My Number 1 book, 2007 (and it is about Quakerism!)

The best book I read in 2007 was, without doubt, Carole Spencer's book

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

Sounds dull? Think again!

Quakerism had never interested me. I always thought it a somewhat off-beam religious movement that was basically all about pacifism, the inner light (as opposed to the Bible), and silent meetings. Safe to say I was not falling over myself to read this book. But once I started reading I was hooked.

Spencer's basic thesis is that the essence of Quaker spirituality, as seen in the history of the movement, is 'holiness', understood as 'the direct experience of God culminating in divine union.' This 'perfection' is the culmination of a work of divine grace and is sustained by a synergy of grace and works (i.e., loving God and neighbour, and obeying the indwelling Christ).

The Quakers desired to create contemplative communities of committed, spiritually awakened people. They built radical, monastic-like communities of disciples that adopted some subversive practices (including simplicity and pacifism).

The Quakerism she tracks through history is Christ-centred, Bible-based (honest!), Spirit-filled, discipleship-focused and very deeply inspiring. (And, for the record, there were quite a few Quaker evangelists and many Quaker meetings were not silent). In many ways it was a kind of proto-charismatic movement blended with theological ideas from the Greek Fathers and monsatic movements.

Of course, the story is much more complex and messy than that (as the book reveals) and the 20th C in particular saw some unfortunate trajectories in the tradition away from its Christian roots. However, the post-Christian kinds of Quakerism that seem so common in the UK now are, on my reading of Spencer's account, a betrayal of the Quaker tradition. They are not essentially Quaker at all but something new.

When the rubber hits the road I don't think I could be a Quaker - certainly not in the UK where liberalism rules. However, I found myself finding real and deep spiritual inspiration from this radical movement. It is a tradition that - in its classical forms at least - I am now convinced has a lot to contribute to Christian spirituality. I almost want to become a Quaker!!! And, God willing, perhaps I can still aspire to be Quaker-like.

So, "Thank you so much Carole for showing me new spiritual riches in this inspirational tradition."


Teresita said…
Spencer's basic thesis is that the essence of Quaker spirituality, as seen in the history of the movement, is 'holiness', understood as 'the direct experience of God culminating in divine union.'

This is simply a form of Christian mysticism known as Quietism, but the Quaker innovation is to undergo this "direct experience of God" in a group setting, which answers the Catholic objections to quietism as undermining Church discipline and unity. It was a target of the Roman Inquistion well into the 1700's. Frankly, while conceding that the Church has authority over public, corporate worship, I've always considered my interior spiritual life none of the Church's business.
The Pook said…
Coincidentally I'm just reading a biography of George Fox at the moment. He certainly was an introspective, emotional fellow. It sounds very much as though he suffered from clinical depression and possibly some kind of syndrome similar to high functioning autism.
Robin Parry said…
the pook

interesting. It is not my area at all. I have only one comment. From the few things that I did read about Fox I got the distinct impression that the quest for the historical Fox is somewhat akin to the quests for the historical Jesus. There seem to be as many different George Foxes as there are biographers. Some of these GF's looked unpleasant and nutty whilst others seemed to be very holy and inspiring and others somewhere between the two.

I have no idea which one is closest to the real GF. Whether or not he was a fruit cake the movement that he started had far more spiritual depths than I ever appreciated before.

kind regards

Martin Kelley said…
Hi Robin: great review, that must be a good book if it almost makes you want to become a Friend! I've long wondered if the key to Quaker outreach is just being Quaker ourselves. A little charity and flexibility for newcomers is fine but indeed we've gotten to the point where we're too afraid to actual say what we believe. Things are a little better in the U.S. (the various splits at least have kept awareness that there are different ideas of what it means to be a Quaker) but not much.

I have to read Spencer's book. I keep hearing intriguing things. Thanks and God bless,
Martin @ QuakerRanter and publisher of QuakerQuaker
Anonymous said…
Those of us who are Christ centered Quakers recognize that there is and has been a reaction to the abuses of historical Christianity that has been called a "phobia" which needs to be addressed within the body of those who aspire to follow Christ and not a religion. The second and major point insofar as more "liberal" traditions is that "Christ" is not limited to the historical Jesus, and "the Light" is available to all. This allows for some leeway in expression and most who start with a "phobia" about "Christian" come to realize it is the history of the traditions and not the teachingsof Jesus to which they object. Granted there has been some objection to "Christian" expression in some of the more radically "liberal" Meetings and that needs to come into balance, as Martin mentioned. However, in that we don't seek to convert people to "Quakerism," your reaction to the book is quite appropriate. Perhaps you can incorporate some of the ideas and processes into whatever local body you attend or form a worship group with those ideas. "The Church," after all is just what the Greek word translated "church" means; those called out (to follow Christ). Thank you for your thoughts.
In His Love,
Nate Swift
kevin roberts said…
Robin, a big problem with trying to find out who Fox was is that he left such a vast stack of paper behind, and people have sifted through it with agendas right from the start. His various Journals are so different because the editors kept what they wanted to emphasize.

Try reading his Epistles instead, because there's less opportunity for editorial slant. But even then, the 400 or so that are usually re-printed are only the tip of an iceberg. There's hundreds more that have never been published.

Perhaps a religious publisher with lots of time might be interested in an expanded collection . . .
Johan Maurer said…
Carole being one of the pastors of our meeting (Reedwood Friends Church in Portland, Oregon), I read this review with (unquakerly?) pride! Thank you.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the review, I will definitely look at the book.

I agree with the point you make re quakerism in the UK - the spiritualisaton of the sacraments, especially communion, is a point where I couldn't join even though I am in broad sympathy

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