Some brands of legalism are focused on obeying external rules. Think of the Pharisees trying to obey all the laws of Moses plus all the additional rules, regulations, and applications of the oral law.
But other types of legalism are inwardly focused and highly subjective. An example of that is described in Hannah Whitall Smith’s The Unselfishness of God, a memoir of her religious journey. (This is not an endorsement of all of Smith’s theology, but I do find this part of her story to be a textbook illustration of the problem of mixing legalism with feelings-based religion).
Smith described her upbringing as a strict Quaker in Philadelphia in the 1830s. There are different branches of Quakers, and Smith’s took John 1:9 and 1 John 2:27 very literally, i.e., they expected the “inner light” to teach people directly. Consequently, her parents gave her very little explicit religious instruction, trusting the inner light to do it. As Smith recalls:
They never said much about religion, for the Quaker fear of meddling between a soul and its Maker had created a habit of reserve that could not easily be broken (p. 34).
There was, as I have said, very little direct religious teaching to the young Quakers in my time. We were sometimes preached to in our meetings, when a Friend in the gallery would exhort the “dear young people” to be faithful to their Divine Guide; but no doctrines or dogmas were ever taught us (p. 49).
Without explicit religious instruction, what did Smith understand about salvation?
The whole religious question for me was simply as to whether I was good enough to go to heaven, or so naughty as to deserve hell. As to there being a “plan of salvation,” or any such thing as “justification by faith,” it was never heard among us (p. 50).
That may sound like your typical works salvation, but combining it with the Quaker emphasis on obeying the inner light creates a unique problem. Unlike other legalists, the Quakers did not look to the Ten Commandments or other external laws for guidance. Instead, they looked for rules that came from their impressions:
They believed that, because we were in Christ, we were to be controlled by a law from within and not by a law from without…We were consequently directed to yield ourselves to this inward Divine working, and to listen for the Voice of the Holy Spirit in our hearts; and we were taught that, when this Voice was heard, it must be implicitly and faithfully obeyed (p. 75).
For example, Quakers wanted to be practically holy. Following the inner light, the Quakers condemned worldliness such as slavery, drinking, and cheating in business. That was all very good. However, the inner light also directed many Quakers to reject sewing machines!
I remember when sewing machines first came into vogue they were considered by Friends exceedingly worldly (p. 95).
But Smith bought one anyway, and thought she might go to hell:
[F]or a long time I went about with a haunting sense of having fallen from grace, because of the worldly thing I had purchased (p. 95).
Smith describes the other rules that Quakers made for themselves. They had different regulations about bonnets and dresses, they forbade reading novels, or listening or playing music. They were even against “singing and whistling” (p. 131). Some Quakers even rejected brightly colored flowers!
I even knew some very conscientious Friends who did not feel at liberty to have scarlet geraniums in their gardens, or a vase of scarlet flowers in their drawing-rooms…[One Friend] struggled and prayed about it, and the more she prayed the louder seemed the inward voice telling her it would not be right for her to have scarlet geraniums (p. 117).
Can you imagine being so stuck in hyper-legalism that you thought your salvation depended on having the right kind of flowers in your garden?
The inner voice would give different rules to different Quakers, which Smith called “scruples.” Each scruple became a law for that person, which multiplied to no end:
The individual “scruples” resulting from the various “testimonies” of which I have spoken were practically endless, for each individual would of course interpret and apply them according to their own convictions of duty; and morbidly conscientious souls would be continually inventing new scruples, until life to some of them often became almost a torment (p. 136).
Smith describes how this inner voice so tormented one Friend that she tried blocking it with cotton:
the only way she could sometimes manage it at all was by stuffing her ears with cotton, and repeating over, as fast as she could, extracts of poetry, so as to keep herself from hearing the inward voice that was constantly urging her to fresh sacrifices (p. 136).
This focus on obeying ever-multiplying inner impressions produced a unique spirituality:
The natural result of this teaching was to turn our minds inward, upon our feelings and our emotions, and to make us judge of our relations with God entirely by what we found within ourselves (p. 152).
But as Smith learned, such feelings are unreliable. She became wearied by trying to base her salvation on such feelings:
In vain I tried to work myself up into what I supposed would be the sort of feelings acceptable to God. No dream of salvation in any other way ever came to me. I talked about “my Saviour,” as I called Him, but I never for a moment even so much as imagined that He could or would save me unless I could make myself worthy to be saved; and as this worthiness was mostly, I believed, a matter of inward pious emotion, I had no thought but to try somehow to get up these emotions. Anyone who has ever tried to do this will know what a weary hopeless task it was (pp. 152-53).
How many people today have taken the same approach to salvation? And how many are in despair because of it? As she read her diary from that time, Smith could only look back in pity on her younger self:
The records in my diary of my religious life from the age of sixteen onwards are a sad illustration of the false methods of religion which were all I knew. As I read them over I cannot but pity the eager, hungry soul that was reaching out so vainly after light, but found only confusion and darkness (p. 153).
So what did Smith do?
Thankfully, she abandoned a religion based on feelings for one based on objective facts, but I’ll explain that in my next blog. If you’re trapped in a legalistic feelings-based religion, you’ll want to read on.