Cloud of Witnesses — Thomas Kelly
This essay was written for Listening Life Groups (2008-9) and republished here in preparation for our sermon on Sunday morning.
Thomas Kelly is quickly becoming a favorite author of mine. With a life and approach to spirituality that I can relate to, I have come to see parts myself in his writings and biography. As a person consumed with the pursuit of knowledge, skeptical about things overly spiritualized, and reluctant to completely enter into a deep life with God, I find comfort in knowing that this was much of Thomas Kelly’s experience. But I am equally comforted, and even more encouraged, by knowing that Kelly was finally gripped by God’s love and sacrifice. Knowing this love, he became utterly and passionately committed to a deep and authentic prayer life. This has come to be a beacon of hope for me at this time in my life.
Thomas R. Kelly was a Quaker educator, minister, missionary, writer and mystic who lived during the early 1900s. Born in 1893 in rural Ohio, he was brought up committed to the Friends movement, as his parents were heavily involved in their local church. Journeying out into college and post-graduate studies, Kelly slowly was overcome by his pursuit of knowledge and truth. He spent many years studying at various colleges, ultimately ending up at Harvard University. While not studying he served as a professor of philosophy and religion, the longest stints at Earlham College and Haverford College.
Kelly’s relentless pursuit of and commitment to academic rigor constantly had him discontented with life. In the middle of his time at Hartford Theological Seminary, which was during the First World War, he moved to England to work with German prisoners of war through the Y.M.C.A. After returning from this assignment, and once the war was over, he and his wife Lael went to Germany to serve with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). They returned to the United States to a teaching position at Earlham College. All of this time Kelly was committed to near non-stop research and study. He was constantly writing and publishing essays, as well as speaking at Friends Meetinghouses and conferences throughout the east coast.
Kelly traveled to Germany in 1937 to minister to the German Yearly Meeting. It was this trip that seems to have been the ignition for a significant shift in Kelly’s life. This trip was so exciting and life-giving for him that upon his return home and reintegration into normal life at Haverford College he was struck by a period of “‘dryness’ and aridity.” It was this apparent “dark night of the soul” that caused the most significant spiritual and personal shifts to occur. For one, this experience taught him of the need for a follower of Christ to “learn not to clamor perpetually for height but to walk in shadows and valleys, and dry places” (Kelly, Biography, pp. 110-111). This spiritually stretching experience also caused growth in his personal relationships as well, affecting the way he even spent time at home—no longer devoting himself only to studying, but spending much more time with his wife and kids. (Kelly, Biography, p. 111)
After this dry period came a period of great spiritual awakening. His devotion to intellectualism and understanding God through only the mind gave way to a renewed concern for understanding and experiencing God through the heart and soul. This spiritual awakening was the time in which he began focusing on devotional writing and speaking. This culminated in Harper & Row Publishers contacting him about the possibility of publishing a devotional book. The same day he received this offer he “exclaimed to Lael, his wife: ‘Today will be the greatest day of my life.’” But sadly, “while drying dishes that evening after supper, he suffered a massive heart attack and was dead within moments” (Kelly, Biography, p. 122). Although this was a tragic moment God had a way of continuing his work through Thomas’s life of devotion, writings, and speaking.
Five lectures, which had been previously published as separate essays in various journals, were combined to make A Testament of Devotion, the most famous publication of Kelly’s. A second set of his previously unpublished devotional writings have also been combined and printed as The Eternal Promise, which many believe to be his best work.
I read The Eternal Promise in a class taught by Howard Macy while in college. I was not at a place then to really appreciate that book, but after reading A Testament of Devotion recently, I see that there is much I can relate to in the life and spiritual journey of Thomas Kelly. In fact, a friend suggested that I focus on Kelly for this project because of the similarities he has seen in our spiritual experiences. I have long struggled to find the balance between understanding God intellectually, and engaging God spiritually, in the mystical and experiential sense.
My observation of the great influence Kelly was able to have through his academic pursuits comforts me as I finish school and go out into the world. But his revelation later in life that there is so much more to life with God than simple intellectualism has given me pause. His mystical experiences with the Present Christ are reminders to me of the ways that I have experienced Christ in the past, and are a challenge to me to work hard to listen and stay open to experiencing God in the future. Ultimately this has been a lesson in valuing heart knowledge of God just as much as I value head knowledge.
In many ways, Kelly’s later writings and approach to the spiritual life remind me much of Henri Nouwen, a man who was constantly working to experience the love and presence of God, making all of life an opportunity to pray and listen. These same themes come out in Kelly’s writings.
Through A Testament of Devotion I was able to see a man concerned with how he was pursuing God, as well as how those around him were pursuing God. Since this book is made up of speeches and essays, it is easy to see the passion and concern that he was trying to convey to those who were listening then, and to all of us now as well.
May his words be a reminder to you to not neglect God in your life—as they have been to me—and to not become detached from what Kelly himself beautifully calls the “Divine Center.”
Michael and Melissa Chapman have been a part of NFC in the past and are now serving as Representatives to Guatemala and El Salvador for Mennonite Central Committee, which works toward relief, development and peace in the name of Christ.