Thomas Kelly

Thomas Kelly is the first of four activist Friends that I intend to write about in this column over the next several months—Friends whose spiritual experience and their testimony for us are shaped in a fundamental way by purposeful engagement with the world. I say "purposeful" because everyone’s spiritual life is shaped by the manifold experiences of work, human relationships, and the sheer business of organismal being, but it is useful sometimes to try to trace in someone’s spiritual expression the impact of their intentionally hurling themselves into specific actions.

Now, it may come as a surprise to find Thomas Kelly grouped with such energetic bodies as John Bellers and Lucretia Mott. This view of Kelly dawned on me only recently, as I revisited his writings and biography after a long period in which I thought of him hardly at all. In his devotional pieces, I heard accents that come from fierce joy, commitments maintained under testing, and many kinds of longing. The three sorts of world-engagement that seem most important in Kelly’s life were his concern for souls, his direct service in Germany and other places with AFSC, and his almost lifelong ambition to make a significant academic mark, especially in philosophy. All of these seem to have in common a longing to be something special, which is epitomized vividly in the famous incident, in which as a Haverford student he comes to visit Rufus Jones, and in the course of the conversation says, "I just want my life to be a miracle!" While Rufus’ personality and style might well have played midwife to expansive statements from many admiring students, the heat and intensity of that ambition are Kelly’s.

Concern for souls

Kelly was born to an active, devout, evangelical Quaker family in Ohio. From an early age he was surrounded by rhythms of worship, persons of magnetic spirituality, Bible and preaching, hymns, and community life. Like other future ministers, he "played preacher," and exhibited early a commanding yet winning personality, as well as an acute mind. After college, he went to Hartford Theological Seminary, and received both theological and philosophical training; his original goal was to enter missions. He worked as a supply pastor in a variety of local Protestant and Quaker churches. While he swerved from the path to pastoral ministry for which he seemed (to others) well suited, his sense of the urgent value of each human soul and his fascination with the vagaries of inward and outward life remained strong. As he grew spiritually, his "authentic" voice more and more reached towards soul-health, high aspiration, the need for abandonment to God, and the realization that joy was part of the promise. Whether he was writing or speaking about political events, relief work, or problems of daily life, he had from youth an acute awareness of the soul life in all, and God’s beckoning and workman-like love.

Direct service

During World War I, Kelly sought alternative service with the YMCA in England, and then worked with German prisoners of war. He took an active part in AFSC work between the World Wars, going twice to Germany, once for an extended period of time as part of the relief effort there. He was articulate about the need to work in practical ways to relieve physical, psychological, and spiritual suffering; and as his writings reveal, he understood clearly how these are interrelated.

Ambition and failure

After his alternative service, and a teaching position at Wilmington College, Kelly returned to Hartford for a doctorate in philosophy. There followed several years of teaching at Earlham, in Hawaii, at Wellesley College, and finally at Haverford. During this period, deciding that his main goal was to become an accomplished and productive academic philosopher, he determined to take a second doctorate in Philosophy at Harvard. In the face of a policy not to grant a doctorate to someone who already had a PhD, Kelly wrote an agonizingly revealing letter in which he insisted that in order for him to really do first rate work in philosophy, he must both be trained at Harvard (the premier school in the country, in his opinion), and take a degree. This was reluctantly allowed, and Kelly wrote a thesis that was published to good notices. When he came to defend his thesis, however, he blanked out and was unstrung. The Harvard faculty both failed him, and barred him from ever trying again. Kelly fell into a major psychological crisis (though Haverford was happy with him on the faculty in any case).

The outcome of his failure, and his encounter with ultimate questions of his values and commitments, was a relatively sudden and dramatic integration of his personality, and a sense of liberation. His intense religious life seems to have gained an added mystical depth, and his writings from this period to his death are full of light, conviction, joy, and the sweetness that comes of walking in the Light, but knowing firsthand the ocean of darkness and death.

In Reality of the Spiritual World he writes:

"When our souls are utterly swept through and overturned by God’s invading love . . . we find ourselves enmeshed with some people in amazing bonds of love and nearness and togetherness of soul, such as we never knew before. . . . Into this fellowship of souls at the center we simply emerge. No one is chosen to the fellowship. When we discover God we discover the fellowship. When we find ourselves in Christ we find we are also amazingly united with those others who are also in Christ.

. . . Theological differences are forgotten, and liberals and conservatives eagerly exchange experiences concerning the wonders of the life of devotion. [Yet] the last depths of conversation in the fellowship go beyond spoken words. People who know one another in God do not need to talk much. They know one another already. In the last depths of understanding, words cease and we sit in silence together, yet in perfect touch with one another, more bound into the common life by the silence than we ever were by words."

For further reading

The most famous of Kelly’s writings is A Testament of Devotion, which was pulled together by Douglas Steere and a few others within months of Kelly’s death. It has a good, brief biographical sketch, as well, though this leaves out some important elements, and bears the marks of haste and grief. Recently I have found The Eternal Now and Social Concern of particular value. However, I strongly urge you to read Reality of the Spiritual World, if you have not done so recently. There is a great breadth of vision in this pamphlet, which embraces contemplation and action, prayer and service. Thomas Merton’s famous quip that Quakers have produced no great mystics finds one of its best refutations in this piece. In the 1960s, Thomas’ son, Richard Kelly, compiled a further collection of essays and short pieces under the title The Eternal Promise. For biography, the best source is still Richard Kelly’s Thomas Kelly: A Biography, which, among other virtues, quotes extensively from Thomas’ correspondence. In addition, though, the reader will enjoy T. Canby Jones’ Pendle Hill pamphlet, Thomas Kelly as I Remember Him. T. Canby Jones was part of the "gang" of inspired young people who gathered with Thomas Kelly at Haverford in his last years for study and prayer, and to feel their way into lives of service and witness. The pamphlet is warm in its recollection of Kelly’s personality, but it is especially valuable for its interpretation of his teaching on prayer and spiritual experience.