Evelyn Underhill

Where is the best place to begin?

Evelyn Underhill was a prolific writer who published 39 books and more than 350 articles and reviews. In her early years, she wrote on mysticism; in her latter years on the spiritual life as lived by ordinary people. This latter work is more accessible than the earlier writing. Perhaps the best introduction to her is Letters, edited by Charles Williams, which give an introduction to her principal ideas, her style of guidance, and her immense sense of humanity and accessibility. The Spiritual Life, an edition of her BBC broadcast, first given orally, is a clear, concise introduction to her thought. Most of Evelyn Underhill’s retreats were published, and many are still in print. A wonderful anthology of her work is Delroy Oberg’s Evelyn Underhill: Daily Readings with a Modern Mystic.

Her key early works on mysticism include Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness and Practical Mysticism.

About Evelyn Underhill’s Life

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was born at 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, save for three years at a private school in Folkestone, and later went to King’s College for Women, London, where she read history and botany. She also became a first-class bookbinder. During her girlhood and the greater part of her married life her holidays were spent yachting, both her father and her husband being enthusiastic yachtsmen. From 1898 to 1913 she went abroad every spring and came to know and love the artistic treasures of 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. They had many interests in common in country lilfe and country lore, and in a love of cats. She shared her husband’s interest in wood and metal work and made many of the designs which he carried out.

The year of her marriage witnessed her final conversion to the Christian faith, although not to Anglicanism, for her attraction was the towards Rome. But the outbreak of the modernist storm in the same year made it seem to her that the demands of Rome postulated a surrender of her intellectual honor. 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 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 the direction of souls. As she grew older the work of direction increased until it finally became her chief interest, but it was not until 1921 that she solved her own problem and became a practising member of the Anglican communion. In 1924 she began to conduct retreats, and a number of her books consist of these conferences. Her other publications include three novels, two books of verse, a number of works on philosophy and religion, and various editions of, and critical essays on, mystics such as Ruysbroeck and Walter Hilton. She also wrote reviews and special articles for the Spectator (of which she was for some years the theological editor), and later for Time and Tide. In 1921 she gave the Upton lectures on religion at Manchester College, Oxford, later published under the title The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (1922). While working on Worship (1936), writtten 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).

In 1913 Evelyn Underhill became an honorary fellow of King’s College of Women and in 1927 fellow of King’s College; in 1939 she received the honorary degree of D.D. from the university of Aberdeen. She had a vivid, lively personality with a keen sense of humor and great lightness of touch. As befitted a good Incarnationalist 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.

Writings By & About Evelyn Underhill

Fortunately, much of the writing by Evelyn Underhill is still in print and easily available. In addition to that material, there are several books detailing her life as well as providing commentary on her works. Academic journals, also carry much discussion of her observations about the mystical experience and on the Christian life.

Note: Many of the above writings are available from our bookstore. By making your purchase through the EUA bookstore you help us defray the costs of publishing the EUA newsletter, mantaining our web site, and you help support special events on the life and works of Evelyn Underhill.

Dana Greene is the current president of the Evelyn Underhill Association.