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Underhill, Evelyn


UNDERHILL, EVELYN (18751941) was an English poet, novelist, and writer on mysticism. Born in Wolverhampton, England, the daughter of barrister Arthur Underhill, Evelyn Underhill supplemented her secondary education by studies at King's College, London, and by travel abroad. Underhill's early letters show some precocity for self-study and her personal and literary career may be regarded in light of this capacity. Her marriage in 1907 allowed Underhill the kind of financial support and unencumbered way of life necessary for her both to seek personal guidance essential to her spiritual growth and to undertake the voluminous research that her work would demand.

Underhill was both beneficiary and catalyst in the revival of the metaphysical discussion current in the early years of her career. She was influenced by Arthur Waite, a figure of manifold interests in the occult, magic, and religion, associating herself for some time with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Later, and in another vein, Underhill shared in the enthusiasm aroused by the ideas of contemporaries Henri Bergson and Rudolf Eucken and fell briefly under the influence of Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore. More significant influences, however, were William Ralph Inge, the eminent dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral in London, and the Roman Catholic scholar Friedrich von Hügel, whose erudition and sensitivity had the most profound and lasting effect on her.

Underhill's work reveals her deep personal commitment to spiritual development. It reflects, for the most part, her conviction that Christianity provides an exceptionally vital medium for mystical communion. Although the focus of her work does not exclude the pagan experience, her insights are developed primarily within the Christian tradition.

Underhill's book Mysticism (1911) is her most important work. It is a decidedly nonacademic study of mystical experience. In part historical and primarily comparative, its lasting significance lies, however, in the psychological insight of Underhill's commentary. The experiences of mystics from a wide range of disciplines and cultures are presented. Underhill, emphasizing their similarity of expression, asserted the essential kinship of mystical experience wherever it is found. Early editions of Mysticism depict Christianity as exceptional only in its greater facility for fostering this experience. The appearance in 1930 of the revised twelfth edition revealed a significantly greater awareness of the differences between the Christian and non-Christian experience. The clarity and depth of understanding with which Mysticism was written have given it an unsurpassed value and accessibility as a guide to the mystical tradition.

Subsequent work was taken up in the midst of a growing preoccupation with the contemplative life. Prayer, public service, and guidance from devout and intelligent people such as von Hügel served to deepen Underhill's already substantial appreciation for the uniqueness of the Christian way. This is borne out in her revision of Mysticism. In general such changes in Underhill's perspective tended to move her work toward the center of the Anglican faith to which she had returned. This tendency is manifest in her last major work, Worship (1936). This book deals with more orthodox forms of Christian practice. It stresses the practical virtues of prayer and the great importance and centrality of the Eucharist in Christian life.


In addition to the works cited above, see The Mystic Way: A Psychological Study in Christian Origins (London, 1913) in which Underhill describes the unique character of Christian mysticism, distinguishing it from its Greek predecessors. Practical Mysticism (1914; reprint, New York, 1948) is a shorter introductory companion to Mysticism (1911; 12th rev. ed., New York, 1961). Underhill's novels produced between 1903 and 1909 are best represented by The Column of Dust (London, 1909). For selections of verse as well as representative prose excerpts see An Anthology of the Love of God, edited by Lumsden Barkway and Lucy Menzies (1953; reprint, Wilton, Conn., 1976). A very balanced and lucid introduction is Christopher J. R. Armstrong's Evelyn Underhill (18751941): An Introduction to Her Life and Writings (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1976).

New Sources

Griffin, Emilie, ed. Evelyn Underhiil: Essential Writings. Maryknoll, N.Y., 2003.

Hogan, Kevin. "The Experience of Reality: Evelyn Underhill and Religious Pluralism." Anglican Theological Review 74 (Summer 1992): 334347.

Jantzen, Grace M. "The Legacy of Evelyn Underhill." Feminist Theology no. 4 (September 1993): 79100.

Miles, Margaret R. "Fragments from an Inner Life: The Notebooks of Evelyn Underhill." Anglican and Episcopal History 64 (June 1995): 246247.

Underhill, Evelyn Radiance: A Spiritual Memoir of Evelyn Underhill. Edited by Bernard Bangley. Brewster, Mass., 2004.

Gregory F. Porter (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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