Book Review: Testament of Devotion

Testament of Devotion, a collection of essays and writings by Thomas Kelly, was one of those books I was supposed to be closely reading in college in my Quaker spirituality course. The class took up readings in chronological order from the beginning of Quakerism. I was overwhelmed by the rhetoric of George Fox, underwhelmed by John Woolman’s play-by-play self flagellation and generally lost in Friend’s writings over the last 300 years by the time we got to Thomas Kelly somewhere near the end. Where was the relevance to Quakerism now? Sure, George Fox ran around organizing Quakerism and building the meeting structure still practiced today, but his writing was strident and vindictive. John Woolman seemed like the ultimate self-righteous wet blanket, worrying about every step he took and dwelling for pages and pages on painfully mundane decisions. Haven’t we seen enough of this? Was this really what Quakerism has always been about?

I was hungry for action and heroes at that point in my life. I wanted cure-all solutions, charismatic leadership. Quakerism was fading into obscurity and we needed answers. I wasn’t exactly sure what it meant to be a leader, but I was sure it involved some amount of fast, sensuous Light trippin’: “critical, acid, sharper than a two edged sword” as Thomas Kelly says (I notice now, almost 10 years later). Now that I read Thomas Kelly again I’m struck that despite his earnestness which lost me the first time around, he’s clearly the kind of guy whose bliss was infectious. He may use the word “lo”, but “the sense of Presence!” is woven into every part of what he’s saying. He’s sharing his mystical amazement and salvation. He LOVED the Light, man. Like my brother.

My brother is also a good Quaker, and he occasionally tries to impress on me the dire state of Quakerism in way that pushes my John Woolman button (hand-dyed, locally sourced). But then I step away and I remember that he also loves the hell out of obscure Brazilian music, lobsters and making Quakerism more cool for young people (among other things). How can I forget that? Because I’m still caught up on some of my old notions of leadership. I’m slowly learning that people who make genuinely horizontal Way in community are first really genuinely themselves. Sometimes that means you appreciate them occasionally from a distance and don’t want to hang out with them, like Fox or Woolman. But my brother and Thomas Kelly, they are certainly not “sobersides Quakers who seem to live on a diet of spiritual persimmons”. They are those rare kind of people who are truly dedicated and unobtrusively, appealingly, fired up.While I may not always hear what they have to say the first time, when I get it I’ll follow their bliss.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Testament of Devotion

  1. I really agree with what you say here. Thomas Kelly, like Thomas Merton, has at times been the thread that keeps me hanging on spiritually. I too find most 16th-18th century Quaker journals more or less insufferable. Needless to say I respect the contributions of both Fox and Woolman, but let’s face it, there’s more than a touch of self-righteousness and sadomasochism in Fox’s writing and gag-inducing sticky-sweet piety in Woolman’s. There’s a more, I don’t know…real quality to Kelly that makes me think of CS Lewis in A Grief Observed after the death of his wife. Lewis, like Kelly comes across as much more real when writing experientially

  2. Evan… good to hear your thoughts about Quaker writings and what you’ve been thinking about lately. Glad that Thomas Kelly is speaking to you, and that you have a vision for Quakerism. Keep writing! ❤ Jon

  3. Thanks for your thoughts guys. It’s funny that you mention C.S. Lewis Ben, someone quoted from the Screwtape Letters to me the other day and now I think I’ll have to pick that one up next.

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