Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Meet Hannah Whitall Smith, a “Convergent Friend” at the turn of the nineteenth century

Below, ESR's Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality Carole Spencer shares about discovering Hannah Whitall Smith. Carole recently delivered the 2013 J.M. Ward Distinguished Quaker Visitor Lecture at Guilford College on the subject of this important figure:

In 1903 Hannah Whitall Smith, a free-spirited product of "Orthodox Quakerism” in the nineteenth century, proudly admitted in her spiritual autobiography:

“I have always rather enjoyed being considered a heretic, and have never wanted to be endorsed by any one. I have felt that to be endorsed was to be bound, and that it was better, for me at least, to be a free lance, with no hindrances to my absolute mental and spiritual freedom.” 

When I read that line I knew I had found the Quaker woman of my dreams!  A woman who defies classification even today, whose life embodied multiple identities and contradictions, yet a woman who has illumined my own life as well as my understanding of the evolution of Quakerism.   Hannah was evangelical in orientation, and today she is read and revered largely by conservative Christians-- yet she was a universalist, and admitted she held heretical views.    She was progressive, even radical in politics, a fierce feminist who marched with her daughters for woman’s suffrage.   Later in life she gave labor union speeches and explored Christian socialism. A birthright Orthodox Quaker, she was baptized by water as an adult.  An author who wrote her most famous book on the subject of happiness and truly espoused joy in life, she experienced deep pain and suffering, and both fame and scandal in her very public life. 

Hannah was one of the most prominent female religious figures of her day, an international celebrity preacher and best-selling author.  Today she is perhaps the most famous Quaker that most Quakers have never heard of.

Initially, I knew her, not as a Quaker, but as a holiness evangelist and the author of TheChristian's Secret of a Happy Life, (1875) a nineteenth century self-help book, and popular expression of Christian mysticism.  Her book became an instant bestseller, going through numerous editions, and is still in print.

Later when I was in seminary and working on my first research paper in Quaker history, I was surprised to learn that a Quaker had written this most enduring book to emerge from the literature of the Holiness Movement.  Curious, I decided to read her spiritual autobiography, The Unselfishness of God, and discovered a most delightful and unexpected book, which became a significant primary resource for me in understanding the radical changes that occurred within the Religious Society of Friends in the latter half of the nineteenth century.   Her life spanned the transformation of American Friends into evangelicalism and English Friends into liberalism, and she was in the eye of the Quaker storm on both sides of the Atlantic for most of her life.  Her legacy however, has been largely confined to evangelical Christians, who read her work selectively, in censored editions, and maintain an idealized, and sentimental, one-sided view of her, with a blind eye to her radicalism. 

In 1901 on her 69th birthday, she circulated a letter to her friends informing them she was in process of writing her autobiography.  She revealed that her purpose in writing it was to share her discoveries about the nature of God.  She announced:

            “Not to be outdone by the younger generation, I too am preparing something for publication.  It is a part of my autobiography, and I call it “How I discovered God.” It is the story of my soul life from my early Quaker days, on through all the progressive steps of my experience until I reach that peace which cannot fail to come to the soul who has 'discovered God'!—I am putting all my heresies into my story, and am trying to show the steps that have led to them; and I flatter myself that it is going to be very convincing! So if you feel afraid of becoming heretics, I advise you not to read it.”

Her autobiography is now beginning to enjoy something of renaissance as it has been rediscovered by contemporary readers.  I would encourage all Friends, and spiritual seekers of all stripes to read this book and discover this fascinating Quaker feminist, mystic, and heretic!  The original 1903 edition entitled, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It; a spiritual autobiography, can be found online and downloaded for free:  http://archive.org/details/unselfishnessgo00smitgoog

But be advised, you must read this 1903 edition, as all subsequent editions edited out her so-called heresies!  

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