Smith, Hannah Whittal
SMITH, Hannah Whittal
Born 7 February 1832, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died 1 May 1911, Iffley, England
Wrote under: H.W.S.
Daughter of John M. and Mary Whitall; married Robert P. Smith, 1851
After a happy childhood in her Quaker home, Hannah Whittal Smith married in 1851 and had four children. She departed early from strict Quaker ways, which seemed too rigid, to set out on a spiritual pilgrimage. Eventually she began to preach alongside her husband. The Smiths preached the "Higher Life" in America, in England, and on the Continent, being particularly active around 1873. Because Smith's husband was suspected of preaching false doctrine and also of improper conduct with female admirers, they returned to the U.S., but settled permanently in England in 1886.
Smith's preaching was nonsectarian and the influences on her thought were various. After her marriage, Smith came under the influence of the Plymouth Brethren, the Baptists, and the Methodists. But she had inherited from her father an attachment to the works of the 17th-century French quietist Mme. Guyon. Smith also treated as a guide Mme Guyon's friend Fénelon, whose Spiritual Letters she quoted with approval.
Because Smith was open to religious enlightenment from any source, she worked out for herself a safeguard against fanaticism, which she offers to her readers in The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life (1875, reprinted under several similar titles in 1984, 1985, 1993, and most recently in 1999). Her message is that God's guidance comes to us in four ways: "through the Scriptures, through providential circumstances, through the convictions of our own higher judgement, and through the inward impressions of the Holy Spirit on our minds." In early editions Smith also included a chapter warning against taking emotional states as proof of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Both The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life and The God of All Comfort (1906) are still religious bestsellers today. They owe their appeal to the clarity, simplicity, and directness with which Smith expresses her complete trust in God. Of at least equal interest, but out of print, is Smith's spiritual autobiography, The Unselfishness of God, and How I Discovered It (1903, reissued, the latest being in 1987 and 1993).
In the end, Smith found she had returned to a basic Quaker principle: that God has power to save us from sin, not only in a legalistic sense but also in a practical way, by preserving us from it and giving us constant guidance. Because of this interest in the practical applications of Christian teaching, Smith was also active in the temperance and woman suffrage movements.
Smith believed in will power as the chief condition for total trust in God. Her orthodoxy may have been suspect at one time, but her outlook suits the modern Christian, hence her continuing popularity today—not only in scholarly works but in recent reprints of many of her works in the 1980s and into the late 1990s.
The Devotional Writings of Robert Pearsall Smith and Hannah Whitall Smith (1870, 1984). The Record of a Happy Life: Being Memorials of Franklin Whitall Smith (1873). John M. Whitall: The Story of his Life (1879). Every-Day Religion (1893). The Science of Motherhood (1894). Religious Fanaticism: Extracts from the Papers of Hannah Whitall Smith (edited by R. Strachey, 1928, 1976). Philadelphia Quaker: Letters of Hannah Whitall Smith (edited by L. P. Smith, 1950). The Christian's Secret of a Holy Life: The Unpublished Personal Writings of Hannah Whitall Smith (1990, 1994). The Hannah Whitall Smith Collection (1995).
Pearsall, C. E., et al, History and Genealogy of the Pearsall Family (1928). Smith, L. P., Unforgotten Years (1939). Smith, R. M., The Burlington Smiths (1877). Strachey, R., A Quaker Grandmother: Hannah Whitall Smith (1914).
DAB. NAW (1971).
—BARBARA J. BUCKNALL,
UPDATED BY NELSON RHODES