by Robert Gail Woods
Dr. Woods serves as minister of two United Methodist Churches in Missouri. This article appeared in the Christian Century May 16, 1979, p. 553. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Although most libraries have copies of some of her books—the two celebrated ones are Mysticism and Worship—Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) is but a name to many people, even among the theologically informed. Imagine my consternation a few years ago when, my dissertation on her concept of worship just completed, I talked with an Episcopal bishop who insisted that Evelyn Underhill, a fellow Anglican, was a man! He only tentatively accepted my explanation that in nonliterary circles she was known as Mrs. Hubert Stuart Moore, the wife of a London barrister. I myself had never heard of her until my seminary years. Yet she is definitely a “star” in her own right.
How Underhill’s life was shaped by World War I may be inferred from certain facts. The outbreak of the war on August 4, 1914, found her aboard her father’s yacht, which was then detained without lights in the harbor. There were to be further anxieties. The house adjacent to her parents’ residence in London was bombed, and a section of the law courts where her father’s chambers were housed was reduced to rubble. Moreover, since she had toured the continent frequently during the 15 years before war broke out, the knowledge that familiar haunts both at home and abroad were being devastated must have weighed on her mind.
Hubert Stuart Moore aided the war effort as a civilian, serving on hospital boards; he invented a splint and, according to one account, artificial limbs as well. His wife translated African guidebooks for Naval Intelligence. Perhaps to provide a little comic relief for herself and her colleagues there, she invented a country—complete with flora and fauna. Her levity was halted just short of publication! It is conjectured that she also worked with the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association.
True, Underhill had her husband with her throughout the war. Nevertheless, the fact that two cousins were among the casualties probably deeply affected this sensitive woman who had neither children nor siblings.
Underhill, sobered by the hostilities, revealed her melancholy in a slender volume of poetry titled Theophanies: A Book of Verses (J. M. Dent, 1916). In “The Naval Reserve” she mused:
Strive for England, side by side, Those who live and those who died.
Written in a similar vein is “England and the Soldier”:
Your wounds are England’s wounds,
Your labor and gain are hers, With you I thrust forth to battle, With you are my frontiers found.
I am there in the horror and pain, the
effort, the splendour, the joy; And, falling in the fight, England receives her child.
“Candlemas, 1915,” seems nostalgic:
Dare we, in such a day,
Carry the torch of faith upon its way,
fulfil this ancient rite?
Her official biographer, Margaret Cropper, sensed that Underhill was “easing her heart” as she cried out in “Non-Combatants” on behalf of all. Englishwomen and others not at the front:
Never of us be it said
We had no war to wage, Because our womanhood, Because the weight of age. Held us in servitude.
Naught were we spared—of us, this word shall not be said.
It was not enough just to be sentimental, however; probably Underhill’s most significant rationale for warfare was her article “Problems of Conflict” in the Hibbert Journal for April 1955. Those who shudder at inscriptions on monuments or passages in history books which refer simply to “the Great War” or “the World War”—written as though what we call World War I would indeed prove to be “the war to end war”—will feel saddened to read her portentous observation that “we have no guarantee that it will not recur.”
Far from being a warmonger, however, Underhill tried to shun the extremes of either pacifism or militarism After declaring that the former had collapsed and the latter lacked integrity, she concluded that strife was nonetheless an integral part of the nature of things, as normal as the hunger for food or sex. Attempting a reductio ad absurdum, she announced that the pacifist position would decimate the race and its achievements.
Then the article turns to theology, with the argument that warfare resembles other social ills (e.g., “suffering, poverty, and disease”) which have released forces both good and evil. Perceptively. Underhill wrote: “Christian theologians hold that the death of Christ was both inevitable and salutary for the race; but they do not on that account excuse Judas Iscariot.” She feared that “the beautiful dreams of pacifism will no more eliminate armed conflict…than the dreams of Christian Science will eliminate sickness.” For her there was further justification in the fact that, while civilization has retained carnivorous practices, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul was still widely held:
To Christians, even to theists, the particular form or moment in which death comes…surely cannot matter very much; except in so far as it gives…an opportunity to “die well.”
She concluded the article by depicting war as a positive good, “opening up to us new fields of endeavour and new opportunities of service and love.”
We can understand Christopher J. R. Armstrong’s comment that Underhill’s arguments in the Hibbert Journal really tend “to leave one justifying more than one had originally bargained for.” Perhaps realizing this herself, when later she abandoned her old position, she did so very quietly.
One final note here: in her tribute to the fallen hero and celebrated French poet Charles Péguy, Underhill observed (in The Essentials of Mysticism and Other Essays [J. M. Dent, 1920]) that he had become a soldier because he felt his country “had lost its hold upon realities.” Comparing him with the visionary Joan of Arc, she maintained that side by side with Péguy’s spiritual gospel, or rather entwined with it, goes his practical and patriotic gospel. Since for him the whole of life was crammed with spiritual significance, he saw in the patriotic passion a sacrament of heavenly love, and in earthly cities symbols of the City of God.
Unfortunately, there is a lacuna in our story; we do not know how and why Underhill became a pacifist. One regrets that she did not disclose the dynamics of her change. Probably no single crisis moved her to renounce war; more likely she arrived at this decision as a result of her pilgrimage of faith, having mellowed and matured in her Christian experience. As she began to articulate a different philosophy, she did so with the same mystical temperament with which she had once condoned warfare.
We are the poorer because Underhill did not express her pacifist feelings in verse, but the strength of her viewpoint is Unmistakable in her prose. Her correspondence of this, period (available in The Letters of Evelyn Underhill [Religious Book Club, 19451) reflects a firm commitment to the way of peace.
Two issues loom large in these letters. One is the cross as the answer to evil. In The Life of Evelyn Underhill (Longmans, 1958) Cropper noted that Underhill’s pacifism was “linked to her deepest creed, and her interpretation of the meaning of the Cross.” Writing in 1941, only a month before her death; she proclaimed: “Christianity and war are incompatible, and…nothing worth having can be achieved by ‘casting out Satan by Satan.’” Never theatrical herself, she urged that people of her persuasion not be “controversial, or go in for propaganda.” In that letter she characterized Hitler as a ‘scourge of God,” who could be countered by two means:
war or the cross—“And only a very small number are ready for the Cross, in the full sense of loving and unresisting abandonment to the worst that may come.”
The other issue was Underhill’s concern over how few people held to the tenets of pacifism tenaciously. Toward the close of 1939 she lamented that “most of my quasi-pacifist friends are becoming more warlike,” Grieved to see the Anglican bishops on the side of warfare, she was somewhat consoled that numbers of clergy did oppose the hostilities. The following year she affirmed:
I am still entirely pacifist and more and more convinced that the idea that this or any other war is “righteous” or will achieve any creative result of a durable kind, is an illusion.
A wistful letter of New Year’s Day, 1941, again noted that many pacifists had reneged, owing to the exigencies
of the conflict, but would return to the fold after the war. Underhill personally remained unable to justify committing sin to cure sin.” She was not, of course, an ostrich with head in the sand, recognizing indeed (in a letter written in May 1940) that conditions in Norway, Belgium and Holland were enough to tempt one to forsake pacifism. But a month later she lamented: ‘The News Bulletins with their glorification of bombing are enough to destroy the moral integrity of any society.” Perhaps discerning her own impending death, this undaunted woman had added in the May letter: ‘There is nothing pacifists can do but take their share of the agony and pray for the future we shan’t live to see”’
Underhill expressed her convictions in more detail in two pamphlets, The Church and War and Meditation of Peace. Some excerpts are included in the Cropper biography. In one, written for the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, of which she was a member, she declared:
If she remains true to her supernatural call, the Church cannot acquiesce in War for War, however camouflaged or excused, must always mean the effort of a group of men to achieve their purpose…by inflicting destruction and death on another group of men.
She did admit, however, that “it is often difficult to define the boundary which divides legitimate police action from military action; nevertheless, Christians must try to find that boundary and to observe it.”
The second pamphlet was written for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, another organization to which Underhill belonged. She stated: “The true pacifist is a redeemer, and must accept with joy the redeemer’s lot. He, too, is self-offered, without conditions, for the peace of the world.”
Not content to be merely a proclaimer of pacifism, Underhill tried to live by its principles. In The Spiritual Life (Harper, n.d.) she pleaded: “We cannot begin the day by a real act of communion with the Author of peace and Lover of concord, and then go on to read a bloodthirsty newspaper at breakfast.” She declared in The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (E. P. Dutton, 1923) that society would be enhanced “if the civil wars of civilized man could cease and be replaced by that other mental fight, for the upbuilding of Jerusalem.” Not given to rancor, she implored divine mercy for both friend and foe, praying (in The Fruits of the Spirit [Lougmans, 1956]) “not only for the innocent people of Germany, but also for those who have brought this evil and misery on the world.” Her intercessions included “all children, in whom the hope of the future rests.”
The last years of Evelyn Underhill’s spiritual pilgrimage thus found her, a pacifist, although she never worked her ideas into a finely spun philosophy. Quite predictably, her stand has seldom won plaudits. Even Charles Williams, who edited her letters, had reservations, hinting that she was reverting to her slight tendency to dictate church dogma. One who shares her pacifist views, on the other hand, will regret her earlier stand in favor of war. Armstrong has conjectured that during World War I her views must have resounded, and her name been favorably mentioned, in “bellicose pulpit oratory.”
Patriotic even during her pacifist years, no doubt Underhill, had she lived, would have appreciated the window in Westminster Abbey commemorating the Battle of Britain or War Memorial Chapel in Washington Cathedral. One of her letters of 1940 is somewhat reminiscent of her tribute to Péguy:
“Yet even war, it seems, isn’t spiritually sterile….Were you not thrilled by all the accounts of the patient endurance and unselfishness at Dunkirk?”
Underhill’s vision of peace was ahead of its time. It is still not widely accepted. Yet it contains a power dynamism. Like Harry Emerson Fosdick in the United States—himself an advocate of World War I but a pacifist during World War II—she shows that mature people can reverse earlier positions and remain models of responsible citizenship and ethical sensitivity. Men and women whose hearts are set on a new social order will always embrace the prophetic hope that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”