HomeArticlesHannah Whitall Smith's Heretical Influence

Hannah Whitall Smith’s Heretical Influence

Many people find Keswick theology attractive for various reasons. It may be for its strong emphasis on prayer, or faith, evangelism and missionary endeavor. But few really evaluate the theology for its doctrinal position, which is more often a lack of a doctrinal standard that makes it a cohesive ecumenical theology. We will look at Hannah Whitall Smith’s doctrinal views as she was the major popularizer and influence on the origin of the Keswick movement. Carole Dale Spencer, a modern Quaker minster and professor of “church history” at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, wrote of Hannah Smith, “Her legacy however, has been largely confined to Evangelical Christians, who read her work selectively, in censored editions, and maintain an idealized, and sentimental, one-sided view of her, with a blind eye to her radicalism.”1)Carole Dale Spencer, “Hannah Whitall Smith’s Highway of Holiness: mysticism, heresy and feminism in a Quaker “free lance”,” Paper presented for the J. M. Ward Lecture, Guilford College, Greensboro, N.C. (September 30, 2013), p. 4

First, it is important to understand that Hannah Smith was born and raised a Quaker. She writes with great praise in her autobiography about how her upbringing impacted her life and theological views. “I do not think it would be possible for me to express in words how strong and all pervading this influence [of Quakerism] was. Every word and thought and action of our lives was steeped in Quakerism…. Daily I thank God that it was such a righteous and ennobling influence.”2)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 37 Furthermore, she asserts her later teaching had never parted from the heretical Quaker upbringing.

Nearly every view of divine things that I have since discovered, and every reform I have since advocated, had, I not realize, their germ in the views of the Society; and over and over again, when some new discovery or conviction has dawned upon me, I have caught myself saying, “Why, that was what the early Friends meant, although I never understood it before.”3)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 55-56

The Society of Friend, better known as Quakers, taught that a divine spark existed in everyone and for this reason the gift of prophecy continued throughout history, especially amongst the Friends meetings. Hannah explains the atmosphere of a Quaker meeting, “For not only was there to be no especial training for the ministry, but it was not thought right to make preparation for any particular service or meeting. ‘Friends’ were supposed to go to their meeting with their minds a blank, ready to receive any message that the Holy Spirit might see fit to impart.”4)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 59 Of course, the Bible teaches that prophecy did not come by man’s will whenever they desired or had an assembly with expecting the Spirit to give fresh revelation (2 Peter 1:21). Jeremiah had to wait tendays to receive God’s word in response to the Jews enquiry (Jeremiah 42:7).

The preaching at a Quaker assembly was interpreted as the gift of prophecy and the word preached were perceived as equal to inspired prophets proclaiming God’s word. Hannah Smith explains, “It was due only and entirely to the fact that we believed Ministers to be divinely chosen oracles to declare the mind of God, and that every word they might say was directly inspired, and was almost as infallible as the Bible itself.”5)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 62 This mentality did obviously produce a wide interest in mysticism instead of a deep reverential dependence and study of the Scripture. “Quaker meetings were always held on this basis of silent waiting, in order that in silence, the Holy Spirit might have an opportunity to speaking directly to each individual soul.”6)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 75-76 Just as meditation in eastern religions and Catholic mysticism, emptying one’s mind to receive revelation was the exercise of the Quakers.

The impact of mysticism in Hannah Smith’s doctrinal views and its influence on Keswick theology can be seen through her self-confessed spiritual guidance from Catholic mystics. She writes, “I was much helped, too, by a saying of Madame Guyon’s[,]”7)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 188 and again,

I possessed a book which distinctly taught that God’s children were not only commanded to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, but also that they could do so; and which seemed to reveal the mystical pathways toward it. It was called “Spiritual Progress,” and was a collection of extracts from the writings of Fenelon and Madame Guyon. This book as very dear to me, for it had been a gift from my adored father, and always lay on my desk beside my Bible.8)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 232

This ingredient of mysticism is ultimately what structures Keswick theology as it is most obviously seen in its doctrine of sanctification, which is the defining premise of what Keswick holds as a distinctive theology among is vast lack of doctrinal standard. Carole Dale Spencer acknowledged “the pervasiveness of Guyon’s teachings that infuses all of her writings.”9)Carole Dale Spencer, “Hannah Whitall Smith’s Highway of Holiness: mysticism, heresy and feminism in a Quaker “free lance”,” Paper presented for the J. M. Ward Lecture, Guilford College, Greensboro, N.C. (September 30, 2013), p. 16

It was the mystic doctrines Hannah learned from her Quaker upbringing and the Catholic mystics what would attract her to the false doctrines of sanctification in later years. She latter indicates she was informed by a dressmaker, “that among the Methodists there was a doctrine taught which they called the ‘Doctrine of Holiness,’ and that there was an experience called ‘sanctification’ or the ‘second blessing’ which brought you into a place of victory.”10)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 241 In conjunction with calling their doctrine a “law” it is also considered the “Secret” of faith for sanctification.11)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 269 This “secret” would imply their belief that the doctrine of sanctification was hidden from Christians for the 1800 years prior to their novel discovery, and are therefore introducing a new doctrine into Christianity. This indicates their doctrine is not maintaining the historical theology passed down from the Apostles in the New Testament. Any biblical passages presented as proof texts for this new doctrine can only be superimposed on the text of scripture as a hidden or allegorical interpretation braking any consistency with how theologians understood the tenets of the faith in the past (Jude 3).

Hannah explains her understanding of sanctification, stating, “And we had discovered further that faith and faith only was the root to victory, and that effort and wrestling were of no avail in this battle. Out part, we saw, was simply surrender and faith, and God’s part was to do all the rest.”12)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 268 She says, “It was true Quaker doctrine that we had discovered.”13)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 275-276 2 Peter 1:5 speaks of “giving all diligence, add to your faith” the various aspects of things that we work out to affect our sanctification. The Lord taught that we are sanctified by the word (John 17:17) and Paul further identified a diligent study of Scriptures produces sanctification in our lives (2 Timothy 2:15). Teaching sanctification as anything less than: faith, studying Scripture, and striving against sin, is a deficient and false doctrine.

Hannah relates an event that occurred to her husband Pearsall Smith at a Methodist Holiness Camp Meeting, who when retired alone to the woods to pray for the Baptism of the Spirit had a mystical experience. “Suddenly, from head to foot he had been shaken with what seemed like a magnetic thrill of heavenly delight, and floods of glory seemed to pour through him, soul and body, with the inward assurance that this was the longed-for Baptism of the Holy Spirit.”14)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 288 This description is in common with many pagan religious mystical experiences, which I have provided numerous examples of elsewhere.15) see Heath Henning, Crept In Unawares: Mysticism, Truthwatchers Publication (2019), pp. 92-101 Pearsall would later fall from the ministry because of his teaching about an “erotic spirit baptism,” which he used to seduce women in his adulteress lifestyle. Being caught in a hotel room with a woman the night before the first Keswick conference caused him to be replaced as the key speaker of the conference at the last minute. The conference continued without him, but the name Keswick got attached to the theological movement that carried this false teaching of sanctification which was to be rooted in as part of its core belief and Hannah Whitall Smith’s writings still carry significance influence in spite of her many false teachings.

In fact, from her own words, she rejected the very gospel that saves. When she expounds her alleged conversion, it is missing many key elements to a true saving faith. She relates, “It was not that I felt myself to be a sinner needing salvation, or that I was troubled about my future destiny. It was not a personal question at all. It was simply and only that I had become aware of God, and that I felt I could not rest until I should know him…. All I wanted was to become acquainted with the God of whom I had suddenly become aware.”16)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 173 She had entered a prayer meeting during the Business Meeting Prayer Revival and suddenly had this feeling. After reading a booklet explaining salvation from Romans 3-5, she says, “Of course this was a very legal and business like interpretation of these passages, and was not at all the interpretation I should give to them now; but I want to tell, as truthfully as I can, the way things impressed me then.”17)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 176 So her conversion neither identified a personal conviction of sin or the need of salvation, and the very “legal” expression of Christ’s death for our sins imputing His righteousness by faith to our account is not how she understand the gospel from the book of Romans (Romans 3:21-26). Theologian John Gresham Machen, a contemporary of Hannah Whitall Smith, wrote, “So fundamental is the conviction of sin in the Christian faith that it will not do to arrive at it merely by a process of reasoning; it will not do to say merely: All men (as I have been told) are sinners; I am a man; therefore I suppose I must be a sinner too.”18)J. G. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, The Macmillian Company (New York, NY: 1923), p. 106 How would one repent of sin if never personally convicted of their own sins or viewed themselves as a sinner in need of salvation?

Without a true salvation, she had no access to the Holy Spirit to teach her truth (John 14:17; 16:13; 1 John 2:20, 26-27), so it should not be surprising that she came to hold a number of heretical opinions. At first she began to believe in the doctrine of annihilationism, admitting, “I at first embraced the doctrine of annihilation for the wicked[.]”19)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 196 She began to question this conclusion, “I could not believe He [God] would torment them forever; and neither could I rest in the thought of annihilation as His best remedy for sin.”20)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 198 This doubt did not direct her to an orthodox belief, but rather to an idea of universal salvation. She writes, “But one day a revelation came to me that vindicated Him [God], and that settled the whole question forever.”21)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 200 She then follows by explaining how she came to a universal salvation doctrine. “I had been used to hearing a great deal about the awfulness of our sins against God, but now I asked myself, what about the awfulness of our fate in having been made sinners?”22)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 202 Note, she considered this new idea a “revelation,” not just her opinion. She elaborates how she came to this authoritative revelation. “The vividness with which all this came to me can never be expressed. I did not think it, or imagine it, or suppose it. I saw it. It was a revelation of the real nature of things—not according to the surface conventional ideas, but according to the actual bottom facts—and it could not be gainsaid.”23)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 203 What was the revealed “fact?” “I saw that, when rightly interpreted, not by the letter, but by the Spirit… with this key to interpret it, all the denunciations of God’s wrath, which had once seemed so cruel and so unjust, were transformed into declarations of His loving determination to make us good enough to live in Heaven with Himself forever.”24)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 207-208 Carole Dale Spencer claims that later editions of Hannah Smith’s autobiography her universalism “is edited out of all subsequent editions of her autobiography )Smith, 1903, 198-208).”25) Carole Dale Spencer, “Hannah Whitall Smith’s Highway of Holiness: mysticism, heresy and feminism in a Quaker “free lance”,” Paper presented for the J. M. Ward Lecture, Guilford College, Greensboro, N.C. (September 30, 2013), p. 10

In her autobiography, she also gives praise to the father of pragmatism, William James, saying “Prof. Wm. James in his most valuable book, ‘The Variety of Religious Experience[.]’”26)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 111-112 William James apparently reciprocated endorsement of Hannah Whitall Smith’s Christian Secret of a Happy Life.27)see Carole Dale Spencer, “Hannah Whitall Smith’s Highway of Holiness: mysticism, heresy and feminism in a Quaker “free lance”,” Paper presented for the J. M. Ward Lecture, Guilford College, Greensboro, N.C. (September 30, 2013), p. 3  It is her pragmatic perspective on ministry and ideas of continuous prophecy that led her to conclude, “I am convinced that it is the divine plan that each generation shall have the guidance of its own era, and shall do its work in its own way. And any effort to upset this Divine order, efforts which I am sorry to say we old people are constantly being tempted to make, are sure to produce friction and to hinder progress.”28)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 307-308

She was also an early adherent of Egalitarianism, which is not surprising since Hannah Smith was a female preacher. She says, “I did not as a general thing approve of letting husbands decide things for their wives[,]”29)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 118 and referred to “My beloved Frances Willard”30)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 123 who was a close friend and leader in the women’s suffrage movement and advocate of Christian socialism. Carole Dale Spencer, a modern Quaker minster and professor of “church history” at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, wrote of Hannah Smith, “Today she is read and revered by conservative Christians—yet she was a universalist, and admitted she held heretical views. She was progressive, even radical in politics, a fierce feminist who marched with her daughter for women’s suffrage. Later in life she gave labor union speeches and explored Christian socialism.”31)Carole Dale Spencer, “Hannah Whitall Smith’s Highway of Holiness: mysticism, heresy and feminism in a Quaker “free lance”,” Paper presented for the J. M. Ward Lecture, Guilford College, Greensboro, N.C. (September 30, 2013), p. 1

With all these doctrinal issues in scope it should be evident why the heresies of the Keswick movement set theological precedence for the modern Word of Faith heresies.32)for more about the Word of Faith see my article “The Word of Faith Heresy,” September 29, 2018; https://truthwatchers.com/the-word-of-faith-heresy/  Hannah Smith writes, “I had discovered that faith is the conquering law of the universe. God spoke, and it was done, and, relying upon Him, we too may speak and it shall be done.”33)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 252 So man becomes co-creators when they positively confess words infused with faith. Referring to 1 John 5:14-15 she expounds, “the statement of a Divine law, the law of faith; a law as certain in its action as the law of gravitation, if only one understood it.”34)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 252 This is followed by her comment,

Our Lord tells us over and over that according to our faith it shall be unto us, and actually asserts, without any limitations, that all things are possible to him that believeth… Now I saw that He had been simply enunciating a law of the spiritual kingdom, which any one might try and prove for themselves. I saw that faith links us to the Almighty power of God… and there seemed no limit to its possibilities.35)Hannah Whitall Smith, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It: A Spiritual Autobiography, Fleming H. Revell Company (New York, NY: 1903), p. 252

As a universalist, she says “any one” can prove this law of faith. This is exactly what Word of Faith teaches, the law of faith gives positive confession to co-create health, wealth and prosperity to anyone who taps into this power of faith. This is also precisely how the occultists teach the positive affirmation doctrines and it is likely Hannah Whitall Smith had adapted this heresy from the mystics she studied.

It is deeply embarrassing that many Christians today would not have enough biblical discernment to identify the heretical influence of this unregenerate woman currently permeating popular sermons and bible colleges across America and the world. Furthermore, it is sincerely shameful when Christians defend ministries that endorse these false teachings and refuse to separate from other ministries promoting such heretical beliefs.

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Heath Henning
Heath Henning
Heath heads the Set Free addictions ministry on Friday nights at Mukwonago Baptist Church and is involved in evangelism on the University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, offering his expertise in apologetics at the weekly Set Free Bible Study every Tuesday evening. He currently lives in East Troy, Wisconsin with his wife and nine children. Read Heath Henning's Testimony

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