Hannah Whitall Smith: A Woman for all Seasons

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More people, whether religious or non-religious, know about Hannah Whitall Smith (1832-1911) than any other woman who was active in the holiness movement of the nineteenth century. Hannah Tatum Whitall was the first-born daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker family,. The early years of her life were almost idyllic according to her own account. At the age of sixteen, however, she began to agonize over her relationship with God and her personal salvation. The Society of Friends had little to offer her at that point. George Fox had begun a vital holiness movement in the seventeenth century, but by Hannah’s time, its once vigorous witness had hardened into rigid lists of pious do’s and don’ts. Her diary accounts of trying to be good and perfect without a personal relationship with Christ constitute some of the darkest pages of spiritual despair in Christian literature. It was not until the great Noon-Day Prayer Meeting Revival of 1858, seven years after her marriage to Robert Pearsall Smith, that she and he were converted on the same day. Soon thereafter, she and Robert resigned their membership in the Society of Friends.


Her first evangelical instructors were the Plymouth Brethren who gave her a great respect for the authority of the Bible. But her free spirit and ranging interests soon led her to reject their rigid biblicism and turn to the budding Methodist holiness movement.


She began to read the holiness writings of Walter and Phoebe Palmer. Later at the first National Camp meeting for the Promotion of Christian Holiness held at Vineland, New Jersey ((July 1867), Robert was sanctified “in true Methodist style” and the Smiths began their association with the National Holiness Association. Hannah, who was awaiting the birth of Alice (later the first wife of Bertrand Russell) was unable to attend the Vineland encampment. She never experienced the spiritual “high” which Robert had when he was entirely sanctified. But in the subsequent camps at Manheim, Pennsylvania, and Round Lake, New York, she “settled the question” as holiness folks were wont to say. The couple quickly became prominent speakers in holiness camps and union meetings. They also organized small group holiness meetings among their Quaker friends and began to write and publish tracts on the experience. The exciting story of where their quest led them and the interesting people that became part of it must be left for another time and place.* We can only indicate a few of the areas of special interest in her life and ministry.


She has had her greatest influence on the most people through her classic devotional work, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life. It has been scattered around the world in repeated editions and millions of copies since it initial publication in 1875 and has assured her a place among the great Christian teachers of all times. The famous Harvard philosopher, William James, said that the book would always be kept among his literary treasures, and, that if he were to become a Christian, he would want to be the kind of Christian the book describes. E. Stanley Jones, Methodism’s and the holiness movement’s best-known missionary of the first half of this century, found his way into the life of holiness while reading it in his Wilmore, Kentucky, lodging as a student at Asbury College. Its trinitarian formula focused his world-view and his life work on the goodness of God, the lordship of Christ and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It gave him the freedom to show unusual respect for the non-Christian world and yet never to compromise his belief that Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord of all humankind. H.W.S.’s devotional writings have helped to establish the holiness tradition as one of the most significant sources of popular contemporary devotional literature. The spiritual treasures of Oswald Chambers, Lettie Cowman, and E. Stanley Jones all spring from the same Wesleyan/Holiness milieu.


Her second great contribution was to advance the cause of women in church and society. She didn’t have any personal problem with preaching as a woman. As a child in Quaker “First Day Meeting,” she fantasized that she would someday preach before the Queen of England, and in truth she almost did. Quakers had always recognized that the Spirit called women as well as men into ministry. The Methodist holiness movement had no problem with that, either. But when Robert became a lay member of a local Philadelphia Presbyterian church and Hannah and Quaker friends of hers such as Sarah Smiley began to preach in Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopal, and Congregational churches, they often had to stand on the floor in front fo the pulpit if they were to address the public at all. Her style was reasoned and deliberate. At the great holiness convention in Brighton, England in 1875, her sermons enchanted thousands of British and Continental pastors and laypersons in a day when women were still refused a voice in public gatherings almost everywhere in the world. She became known as “the angel of the churches.”


After she and Robert were no longer active in holiness evangelism, she directed her enormous personal energies into the temperance movement. Annie Wittenmeyer, the first president of the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was a Philadelphia neighbor of hers. Hannah, however, finally supported Francis Willard’s efforts to replace Wittenmeyer. She and Willard became lifelong friends. Mainly because of their personal friendship, the National Women’s Temperance Association and the WCTU eventually formed the Worlds’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Throughout her life, she held various offices in the temperance unions, but her chief contribution was as the Secretary of Evangelism for the WCTU. Her popular Bible- study outlines were used in local temperance meetings all around the world. She and Willard put a strong Methodist holiness emphasis upon all the spirituality of the temperance movement. One could not become an appointed evangelist for the WCTU without witnessing to having experienced the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” or agreeing to faithfully seek it.


Christian feminism was close to her heart all throughout her life. She always regretted her own lack of an advanced education and made sure that her children had educational opportunities which had been denied to her. She played an active role in the women’s suffrage movement. In her later years when she was confined to a wheelchair she regretted that she could not attend a rally in front of the British Parliament buildings supporting a vote on women’s right-to-vote which the House of Commons was to take that day. Any movement in any place in the world which sought to advance women’s causes quickly found her support. For example, she served as treasurer of the National Woman’s Indian Association although she admitted to her sister Mary that she never could get her checkbook to balance. Her problem, she suspected, was that there must be something of “original sin” in all figures.


She ultimately summed up all of her belief in the statement that “God is enough!” And that was enough to carry Hannah Whitall Smith through the most unusual life experienced by any of the many women who were part of the early holiness tradition. At times she chided the fanatical fringes for the excesses which surfaced there, but to the end of her days she confessed that the greatest moments of her spiritual pilgrimages were the National Holiness Association camp meetings where she had personally become aware of “The Christian’s secret of a happy life.”


*Numerous books have been written on the Smith family; the most useful of them is by their great-granddaughter Barbara Strachey (Halpern) — Remarkable Relations: The Story of the Pearsall Smith Family (London: Victory Gollancz LTD, 1980). The religious history of the Smiths will be dealt with in a new book to come out next year written by the author of this article and published by Francis Asbury Press.


Dr. Melvin E. Dieter is presently serving as Director of the Wesleyan/Holiness Study Project and Professor of Church History/Historical Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Halle, have edited a devotional from Hannah Whitall Smith’s writings titled God is Enough (Francis Asbury Press, 1986). Dr. Dieter is the Historian/Archivist for the Christian Holiness Association.

Dieter, M. E. (Fall 1999). Hannah Whitall Smith: A Woman for All Seasons. Holiness Digest.


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