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Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism

Carole Dale Spencer manages, in Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism, to describe early Quakerism as a largely coherent whole whose later schisms reflect emphasis on some components and the loss of others. While it's definitely an academic book, it is still a compelling read, and I hope this story will be told widely in more accessible forms over the years to come.

Before continuing with the review, I should note that Spencer plays to practically every bias and opinion I hold regarding Quakerism up through about the 1840s, and frequently thereafter. It's strange to me to be reading interpretive Quaker history, especially history that looks beyond the first generation, and not be spending a fair amount of time arguing with the author in my head. I find her telling of the early Quakers compelling, as well as her case for the Quietists as something better than a terrible decline. While I'm not as convinced by her doubts about Elias Hicks personally, her overall take on Hicksites makes sense to me, as do her doubts about how close Joseph John Gurney was to the heart of Quakerism. I think she's correct that John Wilbur was, as he claimed, much closer.

Where I start having doubts is in the second half of the 19th century, when the Holiness Movement per se comes through. There's a conversation worth having about forms of Quaker worship, hinted at here, but not really explored. I return pretty easily though, in her discussion of the 20th century, and overall I'm kind of dazed to agree with so much of a single telling of Quaker history, especially at this level of depth.

I suspect some potential readers will bounce off the word "Holiness", thinking that this is a plea for revival meetings. They shouldn't. Spencer's use of holiness certainly includes revival meetings (including, I think, the earliest Quaker gatherings), but it's a much richer use than that. Her use of holiness derives from the early Christian fathers, a group whose thought (as she points out) regularly parallels that of early Quakers. She emphasizes eight aspects, which she sees as integrated in early Quaker thought:

  • Scripture
  • Eschatology
  • Conversion
  • Charisma (Spirit)
  • Evangelism
  • Mysticism
  • Suffering
  • Perfection

Obviously, not all of those aspects resonate with all Quakers today, and the details of many of them changed over the course of 350 years, sometimes repeatedly. I remember being blown away by Apocalypse of the Word, largely because it was startling to me that eschatology was central to early Quakers. Talking about "perfection" seems to instantly raise alarms, whether with Quakers or with, well, practically anyone, but Spencer weaves it tightly into the story.

I'll be writing more about the book for a while to come - there are lots and lots of pieces worth pursuing, even pieces I hope someone will take up and turn into complete books of their own.

Yes, it's written academically, and can be very dense, but the content is excellent. My one real complaint (and maybe this is only my copy) is that the type seems excessively light. It's all there, but reading it seems trickier than it should be. The price ($41) isn't cheap, but fortunately it's not as astronomical as some academic publishing.

I can't recommend it as light reading, but if you're up for a detailed and valuably opinionated journey through Quaker history, it's an excellent telling.

(It's also worth noting that the latest issue of Quaker Religious Thought, #110, includes reviews by Stephen Angell, Margery Post Abbott, and Jim Le Shana, with replies from Spencer.)