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GUEST POST from Andy Naselli

A husband-wife team in the early 1870s immediately preceded the early Keswick movement: Robert Pearsall Smith (1827-98) and Hannah Whitall Smith (1832-1911).

Hannah is most famous for her book The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life. Her book's essential message is Keswick theology: "entire surrender" or "entire abandonment" (i.e., "let go") and "absolute faith" (i.e., "let God").

But what most people don't know is that she and her husband had anything but "happy" lives. The Smith family experienced a series of sad events, including the following:

  1. At the height of his success as a higher life revivalist, Robert fell doctrinally and morally, nearly destroying the entire Keswick movement.
  2. Robert and Hannah's deteriorating marriage declined even further. Hannah's intense feminism and independence, Robert's manic-depressive nature, and Robert's persistence in unrepentant adultery all contributed to a very unhappy marriage.
  3. Robert apostatized and became an agnostic.
  4. Hannah apostatized. She lost interest in the higher life, rejoined the Quakers in 1886, and embraced universalism and religious pluralism.

Her book, nevertheless, continues to sell as a "classic" in various evangelical circles.

Tidbit: My wife, Jennifer Joy (Becker) Naselli, is related to Hannah Whitall Smith through both the Whitall and Mickle lines. Jenni is Hannah's second cousin six generations removed.

For further reading:

  1. Barbara Strachey, Remarkable Relations: The Story of the Pearsall Smith Women (New York: Universe, 1980).
  2. Marie Henry, The Secret Life of Hannah Whitall Smith (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1984).
  3. Melvin E. Dieter, "Smith, Hannah Whitall and Robert Pearsall," Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (ed. Timothy Larsen, David William Bebbington, and Mark Allan Noll; Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 616-18.
  4. Mary Agnes Rittenhouse Maddox, "'Jesus Saves Me Now': Sanctification in the Writings of Hannah Whitall Smith" (PhD diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2003).
  5. Andrew David Naselli, Let Go and Let God? A Survey and Analysis of Keswick Theology (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010). See esp. pp. 102-16.

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29 thoughts on “Andy Naselli on Hannah Whitall Smith’s Unhappy Life”

  1. Brad says:

    This doesn’t seem like a very helpful post. What is it supposed to prove? Have no Calvinists ever apostatized? Proponents of Keswick theology could just as easily say, “See, if only they had believed and practiced what they taught.”

    Do you have any support for tying their teaching and their fall together? Did they fall because of what they taught? Otherwise it just seems like you are airing dirty laundry.

  2. Ted Bigelow says:

    Hi Brad,

    There is a history here. Andy has making a series of posts for a while. If this post is read in that larger context, it isn’t so abrupt. Andy has tried to be extremely even-handed, and I for one think he has succeeded.

    I also think though, apart from your comment, we all have to take a step back and evaluate every new doctrine, and the lives of those who bring it. Good doctrine produces holiness and the fear of the Lord. Bad doctrine brings sin and apostasy.

    In the case of Calvinism, it is neither new, nor does it lead people down a path to shattered expectations. Sadly, the Higher Life doctrine is both “new” (1800s) and does mislead.

    I went to a 3 day seminar for preachers once at a famous preaching institute. It was part of my graduate studies for a doctorate in preaching. The leader was a very well known evangelical whose ministry was internationally famous – most would know him if I shared his name.

    He taught the higher life doctrine. But sadly, by the end of his life he could no longer pastor, having been so disillusioned. He went through much agonizing counseling in his latter years, just trying to hold things together. He died recently, and went home to be with the Lord. He never really left the basic tenets of Keswick practices, and I fear it hindered him, and his ministry, greatly.

  3. David Nash says:

    If the Smith’s truly possessed the “Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life” then why didn’t it work for them? Either the message presented (“let go and let God”) doesn’t work, or the Smiths didn’t try hard enough (at letting go?). The irony should really make one stop and think.

    On the other hand, if a leading Calvinist were to fall away, it would do far less damage to Calvinism. From the Calvinist perspective it would demonstrate that the conversion was never genuine in the first place – not that the gospel (or Calvinism) had failed.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Andy. Everything that I have read from you concerning “Keswick theology” has been spot on. It all brings back so many memories of my own research done thirty plus years ago.

    It is helpful and instructive for you to “correct” the misunderstanding about Hannah Whitehall Smith, whose book title hardly describes her own miserable life.

    Indeed, their beliefs (what they taught) induced their moral failings that led to their defections from the Christian faith.

  5. Brad says:


    Thanks for your gracious words. I do agree with your statement that we cannot completely separate the message from the messenger. By their fruits you shall know them. Even so, I struggle to see how the failings of one couple makes everything they ever taught untrue.


    “On the other hand, if a leading Calvinist were to fall away, it would do far less damage to Calvinism. From the Calvinist perspective it would demonstrate that the conversion was never genuine in the first place – not that the gospel (or Calvinism) had failed.”
    But a Keswick-er could say the same thing about the Smiths. They just didn’t trust enough, or “let go” enough.

    “Indeed, their beliefs (what they taught) induced their moral failings that led to their defections from the Christian faith.”
    But how is this demonstrated? It is not. It is simply assumed. Now, in fact, maybe their beliefs did lead to their fall, but it is not at all demonstrated by the post. Or by your simple statement that it is so.
    I have no problem at all with Calvinism. “I are one.” I was simply trying to say that this post doesn’t really say anything. Maybe the book is better. This post as it is, says nothing about the validity or invalidity of Keswick theology. It simply states some people who taught it did bad things. What system can that not be said about?

  6. MarkO says:

    just wondering how closely knit you think Keswick theology and Wesleyean theology are if at all? I have my conclusions about this question – wanted to know yours.

  7. Chris Zodrow says:

    The lives of Keswick believers is irrelevant to the value of their ideas. It is a powerful emotional appeal, but it has no bearing on the truth or falsity of their beliefs.

    Case in point: David. I doubt we want to argue backwards, that his theology was bad because he committed adultery and late in life demanded that a fine young thing be give him for snuggling. He talked much of being happy too, but didn’t end that way.

    Besides being logically erroneous, these kinds of arguments are simply dangerous. What about the “good” lives of the Mormons?

    Grace and peace,

  8. Mike says:

    I’m not sure if one should draw theological conclusions based on the messengers, but rather on the message itself. We need to mindful of our own legacies. What will history have to say about us?

  9. Alex Johnson says:

    I actually was just listening to a sermon by Kevin in which he mentions reviewing your work and comments on this very topic.

  10. Brad,

    “Indeed, their beliefs (what they taught) induced their moral failings that led to their defections from the Christian faith.”

    But how is this demonstrated? It is not. It is simply assumed. Now, in fact, maybe their beliefs did lead to their fall, but it is not at all demonstrated by the post. Or by your simple statement that it is so.

    You’re right, it would take far more space than a blog avails to demonstrate that the two are intricately bound together. However, I will offer one brief comment.

    Integral to all forms of “Christian perfectionism” is the need to minimize the sinfulness of sinful thoughts, words, and deeds in order to attain the desired “perfection.” Hence, what takes place is that those who fall under the spell of “Christian perfectionism” begin to diminish the gravity of their sins. Ray Ortland effectively captured the matter in a comment he offered to one of Andy Naselli’s earlier entries (on Packer and “Pietistic Goofiness”), when he stated, “The world does not need more ‘victorious Christians’ who drive their neighbors to distraction by their cheerful indulgence in undiscerned carnality.”

  11. Bill Crawford says:

    Didn’t one of their daughters marry Bertrand Russell, author of “Why I am not a Christian”?

  12. Mike says:

    Russell divorced her and cited he didn’t like her mother.

  13. Andy Naselli says:

    Some of the above comments are eisegeting my post. I don’t draw any theological conclusions (though that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t). In this post I’m merely setting the record straight historically and marveling that people continue to promote Hannah Smith’s best-selling book.

  14. Paul says:

    > In this post I’m merely setting the record straight historically and marveling that people continue to promote Hannah Smith’s best-selling book.

    and you’re quite correct to do that IMO although I imagine Hannah Smith is far from being the only Christian author whose life didn’t match up well with what she wrote.

  15. JD Crowley says:

    I think it would be helpful to know that the best-selling author of a diet book weighed 500 pounds and died of morbid obesity.

  16. Joe says:

    Does her book dwell on her distinctive doctrines heavily? I know Catherine Marshall was a big champion of it. Marshall herself had a late-in-life faith crisis over unanswered prayer, but survived it. My point is that many people espouse problematic doctrines but maintain a vital faith, witness some Catholic saints. Smith does not sound like this was her case. Thos. Merton also comes to mind. But how problematic is TCSOAHL? Anyone know. The quotes I’ve read in Marshall are strong.

  17. renee says:

    If we are talking about moral failings, lets talk about some calvanist moral failings. Why were almost all the people who advocated the stealing of this land and the murder of its inhabitants considered good moral christian men. WHy was the same also thought about those that formed this country and fought for the south against the abolition of slavery, womens’s rights, labor rights, children’s rights etc Why did these same men advocate the same things in Asia and in Africa. Why did these men behave in the exact same murderous way that catholics did when encountering someone who did not believe as they did. I agree with the first poster. if theology is the excuse for or precurser to falling then, all you guys are just as guilty by association and should consider another brand of chrisitanity.

  18. Bob says:

    Is this one of those things in life they call “irony?” Is it similar to Mr. Eastman of Eastman-Kodak and how we don’t have many pictures of him and he wasn’t that big of a fan of being photographed? Is it similar to Elliot Ness, one of the crusaders against bootleggers, and how he later in life seemed to spend too much time drinking?

  19. Jan Carruthers says:

    Sometimes life is odd and does have exceptions. Take Liberty University for example: Can anyone be a Christian and go to a school that has contemporary music, low dress standards, allows students to go to movies, and overall has very low standards? For most of my life I thought one could not be a Christian and go to a school like that. But, last year I met a young couple who both graduated from there and they seemed like good people, even though in our circles we would not associate with them because of their affiliations. This young couple was seemingly happy, kindhearted, and even helped out at their church. I’m not sure why they would attend a liberal school such as they did, but sometimes people are good even though their associations are bad. Maybe people are just ignorant.

  20. lance b says:

    Ummm………..ok……ahhh….., you are kidding, right?

  21. The point is for those who would seem to defend the Keswick Theology vs. Calvinists or any other theology: There are those in the past who have passed on and as far as humanly possible, their lives are proven to have been holy and exemplary and they have written some good and sound theology.

  22. Susan says:

    I happened across this post doing a bit of research on Hannah Whitall Smith… this short article she wrote on the sovereignty of God might be edifying to some of the readers here.

  23. Liz says:

    First of all Jan, if you think LU is liberal, then you need to get out a little more. And yes there are many Christians who go to LU like your friends. I should know. My son is one of them! As far as HWS goes and her Happy Book. I have yet to hear of anyone reading it completely. I am reading it for a second time. Perhaps she did get off track near the end of her life, but how many of us would not have done the same given her marriage and the death of four of her seven children. She has some very practical sound advice in her book. She calls emotions crying babies and her will aligning with the will of God the mother, who sooner of later has her babies (emotions) in the hands of God. I can see no harm in reading a book that encourages me to have faith in God. As opposed to not having faith in God. God does mean for us to live a victorious life in Him! In Him! Abide in Him! John 15

  24. steve wright says:

    God will be the judge in this matter. It is very easy to malign someone’s character after they are gone. Hannah W Smith wrote some classic gems of a life lived in and for God. Her testimony in her writing “the unselfishness of God” is amazingly inspirational and absolutely true and scriptural. I would question any Christian’s devotion to our Lord who’s life is NOT occasioned by trials and difficulties, sometimes severe. A “happy” life is not one which is free of stress and difficulties but one that has the inner peace and joy of knowing Him. It is the inner life that counts, not the outer. All God’s saints have been faced with outward troubles of all sorts. It is how you deal with them that counts.
    But let’s get to the real issue here. It is with some of her beliefs which go against traditional teachings. Many Bible teachers can’t stand the fact that Hannah W Smith came to the understanding that God in his mercy and love would ultimately bring salvation to all his creation. In typical fashion because they hate this message they must resort to destroying the reputation of the messenger. They have taken the roll of the self righteous elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, who was angry that the father had mercy on his “worthless” brother who had wasted his life. I would warn those who judge others in this manner that you will be judged by the same measure you use. Hannah was given understanding of one of the most profound and hidden mysteries in the Bible. An understanding that is withheld from the self-righteous, the boastful, and those who think they are wise.
    All of you who think a “happy life” is in outward circumstances have no understanding of the Christian life. These are the things that drive you to Him. The Kingdom of God is “righteousness and peace in the Holy Ghost” not favorable outward circumstances. You haven’t finished your life yet so get off sanctimonious high horse.

  25. Dot says:

    You have your facts wrong. Her last book the unselfishness of God she was over 70 when she wrote it. She mentions her age in the book . She died when she was 79 so she was still a Christian in 1901. You should be sure of your facts instead of spreading lies..

  26. Honey Lambert says:

    It seems you are saying that because she didn’t experience what she preached as truth, then it must not be truth. If experience is what defines truth then the Bible must not be true because I know very few Christians whose experience lines up completely with what the Bible says. Many know the truth of God’s word but choose not to acknowledge or practice it. Does that make it untrue?

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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