Evelyn Underhill

This year, 2014, marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, so many peacemakers are working to recover the stories of men and women moved toward peace in the midst of the overwhelming carnage known at the time as “The Great War.” When that war began, the great mystic Evelyn Underhill had not thought much about such issues in relation to her faith and she immediately agreed to help with the war effort—mainly working as a translator for British Naval Intelligence. However, the horrors of WWI weighed so heavily on her that she wrote a series of heartbreaking poems about he human cost of war. By 1940, she was a committed Christian pacifist and published one of the prophetic public statements against war on the eve of World War II. Although that four-page pamphlet is now out of print, Underhill was a courageous visionary in drawing the conclusion that truly committed Christians cannot promote war.
Daniel Buttry

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941)

You don’t have to be peculiar to find God.
Evelyn Underhill

wpid-Evelyn-Underhill-full.jpgThe writings of Evelyn Underhill dominated discussions about the spiritual life in the first half of the 20th Century. Her book Mysticism, published in 1911, was unmatched in publishing success for over forty years. Born in England in 1875, she had mystical experiences in her childhood. These experiences prompted a life-long journey of spiritual exploration, research, writing and discovery. She was an agnostic early on, raised in a non-religious family. Eventually her spiritual quest drew her to the Anglican Church, particularly the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church.

Though she never earned a doctoral degree herself, she became the first woman to lecture clergy in the Church of England and then received an honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Aberdeen University. She was a frequent lecturer at English colleges and universities, often the first woman to do so in some settings. Besides her scholarly work on mysticism and her writings about spirituality, she was a novelist and a poet. In her novels she explored the connections between the world of the spirit and our ordinary experiences, seeing their inseparability and the way divine radiance can bathe our reality. She especially taught that ordinary people could open themselves up to the divine, something that drew so many of those ordinary people to her writings. She wrote, “You don’t have to be peculiar to find God.”

As she studied mysticism Underhill entered into a special collaboration with the Indian Hindu mystic Rabindranath Tagore (featured in Interfaith Heroes). They not only worked together as scholars, but Underhill opened herself to learn from the mystical traditions and practices of a teacher from another religion, while maintaining strongly her own Christian spirituality. Together Underhill and Tagore studied the Muslim mystical poet Kabir. Tagore translated 100 Poems of Kabir into English while Underhill wrote an extensive introduction. Underhill wrote to Tagore afterward, “This is the first time I have had the privilege of being with one who is a Master in the things I care so much about but know so little of as yet; and I understand now something of what your writers mean when they insist on the necessity and value of the personal teacher and the fact that he gives something which the learner cannot get in any other way. It has been like hearing the language of which I barely know the alphabet, spoken perfectly.”

In her last major work Underhill turned for mysticism to the experience of corporate worship. Her book Worship described, analyzed and explored the basic characteristics of worship such as ritual, symbol, sacrifice and sacrament. As with mysticism, she remained rooted in her Christian faith, but she was able to explore worship within the various traditions of Christianity such as Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Catholicism and Reformed Protestantism. She also studied worship within Judaism, learning from another tradition to shed light on her own.

For Underhill spiritual life begins with the love of God. Everything follows from that, including how we relate to others. For her the love of neighbor is a corollary of the love of God, not its equivalent. So out of her deep mystical relationship with God, she engaged the world in love, including people of other faiths who had things to teach her.

March to Pacifism

In Underhill’s still widely read classics, she included no autobiographical explanation of her transition from a loyal British supporter of the war effort at the start of World War I. But she was deeply affected by the widespread loss of life in that conflict and the destructive legacy of the war in countless families. Her poetry from that period includes numerous references to remembering the vast loss of life in that conflict.

By 1940, however, when she published a four-page pamphlet with the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, she had become convinced that her faith should stalwartly reject warfare. She felt that the coming war would, in fact, prove a defining moment for Christianity that most Christian leaders were likely to fail. A number of Anglican bishops who moved to support the war troubled her enough that she publicly declared her own pacifism and her belief that all Christians should join her in this position.

Her prophetic pamphlet included these words:

“War, however camouflaged or excused, must always mean the effort of one group of men to achieve their purpose … by inflicting destruction and death on another group of men. When we trace war to its origin, that origin is always either mortal sin—Pride, Anger, Envy, Greed—or else that spirit of self regarding Fear, which is a worse infidelity to God than any mortal sin. The Christian cannot serve these masters, even though they are wearing national dress. …

“To defeat the power of evil by the health-giving power of love and thus open a channel for the inflow of the creative grace of God is therefore the only struggle in which the realistic Christian can take part. No retaliation. No revenge, national or personal. No “defensive wars.” … The Church’s single business is to apply everywhere and at all times the law of charity; and so bring the will of man, whether national or individual, into harmony with the Will of God. Charity means a loving and selfless co-operation of man with God; and because of this, loving and selfless co-operation between men. In this the Church has a constructive program far more complete, definite, and truly practical—and also far more exacting—than that of any political reformer; for she looks towards a transfigured world, in which the energies now wasted on conflict shall be turned to the purposes of life, and calls upon everyone of her members to work for this transfigured world. But she will not make her message effective until she shows the courage of her convictions, and makes her own life, individual and corporate, entirely consistent with the mandate she has received.

“She cannot minister with one hand the Chalice of Salvation, whilst with the other she blesses the instruments of death.”

Because Underhill died in 1941, we do not know what she might have written during and after World War II. When she died, she was honored in England as a great teacher, despite her outspoken pacifism at the start of the war. Today, she is honored each year as a modern saint by the Church of England and by the Episcopal Church in the U.S. Her liturgical feast is the day she died: June 15.

Meet more peacemakers

This profile on Evelyn Underhill comes from the pages of Interfaith Heroes 2. Interfaith Heroes 2 is one of the three books that inspired this website. Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.