THE SECRET OF
A CHRISTIAN CLASSIC

The Unhappy Life of Hannah Whitall Smith

by G. Richard Fisher

The saying, There is often little truth in advertising, is frequently as true in the realm of Christian publishing as it is anywhere else. Often, little truth is found in the titles and themes of books in Christian bookstores.

And lest one think this phenomenon is confined to modern works, consider the “classic” The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life by Hannah Whitall Smith, a book that overpromises and underdelivers and still sells well despite its 1875 publication date. After reading the book a Christian should have difficulty understanding why Smith’s publication enjoys the reputation it does. Perhaps many never get past the title, which appeals to the modern search for self-fulfillment and experience.

The book presents a sort of passive mysticism. In one chapter is cites Deuteronomy 32:11-12 and says that this verse teaches a kind of surrender to God with no need on the believer’s part to act. Smith also teaches a truncated version of sanctification. She says that one of the eagle’s wings is trust and the other surrender, and goes on to quote Isaiah 40:31, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,” without finishing the passage: “they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” The entire verse shows that while waiting on God is important, so is walking with Him.

A biography of Smith points out that she herself never lived the happy life she wrote about. Marie Henry’s The Secret Life of Hannah Whitall Smith takes the reader behind the scenes and, in an honest fashion that doesn’t set out to be unflattering, exposes a Hannah Whitall Smith who was as flawed as anyone. Henry’s interesting and readable book makes Hannah Whitall Smith’s life a secret no longer.

Henry became interested in Smith and her writings after suffering a “partial breakdown” after serving as a pastor in a Presbyterian church. She compiled her account of Smith’s life with the help of surviving family members, diaries, letters and personal papers. Her material contained a large amount of primary sources. Henry says early in her book’s Introduction that Smith’s life was far from perfect:

“The truth is that this writer of the best-selling Christian classic The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life had some agonizing experiences with members of her family and went through periods of great discouragement, doubt and even despair” (pg. xiv).

According to Henry’s biography, Hannah Whitall Smith was born (1832), reared and married (1851) in Germantown, Pa. She struggled with spiritual doubt and confusion during the early years of her marriage. A confirmed mystic, Smith experienced what she called “openings,” a term she used for her inner “revelations,” many of which were unorthodox.

While on vacation in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1858, Smith reported that a “healing, comforting peace warmed her whole being” while she read her Bible (Henry, pg. 32). Giving attention to Romans 5, she said she came to a saving knowledge of Christ and an experience of salvation by grace. After resigning from the Quaker assembly in order to be baptized by immersion, she came under intense persecution from her family (Henry pp. 34-39).

She and her husband Robert then joined the Plymouth Brethren. Hannah Smith began to doubt the concept of hell and eternal punishment and ultimately, through an “inward voice,” became convinced that all mankind would be saved. She became convinced that all sinners ultimately would confess Christ as Lord (Henry, pp. 41-42). This departure from Scripture into Universalism or Restitutionism arose from her belief that God was too loving to punish sin.

Universalism is a heresy with both pagan and Christian forms. One variation teaches that hell is ultimately restorative. (See further, Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, pp. 539-540.) None of the universalistic theories is based on Scripture but rather a sentimental view of the love of God that makes the Atonement all-inclusive. Faulty logic and disregard for scriptural teachings on hell is Universalism’s foundation.

The New 20th Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge details how the Church, from the earliest times, condemned Universalism as heretical:

“Universalism. A theology which holds that in the fullness of time all souls will be released from the penalties of sin and be restored to God. Technically known as apokatastasis pantos (‘restoration of all’), universalism denies the doctrine of eternal punishment... . Augustine of Hippo (354-430) strongly opposed universal salvation and the theology of Origen was eventually declared heretical at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 534” (pg. 849).

Universalism all but disappeared until it was resurrected in Massachusetts in the late 1700s. Most likely Smith got her ideas from the Universalist churches that thrived in and around Philadelphia in her day.

The Smiths eventually moved to Millville, N.J., where they were exposed to the “second blessing” teaching, (Henry, pp. 49-50). Forms of a “higher-level” Christianity were being fostered by a group called the Keswick movement and often were referred to as the “higher life.”

At a camp meeting in Pennsylvania, husband Robert was “shaken with what seemed like a magnetic thrill of heavenly delight.” For about a year Hannah Smith sought the “baptism” which she felt would be accompanied by “sobs” and “thrills,” but nothing came.

Praying one night in June 1869, without any outward physical signs, she received what she called a “weak consciousness of God’s presence” (Henry, pg. 53). She concluded shortly after, that both her experience and Robert’s were emotional and not solid. Smith sought the Spirit’s baptism again in 1876 and 1877 (Henry, pg. 86). Her letters between 1876 and 1878 express such anxiety, doubt and confusion. She might be classed as manic-depressive (Henry, pp. 87-88).

After the death of their 18-year-old son (Henry, pp. 56-57), the Smiths returned to Philadelphia where Robert suffered a “nervous breakdown.” He was confined to a sanatorium and came under the influence of a Dr. Foster, who shared strange ideas about the interweaving of sexual and spiritual feelings (Henry, pg. 61). This, along with Hannah’s self-imposed sexual abstinence, brought severe strains on the marriage that continued until Robert died in 1898.

Despite their unhappiness and eroding marriage, Hannah and Robert quickly became famous teachers of “holiness” and “sanctification.” Hannah’s book, written years before, was beginning to transform the couple into religious heroes. (Smith later confessed that The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life was written under pressure from Robert and only to oblige him.)

The Smiths eventually returned to the Quakers. Robert became a famous preacher across Europe, a leading light in the “higher life movement.” Many criticized the fact that he always traveled without his wife. Henry writes that he fell into moral scandal and that there is evidence of repeated episodes of adultery. Hannah remained unhappily married and her letters reveal her continuing misery (Henry, pp. 64-65). However, in those days appearances prevailed and divorce was not an option.

Rumors of heresy and another nervous breakdown eventually scuttled Robert’s career. (See further, Dictionary of Christianity in America, pp. 1098-1099.) Henry says he deteriorated into a self-indulgent hypochondriac (Henry, pg. 103).

The Smiths’ children fared little better spiritually. Of Hannah’s three surviving offspring (four had died), the eldest daughter carried on an extramarital affair, having abandoned her Roman Catholic husband and children. Hannah suffered untold agony intervening between her son-in-law and the abusive governess he placed over her grandchildren (Henry, pp. 136-138). Another daughter married atheist Bertrand Russell and that marriage ended in separation. Her son did not embrace Christ or Christianity.

Right up to her death in 1911, Smith was a religious celebrity, with admirers kneeling before her wheelchair and getting letters from those who said they slept with her books beneath their pillows (Henry, pg. 164).

In the end, Smith did not believe her own perfectionistic ideas and was skeptical of everyone (Henry, pg. 165). She wondered about heaven and if she had everything wrong and had hindered multitudes of people and that perhaps some would “try to persuade Peter to shut the gate against me” (Henry, pg. 165).

While Marie Henry does her best to show Hannah Whitall Smith as a slightly scarred saint and spiritual hero, thorough research and honest reporting reveals more of a confused, unhappy heretic than hero, someone whose life demonstrates that more attention needs to be given to the Word of God than to emotions, mystical inner “revelations” and fad doctrines. Smith’s view of God and her outspoken Universalism put her squarely in the heretical camp.

An examination of Smith and her book is not complete without asking if the goal of the Christian life is happiness or holiness. Our days might be bitter, but God’s love remains sweet. In the light of the admissions by the Apostle Paul of times that even he was temporarily “cast down” (2 Corinthians 7), we cannot expect to be happy constantly until we get to heaven.

 

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