Hannah Whitall Smith, The Popular Heretic

January 7, 2015 (David Cloud, Fundamental Baptist Information Service, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, 866-295-4143, fbns@wayoflife.org)

Hannah Whitall Smith (1832-1911) was a prominent figure in the Holiness and Deeper Life movements at the turn of the 20th century. Her book The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, one of the most influential books of the past 100 years, was republished as part of Moody Publisher’s Classics Set. It is a summary of the holiness doctrine that she and her husband taught as “lay evangelists” at a large conferences at Broadlands, Oxford, and Brighton that led to the formation of the Keswick movement.

Though she taught “secrets” to a sinless, happy Christian life, her life was anything but that.

Her husband was a serial adulterer who abandoned the Christian faith for agnosticism and Buddhism.

Of her three children who survived to adulthood, all rejected the Christian faith. One married the infamous skeptic Bertrand Russell. Another left her Catholic husband for an adulterous relationship. Hannah’s son Logan said that the doctrines of man’s fall and salvation through Christ’s blood had “become utterly alien and strange to me.”

Hannah W. Smith was laden down with heresies, rejecting the Bible as the sole authority of faith and practice, the Trinity, and the blood atonement, and renouncing the doctrine of eternal judgment, believing that all men would be saved. She taught religious pluralism, saying that “a good Creator can be got at through all sorts of religious beliefs and all sorts of religious ceremonies, and that it does not matter what they are” (
A Religious Rebel: The Letters of “H. W. S.” edited by Hannah’s son Logan Pearsall Smith).

After her Roman Catholic son-in-law died, she covenanted to raise her grandchildren as Catholics. She wrote, “My two little grandchildren are ... devout little Catholics, and seem to enjoy their religion, and I am glad of it. I daresay they will be saved a good many of the perplexities and difficulties that so often beset Protestant children.” She encouraged them to “lay up treasure in heaven” by giving candlesticks to a Catholic Church, attending mass, and visiting the confessional.

She despised the doctrine of the husband’s headship. As an early feminist she said, “I know nothing more absolutely unjust in itself nor more productive of misery to the woman than the assumption of the place of authority on the part of men. It reduces women at once in principle to the position of slaves” (Hannah Whitall Smith: Higher Life Writer by Thomas Ross).

She accepted theistic evolution and “mind healing” and cared nothing for Christ’s second coming or the literal fulfillment of prophecy.

She accepted the heresy of “erotic baptism,” which was accepted by many within the Holiness/Higher Life movement. According to this “mystical bride” doctrine the “baptism of the Spirit” was accompanied by sexual thrills. The result, of course, was a plague of immorality wherever the heresy was accepted.

Though she professed to believe Plymouth Brethren doctrine for a time, she later renounced it.

What happened to this woman?

A fundamental error was to reject the Bible as the sole authority for faith and practice, an error that has led to countless spiritual shipwrecks.

She followed her intuition and experiences and Quaker “inner light” above Scripture. She called these “openings.” She said that the Bible was only one of four “especial voices,” the other three being “the voice of circumstances, the voice of one’s highest reason, and the voice of one’s inward impressions.”

When she was criticized for preaching to men, she sought an inner revelation rather than turning to the Bible. She says, “He ... gave me such A STRONG FEELING that it was His mind, that now, whatever is said against it, it makes no difference” (
Record of the Convention for the Promotion of Scriptural Holiness Held at Brighton, 1875).

When she doubted the doctrine of eternal judgment, she heard another “inward voice” that convinced her that there is no hell (Smith,
Every-day Religion, pp. 160-161).

Hannah Whitall Smith was a mystic who was not content to walk by the light of the literal teaching of Scripture. She represents the majority of professing Christians in these end times who have some authority above and beyond the Bible (though many will not admit it).

There is the authority of Rome, Ellen G. White, Joseph Smith, an inner light, end-time prophesying, charismatic soothsaying, gibberish tongues, second blessings, fire baptisms, spirit slayings, rock & roll worship, contemplative prayer experiences, mystical and allegorical interpretations.

All of these have one thing in common, and that is the rejection of the Bible as the SOLE authority for faith and practice.


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- The name “Way of Life” is from Proverbs 6:23: “For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and reproofs of instruction are the way of life.” The biblical instruction that molds men to God’s will requires reproof. It is not strictly positive. It does not focus on man’s “self-esteem.” It does not avoid controversial or unpopular subjects. It warns as well as comforts. It deals with sin and false teaching in a plain manner. It is reproves, rebukes, exhorts with all longsuffering and doctrine (2 Tim. 4:2). This is what we seek to do through Way of Life Literature. The Way of Life preaching and publishing ministry based in Bethel Baptist Church, London, Ontario, of which Wilbert Unger is the founding Pastor. A mail stop is maintained in Port Huron, Michigan.

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