“Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism”*

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 Spencer’s 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 Barclay’s 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 Society’s 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 Brinton’s 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 didn’t 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, Spencer’s 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 Hamm’s prize-winning The Transformation of American Quakerism. (1988)

Hamm’s 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. Hamm’s argument is exactly counter to Spencer’s: in his account, the movement represented an alien invasion, which turned the Quakerism in its path into something else, the Friends Church.

It’s hard to over-estimate the stature of Hamm’s 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 Hamm’s work, and the picture it paints of the holiness movement and its impact on American Friends.

Before examining whether she meets this challenge, it’s necessary to look more closely at the basic notion of holiness that is Spencer’s 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 Fox’s numerous religious experiences, he was a stranger to “mysticism,” and Rufus Jones’s 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.

The debate may be less heated now, but Spencer comes no nearer to settling the question, despite intriguing forays among sources such as Clement of Alexandria and Eastern Orthodoxy. Nor does she show that its meanings in the 1650s equate to the nineteenth century versions. Here, the example of Rufus reading back his adulation of William James and Emerson to the 1650s again looms large over the effort.

And there is another side. Though her eightfold list of features is long, one can easily suggest omissions: where, for instance, is the insistence on radical social change? Early Quakerism was, after all, a vocal part of a no-kidding revolution that was “outward” and political, with the body count to prove it, as much as “inward.” And has the reforming impulse ever been absent from among Friends, be they Evangelical or Liberal?

Or what about reason? While often scorning speculative theology, there were nevertheless educated persons among early Friends who published credible, even quite advanced theological works. Further, after the persecutions ebbed, and while excluded from universities, their successors applied reason to many practical sides of life, in ways that over generations produced one marvel after another, from the political theories of John Bellers, to kicking off the industrial revolution in England.

This list too could be longer. Spencer says she is in search of “what unifying themes or values exist in Quaker history and theology, traceable to its beginnings, that can be identified as a distinct Quaker spirituality.” (3) She is not the first to go questing for this Quaker holy grail; but it remains elusive. As John Punshon put it well in his historical survey, Portrait In Grey (1984):

In many ways, the true originality of Quakerism was re-discovered in the extreme difficulty of making it correspond to any of the various models suggested for it. If it had Puritan features, it was also spiritual. If it was mystical it was also highly biblical. If liberal, it was also evangelical. It was both conservative and progressive, simultaneously libertarian and theocratic.” (249)

What’s a unifier to do with all this? Spencer’s construction of “holiness mysticism,” on which all else hangs, is informed and informative, but hardly convincing. Her list of characteristics is not without heuristic value, and she highlights some developments and persons who deserve closer attention than they have received.

Yet Punshon’s initial observation also seems closer to the point: overall this looks like one more a priori list of assumptions imposed on a large body of evidence.

For what end? To be plain, it is a list which produces a “reinterpretation,” the outcome of which can be seen coming a mile away. Her “re-mapping” of American Quakerism just happens to put Newberg Oregon at the center. The “key” it produces turns out to unlock the doors of George Fox University and its Seminary.

Well, welcome to the club, or the map, and so much for the definition.

Now we return to what is required to move her holiness argument to its destination and achieve the “re-mapping.” For this, Spencer realizes that she has first to remove one large obstacle from her path: the previously-mentioned work of Thomas Hamm. The Transformation of American Quakerism is less theoretical than historical, and its pre-eminence is well-earned. Spencer sums up his case fairly:

[Hamm’s] research is thorough and impeccable. But . . .rather than identifying holiness as a central tenet of Quakerism and revivalism as a form of renewal, he considers holiness as revivalism to be revolutionary. Revivalism is thus a transformation imposed upon Friends from outside rather than arising from within historic Quaker spirituality . . . . Hamm thus regards the renewed energy of holiness in the revival period as more destructive to Quakerism than creative. (55)

By contrast, she argues, in sum, that

. . .the 19th century holiness revival and the Quaker tradition of holiness had natural spiritual affinities that drew vast numbers of Quakers into its embrace, despite the difference in forms of worship. (239)

Does Spencer back this up? Does she succeed in deconstructing Hamm’s work and moving it to the sidelines? Hamm will speak for himself elsewhere in this issue; for my part, the answer is a clear negative.

It’s beyond our scope here to rehearse Hamm’s presentation. One point is worth making, however: whatever inward “affinities” Spencer might discern between the nonpastoral Quietists and the revivalists, it is a measurable fact that they are associated with very different kind of ecclesiastical bodies. Both may be precious in God’s eyes, but on earth they are simply two different animals. This plain reality is amply demonstrated by Hamm, and confirmed by everyday observation among Friends groups today. One can hope the polarization of the past might be overcome, but that still would not make apples into oranges.

Spencer concedes to Hamm that, despite the “affinities” she perceives, the results of the Midwest holiness revivals were hardly peaceable. “Ultimately,” she says,

many holiness Quakers adopted the forms and practices of the revival culture. Paid pastors, worship focused on hymn-singing, and altar calls became commonplace. Some congregations even practiced the rites of water baptism and communion with bread and wine. As Quaker meetings became Quaker churches, once again deep divisions polarized the Society of Friends. (239)

“Deep divisions” is an understatement; “polarized” is putting it mildly. But while Spencer says she accepts this point, she undermines it in my view by adding the standard Evangelical caveat: “This study argues that based on the evidence shown, various external (liturgical) forms that Quakerism has adopted [e.g., ‘programmed’ vs ‘unprogrammed’ worship – Ed.] are incidental expressions of spirituality and are not indicative of the essential elements of Quakerism, and are therefore relatively unimportant.” (239)

But of course, the evidence, especially Hamm’s, points compellingly in exactly the opposite direction. Assertions like this are a regular Evangelical, question-begging move, which a more skeptical observer might rephrase as: worship forms are irrelevant, so do it our way. That is, while unprogrammed vs. programmed may be meaningless in heaven, they won’t fit into the same earthbound meetinghouse at the same time; and a meeting is either paying a pastor’s salary, or it isn’t.

Spencer deplores the past controversies, and wants to be more inclusive in her view of Quakerism. She has met and worked with Liberal friends on numerous occasions. And she agrees that at least some forms of “mystical” experience could happen, not only in a revival session, but also “in a post- Christian silent meeting without the mediation of Christ. . . .”

Yet her expansiveness has limits. Non-Christians might have their ineffable moments, “But holiness means coming into the image of Christ, and that is a further stage.”(249)

Moreover, in her Quakerism, holiness mysticism is not really optional. A telling passage in the book describes the divergence between “holiness mystical” and “non-holiness” Friends in Britain at the turn of the 20th century. The protagonists are William Littleboy, and Rendel Harris, both of whom were staff at the brand new Woodbrooke center.(224-228)

Harris she praises as an exemplar of true Quaker mystical holiness. Littleboy agreed; but he is remembered here for a pamphlet, “The Appeal of Quakerism to the Non-Mystic.” (1916) In it Littleboy confesses that while he admires the mystics among his Quaker colleagues, he is not one. Further, he observes,

. . . such cases [of mysticism] are the exception, not the rule. Let us then take ourselves at our best. [Non- mystics] are capable of thought and care for others. We do at times abase ourselves that others may be exalted. On occasion we succeed in loving our enemies and doing good to those who despitefully use us. For those who are nearest to us we would suffer ‘perhaps even give our life, because we love them so’.

Littleboy, to repeat, was not criticizing mysticism. He was simply saying out loud what many had experienced: it was hardly universal, among Friends as elsewhere; and yet, non-mystic Quakers still found their religion meaningful. Mysticism, he believed, likely is a matter of temperament and orientation more than anything else.

Spencer bemoans the fact that Littleboy’s perspective seemed to strike a chord among Quakers, in Britain and else-where. “I would argue,” she writes, “that the real turning point for Quakerism, the shift that tears it from its roots and its historic reason for being, can be found in this major turn toward a non-mystical or non-experiential Quaker spirituality . . . .” (227)

This fits her schema: if eightfold mystical “holiness” is indeed the Quaker unifying essence, its sine qua non, the key, then the rise and legitimation of vocal non-mystics in the Society is a sign of decline or worse. Friends are advised.

This response, by the way, corroborates Thomas Hamm’s account of how the holiness leadership in the Midwest, once they gained control, dealt with those who did not measure up to this essential, as they understood it. What followed was not a pretty story. Nor is it finished.

Similarly, this Littleboy-Harris passage is telling for me in a number of ways.

First, I believe Littleboy is right on the evidence: mysticism is not universal, inside Friends or outside. Nor, I would add, need it be. There are different types of religious experience, and religious temperaments. This is true in the Bible, in early Christianity – and in Quakerism too. I say this even though I have had mystical experiences myself.

Furthermore, mysticism does not equate to virtue. I have personally known numerous “non-mystic” Friends, some of whom are better Quakers than I’ll ever be. I’ve also known confirmed mystics who were, pardon my french, damned fools. (And worse: consider the public apologies made by Japanese Zen leaders for how fully their movement was absorbed into Japan’s militarist war machine in World War Two; such absorp-tion is not unknown among American holiness mystics.) (Jalon)

Finally, the mystic/non-mystic polarity is too limited. The legitimate range of religious “types” among Quakers is much broader. Why and how different people are drawn into the Society of Friends to stay is a phenomenon that can be observed and perhaps catalogued, but hardly standardized. It partakes of an essential mystery – which is not necessarily the same as mysticism.

The Psalmist understood this: 

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.”

Insisting on some version of “mysticism holiness” as a standard for “essential” Quakerism is thus a profound mistake. Such mysto-chauvinism is just plain inferior theology, its ecclesiology is triumphalist, and the record shows it to bear the seeds of deepest discord, past, present, and I fear, future.

A different and more appealing hypothesis was once articulated by the late Kenneth Boulding, economist and mystic Quaker himself: he suggested that the presence and number of saints in a given generation had a lot more to do with a group’s vitality and potential contribution to the world than many other factors.

To be sure, my definition and list of saints might vary from thine; but I’ll take that rubric over a manufactured notion of “holiness” anytime.

Withal, there is much to be learned from Carole Spencer’s book. Such ambitious studies are valuable, even when they fall short of their goal. As Kenneth Boulding also aptly said, “Nothing fails like success because we don’t learn from it. We learn only from failure.”

This one leaves us much to be learned from. It reflects much diligent study, and deserved the doctoral degree its dissertation form was awarded. Moreover, in many places Spencer evinces a more generous outlook than is contained in the underlying thesis. The hope is that further experience and study could bring out this unripened virtue, and dial back the Newberg Theology’s divisive potential.

In the meantime, let us meditate on John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you.”

Works Cited:

Brinton, Howard. 1952. Friends for 300 Years. New York: Harper & Brothers. (Reissued 2002 as Friends for 350 Years, by Pendle Hill.)

Fager, Chuck. 1996. Without Apology: The History, the Heroes and the Hope of Liberal Quakerism. Bellefonte PA: Kimo Press

Fager, Chuck. “Understanding Quakerism by The Book – Err, Books.” In A Friendly Letter, #81, 1987.

Hamm, Thomas D. 1987. The Transformation of American Quakerism: Orthodox Friends 1800-1907. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jalon, Allan M. 2003. “Meditating on War and Guilt, Zen Says It’s Sorry,”New York Times Jan. 11, 2003. Online at: http://www.racematters.org/zenatwar.htm

Jones, Rufus. 1909 Studies In Mystical Religion, London: Macmillan.

—————. 1914. Spiritual Reformers of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. London: Macmillan.

Littleboy, William. 1916. The Appeal of Quakerism to the Non-Mystic. London: Quaker Book Centre.

Punshon, John. 2008. Johnson Lecture, Friends United Meeting, July 2008. Online at: http://www.fum.org/about/2008FUM_JohnsonLecture.pdf

—————–. 1984. Portrait In Grey. London: Quaker Home Service.

Russell, Elbert. 1942. The History of Quakerism. New York: Macmillan. (Reissued in 1979 by Friends United Press, Richmond IN)

Schmidt. Leigh Eric. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco.

Williams, Walter. 1987. The Rich Heritage of Quakerism. Newberg: Barclay Press.


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

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