A Reflection On “Holiness: The Soul Of Quakerism”

As I reflect on the book Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism by Carole Spencer, I am struck by how much the perceptions of the eight elements of Holiness changed over time. This book was a hard read because the early elements of Holiness that you described seem to have been abandoned for the most part by the “Evangelical” Friends for Wesleyan Holiness. Since the legalism of the Wesleyan Holiness movement has so thoroughly poisoned the word “holiness” for me I find it hard to use the word. I can’t even say “holiness” without my eyes beginning to roll. In this paper I will analyze a few of the eight elements as described in Carole Spencer’s book and share my reflections on what language may be helpful in articulating a way forward.

The first element Spencer lists is scripture. While Spencer lists the scripture as authoritative in her initial summary, she talks more about the role of scripture in direct revelation in her exposition of this point. So, while an Evangelical point of view sets scripture as a key focus, the key focus of the early Friends was the ongoing revelation of the will of God as taught by the inward teacher and confirmed by the scriptures. So while scripture did inform the lives of the early Friends, the primacy of place went to the Holy Spirit. For Spencer’s first five elements of holiness the subtext is the presence of Christ within. In looking at the placement on Spencer’s list, the “present Christ” appears to be undervalued, which is strange to me since the impression that I received from the book is that the “mystical” union with God held primacy of place in the early Quakers and is the underpinning of every other item on the list.

I am struck by the pragmatic paradoxes described by Spencer as she explores Quaker mysticism. The first that struck me as particularly insightful was Spencer’s comment that “At the same time that language cannot convey union with God, those that experience divine union often feel compelled to speak, preach, and write with an overwhelming profusion…of words, hoping to bring others into that union.”(Spencer 2007 p.30) This need to express our experience as a way to invite others into an experience of their own is a key reminder that our individual experience has effects that reach beyond us. The next insight is that Quaker mysticism includes both aspects of apophatic mysticism and kataphatic mysticism. As I read about the revivalism of the nineteenth century and the effects it had on Quakerism, I was struck by how the split could be characterized by the separation of the apophatic and kataphatic, with the Beanites focused exclusively on the apophatic as an overreaction to the revivalists’ exclusionary emphasis on the kataphatic. Spencer’s insight is that Quaker kataphatic expressions find their source in apophatic experience.

The serious question that underlies this work is that of reclaiming the word “holiness” from the spiritual, emotional and intellectual abuses of the holiness movements. The direct experience of God of the first generations of these movements were replaced by dogmatic legalism in the second and third generations, with legalism increasing the further from real experience with the Holy Spirit the movement went. We must constantly place ourselves and encourage those who come after us to constantly place themselves in the grace of God, never forgetting that holiness and perfection are not things that are achieved, but works in progress in all of our hearts. Creating new sets of laws will only serve to make us less Holy and separate us from the freedom of Christ. Imposing those new laws on others, no matter how biblically based those laws may be serves only to separate them from the freedom to enter the holiness of union with Christ. From the reading of this book, the missing piece in our current state of Quaker affairs is a non-legalistic holiness.

The challenge that I draw from this book is to get beyond the words that have come to have negative connotations like evangelical, holiness and perfection to the intent of God for the people called Quakers. In order for us to have the kataphatic witness we must begin with an apophatic emptying of the words and practices that are familiar and comfortable to us. I appreciate this reminder and hope that our Yearly Meeting continues to move in this direction.


Spencer, Carole Dale. 2007. Holiness : The Soul of Quakerism : An Historical Analysis of the Theology of Holiness in the Quaker Tradition. Milton Keynes: Paternoster.

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4 responses to “A Reflection On “Holiness: The Soul Of Quakerism”

  1. I just found your site. I sometimes feel that I am the only extroverted Quaker. Now I have to go get this book and read it so I can stay in touch here : )

  2. This is so far from my experience that I am surprised by it. I have spent years looking for Quakers that had any moral rules at all, much less Biblically informed ones. Almost all the Quakers I could find hated anything even resembling a rule or a ritual to such a degree that they made avoiding ritual and dogma into a dogma of it’s own. The only rules they seemed to follow were that anything traditional or Christian was to be avoided and treated with contempt. They had zero patience for Quietism and admired only activism.

    As Micah pointed out recently, heresies tend to come in pairs and be opposites. Thee seems to have experienced the heresy of “legalism” in some way, while I have experienced “wantonness” for lack of a better words. By my experience I saw people crying out “Legalism” every time a rule or even an advice was spoken about. By their assessment even St. Paul, that champion of faith over law, would be a Pharisee for the number of rules he set forth. It would be helpful if thee would explain exactly what thee means by “legalism”. Does thee imply that all external rules are “legalisms” or that there is a point where the spirit and practice of Law are overwhelmed by legal minutiae that bog down in detail, and loopholes that allow it to be abused?

    I would give an example from outside Quakerism and Christianity to show my meaning of legalism. In Islam the wearing of gold, silk and trailing robes are all forbidden for men and discouraged for women because they are all indications of “showing off wealth” and competing socially. However, there are Muslims who scrupulously avoid gold, silk and trailing hems (even though gold and silk are much cheaper and more accessible today, even to the poor in North America and Europe) but they wear the most expensive silver and platinum jewelery and the latest and rarest expensive designer clothing. They maintain that they have done no wrong because “the Quran does not forbid any of those things”. To me, that is to be bogged down in the exact wording to the exclusion of it’s deeper meaning and legalism. Yet, if a Muslim chooses to avoid gold and silk (even though circumstances have changed) AND other forms of showing off I would not condemn them as a legalist. Perhaps thee can give me an example of what you find to be legalism?

    It never ceases to amaze me that people can have such opposing experiences. I would never have guessed there were Quakers who felt alone in being extroverted.

    • Yeah, I hear you. In many ways I think the folks on the extremes are equally legalistic. Legalism for me involves following the letter of the law while ignoring the Spirit behind the law. In many ways I experience legalism as a mental attitude of “As long as I perform x actions and avoid y actions I can do whatever I want.” Where x is “good” and y is “bad”. Instead I feel that we are called to go beyond action to motive. Instead of an easy to follow list of “do”s and “don’t”s we have to examine each action in the light of the Spirit and ask “Does this fit with your loving will?” I actually think we are called to a much higher standard in bending every action to the movement of Grace and Love through the Spirit.

      I hope that clarifies things a bit.


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