Points from a book on Quaker Spirituality: A letter from Hannah Smith to her Granddaughter

Robert and Hannah Smith, leaders in the Quaker faith, and renown speakers and authors, traveled throughout the United States and England working tirelessly for causes such as suffrage for women and ending alcoholism. They spoke at many revival camp meetings and missions aimed at alleviating the ravages of alcoholism on families. At one revival meeting, Robert met with a female parishioner who later accused Robert of inappropriate contact when he “laid hands on her”. He denied that he touched her in any other way except as that of a “Christian sister in need of prayer,” however, this scandal brought misery and shame on the family, causing Robert to withdraw from public speaking altogether. Throughout the ensuing inquiries and investigation, Robert’s faith faltered and folded. The stress took its toll on his mind and body, and he became confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. Hannah’s life had other tragedies as well. Of the seven children their marriage produced, only three lived to reach adulthood. All three of her adult children rejected the Christian faith, particularly Quakerism; one granddaughter even ventured on a foray into atheism. In a letter to this beloved granddaughter, Rachel, nicknamed “Ray”, Hannah Smith wrote (in part):

“I cannot help feeling that to be without any real faith in God, and without knowing of His love and care, is an irreparable loss to the soul, and to all the higher nature; and opens the door to miseries and unhappiness that could not possibly enter into a heart that hides itself in the keeping of a loving God. Don’t shut thyself out too determinedly against what long years of experience have taught me is by far the purest joy our hearts can hold. At least, darling Ray, keep an open mind, and listen to the still small voice of God that I am sure speaks to thy inner self. To His loving care I commit thee, and, even though thee may not yet thy self know Him, He will always surround thee with His love.”

Points from a book on Quaker Spirituality: The writings of Hannah Smith, touching on Human Loneliness

In the paperback book on Quaker Spirituality that I have recently been reading, a number of letters by Hannah Smith were included. I found them deeply insightful into the human condition. The fact of the Maker and His Creation ultimately being meant only for each other, to the point that nothing else can or will suffice, has been a point I have been discovering and exploring over the last couple of years.

Hannah Smith (1832 – 1911) was a Quaker lay speaker and author. Her husband, Robert, was also a Quaker preacher. Together, they impacted many people inside and outside of the Quaker faith. Later in life, Hannah and her husband moved to England where their children and grandchildren remained, identifying themselves as English, rather than American.

They were greatly active in the Women’s suffrage movement and the Temperance movement on both sides of the “Pond”. Life was not necessarily kind to them. Through all of life’s many, many struggles, Hannah’s faith remained strong. She encouraged and admonished others to do the same.

In a letter to a friend, Hannah touched on the very real issue of human loneliness, even in the midst of worldly activity and companions:

“The loneliness thou speaks of I know. For do not think, darling, that it is confined to unmarried people. It is just as real in lives that have plenty of human ties, husbands, and children and friends. It is the loneliness of this world life, the loneliness of hearts that are made for union with God, but which have not yet fully realized it. I believe God has ordained it in the very nature of things by creating us for Himself alone. And I believe He very rarely allows any human love to be satisfying, just that this loneliness may drive us to Him. I have noticed that when a human love is satisfying something always comes in to spoil it. Either there is death, or there is separation, or there is a change of feeling on one side or the other or something, and the heart is driven out of its human resting place on to God alone.

Sometimes God permits a little taste of a satisfying love to a human being, but I do not believe it ever lasts long. I do not mean that the love may not last, but separation comes in some way, and the perfect satisfaction is taken out of it. Now, darling, thy loneliness is not only because thou art unmarried and hast no very close human ties, it is the loneliness of a heart made for God but which has not yet reached its full satisfaction in Him. Human love might for awhile satisfy thee, but it would not last.

If thou can only see this and settle down to it, it will help thee very much. Thou wilt give up, as I have, any expectation of finding satisfaction in the creature, and will no longer suffer with disappointment at not finding it. And this will deliver thee from the worst part of the suffering of loneliness. Thee will accept it as a God-given blessing meant only to drive thee to Himself.

Thy loneliness is only different in kind but not in fact from the loneliness of every human heart apart from God. Thy circumstances are lonely, but thy loneliness of spirit does not come from these, it is the loneliness of humanity. Therefore, nothing but God can satisfy it. No change of circumstances, no coming in of the dearest earthly ties even, not my continued presence even, could really satisfy for any length of time the hungry depths of thy soul. I am speaking, darling, out of the depths of my own experience when I say this, and thee may believe me.”

Points from a book on Quaker Spirituality

Lately I have been reading a small paperback book on Quaker Spirituality. Although I can’t embrace much of their points of mysticism, I find some of the Quaker writings to be quite inspirational. One of the most famous Quakers is John Greenleaf Whittier, sometimes included as one of the Fireside Poets.

The Quaker faith had many subgroups, much like Baptists have; there are Missionary Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Fundamental Baptists, Southern Baptists, and so on. The Quaker group that Whittier belonged to had a traditional type of service format in which the “brethren”, including women (some of which were lay preachers), would gather in silence, without program or an assigned speaker, and the group would sit in long periods of silence which was broken only when/if someone felt “inspired” with a Word from God to speak or share. In his poem, “First Day Thoughts”, Whittier described such a meeting.

In calm and cool and silence, once again
I find my old accustomed place among
My brethren, where, perchance, no human tongue
Shall utter words; where never hymn is sung,
Nor deep-toned organ blown, nor censer swung,
Nor dim light falling through the pictured pane!
There, syllabled by silence, let me hear
The still small voice which reached the prophet’s ear;
Read in my heart a still diviner law
Than Israel’s leader on his tables saw!
There let me strive with each besetting sin,
Recall my wandering fancies, and restrain
The sore disquiet of a restless brain;
And, as the path of duty is made plain,
May grace be given that I may walk therein,
Not like the hireling, for his selfish gain,
With backward glances and reluctant tread,
Making a merit of his coward dread,
But, cheerful, in the light around me thrown,
Walking as one to pleasant service led;
Doing God’s will as if it were my own,
Yet trusting not in mine, but in His strength alone!

John Greenleaf Whittier (1833)