“Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality”* A Review

Reviewed by H. Larry Ingle

In the last two or more decades the word “spirituality,” as a substitute for religion, and even “spirit” has taken on a slightly “new age” connotation, with its vague usage making deep inroads among Friends. I haven’t heard anyone propose that the Religious Society of Friends change its name to the “Spiritual Society of Friends,” but it would not surprise me, and I suspect it might have wide support.

Religion suggests more than spirituality; it has overtones that point to a reality outside oneself, that is less individualistic than something as ill-defined as spirituality and spirit. Religion is rooted in the Latin language where it meant, according to my American Heritage Dictionary, “to tie fast,” something that many modern Quakers seek to avoid, even abhor: the last thing they want is to be tied fast; instead they want to be free. For one example, consider the recent to-do over the old, quite descriptive, and to some of us still useful Quaker word “overseer.” Few modern Friends want to be “overseen,” so the word has to go, particularly when those opposing racism find that overseer was adopted by slaveholders for people, sometimes black, who exercised controlling power over their human property.

If you, dear reader, find yourself questioning whether these are not too broad as generalizations, consider the book’s opening page, on which the author quotes a 1998 cover story headlined “Designer God” from the Utne Reader, a contemporary periodical aimed at an affluent, well-educated clientele that most of us affluent, well-educated Quakers have perused at one time or the other:

“In a mix-and-match world, why not create your own religion?”

Indeed, why not? We refuse to be bound by the Bible, a 2600-year-old document of too little relevance for us; we have no use for a hierarchical institution called the “church” that presumes to exercise its control over our minds and, yes, spirits. Within Quakerism, few constraints are left after we’ve forsaken church and Bible.

But withal this “spirituality”-centered outlook did not fall finished from the sky; it too has a history, and now comes Leigh E. Schmidt, professor of religion at Princeton, to give us the first exploration we have thereof, an account of the American free spirits seeking refuge from organized religion. He hands his readers a fast-paced, six-chapter, significant introduction to the phenomenon in the United States; he nestles them between a twenty-four-page introduction and a twenty-one-page Epilogue, all making for crisp reading and yielding a plethora of remarkable insights.

For Friends, not to mention historians of Quakerism in the 20th century, Schmidt’s sixth chapter will be the most interesting. Here he dwells on Quaker thought in that period and includes a long section on Rufus Jones, Douglas Steere, Thomas Kelly, and Pendle Hill, with fascinating tidbits about them thrown in for added reward. Given that this history is by a non-Friend and published by a secular press, this chapter alone will stand as the introduction to 20th century liberal Quaker thought until someone bestirs herself within the Society to produce a history to elaborate on what he includes.

As a history, Schmidt’s book carries the tale back as far as he can, far before the 1960s when our modern notion of spirituality received its mightiest impetus. He rightly roots it in the central Protestant idea of the right of the individual Christian to read and understand the Bible by his own lights, a principle that opened the door to a potential myriad of interpretations. (Our author does not mention First Friend George Fox here, but he could easily have done so.)

Add to this heady base a healthy dollop of philosophical deism – quoting the Quaker-reared Tom Paine as affirming that “My own mind is my own church” (p. 5) – and it’s not long until we come to Schmidt’s heroes in this saga, transcendentalist essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson and poet Walt Whitman, who never got over a sermon he heard from Quaker reformer Elias Hicks, a family Friend. Both were eager to let the church go, and manufacture (note the Latin roots of that word: “hand” and “made”!) their own faiths – or none. The rest, as they say, is history.

This venture started on May 20, 1838, when the Transcendentalist Club consisting of a New England coterie of liberal ministers and intellectuals convened in Medford, Massachusetts, to consider what Emerson called “the question of Mysticism” (p. 29). (No one noted it, but that word, as one wag said, begins in the mist, ends in schism, and has “i” in the center.) A virtual roll call of influential thinkers were soon joining Emerson in trumpeting the glories of mysticism around the country, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, George Ripley, to name only three. In July of that year, Emerson himself advised each of the graduating class of Harvard Divinity School “to see himself as ‘a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost’ so he could ‘acquaint men at first hand with Deity’” (p. 33).

Others, like the first “green” Henry David Thoreau, sought to cultivate the inner life in solitude, something that Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier also came to easily, for he knew already the Christ within and how to “[m]ake the truth thine own, for truth’s own sake” (p. 81). Even social reformers like feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton were pulled into this orbit because women, they realized, had too little room to carve out solitude in a male-dominated society. Quaker rationalist Lucretia Mott, although agreeing with her friend Stanton on other issues, remained aloof from this type of mystical appeal.

Schmidt makes Walt Whitman, after Emerson, the central messiah-like figure to the spirituality that he describes. (A not very difficult transformation in fact: consider the 1850 photograph of him shown on p. 103 that depicts the poet as a long-haired, bearded Christ.) When he announced in Leaves of Grass that “My faith is the greatest of all faiths and the least of faiths,/ Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern” and “Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you,/You must travel it for yourself, (p. 104)” he was giving expression to words that would inspire and invigorate generations of religious liberals, including Quakers.

Emerson and Whitman set the ball rolling, and it has not come to rest since. By the end of the 19th century, the definition of spirituality was becoming so fluid that its denizens expanded its reach beyond solitude to embrace other religious sensibilities than those of the Christian traditions, something that would increasingly push Quakerism toward liberalism.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Unitarian minister, a fervent advocate of abolition, and colonel of a black regiment during the Civil War best known by his name penned an 1871 essay, “The Sympathy of Religions” that swept the civilized world; it was translated into French in 1898. Active in the Free Religious Association, founded in 1867 for religious radicals (Lucretia Mott was a member), he proposed dealing with other faiths on equal terms and uniting religious disciples into one. He moved in circles with seminal figures like Mott and Whittier, and the thesis of “The Sympathy of Religions” is both a summary and manifesto of one of the main streams of liberal “theology.

Schmidt’s narrative also brings out well the tensions and paradoxes of this faith, issues that persist and remain unresolved well over a century later.

One of these is

. . .the still relevant question of whether seekers are to keep on seeking for seeking’s sake or to identify an end point to their search. Can a solid religious identity be achieved only through the particularity, integrity and discipline of one tradition? Was the point of pursuing the spiritual life self-expansion, artistic creativity, and endless curiosity or instead self-surrender, obedience, and resignation to God? (P 18)

Another tension is drawn tight over the recurrent question of just how “universal” seeker “universalism” can or should be. Schmidt identifies this as “the larger liberal dilemma of whether to exclude the exclusive.” It was posed in 1870, probably without conscious irony, by one Octavius Brooks Frothingham, first President of the Boston-based Free Religious Association (of which Lucretia Mott was a stalwart member and featured speaker): “Into our kingdom of heaven no sectarian may enter,” Frothingham declared. . . . “Hold all opinions soluble, and you are one of us.” (P. 134)

But of course, a “universal” spirituality which eschews all exclusive beliefs thereby leaves out most of the world’s actual faiths, and is “universal” only at the most abstract level. It’s no wonder that such “universalist” sects occupy quite tiny niches in the spectrum of real religions.

Higginson’s version of “universalism” led him, among other things to celebrate the slave spirituals, a stance that Schmidt thinks, in something of a stretch, tied the black Harvard Ph.D. and activist, W.E.B. Du Bois, to the kind of “soul-hunger” the old abolitionist espoused. Whether or not this was so, Higginson’s was most assuredly an optimistic and, what we would label, “post-Christian” faith.

In the sense of fame, the nineteenth-century offered Schmidt a more sterling cast of characters than the 20th century did. Almost all those in the last two chapters of the book are obscure, even unknown, to most folk today. Consider Green Acre (or Green-Acre or Greenacre) Farm in Eliot, Maine, to which Schmidt devotes at least forty pages. Founded in 1894 by one Sarah Farmer (1847-1915), a wealthy seeker, it is barely listed in Wikipedia, and its founder doesn’t even merit an entry. Yet until about the time of the First World War it offered an eclectic collection of courses and speakers to spiritually inclined seekers that apparently attracted thousands of fringe spiritual groupies in America, New Thoughtists, Buddhists, Vedantists, Zoroastrians, Theosophists, Ethical Culturalists, Baha’is – perhaps, given Farmer’s interest in peace, even a stray Quaker or two.

But then Farmer quit seeking and embraced Baha’ism sometime after 1900, a conversion that alienated many of her supporters, who saw this sectarian move as undercutting the ecumenical basis of the farm; they proved themselves unable to be really tolerant and unleashed bitter attacks on her. The farm survives today, according to Wikipedia, as a Baha’i study center.

The twentieth-century odyssey of many liberal Quakers, a lot less obscure to readers here than those who trekked to Green Acre, forms the basis of the last chapter of Schmidt’s book. He designates Rufus Jones as “one of the most influential American writers on mysticism and the inner life” in the fifty years after 1900 (p. 230), a fact he asserts made Pendle Hill, founded in 1930, a material expression of this interest among Friends.

Jones declared that he’d found the roots of Quaker mysticism in the middle ages and the early Reformation – and made most of them up as he went, according to Schmidt. Indeed, our author vacillates between open admiration for Jones’s ability to see what he wanted to see, no matter the lack of evidence, and barely-suppressed hoots of scorn at the project’s underlying scholarly vacuousness.

Nevertheless, Jones turned out book after book and attracted to his banner people as diverse as Friends Douglas Steere, Elton Trueblood, and the frail (and failing) Thomas Kelly, writers Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and Gerald Heard, and the black minister Howard Thurman. Schmidt’s discussion of these Jonesians is rich and insightful, even as it is rooted in broad research and telling characterizations, quotations, and anecdotes. For modern Friends, this chapter is well worth the price of the entire book.

Schmidt makes clear that Jones was deeply knowledgeable about Emerson, Whitman, and others described in the book’s earlier pages. Many of these writers Jones interpreted as echoing the words of both George Fox and Elias Hicks, thus connecting them with Quakers of the past, as well as 17th century Seekers, people who proffered a mysticism by use of which 20th century seekers could also reject “the empty show of religion” that existed around them (p. 237).

Schmidt’s major themes of actual vs. imagined “universalism,” and the dialectic of inclusivism vs. exclusivism, recur once again here, this time with a bittersweet edge, in the sketch most relevant to Friends, a starkly revealing profile of Jones’s religious thought, with which Schmidt comes to the climax of his tale.

Rufus pursued his own Quaker career in the midst of intense intra-Quaker infighting. The volleys came from both the left (as the Progressive Friends agitated among Hicksites for a Frothinghamian “universal/inclusive” Unitarianism-lite) and from the right, where the new pastoral movement was sinking into fierce struggles over Fundamentalism, evolution, creeds, sacraments, speaking in tongues, the role of women, and lots more.

Today’s liberal Friends often think of Rufus as the pioneer of a seemingly sublime mystical alternative to all this messy stuff. But seen in the sweep of Schmidt’s saga, it is suddenly revealed as something much less. As Schmidt puts it, with surprising gentleness:

The expansive Transcendentalist rendering of Quakerism’s spiritual significance allowed Jones to reimagine his own religious identity in grandly universal terms. He came to see himself not as part of “a peculiar and provincial sect,” . . . but as part of a questing movement that pursued the pure mystical core of religion itself. . . . The self-conscious change of diction proved crucial to Jones. His beloved Quakers–all appearances to the contrary– were not quirky sectarians, mired in doctrinal debates about what distinguished one band of Friends from another, Hicksites from Wilburites from Gurneyites, quietists from evangelicals. Instead, Jones claimed, the Society of Friends stood for an ‘inward, mystical religion’; it was an exemplar of the universal ‘religion of first-hand experience.’ That perspective, deeply indebted to wider currents in religious liberalism, was intended to override all the schismatic factionalism plaguing nineteenth-century Quaker meetings and to lift Jones into the company of a timeless band of spiritual reformers intent on finding “a direct way to God. (P. 235)

So much for good intentions. It’s not clear how well this schema ultimately worked for Jones; I suspect it had a mixed record. As a group agenda, however, it was–there is no kinder term–a dud. It ought to be undeniable for any Quakers who have actually glanced beyond their meeting house gates at “Other Friends” of whichever branch, that Jones’s attempted override was an utter failure.

The twentieth century was ultimately very unkind to those who believed that Quaker “schismatic factionalism” could be resolved or transcended by mystic flights. To the contrary, Quaker conflicts are alive and well across the spectrum as the new millennium staggers toward the end of its first decade. And mysticism, while helpful to some individuals, shows no more potential now for resolving them than it did when Jones enunciated it a hundred years ago.

But if Jones could not square the circle, what of Thomas Kelly, perhaps Jones’s principal Quaker disciple? Kelly wrote his now-classic A Testament of Devotion (1941) and other books and essays to speak to the “Secret Seekers” in other churches; the fact that he sought and strived unsuccessfully for a Harvard Ph.D. only lent more poignancy to the words he addressed to seekers like himself. Jones’s influence stretched through Kelly to two mystical Evangelical Friends like Richard Foster, who consciously modeled his Celebration of Discipline (1978) after Kelly’s Testament, and T. Canby Jones, who taught religion at Wilmington College in Ohio but is not mentioned by Schmidt.

These writers continued and adapted this stream of spirituality. They are strongly personalist in their orientation, though, and their relevance, if any, to the work of dealing with differences among Friends is hard to discern. Moreover, if they have offered any new insights into the abiding tensions over inclusiveness-exclusiveness, or seeking vs. finding, these are not evident to this reader.

Two others in Jones’s circle bear mention, if for no other reason that one of them is unknown in Quaker climes: Christopher Isherwood (1904-86), an openly gay novelist and screenwriter and an immigrant from Great Britain, was an adherent of Swami Prabhavananda and his Vedanta Society in California; he wanted to find a way to remain a Vedantist and edge closer to George Fox. In 1941, he came to Haverford, where Jones and Kelly taught, but found that he had to hide his homosexuality in the closet in the provincial world he found there and at Pendle Hill. He thought Jones “an old dope,” even though he was welcomed by the ancient, he remembered, “like an old friend.”

But he had even more caustic words for the prim and strait-laced Douglas Steere, another Jonesian and colleague of Kelly at Haverford. After a luncheon with Steere, Isherwood confided to his diary: “There’s something greasy about him. He acts so monk-like, and all the time one knows he’s having sex with his wife hard – but somehow not hard enough” (p. 259). Still, Isherwood enjoyed the company and explorations he undertook with the little band of Quaker mystics at Haverford and Pendle Hill.

Pendle Hill, “a Quaker center for study and contemplation,” its motto says, remained the surviving linchpin or bridge between the early and late 20th centuries. Its former dean, Parker Palmer, well known for his wise words on educational integration, explained how it changed both the course of his life and life itself through its emphasis on prayer and meditation. As to Haverford, where Howard Thurman went to study with Jones, the black co-founder of San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples went also to Pendle Hill. Schmidt rightfully sees Thurman’s career as the highest fulfillment of progressive spirituality combining work, activism, social reconciliation, and seeking.

Finishing Schmidt’s “Epilogue” with its author’s interesting account of non-Friend Max Ehrmann (1872-1945), author of the famous “Desiderata” (“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence”), the reader lays aside Restless Souls with some sorrow that there’s no more.

And yet, and yet: this reader is nagged by some disquiet. Despite Thurman’s activism, Higginson’s abolitionism, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s feminism, and Jones’s long association with the American Friends Service Committee–to name only four of those covered here–the search for spirituality portrayed here was peculiarly and primarily an upper class, well-educated, individualist quest that never sought nor could sink roots among the mass of common folk who almost always make history. If such a small number of African Americans quested, there are similarly no farmers, no workers, no Populists (unless I missed it, the word is not even mentioned in the book) ” in short, none of the kind of “rude” people who made Quakerism such a mighty force in 17th century England and helped turn the world upside down.

How myopic could such seekers be? Schmidt summarizes Thomas Kelly’s picture of the audience for his musings: they were “not monks or solitaries, but hurried well-educated professionals living in the ‘here and now, in industrial America,’ . . . within the workaday world of committees, fitful social engagements, and incessant appointments” (pp. 253-4).

Most people’s workaday worlds consist of activities a bit more fundamental than committees, social engagements, and appointments. To pretend otherwise is to be isolated and ultimately ineffectual and effete. Kelly described his audience better than he knew, for he was simply more candid than those who had been on the holy search more than a hundred years before him.

Clearly well-educated professional people– even those like Kelly, who, a PhD from Hartford Seminary, still could not snag another from Harvard–could reasonably see a well-integrated life and unite their spiritual and material worlds. Yet precisely because they were well-educated, well-off, and professional, they had an obligation to find ways to articulate their search in words and examples that would appeal to those they left out, even ignored.

Brutal as it was, Isherwood’s description of Steere as prim and monklike had too much truth about it to overlook; the object of his contempt was prim and monklike–and he did not stand by himself either. Many, Quakers and most of the other spiritual seekers described in Restless Souls, even the sainted Walt Whitman (who rhapsodized, “I am large, I contain multitudes,” could also opine, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself”) stood condemned with him. Like Steere, their flesh would crawl if they had to deal with the “rude” ones who founded the faith of his affiliation.

Hence, sensitive Quaker readers of Restless Souls will find their souls a bit unsettled as they come to realize what an immense vacuum lurks within a sometimes alluring but vapid spirituality. Ultimately that’s why Schmidt has performed such a signal service for us.


*”Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 2005. 336 pp. $14.95 (paperback).

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