis and process. A closer look at why this caused such animosity needs further exploration, (e.g, the spiritual counterpoint to the gradualism of evolutionary theories being promoted by science?) . But I will agree with Hamm that the dark underbelly of the Revival period needs to be explored and integrated more fully before we can discuss and reflect on the breadth and depth of the Holiness Movement and the future of a spirituality of holiness as a uniting force among Quakers.

    Lastly I want to suggest one other area for further exploration, one I addressed only tangentially in the book, and may need some reevaluation. Hamm notes that I allude to London Yearly Meeting’s lack of support for the holiness movement, an observation in which he concurs. But deeper digging may prove otherwise. The Holiness movement in Britain, though heavily impacted by American holiness, reflected a different flavor and tone than the American movement with its more Pentecostal-style, frontier revival elements. One of the reasons for British Quakerism’s opposition to the American Wesleyan variety of holiness may lie in the divide within the Holiness Movement worldwide between the Keswick and Wesleyan expressions.

                                                            <<<back          next >>>

    <<< Back to Contents

    <<< Back to Theological Resources Page

    <<<Back to QUEST Home

    Please Subscribe to Our Print Edition!
    QUEST, P.O. Box 1344, Fayetteville NC 28302