About Evelyn Underhill’s Life
Evelyn Underhill was born in Wolverhampton on December 6, 1875, the only child of (Sir) Arthur Underhill, barrister, and a bencher of Lincoln’s Inn, by his wife, Alice Lucy, younger daughter of Moses Ironmonger, Justice of the peace of Wolverhampton. She was educated at home, except for three years at a private school in Folkestone, and later she went to King’s College for Women, London, where she read history and botany. Her interests included bookbinding, yachting, country life and folklore, cats and visiting art treasures in France and Italy.
Evelyn Underhill began writing before she was sixteen and her first publication, A Bar-Lamb’s Ballad Book, of humorous verse concerned with the law, appeared in 1902. In 1907 she married Hubert Stuart Moore, a barrister, whom she had known since childhood. She shared her husband’s interest in wood and metal work and made many of the designs which he carried out.
In the year of her marriage she converted to the Christian faith, although not to Anglicanism, for her attraction was then towards Rome. However, she found that the Catholic Church of that time frowned on her intellectual freedom and she desired to have some more personal spiritual input. Through her first important book, Mysticism (1911), she made the acquaintance of Baron Friedrich von Hugel to whom “under God,” she wrote, “I owe…my whole spiritual life.” Ten years later she formally put herself under his spiritual direction and she remained his pupil until his death in 1925.
From the time of her conversion Evelyn Underhill’s life consisted of various forms of religious work. She was fond of quoting St. Teresa’s saying that “to give Our Lord a perfect service Martha and Mary must combine.” Her mornings were given to writing and her afternoons to visiting the poor and to giving spiritual direction to others. As she grew older the work of direction increased until it finally became her chief interest. In 1921 she became a practising member of the Anglican communion. In 1924 she began to conduct retreats, and a number of her books refer to these. Her other publications include three novels, two books of verse, a number of works on philosophy and religion, and reviews and articles for the Spectator and other publications. While working on Worship (1936), written for the Library of Constructive Theology, she became deeply interested in the Greek Orthodox Church and joined the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius.
During World War I (1914-1918) Evelyn Underhill worked at the Admiralty in the naval intelligence (Africa) department, but her views changed and in 1939 she found herself a Christian pacifist. She joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship and wrote for it an uncompromising pamphlet, The Church and War (1940).
Evelyn was the first woman to lecture at an Oxford college in theology, the first woman to lecture Anglican clergy, and one of the first women to be included in Church of England commissions. These accomplishments, along with her work as a theological editor and her role as a spiritual director and retreat leader, made Evelyn Underhill a prominent figure in her day. She had a vivid, lively personality with a keen sense of humour. She was interested in every side of life and had a passion for efficiency in everything she undertook. In her dealings with people, and especially with her pupils, she was always a little shy, having a great hatred, as she said, of “pushing souls about.” This love of souls coupled with the determination to help them to grow at God’s pace and not at their own or hers, won her the love and trust of all who went to her for help.
Evelyn Underhill died at Hampstead on June 15th, 1941. She had no children.
So, what can we learn from Evelyn? Firstly, that each of our lives is a journey and that there will be changes along the way. When we fully acknowledge the Lordship of Christ and learn to trust God with all of our heart, who knows what adventure in faith the Holy Spirit will lead us on to next? Caleb was a youthful and vigorous 85-year-old when he inherited Hebron, a full 45 years since he had been sent out by Moses to ‘spy out’ the land of Canaan, so God hasn’t finished with any of us yet!
Evelyn spoke up for her beliefs. Her spirituality included prayer, meditation, reading and writing, but it also worked out in practical ways like helping the poor and needy and campaigning against needless violence. Jesus was most forthright in Luke 12, when he told his disciples that they must acknowledge him, to speak up for God, to trust in the Lord and to believe that the Holy Spirit would give them the words to say. In these times, will we speak up for Jesus?
Lastly, Evelyn realised the benefit of being accountable to others for her spiritual life and the importance of retreats. We can all benefit from having a spiritual director, someone whom we can trust to guide us in our life of faith. Also, by going on retreat, whether physical or even virtual, we can learn to reflect on what God is saying to us individually, as a church and as a nation in these days. Amen
Many thanks to the Evelyn Underhill Association for the information about her life.