A Living Encounter with the God of All Comfort: The Unwavering and Energetic ‘Resting Faith’ of Hannah Whitall Smith


“I’m broken in two / And I know you’re on to me / That I only come home / When I’m so all alone / But I do believe / That not everything is gonna be the way / You think it ought to be / It seems like every time I try to make it right / It all comes down on me / Please say honestly you won’t give up on me / And I shall believe”

— Sheryl Crow [1]

Rest was calling: rest from the plans and schemes of her husband; rest from the cries of her children (both alive and dead); and more importantly rest from the mobs of people who followed her every word and deed. True as a child this had been her dream, her ‘air castle’ to build during the quiet hours of a Quaker Sunday. Hannah Whitall Smith could still bring to mind her dream that “all of sudden in some unaccountable manner [she] would get perfectly good like Madame Guyon. [She] would dress like mother… and … preach at the next meeting [she] attended.”[2] She could still feel the tingle she felt when the people were “almost ready to fall down and worship [her]. [She] was so magnificently eloquent, so grandly sublime.”[3] She even recalled how the dream had ended with a trip to England and the Continent where “the whole nation and even the Queen herself crowded to hear the ‘young eloquent Quaker girl.’”[4] It had all been a dream for sure, but now some quarter of a century later it was also a reality. Well she was not so young, her creaking joints let her know it, and the Queen had not actually been at her meetings, but everyone else and their brother had been. The eloquence was there at least according to her audience. Miss Russell Gurney, a member of England’s high society, later remarked to a friend:

Can we ever forget the early morning when she [HWS] stepped forward from the shade with the simplicity of a child and the dignity of a queenly child, saying, ‘I want to say something Robert,’ and then with her sun illuminated countenance turned upon us began, ‘I want to tell you, dear friends, of the joy this communion with the Lord gives… I have seen it, I have known it.’”[5]

Known it she had. Robert had as well. Now thousands knew it as well, and for all that work she was tired and ready to board a train to Switzerland with several friends. In her reverie a telegram came: Robert her husband was ill and in Paris at a hotel. She was needed once again, Switzerland would have to wait.[6] Dropping everything she fled to Paris, maddeningly worried at what state she might find her husband who had been planning to speech at a conference for the promotion of practical holiness to be held in the sleepy English town of Keswick, well north of London, much less Paris. Life had changed, Hannah would adapt and move on.

I. The Victorian Story: Tragedy or Triumph?

“I was always on the look out for anyone who had ‘wonderful spiritual experiences,’ and in each instance fondly hoped, until my common sense asserted itself, that now at last I had found the key that would open to me the door of this mystic region of divine union.”

— Hannah Whitall Smith [7]

For many the Victorian period lived in by Hannah Whitall Smith was an age of doubt, and crisis. Fears of the industrial age are said to have permeated the scene. Micheal Watts in his work on the dissenting church argued that the nonconformist (read not Anglican) chapel stood not as a haven but as a psychological refuge.[8] In her work on the Victorian age Sarah Williams has argued that many people have choosen to see the world of the Victorians as an age in which England went from a gemeinschaft (the tightly knit community) to that of a gesellschaft (community of loosely knit personal relationships).[9] Likewise in the opening chapter of his Death of Christian Britain, Callum Brown noted that the dominant view of this time was one of increasing secularization. In his book Crisis of Doubt, Timothy Larsen finely outlined the traditional belief to the converse that this period was one of decreasing faith.

Yet each of these authors finished their works by pointing out that this was a one sided picture of the Victorian age. Sarah Williams wrote that in between these lonely pious Christians and these free-ranging secularists laid a large middle class of people “who may attend church irregularly, but who nonetheless, believe… and would certainly call themselves Christian.”[10] Going beyond even these statements, Kenneth Hylson-Smith in his overview of the British church has argued that in this time “there were on both sides of the Atlantic… women who did not lose their faith… but worked even more actively within their own regular churches… or within the expanding framework of non-denominational evangelical piety.”[11] There was a feeling in the air that one could be anyone or do anything. For this was an age in which anything was possible: trips around the world, stunning advances in technology, and ever greater understandings in the sciences. [12]

This positivism was such that Mark Twain, the great American scoffer, would write a 600 page mocking treatment of this naïve progressivism entitled Innocents Abroad in which he details the travels of a group of progressives throughout the world. Of his fictional venture he would claim it “a brave conception… the offspring of a most ingenious brain,” and added that “the bold originality, the extraordinary character, the seductive nature, and the vastness of the enterprise provoked comment everywhere…. Who could read the programme of the excursion without longing to make one of the party?”[13] For such a satire to be possible, there must have first been that mockable something.

Despite the mockery of Twain or maybe sometimes as the cause, the English, American, and Continental worlds were being reshaped and the boundaries were being redrawn. In discussing the history of Evangelical England, J Wesley Bready considered the solipsism of Marx and argued that “if the religion mediated through the [Evangelical] revival is to be designated an opiate, then all relation between cause and effect has departed the meaning of words.”[14] Evangelicals in England were in the process of reinventing the faith for their generation, and there was no grander experiment in this than the Higher Life Movement which found its best formulation in the Keswick Convention. Of this same movement Kenneth Hylson-Smith has reported that it “emanated from North America and was associated with James Caughey, Phoebe Palmer (and her husband), Robert Pearsall Smith (and his wife) and Asa Mahan.”[15] A fuller account of this movement would probably see more interplay between the states and its mother country. Evangelical historian and pastor J. B. Figgis has argued that the Wesleyan and Whitfield revivals created specific forms of Christianity in the States which jumped back across the pond to influence the new Higher life Movement.[16] Regardless of whether you believe in a single or multiple bullet theory on the establishment of this Keswick Convention, agreement must be had that “the Smiths were able to penetrate the evangelical fervor of England” with their message. In telling the story and in analyzing the work which came out of Smith’s lived out life, Christianity, the Christian church, and the individual believer can be seen not as a frightened entity huddled on the rooftop nervously awaiting the return of Godot, but as an active and vital force which sought to impact its world, nation, and neighbor. If this is the case; then a good look at these transatlantic Smiths in general, and this unnamed wife in particular might better reveal the optimistic fervor of the day, and may enhance our understanding of this remarkable strain of can-doism.

II. ‘An Apple in June:’ Hannah Approaching Brighton

“There is a love that will not let me go / I can face tomorrow because you hold me forever / Stronger than the mighty winds that blow / I am safe within your arms”

— Steve Camp [17]

Hannah Whitall Smith’s upbringing in a strict Quaker home in Philadelphia would seem to belie the point of her general cheerfulness. Yet, for this author the endearing image of America’s Quaker heritage was that of the smiling Quaker beaming out love and acceptance from the box of any Quaker Oats product. One may not do badly to take this same image as true of the Philadelphia Quaker Whitalls.

HWS as a Child in the Father’s House

Hannah was born on February 7, 1832 to parents John Mickle and Mary Tatum Whitall. Of her childhood Hannah would write that “in the narrow Quaker world into which I was born, very few of the opportunities for amusement or excitement that come to young people nowadays were open to us… but with such a father and mother as ours, no outside pleasures were needed.”[18] In fact her father retired from his job as owner-manager of a glass factory to be there more fully for his kids.[19] That he did so provided a fleshed-out version of his mantra that every person ought to have a “happy childhood tucked under their jackets.”[20]

This childhood played a prominent role in the theological ideas which Smith would come to expound. In the closing pages of her best-loved book The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, Smith wrote that: “I remember when I was a little girl and found myself in trouble… the coming in of my Father or Mother… would always bring me immediate relief. The moment I heard the voice of one of them saying, ‘Daughter, I am here,’ that moment every burden dropped off and every anxiety was stilled.”[21] In her analysis of Smith’s writings, Roberta Joy Stewart argued that this experiential turn represented one of the major (if not main) aspects of Smith’s work.

HWS as Mother

Despite the seeming ease with which Smith spoke of motherhood (and later grandmotherhood), the actual experience was filled with more complexity and more trouble than is let on. In 1851, Hannah Whitall married Robert Pearsall Smith, the son of two Quaker intellectuals. This imperfect union, such as it was, lasted until Robert’s death in 1898. Roberta Stewart has written that Robert was an “extraordinarily pious, earnest, handsome, charming, perhaps a little lacking in the business sense, and, like all of his family, too preoccupied with his health, but for all that, an excellent match for Hannah.”[22] In the beginning and at the end, Robert would work in the family business. With exception of some financial problems during the Civil War (and what American other than the Rhett Butlers did not have financial troubles during this time), the family never seemed to worry much over financial matters.

Yet even before the events surrounding Keswick, the Smiths would have a touchy and often tragic relationship. In her journal Hannah would write of Robert that “he is about as agreeable as common young men- but alas! The nice ones are all old and settled in life!”[23] This initial impression would be a hard one to shake, and there have been several who claimed to read severe condescension into the exchanges between the two.[24] Smith was soon pregnant with the couple’s first child, Nellie (who would die on Christmas day 1857). A ‘surprise’ pregnancy with their second child Franklin (who would die of thyphoid while at Yale in 1872) would come fast on the heels of this first pregnancy. This pregnancy was, according to Hannah, not supposed to happen as Robert had promised that they would hold off on more children until she could realize her dreams of attending university. Four more children would follow in rather rapid succession: Alys (1862), Mary (1864), Logan (1865), and Ray (1868) who would die with some sort of infection in 1880. In all Hannah would be survived by three children and two grandchildren (to Mary).[25]

In discussing this life which she had not expected, Hannah would confess to feeling “impatient because now are overthrown all my fond hopes of a life of study—of becoming a thoroughly educated woman… Greek and Math I must now lay aside and for the present most of my reading.”[26] In an 1869 letter to her mother, Smith complained that “the fierce necessity of eating and washing clothes are like an inexorable fate; there is no hope of evading them!”[27] In her look at the feminist implications of Smith’s later work, Debra Campbell asserted that Hannah “learned soon after her wedding that” despite the expressed views of Quaker equality “that the physical bonds imposed by pregnancy could render any assertion of of women’s spiritual liberty strictly academic.” To Cambell’s considerable consternation she would, however, end her worries about the lack of an education by concluding that “I suppose I can… be a good and useful woman.”[28] The pain of these trials would awaken in Hannah the need for a God who could provide comfort. Hannah would not be deterred from finding God in her daily frustrations.

HWS as teacher.

During this time Hannah would began to understand what she and others would come to call the ‘Higher Christian Life.’ This represented an unique journey for the Smiths that would take them from the her Quaker heritage through the world of the Plymouth Brethen, to the enthusiasm of the Methodist Holiness, and finally back to a more nuanced Quakerism. Amongst the Brethren, Hannah (and Robert) would find their ‘conversion’ from a life of trying to please God to a life of pleasing God. While attending a businessman’s prayer meeting in the Revival of 1857, Hannah discovered that God had suddenly became for her “the bottom fact of all facts.” Hannah soon began to chafe at some of the rigor of her Brethren. At the same time Robert experienced business problems and moved the family to Mill Valley, N.J. There both Hannah and Robert came into contact with the ‘primitive’ doctrines of the Methodist Church and some discussion of a ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit which promised increased power in ministry, as well as, entry into the sanctified life of the believer.

At some point in the next several years, Robert would have the first of the nervous breakdowns which would come to so affect his life. There have been some stories that trace this problem back to a horse-riding accident, but in today’s medical community it would probably be more common to diagnosis Robert as a manic-depressive.[29] The family moved again to the Hydropathic Sanatorium in New York in 1871 or 1872. There Hannah and Robert met the mysterious Dr Foster, who would have an entire chapter devoted to him in Hannah Whitall Smith’s posthumously published work “Being Personal Experiences of Religious Fanaticism.” This kindly man took Hannah and a friend under his wing and told them about his experiences with the Baptism of the Holy Spirit which he stated was a ”physical thing, felt by delightful thrills going through you from head to foot,” and he would go on to state “that no one could really know what the Baptism… was who did not know the thrills.”[30] Both of them began praying for this gift, yet as they left Hannah had yet to find her thrill. Hannah would be deterred, though from moving on to the higher things of God. In a latter work she would provide inspiration for countless others not as prone to feeling the thrills, by reminding her audience that:

“the apple in June is a perfect apple for June. It is the best that the Apple that June can produce. But it is very different from the Apple in October, which is a perfected apple.God’s works are perfect in every state of their growth. Man’s works are never perfect until they are in every respect complete.”[31]

This was a very fortuitous analogy because as far as everyone seemed to believe, the Smiths were apples finally worth the picking.

Jesus Errettet Mich Jetzt:’ Hannah to Brighton and Beyond

“stitch in your knitted brow / and you don’t know how / you’re gonna get it out / crushed under heavy chest / trying to catch your breath / but it always beats you by a step, / all right now / making the best of it / playing the cards you get / you’re not alone in this / there’s hope for the hopeless / hope for the hopeless / there’s hope”

— A Fine Frenzy[32]

Robert, on the other hand, got it; or perhaps had had it for some time and just then started to share it. Long desiring to go into ministry, Robert began to preach and write that “we verily looked for a progressive, partial deliverance and we were sometimes cheered by the temporary withering” of sin.[33] Robert began to preach better that “if we walk in the light as He is in the light, God and ourselves have fellowship with one another and then we realize that the blood of Jesus cleanseth us inwardly from sin,” he wrote.[34] This cleansing power of the blood was needed “far more to prevent our sinning, than even to wash it away [italics his].”[35] In closing his book, Robert made this admirable statement:

“And now, for the future: – I feel it most important not to set before myself any expectation of ever sinning against God…. I feel it to be most God-honoring to commit the keeping of my soul in well-being unto God, as unto a faithful creator. The very expectation of sinning would be its prelude, and I must look not at sin, but at him who saves from sinning.”[36]

The power of Christ to save and transform would be Robert’s calling card. As he was barnstorming across the Continent Robert was fond of stating that “I know but one sentence in German… ‘Jesus erretett mich jetzt’ [Jesus saves me now] but this is enough to carry me safe through life and up into glory.”[37]

With success lurking at his door and sin far off in the distance, Robert set out for a relaxing trip to Egypt (at Hannah’s urging). But Robert would never arrive being shanghaied in England. Robert may not have stopped in England to evangelize “but the news of his espousal of the ‘blessing’ and his inability to refrain from testifying to that fact quickly involved him in the tide of incipient revival.”[38] One relative has written that Robert “had an advantage over other revivalists in that he was handsome, well mannered, and far more ‘gentlemanly than most. He appealed not only to mass audiences but to earnest men of means, pious nobleman, and evangelically minded clergymen.”[39]

Soon Robert had started a journal dedicated as he wrote in its first issue to “introducing to the Christians of Great Britain… to the subject of personal consecration and power for service.” In this same opening essay he declared that “the cross of Christ, which has effectively separated us from the penalty… of our sins, is also the means by which we become separated from the power” of sin. In this way, Robert hoped that this journal would lead its readers to “the commencement of a life of unhindered progress.”[40] This first issue would conclude with a final essay penned by his wife under the pen name H.W.S. The success of the first article led to the second, and before the year was out Hannah had become the second most prominent writer in the journal (Robert by virtue of being the editor was first).[41]

HWS: As an International Known and Loved Author

In these opening pages of the Christian’s Secret Hannah would write that “a real work is to be wrought in us and upon us. Besetting sins are to be conquered. Evil habits are to be overcome.”[42] For Smith this idea was cemented in her life as a mother. She told of watching a child running in and out of home without care, thought back to her own childhood, and began to make some connections between this life of a child and the life of a believer. In describing this central turn Hannah wrote that “the life of faith, then… consists in just this,– being a child in the Father’s house…. Nothing more is needed than just to believe that God is as good a father as the best ideal earthly father.” As Smith would go to becoming a mother and later grandmother, this language would continue unabated, and become only stronger. Later in life she would write that

“to me there have been moments when my arms have been around my child, that have seemed more like what the bliss of heaven must be than any other thing that I can conceive of; and I think this feeling has taught me more of what are God’s feelings towards his children than anything else…. If I, a human being with the limited capacity, can find such joy in my children, what must God, with His infinite heart of love, feel towards His! In fact most of my ideas from my own experience as a mother, because I could not conceive that God would create me with a greater capacity for unselfishness and self-sacrifice than he possessed Himself: and since this discovery of the mother-heart of God I have always been able to answer every doubt that may have arisen in my mind as to the extent and quality of the love of God, by looking at my own feelings as a mother.”[43]

In this view of God as the ultimate parent and the believer as a child, the sum total of Smith’s writings can be found. This was not to be a static, clingy faith such as it was portrayed by Debra Campell and other critics. Instead it was to be a ‘resting faith’ that sought to allow God to work and do as he willed.

HWS: As a Quaker on the stage of the world.

As Hannah and the children sailed for the coast of England, she felt quite nervous and not the least bit excited about what waited. For this ‘young Quaker girl’ who had dreamed of taking a triumphant tour of England had flowered into a mature woman for whom the spotlight was less attractive. Writing to her sister in late 1873, Hannah complained that “there is no earthly consideration except being with Robert, that could make a residence in England… the least pleasant to me.” Even after experiencing the triumphs of the Broadlands Conference and Oxford Conference in 1874, she expressed similar fears upon returning to England for the Brighton Conference in 1875. In a scathing portrayal of the journey, Hannah would report to her parents the trouble of even getting some water for her children on the English shores. She told of a waiter who responded to her question about a place to get water in much “the same way as she might have said, ‘I suppose there were unicorns somewhere in the world.’” Eventually a kind porter led the family to a fire hydrant with a broken glass sitting beside it. Hannah remarked drolly, ‘we hailed it with joy, as you might imagine.”[44]

Problems finding something to drink other than alcohol aside, the trips to England and the Continent exploded the couple onto the evangelical radar. From the Smith family archives, comes this clipping which decribed Robert’s appearance in Berlin:

“Berlin, April 16th. The success of the revival missions of Mr. Robert Pearsall Smith in this city and of the towns in Germany is increasing. Immense crowds attend the meetings and members of the nobility occupy seats on the platforms. The Empress Augusta has given a private audience to Mr. Smith.”[45]

The Earnest Christian waxed even more enthusiastically when it proclaimed that “Messers Pearsal [sic], Mahan, Boardman and others are permitted to behold a work in England such as has hardly been witnessed during the present century…. the continent of Europe has caught the flame of Spirit power.”[46]

Even the critics were thawing to this fiery speaker. Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield may have felt that Robert’s teachings represented the “full flower of the Western ‘Pelagian’ heresy,” yet stood “in awe of Smith’s whirlwind campaign.”[47] At Brighton Hannah was put forth as the biblical expositor for the ‘women’s meeting’ to be held in the afternoons; yet despite a facility more than adequate to provide seats for all the women in attendance, her meetings had to be moved to another larger facility, and then finally she was forced to present her ‘readings’ twice once in the original locale and a second time in a larger room. Granddaughter Ray in an unpublished manuscript recorded the plight of many who were “firmly convinced that it was wrong for a woman to preach…. They announced they wanted no part in such goings-on and yet would sneak in each day to hear Hannah, hoping that no one would notice.”[48] Notice they did.

One person who took notice of the movement was Canon Dundas Hartford-Battersby, who lived and ministered in Keswick, a small town in the Northern lake area. While attending the Oxford Conference in 1874, the Canon remarked to the Welsh revivalist Evan Hopkins “only last night as you and Thornton were speaking about passing from seeking faith to resting faith I passed over.”[49] Hartford-Battersby would later attribute an “overwhelming sense of the presence of the Lord Jesus, a desire for full consecration and afterward a new effectiveness in daily living and parochial ministry” to this passing over.[50] He soon announced his intention to hold a convention in his town.

HWS: As No Little Woman (Standing by Her Man)

As the Higher Life folk prepared to meet Hartford-Battersby’s request to hold a conference in Keswick, the Smiths parted ways. Robert would stay in England to prepare and preach at Keswick, and the exhausted Hannah would take some much needed rest in Switzerland with a relative of Sir Fowell Buxton. What happened next is one of the great “who-done-it’s” of Evangelical history. News accounts began to flood the streets of England claiming a sordid affair amongst the leaders of the movement. Just weeks before the Keswick Convention a letter was sent out from the leadership stating that

“some weeks after the Brighton Convention it came to our knowledge that the individual [RPS] referred to had on some occasions, in personal conversation, inculcated doctrines which were most unscriptural and dangerous. We also found that there had been conduct which although we are convinced that it was free of all evil intent, was yet such as to render action necessary.”[51]

The action necessary was to ask Robert to leave the country and not come back (at least to the Higher Life Movement events). It was upon this event that Hannah was telegrammed and rushed to meet Robert in Paris. Writing to a friend Hannah remarked that she had found Robert and that he “has had a complete breakdown. He has lost twenty pounds already and is suffering very much from almost constant nausea.”[52] Meanwhile Keswick became a fixture on the English evangelical scene.

Early attempts at an answer primarily focused on this second (or possibly third) nervous breakdown. The story of the horse accident and ensuing problems was told to all who asked. Yet even Steven Barabas, who repeated this account in his dissertation which would became the bestselling history of Keswick, was suspicious of this account as it makes no sense in light of the Keswick memo.[53] Another story has been told by Logan Pearsall Smith at one time stated that “they [his parents] were forced to retreat from public life due to a scandal caused by Robert Smith’s promiscuous bestowal of St Paul’s ‘holy kiss’ to ‘select gatherings mostly composed of spinsters.’”[54] Many have looked on Logan’s tales, and attempted to make connections with the hateful teachings of Dr. R’s tingles and the Jerusalem Group’s Baptism enthusiasm that only got more intense and holy as the men and women stood closer together. Each of which Hannah lambasted in her last book. Although it better matches the spin of the press release, one must be cautious with this account, great-granddaughter Barbara Strachey Halpern warned Steven Barabas to be careful about Logan’s stories as he was not afraid to let the facts get in the way of a good story. Not to mention the fact that Logan has proffered many different and competing tales of his father’s fall from grace. Barbara, herself, stated that the incident could simply put down to the fact that in his attempts to provide consolation to a woman in great distress, he had placed his arms around her. Adding fuel to the fire this attempt at consolation may have occurred in the privacy of the women’s hotel room. Barbara, herself, believed that “he had been preaching heretical and fanatical doctrine concerning the manifestations that should accompany the baptism of the Holy Spirit which were of a sexual nature,” and when the English leaders discovered this, they acted quickly to distance themselves with these “American” and “Wesleyan” corruptions.[55] Whatever the true reason the Smiths left Europe to return to their old house in Philadelphia.

HWS: As a Woman on the stage of parliament.

In a letter in a friend almost a year later Hannah would convey her fears about the impact of the past year on Robert stating, “it makes my heart ache to look at my dear husband and think of the blight that has fallen upon him… his life is blasted…. He has been wounded past healing. He often says to me that his life is one long agony…. I have not the faintest hope that he will ever recover.”[56] Tragically he never did. Robert would die in 1898 a bitter, heart-broken man.

Hannah too began to tell friends that she had “felt herself dismissed from service.”[57] Though dismissed from her work as an evangelist Hannah would not be released from an active life of service. Hannah began to work in both the States and in England for the causes of temperance and suffrage becoming a key clog that connected the two movements.[58] After the Smiths moved back to England to be closer to their daughter Mary and her grandchildren she would become the treasurer and secretary of the British Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WTCU). One of the movement’s most famous proponents would state that “the gospel temperance movement in this land has no leader more trusted and tried.”[59] Not only that but her home would become a magnet for Britain’s best and brightest voices as visitors such as William James, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Bernard Berenson, and Bertrand Russell would find welcome. As she got older, the ever energetic grandmother would devote time to ensuring that the younger generation of leaders including her children and grandchildren would be given every opportunity to find the success which had dogged her career. Towards the end of her life Hannah would write of her young charges that “I can joyfully commit them [the younger generation] to the Divine Master whom they are serving… and can leave it with Him to lead them by the right paths to knowledge of Himself. Christianity to my mind does not exclude them that are ‘walking in the faith’ but rather throws its arms around them and includes them.”[60]

In summing up this fifty year career spent on the stage of America and England, Marie Henry would respectfully state that “all her life Hannah Whitall Smith surprised people with her resiliency.[61] This resiliency can best be shown in an answer Hannah would give to a friend how she decided if any of her thoughts and dreams were real and good. Well, the wry evangelist replied, “I rap them over the head and see if they have any common sense.”[62] Hannah stood as a woman who could be rapped on the head and still make sense and see the light of it all.

The Hannah Whitall Smith Story: A Triumph by Any Other Name?

“From that time I can truly say that my soul has rested in God, in God himself, not in His promises, but in His character, not in what He has done or is doing, but what He is.”

— Hannah Whitall Smith [63]

In this age of eager can-doism Hannah Whitall Smith came of age, lived, and died. Her life and the life of her family revealed the joys, turmoils, horrors, and triumphs of this age. Nancy Hardesty wrote that:

“Many would see Hannah’s life as a series of misfortunes. Her husband Robert was disgraced…. Her elder son Franklin died of typhoid at age 18; within a year the baby she carried died at birth. Her daughter Mary deserted her husband to live with another man leaving Hannah to rear two grandchildren. The marriage of another daughter Alys [to prominent English philosopher Bertrand Russell] turned into the misery of separation and divorce. Her younger son Logan’s life companion was a man.[64] Yet in the midst of it all, Hannah’s faith never wavered. Nor did her love, acceptance, and concern for those around her.”[65]

After reading a work on the lives of three generations of Smith women written by Hannah’s great-granddaughter, the author Steven Barabas, who had written on HWS for his PhD thesis, wrote to Barbara Strachey Halpern stating that he felt as if he had just finished a Greek tragedy. Barbara Strachey Halpern replied that while Mary’s problems may have stemmed from her “own self-indulgence, Aly’s problems could be attributed to the emotional baggage of Bertie[66], and while Robert’s dysfunctional nature unfortunately passed itself down, she could not “find either Hannah or my mother Ray in the least tragic.”[67]

HWS: Joy from a Job Well Done

In her dissection of Hannah Whitall Smith’s work, Debra Campbell saw tragedy. In order to highlight her problem she pointed to two books which were fairly recent at the time. She pointed to Catherine Marshall’s Beyond Ourselves (1961), and Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman (1973), and attempted to show how each of these authors had co-opted Hannah’s secret for the battle against feminism. Of Morgan she wrote that a gospel of submission seen in Secret “binds” to “Morgan’s advice in time management, bubble baths and the wisdom of greeting one’s husband at the door dressed in pink baby doll pajamas and go-go boots.”[68] One cannot help but cheer Campbell’s wise assertion that one can take Smith’s secret too far, far enough to Hannah would have had a word or two to say about the usage of her book. Campbell was right to argue that the whole corpus of Hannah’s writing points not to a life which presents a “cheap submission” to the tyrants of society. Yet she was wrong in delimiting Hannah’s work into two spheres: the gospel of submission as taught in Secret where one was taught “that women’s adherence to the Gospel of Submission was somehow more comprehensive than men’s reaching into the arenas of home, work, and spiritual, while men’s was confined to the strictly religious realm;”[69] and the life of “meaningful work” found when “her responsibilities to her husband… were neglible, and her emotional ties bound her… to Frances Willard, Lady Henry, and a handful of women committed to causes of temperance and suffrage.”[70] A cursory look at Hannah’s life and times might engender such a dichotomy. There was the initial work as a evangelist, then comes the fall after Brighton and Hannah writes to her friend Anna that “we both felt ourselves dismissed from service for a year now.”[71] Another letter followed showing frustration and not a small desire to retreat from this life of submission:

“Sometimes I feel sure that I have progressed wonderfully and that my present sphinx-like calm and indifference to everything… except the will of God is grand. And then again I think I am an utterly irreligious and lazy fatalist, with not a spark of the divine in me…. At all events my orthodoxy has flown to the winds…. I agree with everyone, and always think everybody’s ‘view’ is better than my own… This is certainly a very grave defect in any doctrine that… makes its holders narrow and uncharitable.”[72]

It would seem that in the post-Brighton aftermath Hannah like Robert considered a walk away from the faith, and so a dichotomous view of her life might be accurate. Yet as the letter continues Hannah almost wails “Oh! How sad, that the nearer we seek to appease our God, the greater the dangers! That is, not sad, since it is His arrangement…. I guess he means us to be good human beings in this world and nothing more.”[73] This division of Hannah’s life was not just for many reasons, but was inaccurate primarily because such a division was not the believed practice of Hannah herself. In a letter dated from 1882, Hannah reported to a friend about her participation in a temperance convention that “I of course cannot make Temperance speeches, and I do not care for the details of business. My special line of work is the spiritual part, and there was never a grander work.”[74] To be sure Hannah did often report mixed feelings about the current place of existence such as when she remarked that “I do not find that I feel myself to be different as an English subject than as an American. I have not the vote in either place, so I am not a citizen of either…. I do not see how women can ever feel like anything but aliens in whatever country they may live, for they have no part or lot in any, except the part or lot of being taxed and legislated for by men.”[75] However, if Hannah saw a dichotomized way of life in the Kingdom of Men, no such dichotomy existed in the Kingdom of God. This dichotomy found no traction in her life, for Hannah it was all of one piece. Her spiritual work was common, and her common work was spiritual. All of this thinking would find perfect expression in this letter written to her “friends” in 1894 which argued that “our great concern in those days [as an evangelist] was to save our own souls, while the great concern of the coming generation now is to save the souls of others, By ‘saving soul the soul’ I do not mean only a saving that is to affect eternity, but the saving that affects life now and here.”[76].

HWS: Joy from Being Alive

Reading the journals, letters, and accounts of her life, the reader comes face-to-face with an unusually spry and satisfied grandmother who is certainly no tragic figure. Her popular biographer told this story of Hannah trying her hand at rafting with the children:

“The four canoes were lowered into the water with Hannah enthroned in state on several life preservers in the middle of the first canoe…. Someone pushed the canoe into the middle of the swirling, foaming water and it whizzed on through the white water, bounding along, veering from side to side, a thrilling and hair-raising ride. The mother sat majestically, her eyes sparkling with delight. At the end she said calmly, ‘Let’s do it again.’”[77]

This joy can also be seen in this story of a visit to a park with her beloved grandchildren:

“So there was there was the sixty-six year-old Hannah with her stately black glown and her little lace cap zooming down the water chute with eleven-year-old Ray and four-year-old Karin. Hannah’s ‘inner self’ usually got the better of her creaky old joints for she was unable, as she had been so many times before in her life, to resist trying a new experience.”[78]

Life for the Smith family seemed to be one daring, thrilling journey even with all its attendant bumps and bruises. It was this ‘saintly naughtiness,’[79] that endeared this little old ‘dry stick’[80] of a woman to her audience.

HWS: Light from the Pulpit and Page

Nor would any of thousands that trekked across the globe to see, hear, and speak with HWS consider this woman a tragic heroine. Ray would write of the “streams of pilgrims” which came knocking on the door of Hannah’s home looking for wise counsel. She wrote that Hannah “used to say sometimes that she was frightened to give advice, because people so often took it. ‘But’ I remember her adding characteristically ‘I tell the Lord it’s his responsibility. He knows what kind of advice I give, and if He sends people to me, it’s His affair.’”[81] This steady stream of people came knocking at the door and asked for Mrs Smith because of her experiential wisdom, and the ‘can-do’ attitude which accompanied Whitall-Smith’s every breath.

Rev. J.B. Figgis in recalling the experience of listening to Hannah speak, called the experience “delightful,” as they were “now sparkling with humor, now touching as to tears.”[82] Perhaps this was simply a first use of the modern movie critics’ adage that “it made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me stand up and cheer, I want to see it again and again.” More likely the teaching and publication ministry of Hannah Whitall Smith was one which profoundly touched and moved its listeners and readers. In this way Hannah Whitall Smith stands as an exemplar of side of Victorian life often times missed in the standard historiography of the Victorian period as a time of turmoil and crisis. In September 1875 Rev. J.B. Figgis would write that the Smiths were a major part had brought “glorious news- they are ‘good news,’ a very ‘Gospel,’ only a Gospel not merely for sinners, but for the saved… and life is a continual triumph.”[83] Marvin Dieter has added that “the Victorians who heard Smith apparently felt that they had been freed from the heavy hand of a stern God. They professed a new joy in a relationship in which it was ‘possible to walk with God, and to… please him Him.’”[84] The joyful secret to a happy life would be one that was incorporated my thousands then and now to seek the biblical grounds for knowing the God of All Comfort.

For this author’s money, there can be no better closing to any account of the life of this brave woman than the one attributed to Hannah’s daughter Mary. This was how she recorded the end of her mother’s story:

“She [Hannah] died May 1, 1911. She always said she would be ‘free to go’ once Ray and Karin were grown up… Shortly before she died, Ays entered her room, her face bearing the marks of tears.

‘What is it, Alys? What did the doctor say?’ Alys began to cry. ‘He says thee is losing thy hold on life, Mother.’

‘Oh, Good!’ she said- and then ceased to breathe.’”[85]

Hannah Whitall Smith lived an uncompromising life of faith that was at once and the same time profoundly strong and weak; that was at the same time profoundly long-suffering and eminently joyful. The Rev. J. B. Figgis received this last letter from his friend which closed by saying: “Why dear friends, if we did really believe that our God was this sort of God we should all be millionaires of grace…. Nancy [her nurse] and I do believe it… we are rich beyond words in the wisdom and goodness and love of God. ‘Thou, O’ God art all we want; more than all in thee we find.’ There is a God and He is enough…. ”[86]


[1] Sheryl Crow. “I Shall Believe. Tuesday Night Music Club. A&M Records, 1993.

[2] Quote taken from Hannah Whitall Smith letter to Annie. 1850. Removed first person pronouns and added third person for better grammar.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mrs Russell Gurney. As quoted by the Rev. J.B. Figgis in Keswick from Within. (London: Marshall Brothers, Ltd, 1914), 19.

[6] While I cannot provide the exact wording of the telegram, all the particulars of this event I have taken from Hannah Whitall Smith’s letter to Penmaen Mawr on July 7, 1875. Letter published in Marvin Dieter’s edited volume of previously unpublished documents: The Christian’s Secret of a Holy Life: 365 Devotions, ed. Marvin E. Dieter (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 147.

[7] Hannah Whitall Smith, “Personal Experiences of Religious Fanaticism.” In Group Movements of the Past and Experience in Guidance. Ed. Ray Strachey. (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd; 1934), 171.

[8] Micheal Watts, The Dissenters. Volume II: The Expansion of Evangelical Nonconformity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 160.

[9] Sarah Williams, “The View from Below: Working Class Women and Religion in Late Victorian Britain.” Crux 30 (September 1994), 12-13.

[10] Sarah Williams, 13.

[11] Kenneth Hylson-Smith, The Churches in England from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II. Volume II: 1833 to 1998 (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1998), 87.

[12] For this unique take on the lives of Victorian England, I am indebted to the work of Dr. Timothy Larsen, particularly the class discussion which occurred 10 April 2008. Perhaps it was divine providence that prompted the answer to a question from which I have taken the main argument of this section; or perhaps it was the disparate imagination of a graduate student working on a 7,000 word paper and needing a central theme upon which to set his work. Which it was I leave to the reader to decide.

[13] Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad: The Oxford Mark Twain Collection. ed. Shelly Fisher Fishkin (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1996), 20.

[14] Bready, 445.

[15] Hylson-Smith, 84.

[16] Rev. J.B. Figgis, Keswick from Within (London: Marshall Morgan Scott, 1914), 10.

[17] Steve Camp. “Love that Will Not Let Me Go.” Justice. Sparrow Records, 1988.

[18] Roberta Joy Stewart. “‘Being a Child in the Father’s House’: The Life of Faith in the Published Works of HWS” (PhD Diss., Drew University, 1990), 4-5.

[19] Debra Campbell, “HWS (1832 to 1911): Theology of the Mother-Hearted God,” Signs 15 (Autumn 1989): 82.

[20] Robert Gathorne-Hardy, Introduction to A Religious Rebel: The Letters of HWS by Hannah Whitall Smith (London: Nisbet and Co., 1949), viii.

[21] Hannah Whitall Smith. “The Christians Secret of a Happy Life, New Edition (1885),” in The Devotional Writings of Robert Pearsall Smith and Hannah Whitall Smith, ed. Donald Dayton (New York: Garland, 1984), 304.

[22] Stewart, 9.

[23] Hannah Whitall Smith. “Journal Entry 1851,” in The Christian’s Secret of a Holy Life: 365 Daily Devotions. The Unpublished Personal Writings of HWS, ed. Marvin E. Dieter (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 13.

[24] Gathorne-Hardy, xvi –xvii.

[25] Campbell, 83.

[26] Stewart, 11.

[27] Hannah Whitall Smith to Mary Tatum Whitall, 21 March 1869, in Religious Rebel, ed. Logan Pearsall Smith (London: Nisbet and Co., 1949), 13.

[28] Stewart, 11.

[29] There has been much ink spilled on both the cause and situation of Robert’s ill health. This author believes as stated here that Robert suffered from MDD. First this diagnosis fits the pattern of Robert’s life filled with the periods of extreme highs and extreme lows relayed by both Logan and Ray. Secondly there is the matter of problems experienced throughout Robert’s family; including problems by Alys, his daughter and Karin, his granddaughter. Third, this was the diagnosis given to his son Logan when he began having problems in his thirties. Last, it should be noted that in her correspondence with Steven Barabas, Barbara Strechey Halpern also comes to this diagnosis stating, “I think much of the other stuff [family problems] was due to the unhappy manic-depressive heritage from Robert.”

[30] Ibid, 167.

[31] HWS, Christian’s Secret, 16.

[32] Alison Sobel, “Hope for the Hopeless,” A Fine Frenzy- One Cell in the Sea, Virgin Records, 2007.

[33] Robert Pearsall Smith. “Holiness Through Faith, Revised Edition (1870),” in The Devotional Writings of Robert Pearsall Smith and Hannah Whitall Smith, ed. Donald Dayton (New York: Garland, 1984), 12.

[34] RPS, 73.

[35] RPS, 76.

[36] RPS, 130.

[37] Figgis, 35.

[38] M.E. Dieter, “From Vineland and Manheim to Brighton and Berlin: The Holiness Revival in Nineteenth Century Europe.” Wesleyan Theological Journal. (Spring 1974): 17.

[39] Stewart, 20.

[40] Robert Pearsall Smith, “Introductory Essay,” The Christian’s Pathway to Power 1 (February 1874), 1.

[41] Hannah Whitall Smith to Mary Berenson, 25 February 1905, in Religious Rebel, 173.

[42] HWS, Christian’s Secret, 9.

[43] Stewart, 116-117.

[44] Hannah Whitall Smith to John Mickle and Mary Tatum Whitall, 26 May 1875., in Religious Rebel, 25.

[45] Marie Henry, The Secret Life of HWS. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1984), 74.

[46] Dieter, From Vineland, 19.

[47] Dieter, From Vineland, 17.

[48] Henry, 77.

[49] Figgis, 28.

[50] John Pollock, “A Hundred Years of Keswick,” Christianity Today, 6 June 1975, 7.

[51] Stewart, 26.

[52] Hannah Whitall Smith to Penmaen Mawr, 7 July 1875, in Christian’s Secret, 147.

[53] In an exchange of letters surrounding the release of his book, Barabas apologized to Barbara Strachey Halpern for this account, and stated that he had included it solely because it was the only answer he could find. Which does not make sense, but that was his story.

[54] Debra Campbell, 88.

[55] Barbara Strachey Halpern to Steven Barabas. Billy Graham Archives, Special Collection 30.I.1. Wheaton College.

[56] Hannah Whitall Smith to Mrs H.F. Barclay, 3 June 1876, in Religious Rebel, 30.

[57] Hannah Whitall Smith to Anna Shipley. 8 August 1876, in Religious Rebel, 34.

[58] Carol P. Spencer, “Evangelism, Feminism, and Social Reform,” Quaker History 80 (Spring 1991): 39.

[59] Stewart, 35.

[60] Hannah Whitall Smith to her friends, 16 March 1894. Religious Rebel, 125.

[61] Henry, 89.

[62] Hannah Whitall Smith, Christian’s Secret, 141.

[63] Hannah Whitall Smith, “Personal Experiences,” 269.

[64] What is meant by this is quite unclear. While it is true that Logan never married and remained the best of friends with another man named Robert Gathorne-Hardy who would complete and write a short introduction to Logan’s long gestating work on his mother which would publish many of her letters to provide a glimpse at the HWS which was known by many. This introduction revealed a very close connection between Gawthorne-Hardy and Logan; yet in no place that I could find was there any mention of an ‘inappropriate sexual relationship’ between the two. A truer tragedy in the life of Logan would be that he succumbed to many of the same illnesses which his father had.

[65] Hardesty, 20.

[66] As Bertrand Russell was known to his friends and family.

[67] Barbara Strachey Halpern to Steven Barabas, Billy Graham Center Archives, Special Collection 30.I.1. Wheaton College.

[68] Campbell, 80.

[69] Campbell, 91.

[70] Campbell, 95-96.

[71] Hannah Whitall Smith to Anna Shipley, 8 August 1877, Religious Rebel, 35.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid, 36.

[74] Hannah Whitall Smith to Anna Shipley, 5 November 1882, Christian’s Secret, 228.

[75] Hannah Whitall Smith to her friends, 6 June 1888. Religious Rebel, 101.

[76] Hannah Whitall Smith to her friends, 16 March 1894. Religious Rebel, 124.

[77] Marie Henry, 93.

[78] Marie Henry, 148.

[79] Robert Gathorne-Hardy recalls this phrase which Logan Piersall Smith used to describe his mother’s joyful demeanor. Gathorne-Hardy then explains himself by telling of a time in which HWS told a visiting group of young Quaker women ‘not to be too unselfish.” This story can be found in Gathorne-Hardy, xx and xxii.

[80] This phrase was HWS’ own. Marie Henry quotes HWS as referring to herself in this way on several occasions, see pg. 86 of “The Secret Life Of HWS.”

[81] Ray Strachey. A Quaker Grandmother: Hannah Whitall Smith. (London: Fleming H. Revell Co.; 1914), 8.

[82] Figgis, 24.

[83] M.E. Dieter, From Vineland, 21.

[84] Ibid, 21.

[85] This story was quoted by Marie Henry in her popular biography referenced elsewhere in the paper. At first the story seemed too good to be true. I changed my mind for several reasons: 1) many of these type stories find their place in Henry’s book and left me a little skeptical; but then were proved true from other sources; 2) a similar story was related by J.B. Figgis; 3) last but not least was Henry’s statement that she had taken this story from a random envelope (with the story written upon as someone might have needed to record the event in a hurry and grabbed for whatever was handy) that she found while browsing through the Smith Family Archives. For Henry’s take on the end see pp. 165-166.

[86] Figgis, 61.

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