It is the 7th of February 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
To understand the enigma that was Hannah Whithall Smith and her context, remember that the 19th century was characterized by speed and travel. Never before could people travel so far, so fast. And with this, we see the spread of missions, cosmopolitans, and new associations. New societies and para-church organizations, the Sunday school Movement, and the Second Great Awakening shook the foundations of old denominational ties. It was the age of the literal Wild West and also a figurative one in the church.
Hannah Whithall was born on this day, the 7th of February in 1832, to a prominent Quaker family in Philadelphia. Her family had Quaker roots that reached back to the time of William Penn and the Pennsylvania Colony. Her father, John Whitehall, was a sea captain turned merchant with a flourishing business in Millville, New Jersey. From an early age, she felt a dissonance between the family’s relative wealth and luxury and the Quaker's ideal of simplicity. This kind of introspection would mark her early life.
IN 1850, she met Robert Pearsall Smith, also from a prominent Quaker family, and the two were married the following year. They would have difficulty with children, suffering miscarriages, and of 7 children, only 3 survived childhood. Robert would commute from their Germantown home to work at Hannah’s father's factory in Millville, and Hannah began to feel a depression and spiritual malaise.
In 1858, she and her husband experienced a conversion experience or spiritual reawakening (the language Hannah uses varies). The Smiths broke with their family tradition and moved to Millville amongst the Plymouth Brethren and Methodists. Robert would publish a periodical, “The Christians Pathway to Power,” with Hannah contributing articles. Following D.L. Moody’s example, the couple would travel to England in 1874 to hold revival meetings and preach to large assemblies (or, when Hannah did it, they called it “teaching”). They would be foundational in 1875 to the founding of the now annual Keswick Convention and the development of the “Higher Life” movement. There was no uniform theology amongst the Keswickians, but it stressed the power of the Holy Spirit in the process of Sanctification and, in their words, “the experience of a victorious Christian life.”
On account of Hannah’s charisma, the couple shot to fame, and if right on cue, scandal struck. They would be accused of dabbling in Spiritualism- a kind of non-Christian mysticism characterized often by seances. And Robert was credibly accused of an extramarital affair. The two would return to the United States, where Robert would never cease to write or speak. The marriage would deteriorate with rumors of more affairs, and Robert would eventually sink into depression and leave the faith. Hannah paused from the speaking circuit and co-founded the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as an outlet for her speaking, and she turned to writing and publishing the soon-to-be world-famous devotional “The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.” The book sold over two million copies, and historians point to it as a key factor in spreading the Keswickian Higher Life Movement.
The title reminds us how often titles sell books more than their contents. According to Hannah, she repackaged Quakerism with a Methodist spin. The title also reflects the paradox of her later life- a belief in a victorious life amidst a life that was crumbing apart, something she readily admits in her private correspondence.
She would later write a spiritual autobiography that was a hit, but the editors would delete three chapters on how she came to a position of Christian Universalism. She would become a lightning rod, disowned by some as apostate and beloved for her earlier works and place in the Temperance and Women’s Suffrage Movement. She moved back to England in 1888, where she would hold salons with the likes of George Bernard Shaw, William James, and Bertrand Russell. Russell, the famed atheist, would become her son-in-law after marrying her daughter. Another daughter married a famous art critic, and their son became an essayist and literary critic. She lived in England until her death in 1911.
Her life is one of two acts, the watershed seemingly being fame. Her early work remains a staple of the genre and the Higher Life movement she helped to spark, but her later life casts something of a pall over it.
Hannah Whithall Smith was born on this day in 1832 at 79 years old.
The last word for today is from the daily lectionary and from Mark 3 and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry:
7 Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. 8 When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. 9 Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. 10 For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. 11 Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” 12 But he gave them strict orders not to tell others about him.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 7th of February 2024, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who reminds you that while women’s “suffrage” sounds like a bad thing, it was actually good. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who knows Millville, New Jersey, as the home of the Millville Meteor- Mike Trout, the Angel Superstar who didn’t abandon his team; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.