Thomas Kelly and the Inner Sanctuary

There is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, said Quaker evangelist Thomas Kelly:1 a Divine Center or Voice to which we can continually return. Kelly called this Center “the Inward Living Christ,” “Christ Within,” or “The Light Within.” He spoke of renewed immediacy with this Center, which encourages us to keep growing in our religious life, through internal practices and habits of the mind. Growing Generous Souls refers to some of these internal practices and habits as “spiritual disciplines.”

Kelly explained that this Inner Light is not a matter of doctrine or right beliefs. It’s accessed through inward worship and listening, which is the heart beating much deeper than any outward religious actions. Outward deeds are only the fruit of Christian practice, he stated, not the roots. The roots are “the perpetual return of the soul into the inner sanctuary.”

Thomas Kelly (1893-1941) was naturally drawn to science and scholarship, and had an intense, internal focus on philosophy. Not wanting to be restricted by a Western philosophy viewpoint alone, he consciously sought to learn and teach in the context of Far Eastern philosophies, as well. He was a professor of philosophy at Earlham College, Haverford College, the University of Hawaii, Wellesley, and Harvard. He also pastored a church, worked at the Quaker center Pendle Hill, and helped shelters transition to feed German children in the immediate post-World War II years. As he gained in experience, he naturally returned to an emphasis on devotion, what Growing Generous Souls calls “being present to God’s presence.” In the late 1930s, his writings in Quaker and literary publications, essays, and lectures were read in religious circles throughout the United States and had a far-reaching effect on Christian practice.

God’s life sweeps through people’s souls with continual newness and revelation, Kelly said. Whatever we do on the surface of living, we can keep up simple prayer and inward worship, moment by moment, throughout the day. The crux of religious living, he stated, lies in the will: wanting to seek God’s will as a child of God.

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 – Thomas R. Kelly, “The Light Within,” in A Testament of Devotion (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1941).