Christian Devotional Classics: A Testament of Devotion

Thomas Raymond Kelly and A Testament of Devotion

Thomas Raymond Kelly (1893 – 1941) author of A Testament of Devotion (1941). Source:

“To read or not to read?” Ever have a book which has caught your attention a number of times over a period of years, but you have made the intentional decision not to read only to find it assigned for class? Thomas Raymond Kelly’s (1893 – 1941) A Testament of Devotion (1941) fits this category for me.

Kelly was a cradle to grave Quaker, i.e., Religious Society of Friends. Although born in America, he had a passion for international education, service, pacifism, and spirituality. Although he studied chemistry as an undergraduate, he pursued further education with a mystical bend in religion and philosophy through a number of avenues including self study and a Ph.D. at Hartford. Kelly’s memory loss during his oral defense for a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard crushed him (1937). But with the publication of Explanation and Reality in the Philosophy of Emile Meyerson (1937) . . .

No one knows exactly what happened, but a strained period in his life was over. He moved toward adequacy. A fissure in him seemed to close, cliffs caved in and filled up a chasm, and what was divided grew together within him. Science, scholarship, method remained good, but in a new setting.  Now he could say with Isaac Pennington, ‘Reason is not sin, but a deviation from that from which reason came is a sin.

He went to to the Germantown Friends’ Meeting at Coulter Street to deliver three lectures in January 1938. He told me the lectures wrote themselves. At Germantown, people were deeply moved and said, “This is authentic.” His writing writings and spoken messages began to be marked by a note of experimental authority.”  — Douglas V. Steere, “A Biographical Memoir.” In Thomas Raymond Kelly. A Testament of Devotion. Harper & Brothers, 1941, 118.

In Searching for an Adequate Life: The Devotional Theology of Thomas R. Kelly by Jerry R. Flora (Spirituality Today. Spring 1990, Vol.42 No. 1), we read another quote from Steere regarding the transformation:

out of it seemed to come a whole new life orientation. What took place no one will ever know; but old walls caved in, the fierce academic ambition receded, and a new abandoned kind of fulfillment made its appearance.

AND a dramatic description of the last day of his life:

ON the morning of January 17, 1941, a college professor in eastern Pennsylvania exclaimed to his wife, “Today will be the greatest day of my life.”(1) He had just written to the religion editor at Harper and Brothers, accepting an invitation to speak with him in New York about a small book, on devotional practice. The firm of Harper was definitely interested in the kind of fresh material this writer could produce. That evening, while drying the dinner dishes, he slumped to the floor with a massive coronary arrest and died almost instantly.

At Kelly’s passing, his friend and colleague Douglas V. Steere pulled together five of his essays and wrote a brief inspirational “biographical memoir” to accompany them in A Testament of Devotion (1941). Kelly’s academic life experience and insights go hand in hand, particularly relevant to Emerging Scholars — complementing some of what the Urban Resident shared with us in Writing a Christian Personal Statement (10/11/2013). Furthermore, reading Kelly’s material raises to me the question of how to interact with an inspirational “Christian” figure with whom one finds deep resonance, while at the same time strongly disagreeing with on several key theological points.

A timeline to provide a context for Kelly’s work

  • Thomas Raymond Kelly was born on June 4, 1893 on a farm near Chillicothe, OH. His parents were dedicated Quakers who reopened a long closed old meeting room to renew Quaker worship in their area. But his father died when he was four, forcing his mom to move to provide for the family (including his sister Mary). She chose Wilmington, OH, for educational purposes, i.e., to earn the money and enroll in good schools including Wilmington College.
  • 1909 – 1912: Kelly studied Chemistry at Wilmington College (OH) but finished at Haverford College (PA), exposing him to a wider perspective. At the time, studying one’s final year at Haverford was a common way to polish off one’s Quaker “college education.”
    • Question: If you are familiar with Wilmington and/or Haverford, I am very interested in how close to their Quaker roots these colleges continue to be in the 21st Century. Furthermore, as to whether this tradition of finishing studies at Haverford has been maintained in any manner.
  • 1914 – 1918: World War I. America declared war on Germany in 1917.
    • 1914 – 1916: Kelly taught at Pickering College, a Quaker preparatory school in Canada. During his time in Canada, the Quaker mission to Japan and the evangelization of the Far East became an even greater passion for Kelly than science education.
      • 1915: Thomas Merton born in France (Prades, Pyrénées-Orientales), but his family quickly departed to live with his mother’s family in New York due to World War I.
    • 1917 – 1918: As a pacifist (which is part of the Quaker tradition), Kelly served German Prisoners of War (POWs). This gave him not only only a strong connection with the German people, but also deepened his strong Quaker pacifism which would play an important role in his relationship to World War II.
  • 1919: Kelly graduated Hartford Theological Seminary (CT), married Lael Macy, and received a position to teach Bible at Wilmington (1919-21) setting him up for the “Roaring 20’s.” But he appeared to be largely unaffected by this era or the Great Depression except in caring for those in need in Germany. His relationship with Germans led to his concern regarding Hitler’s rise to power. Kelly visited in 1938 to encourage Quaker friends touched by his 1924 – 1925 mission.
  • 1924: Kelly received a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Hartford Seminary. Thomas and Lael reinvigorated the labors of Quakers in Germany (1924 – 1925).
  • 1925: Kelly taught Philosophy at Earlham College, Richmond, IN.
  • 1928: Daughter Lois was born.
  • 1931 – 1932: Kelly pastored Fall River Congregational Church, attended Harvard for a second Ph.D., and taught at Wellesley College.
  • 1932 – 1935: Kelly returned to Earlham to teach
  • 1935: While holding a staff position at Pendle Hill, a Quaker Center for study and Contemplation in Wallingford, PA, Kelly was exposed to Zen meditation. Kelly moved to —Hawaii to teach Philosophy. He not only encountered Japanese and Chinese Professors, but also studied Buddhism.
  • 1936: Son Richard was born in Hawaii. Kelly became sick and returned to teach Greek and Oriental Philosophy at Haverford.
  • 1937 “Failed Oral Exam at Harvard” led to a re-examination.
    • —In January 1938 Germantown Friends Meeting, Kelly gives three lectures on “God can be found.”
    • —In April 1938, Kelly wrote to Rufus Jones, “The Reality of the presence has been very great at times recently. One knows at firsthand what the old inquiry meant, ‘Has truth been advancing among you?’”
    • —Spiritual experience: Shared with his mother, “He was swept away by the presence . . . melted down by the love of God.”
    • —Over the course of the next 3 years, he received a series of messages and went from an academic to” a seeker of the experience within.”
  • —January 17, 1941: Received a call to publish works and within hours of that call he died of a heart attack. —Douglas V. Steere gathered Kelly’s material in order for A Testament of Devotion (1941) to be published.
    • American involvement in World War II (1940-1945) was followed by the Cold War (1947 to 1991)
    • 1941: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA was incorporated. For more of the ministry’s history click here.

What does A Testament of Devotion (1941) have to say to us today?

Daily Reflections for the course of the next several days from which you pick up this post. The material is drawn from drafts I posted on the Emerging Scholars Network Facebook Wall as part of a class on Christian Devotional Classics at Evangelical Seminary. Please email me know if you use the second section to stimulate campus discussion (e.g., brown bag lunch discussion group). I am particularly interested in suggestions on revisions for use in that context.

1. “By inner persuasions He draws us to a few definite tasks, our tasks, God’s burdened heart particularizing his burdens in us. And He gives us the royal blindness of faith, and the seeing eye of the sensitized soul, and the grace of unflinching obedience. Then we see that nothing matters and that everything matters and that this my task matters for me and for my fellow men and women for eternity. . . . Obedient as a shadow, sensitive as a shadow, selfless as a shadow . . . Holy obedience is the simplicity of the trusting child. . . . . which lies beyond complexity, naiveté which is the yonder side of sophistication. It is the beginning of spiritual maturity which comes after the awkward age of religious busyness for the Kingdom of God . . .” — Thomas Raymond Kelly. A Testament of DevotionHarper & Brothers, 1941, 43ff.

For Deeper Reflection: Thank-you to my friend Nelson. As part of an excellent presentation on Kelly and A Testament of Devotion, he shared the above quote with this conversation starter well worth our consideration: “Kelly spent most of his life chasing the truth through academic means and went through a period of spiritual awakening / renewal and comes to the above conclusion: Simplicity and Humble obedience. How do we balance our time of study and our time of serving? Have we made it overly complicated? What if we ‘loved in humble service?’ Does scripture call us to both? . . .” 

2. Thomas Raymond Kelly begins A Testament of Devotion with these words, “Meister Eckhart wrote, ‘As thou art in church or cell, that same frame of mind carry out into the world; into its turmoil and fitfulness.’ Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the face of men. It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it. It is the Shekinah of the soul, the Presence in the midst. Here is the slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And he is within us all.”

For Deeper Reflection: As you have already discerned, I have great respect for Thomas Raymond Kelly’s wrestling with the relationship of faith and vocation as a Quaker. We have much to receive from his journey and his coming to an appreciation of living in the reality of ‘adequacy’ instead of trying to continually prove oneself in what I term ‘the academic chain of being.’ None-the-less it is hard for me to get past the first page, where I find myself in strong disagreement with his perspective on the Inner Light/Christ to be tapped inside of each human being.

Yes, we are all created in the image of God. But is there a Christ within each of us, accessible to “clothe in earthly form and action”? No, the seed of the Gospel is cast into broken/dark lives. Some receive and some even embrace the Gospel by the grace of God, but Christ is not already inside waiting to come out of a slumber. A subject to be unpacked further . . .

As an Emerging Scholar, how do you prayerfully consider and interact with material which you disagree with in your discipline, in particular when you have assignments ‘forcing’ you to engage the material? How do you prayerfully listen, ask good questions, enter dialogue, even sharpen your own position/understanding?

3. “T.S. Eliot . . . ‘I cannot conceive of anybody agreeing with all of her [Simone Weil’s] views, or of not disagreeing violently with some of them. But agreement and rejection are secondary: what matters is to make contact with a great soul.’ — Scott McLemee. “Review of Julia Haslett, ‘An Encounter with Simone Weil.'” Inside Higher Ed. 8/14/2013.

For Deeper Reflection: Eliot’s quote is pertinent to my reading of Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion. Even though I disagree with his perspective on ‘The Inner Light,’ he has a great soul and much to teach.

 4. I am surprised by the growing influence of “Evangelical” Quakers in Spiritual Formation, in particular Richard Foster of RenovareMary Kate Morse of George Fox Evangelical Seminary, and Dallas Willard of USC. Note: Willard was active member of Quaker Meeting House in which Foster served the 1970’s. For ESN Blog posts exploring the life, work, and legacy of Dallas Willard, click here. Have you read material by any of these authors? If so, how would you compare their material with what I have shared from Kelly’s work?


Note: Due the press of completing the final project and the complexity of the questions I found myself raising, I left further consideration of interacting with Kelly’s theology for a future date. Several months later I find myself still mulling over a proper response. I am looking for a time away to wrestle with several topics fall posts have raised and/or someone with whom to dialogue. If you have insights to share, please comment and/or drop me a line. Consider this post “opening a can of worms”*, one to which I/we will return 🙂 Stay tuned . . .

*As I shared above, “reading Kelly’s material raises to me the question of how to interact with an inspirational “Christian” figure with whom one finds deep resonance, while at the same time strongly disagreeing with on several key theological points.”

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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One Comment

    Roger commented on March 31, 2014 Reply

    I have just finished for the second time Thomas Kelly’s book whilst language is very evangelical the sentiment has a truly mystical feel ie the essence of Buddhism Quakerism

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