Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

My Photo
Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism

As promised here is my reflections on the book Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism by Carole Dale Spencer. I had heard about this book before but I had been put off by the dry academic tone. The tone is understandable as I understand that the book started life as a dissertation.

Her definition of holiness as “a spiritual quality in which human life is ordered and lived out as to be consciously centered in God.” In Quakerism, holiness was often used interchangeably with perfection. Perfection was understood as the vocation of the sanctified Christian. Justification and sanctification were the same process for early Friends because you could not be justified without being made just or holy.

Spencer identifies eight elements of Holiness Quakerism. These elements characterize historical Quakerism in the first generation. These elements are:

Scripture – Quakers had a thoroughly Scriptural world view and accepted the scriptures as authoritative.
Eschatology - Quakers anticipated the imminent second coming of Christ. When it did not happen, they recognized that Christ had come spiritually, within each person.
Conversion – Quakers were born again. The old self died and a new self was born.
Charisma – Quakers were filled with and led by the Holy Spirit.
Evangelism – Quakers were evangelistic and prophetic.
Mysticism – Knowledge of God came through direct experience.
Suffering – Quakers were persecuted and martyred, joyfully taking up the cross of Christ.
Perfection – Quakers experienced union with God, becoming the fully restored image of God and victory over sin.

She traces these elements through Quaker history by examining the lives of Quakers in various periods. She has some interesting observations as to what happened to some of these elements. Suffering, for instance became taking on Quaker testimonies and distinctives. When external persecution ended, the cross that Friends struggled with taking on was plain dress and plain speech and the rejection of worldly communities. Evangelism under the Quietists became traveling in the ministry, mostly among Friends. Among modern Friends, the goal of spiritual perfection has been replaced by social action.

She credited Friends with the rediscovery of silence among Protestants (it had a long history in the monastic and contemplative traditions.) It was radical in its time. Over time it became a form and end in itself and spiritual renewal among Friends in the 19th century came, not through silence but the overabundance of words, song and praise. Traditionalists, such as Joel Bean, reclaimed silent worship using it as a mark of the “faithful remnant.” Among liberal Friends, it allows people to come together in apparent unity, even if they hold radically different beliefs and experience silence in different ways. I don't disagree with this analysis but I don't think it is completely accurate. For a long time my experience was that silent worship was the only form of worship in which I experienced the presence of God. I have lately felt the presence of God in other forms but I still have the experience of the presence of God most frequently and easily in open worship. I also think that there is a rediscovery of apophatic spirituality among Friends and that open worship is an expression of that path. (Apophatic spirituality is sometimes called the via negativa. It involves finding God by removing all things that are not God.)

Carole Spencer suggests using holiness as a way of organizing Quaker history. She has a chart of what the tree of Quaker history looks like and it ends up with the Evangelical branch in the center. She highlights all of the groups and trends that had a strong holiness element. This path extends from the first generation of friends through Quietism and then the Orthodox and Guerneyites on on down through the Evangelical Holiness revival. The Wilburites are included as a group for which holiness was important. The interesting thing about this chart is that none of the contemporary Quaker organizations, including Evangelical Friends International are identified as having holiness as a distinctive or important part of their identity.

I very much appreciated the book. It has given me much to think about. It provides an approach that may allow us to look at our history without reliving the schisms of the past. It also reinforces the view that I had when I first started exploring Barclay, that the most important part was the sections on Christ, Justification and Perfection. I thought that they outlined a spirituality that was missing from liberal Quakerism. I also think that this reframing of Quaker history might have a lot to say to convergent Friends.

Blessings to all,

Will T


Blogger Chronicler said...

This sounds like a very good book. It is always interesting to read what others are saying about the wider Quaker world and the sub-groups as well. I would caution Friends when their faithfulness is assessed by someone who hasn't ever met us (I am unaware that the author has visited Ohio Wilburite Friends).

< quote >Her definition of holiness as “a spiritual quality in which human life is ordered and lived out as to be consciously centered in God.” < /quote >

I would argue that a better definition both scripturally and from a Quaker perspective would be that holiness is "living a life as directed by the Lord." The former definition allows a great degree of human reasoning to enter into the life of holiness (as long as it appears to keep Christ at the center).

January 19, 2009 7:26 AM  
Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Interesting, Will! I'm grateful to you for producing such a lucid summary of the book.

There are a number of key points in your summary where it sounds to me as if Spencer got it wrong. To begin with, I would agree with "Chronicler": "human life ... consciously centered in God" rather misses the point of what the early & traditional Friends were up to; "constant obedience to the Inward Guide" would be a more accurate summation of Quakerism.

"A life consciously centered in God" sounds to me like what the inhabitants of Roman Catholic monasteries are aiming at, and their obedience is not to the Inward Guide but to their spiritual directors, their abbots, the heads of their orders, and the Pope. Quite a difference there!

But that only scrapes the surface of the problem here. "Holiness", especially in Quaker circles, carries all the freight of the Holiness Protestant movement of the nineteenth century, with its notions of sanctification distinct from justification, of "imputed righteousness" and of "entire sanctification". Unless great pains are taken, right at the beginning, to clarify that these were not beliefs of early Friends, of traditional Friends, or of modern liberal Friends, such confusions are likely to persist in the reader's mind.

It's undoubtedly true that early and traditional Friends "had a thoroughly Scriptural world view"; but anyone who believes they "accepted the scriptures as authoritative" would do well to look at the case of first-generation Friend Samuel Fisher and his book Rusticus ad Academicos: The Rustickes Alarm to the Rabbies. Fisher was one of the pioneers of what came to be known as "the Higher Criticism", a way of reading the Bible that treated it as a product of humans living in a particular time and place, and therefore as fallible, albeit inspired. It is quite true that Fisher's book was not widely read by his fellow Friends, since it was banned in England the very year it was published. But it is also true that Fisher's fellow Friends did not explicitly reject either his book or him; and the surviving evidence does not, cannot, tell us how widely Fisher's ideas were shared by his fellows. Thus the most we can truthfully say about first-generation Quakerism is that its leaders accepted the scriptures as authoritative, but without rejecting Fisher.

I think what you tell us Spencer says about "conversion" is very questionable. It is indisputable that some early Friends, including George Fox, felt they were born again. But it is not at all clear that all Friends felt that way, and there were some whose surviving writings seem to me to suggest that they did not have any born-again experience. (They had an experience of "convincement", but that is not the same thing.) Certainly Friends did not customarily tell people that they must be reborn; what they told them was that they must listen to that inward voice, the Christ in their hearts and consciences, and obey it, which is not necessarily the same message.

As for the use that you say Spencer gives to the terms, "charisma", "evangelism" and "mysticism", all I can say is that these terms are misleading in the same way "holiness" is; they carry all sorts of connotations nowadays that don't really fit what early Friends were about.

If you or "Chronicler" or anyone else reading it feels that I have gotten something wrong, I would welcome correction.

January 19, 2009 2:47 PM  
Blogger Scots Ali said...

Thanks, Marshall Massey, you said it all for me - in better words than I could have found!

January 19, 2009 3:53 PM  
Blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

I can't really analyze the different Christian perspectives implied by some of this terminology--I simply haven't the background.

I will say, though, that I agree with you that the analysis of silence among liberal Friends is not "completely accurate": "Among liberal Friends, it allows people to come together in apparent unity, even if they hold radically different beliefs and experience silence in different ways."

While that's true at times, it is also starting to seem to me like a favorite accusation made of liberal Friends--that we simply avoid recognizing our differences by keeping a silence that is much more about individualized meditation than about gathered worship. It's clear to me from experiences others have shared that that does occur, but I think that the liberal Friends I know find that troubling and are at work in our meetings to see if we can't challenge that.

It has also been my experience that I can experience very much the same thing as someone with whom I share few theological understandings, in the context of a gathered waiting worship among liberal Friends. Perhaps, as more conservative Quakers might insist, a more unified understanding of Christianity as the foundation of Friends would increase the openness of a meeting of liberal Friends to the experience of being gathered... but perhaps not. I can't actually speak to that.

But I can speak to the fact that the Spirit can move quite clearly and potently even amid the theological mix of liberal Friends. I'd like to see it happen more often, of course! But I'd also like to see it assumed less often by other branches of Friends that the theologically diverse mixture of liberal Friends is always destructive of spiritual unity.

Whatever else, the Spirit that I have encountered in Quaker worship seems quite able to cut through whatever human confusion I have, and to gather me with my community. I wish it weren't generally assumed that diverse means shallow, secular, or indifferent to the workings of Spirit.

January 19, 2009 5:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Will:
Your w-site is nice but can you sau where may I find the best information about Quakers ? I stumble also about terminology which I cant understand maybe because I don't know organisational system. What is rearly meeting, meeting and General Conference and so on Where may I fiond well explanation. best wishes and blessings Jacek

January 21, 2009 1:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Will:
Your w-site is nice but can you say where may I find the best information about Quakers ? I stumble also about terminology which I can't understand maybe because I don't know organisational system. What is yearly meeting, meeting, and General Conference and so on. Where may I find well explanation. Best wishes and blessings Jacek

January 21, 2009 1:52 AM
my a-male:

January 21, 2009 2:00 AM  
Blogger Will T said...

The best place to find general information on the web about quakers is probably It may not be organized in a way that makes sense to someone not familiar with Friends but if you explore it you will probably find many questions answered. You may find new questions as well and you are always welcome to came here and ask them.

As for your question about Quaker organizational structure, here is a brief overview. The basic organizational unit among Quakers is called the Monthly Meeting. It is called this because it meets monthly to conduct business. Most monthly meetings have regular weekly meetings for worship, usually, but not always on Sunday morning.

There is often a larger organization in a larger area that meets about every 3 months and is called a Quarterly Meeting. This is roughly analogous to a diocese. Finally there are larger bodies that cover a larger area, often a state or region in the United States or a country in Europe. These groups meet once a year and are called Yearly Meetings.

The Yearly Meeting is the highest body as far as having authority or care of the smaller bodies. The amount of control varies among Yearly Meetings but it is usually not very much.

Yearly Meetings also associate in some larger umbrella organizations but the umbrella organizations do not have any authority over the Yearly Meetings. The three main umbrella organizations are Friends General Conference (FGC) which is made up of primarily liberal yearly meetings, Evangelical Friends Church, International (EFCI) which is an association of Evangelical Friends, and Friends United Meeting which occupies the middle ground between the other two groups. There are some yearly meetings which belong to both FGC and FUM. Links to the websites of all these organizations are on

I hope that you find this useful.

Will T

January 21, 2009 8:21 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

I found Carole Spencer's book a good reminder of some aspects of Quakerism and its history. I found that she has her own definitions of a number of terms that seem to be created to fit her overall Theory. Holiness is one. Having been raised in Indiana Yearly Meeting as a Quaker Family with many Holiness branches. Many "meetings" in the "mid-west" became Weslyan Churches with Weslyan trained "Clergy." In her chart she gives more space to modernist quakers than to the Conservitave Quakers. In all but FUM & EFI the term Modernist is not very relevant to our beliefs. The concept of modernism is relevant to evangelical protestants especially fundamentalist that felt that science and higher criticism where a threat to Christianity. The heresy trial (1920s) of two of my teachers at Earlham (Alexander Purdy(Bible) and Murvel Garner (Biology)) is an example of the attempt to purge Quakerism of Modernism.
I thank God for my modernist Father, Mother, and Grandfather as well as Teachers and Ministers for helping to grow beyond the " Quaker Holiness" of the 1800s.
We need to experience all forms of modern quakerism from "Holiness" to "nontheist" if we are to understand the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) today. I am unsure about being able to understand the diversity but I have hope that we all are seeking for the real "Truth" that early Friends experienced.

February 17, 2009 10:32 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home