A Testament of Devotion: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read

Needles at sunset, Cannon Beach, Oregon. Photo by Thomas Robinson.

From January to May 2022, the Elders and Deacons of Cannon Beach Community Church will read Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion, one of the 25 Books That Every Christian Should Read.

I offer below a brief biography of Thomas Kelly’s life, a survey of the books he wrote, and an outline-summary of A Testament of Devotion, with some of my favorite quotes from this wise book.

Life of Thomas Kelly

Thomas Kelly died in January 1941, the year that A Testament of Devotion, his signature book was published. Kelly was born on June 4, 1893, on a farm in rural Ohio to Quaker parents. His father died when young Thomas was just four years old. Kelly attended Wilmington College in Ohio, where he studied physical science and chemistry. In 1916, Kelly enrolled at Hartford Theological Seminary to prepare for a life as a Quaker missionary to the Far East. At the outset of World War I, Kelly volunteered his services as a pacifist, committed to non-violence, to work with German prisoners of war in England from June 1917 to February 1918. Kelly completed his theological education in 1919 with a Bachelor of Divinity degree. He married Lael Macy the day after he graduated from seminary. Kelly was a fun-loving, happy person, a “life of the party” kind of man who loved life and joyfully celebrated being together with people. After two years of teaching the Bible at Wilmington College, he returned to Hartford for a doctoral degree in Philosophy. In 1924, Thomas and his wife Lael moved to Berlin, Germany to serve in Quaker Center to care for German children. In 1925, at the age of 32, Kelly began to teach philosophy at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. A daughter, Lois, was born to Thomas and Lael in 1928. After a few years hiatus teaching at Wellesley College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during which time, Kelly continued his philosophical education at Harvard University, Kelly returned to teach philosophy at Earlham College. One of Kelly’s university students wrote about his style of teaching, “He was a great teacher, always eager, ardent, alive in the classroom, growing all the time. That was the sense he gave his students.” In 1935, Kelly moved his family to Hawaii to teach philosophy at the University of Hawaii, where their second child, a son named Richard was born. In 1936, the Kelly’s moved to Haverford College, Pennsylvania where Thomas replaced D. Elton Trueblood on the staff, to teach philosophy. Then in 1938, Thomas moved his family once again to Germany where he taught and lectured among German Quakers. While in Germany, Kelly had a profound experience of God’s inner Presence with him, while kneeling in the great Cologne Cathedral, an experience that led him to explore more of the inner life with God, and an emphasis upon personal devotion to God. Thomas Kelly died of a sudden heart attack on January 17, 1941 at the age of 47.

Writings of Thomas Kelly

Thomas Kelly’s classic of Christian spirituality, A Testament of Devotion, published the year he died, in 1941, was first published as a series journal articles in The Friend, a Quaker publication, in each of the following years:

  • The Eternal Now and Social Concern, 1938;
  • The Simplification of Life, 1939;
  • The Blessed Community, 1939.

A Testament of Devotion

Written in what later became known as the final years of Thomas Kelly’s life, A Testament of Devotion is a short book, with just 5 chapters, a total of under 100 pages of writing. Here are some summaries of each chapter.

The Light Within

Kelly opens his classic book with a quote from Meister Eckhart: “As thou art in church or cell, that same frame of mind carry out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness.” Eckhart refers to church or cell, as two places devoted to prayer, the church as the physical space where people gather weekly for worship; and the ‘cell’ as the private room where a person goes to pray in their home or monastery. Just as we are  when personally in the presence of God in prayer, Kelly invites us to be out in the world full of turmoil. This opening chapter is filled with beautiful phrases, or better, titles of God present within us: a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, the Light Within, a creative Life, the Living Christ, God the Lover, the Eternal Inward Light, this Center of Creation, this Inward Center, this Inward Living Christ. Kelly places emphases in his writing upon these titles of God by capitalizing the adjectives (Divine, Living, Eternal, Inward) and nouns (Light, Center, Voice, Life, Lover), to describe God’s presence. Like Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, and like the anonymous author of The Way of a Pilgrim, Kelly too wrestles with how to “live the life of prayer without ceasing.” In this first chapter, he describes a way of prayer that moves us from outward to inward forms of prayer, with our lives often alternating between the outward and inward ways of living. The richness of this first chapter though is Kelly’s invitation into a life in simultaneous living at two levels at once:

“There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.”

Kelly admits in this opening chapter that most us of us spend most of our lives alternating between outer and inner forms of prayer. “Yet what is sought is not alternation, but simultaneity, worship undergirding every moment, living prayer, the continuous current and background of all moments of life. Long practice indeed is needed before alternation yields to concurrent immersion in both levels at once.”

Holy Obedience

Chapter two, Holy Obedience opens with a profound assessment of life in USA in 1940: “Out in front of us is the drama of men and of nations, seething, struggling, laboring, dying. Upon this tragic drama in these days our eyes are all set in anxious watchfulness and prayer.” Kelly, like so many millions around the world, were at that time seeing the unfolding horrors of World War II. Into this drama, Kelly speaks of a deeper drama “of the Double Search, our human search for God, and more profoundly, as the chief actor in this search, God’s search for us. In this chapter, Kelly writes of numerous “gateways into holy obedience,” into a life yielded to God who is ever searching for those seeking for God: the first step, according to Kelly, is “the flaming vision…through biographies of the saint…through meditation upon the amazing life and death of Jesus, through a flash of illumination…a great opening.” A second gateway into a life of holy obedience is this: “Obey now.” In this step, we simply “use what little obedience you are capable of…. Begin where you are.” A third step or gateway:

“If you slip and stumble and forget God for an hour…don’t spend too much time in anguished regrets and self-accusations, but begin again, just where you are.”

The Simplification of Life

Finally, I offer a sweet invitation quote from Kelly’s final chapter, The Simplification of Life:

“We are unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed and fearful we shall be shallow. For over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. Strained by the very mad pace of our daily outer burdens, we are further strained by an inward uneasiness, because we have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power. If only we could slip over into that Center! (emphasis mine) If only we could find the Silence which is the source of sound! We have seen and known some people who seem to have found this deep Center of living, (emphasis mine) where the fretful calls of life are integrated, where No as well as Yes can be said with confidence. We’ve seen such lives, integrated, unworried by the tangles of close decisions, unhurried, cheery, fresh, positive….We are so strained and tense, with our burdened lives; they are so poised and at peace.”

Let us find this deep Center of living, and “slip over into that Center” more and more.