Thomas Hamm Response to “Holiness, The Soul of Quakerism”*

Holiness: 2.5 Cheers
Thomas Hamm, Earlham College

Thomas Hamm

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)

Secondly, Bean, save in his doubts about eternal punishment, which cost him his recording, spoke for hundreds of deeply spiritual Friends, many of them active in Quaker affairs since the 1850s, who were as committed to evangelical faith and holiness as Updegraff, Clark, and company. It was the Friends’ Review, deeply suspect in the eyes of the revivalists, which declared in 1880: “Let it be remembered that the standard of the Society of Friends was in the beginning, and is now Holiness.”

Bean and like-minded Friends could not embrace the idea of sanctification as an instantaneous experience. But they remained committed, nevertheless, to the possibility and reality of perfection. Their experience, and the experience of generations of Friends before them, had been gradual, and the revivalists simply refused to accept the validity of that. “The theory of a gradual conversion and a gradual sanctification is sufficient to keep thousands out of the kingdom,” one wrote, while David B. Updegraff characterized such beliefs as “dangerous” and “mischievous,” verging on blasphemy. As E.C. Siler told Kansas Yearly Meeting in 1887, only sanctification, as he and Updegraff and Clark and like-minded Friends had known it–an instantaneous second experience–was real. Spencer herself dismisses as “endless polemic” questions such as whether the Holy Spirit dwelt in the unconverted, whether sanctification could be gradual, and the relationship of sanctification and justi-fication. But for the holiness revivalists she wants us to admire, these were questions on which diversity was intolerable. (6)

Spencer uses Walter Robson, the English Friend who traveled in the United States in 1877, as a sympathetic observer of the revival to emphasize its deep spirituality, and, incidentally, to present critics of the revival like Cyrus W. Harvey, the editor of the Western Friend, as “reactionary.” There is no question that some critics were never-give-an-inch primitivists, and that Harvey in particular had a gift for vituperation. (7) Yet Robson apparently later had second thoughts about his favorable percep-tion of the revivalists. In 1913, he wrote about his experiences at Western Yearly Meeting in 1877, where he witnessed the Conservative separation. He asked the larger, revived body to remember the importance of unity, and, as he put it, “reminded Friends that in God’s sight the scruples of these ‘Wilburite Separatists,’ as they called them, were as precious as ours.”

Some Friends thanked him, “but J.H. Douglas, D.B. Updegraff, and a few other ‘progressive’ leaders were very severe, telling me I was ‘encouraging a spirit they wanted to crush,’ and that all they did was by Divine command.” Thus it is not surprising that by the early 1880s, some important American Gurneyites, such as Timothy Nicholson and Charles and Rhoda Coffin in Richmond, Indiana, Elizabeth L. Comstock in Ohio Yearly Meeting, and a number of others, once enthusiastic about the revival, were beginning to have doubts. Typical was Murray Shipley, an influential Cincinnati minister and early revival supporter who had followed Hannah Whitall Smith in undergoing water baptism in 1875. Yet by 1880 he was concluding the holiness revivalists now had “run into bigotry and uncharitableness.” As Spencer notes, the holiness movement never found much support in London Yearly Meeting. An editorial in the fervently evangelical London Friend in 1881 suggests why. It is worth quoting at length:

Few things have tended more, directly or indirectly, to produce the dissensions at present existing in the Western [American] Yearly Meetings than the efforts made by certain ministers and others to promote holiness, “Christian perfection,” “complete sancti-fication.” What is it to be holy? Is it not to be like Christ, as far as in us lies, in disposition, aim, and action? Surely in this object all true Friends can heartily unite. It is the means employed and the doctrines inculcated that arouse opposition. There must certainly be something wrong in these if the results are what they seem.

Then, and now, many of the actions of those who professed holiness hardly seem consistent with that profession. (8)

Spencer’s admiration for Hannah Whitall Smith is clear from her work. And there is much to like about Smith. Probably no Friend before 1900, even John Woolman, produced a single work that has as much meaning for so many as The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life. The woman who emerges from the autobiography, The Unselfishness of God, and How I Discovered It, and from her published letters, is delightful. And how can one not be fascinated by someone whose sons-in-law were Bertrand Russell and Bernard Berenson? (9)

Spencer finds my conclusion that Smith was not a leader of the revival movement among Friends to be a “glaring omission.” (10) When I wrote Transformation, I anticipated that some readers would disagree with me. I agree that in a book about Quakers and holiness, Smith must be a central figure. But my subject was the holiness revival among American Friends, and Spencer does not convince me that Smith was an important figure in it.

Smith left Friends in 1872 (although she later became a member of Baltimore Yearly Meeting), and spent much of the rest of the decade in England, so she was away for much of the critical period. She did take part in some revivals–Spencer quotes from Walter Robson’s accounts of them in 1877–and one occasionally finds her writings in Quaker periodicals. But if other revivalists considered her one of them, I have found no evidence of it. They held her at arm’s length. And the reasons are clear. She was at odds with them on some fundamental questions, questions that Spencer may consider inconsequential, but which revivalists viewed very differently. (11)

Of Smith’s commitment to second-experience sanctification there can be no doubt. But she took it in a very different direction than almost all other Friends of her era who professed the experience. Consider her account of a holiness camp meeting in 1883:

The sermon was a denunciatory one that was calculated in my opinion to drive sinners away from the God depicted in it; and apparently it did, for with all their coaxing they could not get a single person old or young up to the altar. . . . But it was all of no avail, forward they would not go. Then he drew a blood-curdling picture of the awfulness of thus rejected God’s offers of mercy.

He certainly tried the “terror” plan, which David B. Updegraff says is the only effectual way, most fully and I wondered how God could endure it to be so misrepresented, but the text came to my mind “the times of this ignorance God winked at” [Acts 17:30] and it comforted me. Especially as I knew he had nothing much but ignorance to wink at in all of us all our lives long.

Smith went on to describe how she badgered the evangelist with a tongue-in-cheek question about how it could have been wrong for Adam and Eve to come to knowledge of good and evil, seeing that it only made them more God-like. It is incomprehensible to conceive of David B. Updegraff, or Esther Frame, or any of the holiness revivalists thus implicitly challenging the letter of Scripture. It is also significant that when Smith decided to seek membership again among Friends in 1881, she applied to Whitewater Monthly Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, even though she was living in Philadelphia. In her letter, she wrote: “I feel near unity with Indiana Yearly Meeting.”

Why Indiana Yearly Meeting, rather than Ohio, which was closer and a holiness stronghold? She did not say, but by 1881 Indiana had emerged as the yearly meeting that embraced revivalism but had leaders such as Charles F. Coffin and Timothy Nicholson who were bulwarks against extremism. And, of course, when Whitewater did not accept her, she found a home in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, the one Gurneyite yearly meeting where the revival never took hold. (12)

What put Smith beyond the pale for Updegraff, Clark, and company, however, was Smith’s embrace of restitutionism, the belief that God would ultimately save all human beings. As Roberta Stewart argues in her study of Smith’s theology: “For God to do anything less than provide universal salvation was inconceivable, for it would be out of keeping with His character and totally inconsistent with His promise.” Smith appears to have been torn about articulating her views. Stewart concludes she was “careful in openly expressing her opinion.” Yet she did so often and openly enough to cause many of her admirers worry. In 1878, she wrote to her husband that one friend “was delighted at the plainness with which I declared restitution,” but that she had heard that “my friends were praying for me, that I might be brought back from my sad unbelief!” (13)

In accepting restitutionism, Smith put herself at odds with all of the Orthodox bodies of Friends in the world – and to the editors of her own works as well. Most later editions of The Unselfishness of God omitted the chapters in which she expounded and testified to this conviction. [This omission is discussed on a Smith-friendly website: Apparently, her embrace of it was also sufficient to cause Whitewater Monthly Meeting to reject her application for membership. It is critical to recognize, moreover, Smith’s view on this subject was indistinguishable from Joel Bean’s. Bean’s embrace of it cost him his recording in Iowa Yearly Meeting. The other holiness revivalists considered such views utterly unacceptable for any minister. Even the Orthodox New York Yearly Meeting required all ministers and elders to affirm that they believed in everlasting punishment of the wicked. (14)

This is not to imply that Smith was in reality a “Beanite.” But it does explain why Smith was ambivalent about David B. Updegraff and like-minded Friends, and why they were ambivalent about her.

Finally, toward the end of her life, Smith broke with the revivalists in another important way. The other holiness revivalists had bitterly criticized earlier Friends for not aggressively evangelizing. Yet Smith concluded that:

Quakerism was meant to be what might be called an ‘Interior Life’ Society; not one to convert sinners so much, as one to lead those already converted into a closer walk with God. . . . I cannot help feeling that in these latter days they have somewhat lost sight of their special mission, in their desire to do foundation work rather than superstructure work.

Smith never relaxed her commitment to holiness, but toward the end of her life she concluded that the traditional Quaker ministry that had once perplexed her did this better than her holiness Quaker contemporaries. (15)

My disagreements on these issues do not diminish my admiration for Spencer’s achievement. This book will return holiness to center stage in Quaker history. Yet, in a critical period, Spencer has little to say about the heirs of the earlier holiness revival, or how their holiness largely hardened into fundamentalism. That, too, is part of the story of Friends and holiness, and not to include them is to leave the story incomplete.


1. This paper was published as “Evangelism, Feminism, and Social Reform,” Quaker History, 80 (Spring 1991), 24-48.

2. Carole Dale Spencer, Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism: An Historical Analysis of the Theology of Holiness in the Quaker Tradition (Milton Keynes: Academic, 2008), 3.

3. Ibid., 162.

4. Works by these authors will be found in the bibliography of my The Transformation of American Quakerism: Orthodox Friends, 1800-1907 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 237-46.

5. “Correspondence,” Friends’ Review, 10th Mo. 12, 1893, p. 186.

6. Editorial, Friends’ Review, 3rd Mo. 13, 1880, p. 489; “Kansas Yearly Meeting,” ibid., 10th Mo. 20, 1887, p. 184; M.F. Moorman, “Gradual Conversion,” Christian Worker, 6th Mo. 21, 1883, p. 329; David B. Updegraff, Old Corn; or, Sermons and Addresses on the Spiritual Life (Boston: McDonald & Gill, 1892), 55; David B. Updegraff Notebook, Dec. 14, 1880, p. 94, Updegraff Family Papers (Quaker Collection, Haverford College, Haverford, Pa.); Spencer, Holiness, 239-40. For articulations of holiness as a gradual, lifelong experience, see, for example, Barnabas C. Hobbs, “When and How Is a Christian Baptized with the Holy Spirit,” Christian Worker, 4th Mo. 15, 1875, pp. 114-15; and William Nicholson, Practical Views of Sanctification (Richmond, Ind.: Nicholson & Brother, 1883).

7. Spencer uses Robson to claim that at Kansas Yearly Meeting in 1877 a supporter of Harvey attacked David B. Updegraff as he led a devotional meeting. See Spencer, Holiness, 180. The passage in question reads: “A painful scene was meanwhile enacted downstairs at the devotional meeting. A minister (Cyrus Harvey) [was] loudly declaiming against D.U. & his teaching & at last a recorded minister (a woman) went to him & said—‘we read of a deceiver & antichrist & thou at the man.’” She understands Updegraff as the person the woman denounced. I think it was Harvey. See Edwin B. Bronner, ed., An English View of American Quakerism: The Journal of Walter Robson (1842-1929) Written during the Fall of 1877, While Traveling among American Friends (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1970), 104.

8. Edward Grubb, Separations, Their Causes and Effects: Studies in Nineteenth Century Quakerism (London: Headley Brothers, 1914), 151-52; Murray Shipley to Joel Bean, 5th Mo. 18, 1880, box 5, Joel and Hannah Bean Papers (Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pa.); “The Issue,” London Friend, 21 NS (4th Mo. 1, 1881), 83-84. For early revival supporters who later came to have doubts, see my Transformation, 111-16.

9. A lively overview of her life is Barbara Strachey, Remarkable Relations: The Story of the Pearsall Smith Women (London: Gollancz, 1980).

10. Spencer, Holiness, 56.

11. For some examples of attention to Smith in Quaker periodicals, see “I Will Guide Thee,” Friends’ Review, 1st Mo. 18, 1879, p. 356; and Hannah Whitall Smith, “Diversities of Gifts and the Unity of the Spirit,” Christian Worker, 6th Mo. 10, 1880, pp. 282-84. I found but two others in my reading of Christian Worker, the main revival organ, between 1871 and 1894.

12. Logan Pearsall Smith, ed., Philadelphia Quaker: The Letters of Hannah Whitall Smith (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950), 69-70; Hannah W. Smith to Whitewater Monthly Meeting, 12th Mo. 17, 1881, in Whitewater Monthly Meeting Women’s Minutes, 12th Mo. 22, 1881, Indiana Yearly Meeting Archives (Friends Collection, Earlham College, Richmond, Ind.); Spencer, Holiness, 189. For Indiana Yearly Meeting’s position in these years, see my Transformation, 111-13, 131-32.

13. Smith, Philadelphia Quaker, 39; Roberta Joy Stewart, “’Being a child in the Father’s house’: The Life of Faith in the Published Works of Hannah Whitall Smith” (Ph.D. diss., Drew University, 1990), 120.

14. Spencer, Holiness, 189; Hugh Barbour et al., eds., Quaker Crosscurrents: Three Hundred Years of Friends in the New York Yearly Meetings (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 204. The Whitewater Minutes for 1st Mo. 26, 1882, simply state that Smith withdrew her application, but I follow Spencer in accepting that Smith’s restitutionism was the cause.

15. Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1903), 280-81.


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


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