Quaker Theology #16  -- Fall-Winter 2009

Book Reviews

Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism. Carole Dale Spencer. Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2007. 340 pages, paperback. $41.00

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

It was the British historian John Punshon who told a large Quaker body in 2008 that:

  • . . . one way of studying the Quaker past is to use it as a means of self-justification. At times, interpretations of our history have been produced that have been used in the doctrinal disputes that we seem to be prone to. On analysis, these interpretations can be seen to be self-justifying. Granted a prior definition of what the principles of Friends are, the conclusions follow. They arise not from an understanding of what the evidence leads to, but what the evidence can be manipulated to say. Nowadays we have left that sort of thing behind.
  • Would that it were true, John. And perhaps it is, in some quarters.

    The volume at hand, however, is compelling evidence that the self-justifying impulse has hardly been banished from the Friendly scene. Far from it.

    In this case, the justification comes as the culmination of a sweeping reinterpretation. Author Spencer is candid in laying out her goal: "This study will argue that for early Quakers, perfection was an essential component of the faith, and holiness was the whole of Quakerism." (55) Again: "holiness is the sine qua non of what it means to be a Quaker."(33) And once more: "my book argues that holiness is the paradigmatic theme of Quaker history and theology." (2)

    So. Give her points for clarity. Also for ambition; she undertakes

  • . . .to show that holiness is the key to unlocking the complex interpretive problems that revolve around the origin of Quakerism and its relation to other spiritual movements, its place within the broader Christian tradition, and the relation of later Quaker developments to its original insights and essence. (2)
  • Actually, give her another bonus point for showing extra-big ambition: for too long, too much Quaker thought has been not only narrow but, well, small. I admire Spencerís willingness to try to see Quakerism whole and make sense of what she surveys.

    Nor does rethinking all of Quaker history and thought finish her agenda. She further contends that

  • Using the lens of holiness or perfection as the paradigmatic theme of Quaker theology changes the generally received mapping of Quaker history. In partic-ular, the 19th century revival movement and its vigorous descendant, the Evangelical Friends Church, shifts to a more central location in Quaker evolution . . . . (2)
  • With this declaration, however, the hopes raised by the apparent grand sweep of the thesis statement deflate, revealing the wrinkled visage of our old buddy, self-justification, huddling in its shadow. Because, after all, Spencer is a product, pedagogue and professional advocate of just this holiness tradition, who lives and works in its stronghold. Newberg-Portland, Oregon. Indeed, it is not too much to deem this book the manifesto and Barclayís Apology of what can properly be called Newberg Theology.

    Yet to note these demographic underpinnings is not to dismiss the work. As Punshon said, self-justifying histories and theologies are nothing new among Quakers. In 1987 I identified several, and similar demographic points could be made about each:

    There were, of course, the studies by Rufus Jones, which portrayed early (and later) Quakerism as essentially a quasi- Transcendentalist "spiritual movement," which just happened to jibe neatly with the kind of "mysticism" then fashionable in Eastern New Thought circles. Call it the Haverford Theology.

    Or take The History of Quakerism, by Elbert Russell from 1942, which placed the Societyís history smack in the new Protestant Mainline which was then on the ascendant; this could be considered the Earlham Theology.

    Nor were Evangelicals absent from the field. In The Rich Heritage of Quakerism, (1962) Walter Williams, longtime missionary, revivalist and Superintendent in the Evangelical Friends Church Eastern Region, surveyed Fox and company and pronounced them unmistakably a 1650s revivalist crusade, and modern revivalists their true heirs; here was the Canton (Ohio) Theology.

    The best-seller among these in the last century, however, was unmistakably Howard Brintonís Friends For 300 Years (1952; re-issued as Friends For 350 Years in 2002). Brinton descended from several long lines of settled, do-gooder Quakers from near Philadelphia, and also spent time in northern California. And darned if he didnít identify the essence of Quakerism as a kind of practical, reforming sect with a mystical bent. Definitely, Chester County Theology, with a dash of the Bay Area for spice.

    This list could be longer. Even your humble reviewer has issued his Without Apology, a brief for Quakerism as a Liberal critter; call it the Axemann Spring Theology, for the pleasant watercourse near which much of it was written.

    In this long line, Spencerís work ranks with Jones and Brinton as among the most ambitious, and that is distinguished company indeed. And to this company needs to be added another, more focused tome, Thomas Hammís prize-winning The Transformation of American Quakerism. (1988)

    Hammís book belongs here because it homes in on the appearance and impact of revival-holiness religion among the Midwest and Southern Quietist Friends after the Civil War, and charts the tumultuous times that ensued. Hammís argument is exactly counter to Spencerís: in his account, the movement represented an alien invasion, which turned the Quakerism in its path into something else, the Friends Church.

    Itís hard to over-estimate the stature of Hammís book in recent American Quaker historiography; it deserved the church history prize it was awarded in 1986. Thus, to establish her thesis, Spencer has above all to displace Hammís work, and the picture it paints of the holiness movement and its impact on American Friends.

    Before examining whether she meets this challenge, itís necessary to look more closely at the basic notion of holiness that is Spencerís leitmotiv. What is it, and does she succeed in showing that it is the essence, the key, the paradigm, the sine qua non, of early Quakerism, and all it has spawned?

    Holiness for her is an amalgam of eight different features, which she lists as "scripture, eschatology, charisma, conversion, evangelism, suffering, mysticism, and perfection [these] as a constellation form the continuity of experience which characterizes Quaker holiness." (33) Like cards in a deck, the eight have been reshuffled at various points in our history, but she purports to find them at the heart of the early Quaker movement, and then as a gleaming thread down through the centuries since, throwing off shimmers of light in even the greyest periods. And the greatest of these is mysticism.

    What to say about this list? No doubt, some manifestation of each could be found among the rich and bubbling stew that was early Quakerism. But practically all of them could also be quibbled with.

    Take "mysticism," for instance, which she comes to use as essentially an equivalent to "holiness." As various scholars have pointed out, despite Foxís numerous religious experiences, he was a stranger to "mysticism," and Rufus Jonesís efforts to read it back into him, and to link Fox to earlier "mystics" have been shown to be more embarrassing wish-fulfillment than credible scholarship. (Princeton social historian Leigh Schmidt in his Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality [2005] has filled in this background in a particularly illuminating way that makes his work indispensable to future study of this era.)

    Or "perfection"; it was indeed familiar to Fox and company, due both to Matthew 5:48, "be ye perfect . . ." and certain ecstatic experiences of various Friends.

    But what did it mean? The controversies were heated and endless then, and the consequences often quite hazardous, until the term "perfection" was discreetly downplayed in official Quaker rhetoric.  

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