Response to Thomas Hamm: Holiness 2.5 Cheers

Carole Dale Spencer

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.

David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Baker, 1989) sheds some additional light on the relationship between British Quakers and the Keswick Movement in Britain, showing a closer affinity than has been assumed, mainly through the influence of Hannah and her husband Robert Pearsall Smith. Bebbington in his research on the Keswick Holiness Movement in Britain claims “Quaker spirituality was one of the foundations of the holiness movement” (p. 157). (Note: I was unaware of Bebbington’s work when I wrote my book.)

Although Hannah Whitall Smith was initially introduced to holiness by a Methodist factory worker, and at first appropriated the Wesleyan version, she gradually moved toward the Keswick variety, and had her greatest impact within the European movement (by bringing many of the elements of American Holiness to Britain’s Keswick Convention). Keswick holiness, unlike the American Wesleyan-revivalist version, did not find traditional quietist Quaker spirituality to be in opposition to it, but rather incorporated elements of Quaker holiness spirituality into it. Many American revivalist Quakers, such as John Henry Douglas, wanted to eliminate distinctive Quaker elements such as silence and “mysticism” causing hostile reactions within so many Friends meetings. Like many reformers, they were willing to sacrifice much of the spiritual heritage that formed them, instead of incorporating the best of the tradition to create something better.

Smith, on the other hand, rediscovered the gift of her own Quaker holiness roots through her pilgrimage through the various manifestations of the Holiness Movement, allowing her to see Quakerism from a new perspective. She perceived her own Society of Friends as “higher life” people all along. The whole Society she claimed formed “a holiness organization”:

…the true inner meaning of Quakerism dawned upon me more and more fully day by day. It was the “way of holiness” in which they were seeking to walk. They preached a deliverance from sin, a victory over the cares and worries of life, a peace that passeth all understanding, a continual being made “more than conquerors” through Christ. They were in short “Higher Life” people, and at last I understood them; and the old preaching, which once had been so confusing, became marrow and fatness to my soul. The preaching had not changed, but I had changed. I had discovered the missing link, and had reached that stage in my soul’s experience to which such preaching ministered. (1903, 280-1)

Keswick holiness, especially in England, thus absorbed many Quaker influences primarily through Hannah and her husband Robert Pearsall Smith. Smith continued to wear plain Quaker dress and use the plain language. She never relinquished her Quaker identity. Much of the holiness legacy of “classical” quietist Quakerism, and many Quaker terms, such as “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and “full surrender” and “victory over sin” were appropriated by the Keswick holiness movement. (Bebbington, p 156)

Key sources of spiritual literature highly regarded by Quakers found their way into the Keswick movement–such as the writings of Fenelon and Madam Guyon, and William Law. According to Bebbington, Keswick meetings in England introduced the practice of silent worship at regularly scheduled times. (p. 157) Instead of destroying traditional forms of Quaker practice, Smith incorporated fresh expressions of it that brought the deep insights and revelations of Quaker experience to a much broader audience of spiritual seekers.

In conclusion, I would suggest that the Revival movement divided the former “Orthodox-Gurneyite” Quakers into two new camps–the radical Wesleyan-holiness Quakers, who abandoned Fox and Barclay and replaced them with John Wesley and Phoebe Palmer and developed doctrinaire fundamentalist versions of holiness, often inimical to their own Quaker roots; and the Barclayan Quakers who remained loyal to a more mystical and inclusive version rooted in Fox and Barclay. The motto of the Keswick Convention chosen by one of the Quaker organizers, Robert Wilson, was “All one in Christ Jesus” (Bebbington, p. 157). Unfortunately the Holiness Movement in the nineteenth century did not live up to its own highest and best aspirations.

The Barclayan understanding of holiness is best described in one of Robert Barclay’s most eloquent (and oft-quoted) passages in his Apology, in which he candidly shares his own encounter with holiness, as he becomes drawn into and opens himself up, to the communal experience of silence :

Not by strength of arguments, or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came I to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power [the mystical component] among them, which touched my heart; [the emotional component] and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up; [the moral component] and so I became thus knit and united [communal component] with them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed: and indeed this is the surest way to become a Christian; to whom afterwards the knowledge and understandings of principles will not be wanting, but will grow up so much as is needful as the natural fruit of this good root, and such a knowledge will not be barren nor unfruitful…. (Barclay’s Apology, Sippel ed., 2002, 300)

Of the hundreds of pages I’ve written on Quaker Holiness none of my analysis or formulations capture the concept/idea/experience/feeling as well as this moving testimony of Barclay, which as he admits, can never be defined by a doctrinal statement, or accepted through rational analysis, but only experienced. Holiness is feeling “perfectly redeemed” (meaning perfectly accepted and loved by God) and yet is not simply an isolated, individual experience, but also a communal experience of being connected to and touched by the light of Christ in others. The best of the Holiness movement of the nineteenth century fervently desired to answer that hunger–to experience the increase of the power and life of the Spirit so as to feel perfectly redeemed.

Works Cited

Barclay, Robert. 2002. Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Peter D. Sippel ed. Glenside, PA: Quaker Heritage Press.

Bebbington, David. 1989. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Hamm, Thomas D. 1988. The Transformation of American Quakerism, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Smith, Hannah Whitall. 1903. My Spiritual Autobiography; or, How I Discovered the Unselfishness of God. New York: Revell.


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

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