Evelyn Underhill was born in 1875 as the daughter of a wealthy barrister in Kensington. Even though she encountered Christianity as a child through being baptized and confirmed in the Church of England as it was very much the cultural expectation for someone born in upper-class Kensington, her upbringing was not particularly Christian. At a time when the opportunities for a formal education were still very limited for women, she was able to attend the newly founded Ladies’ Department at King’s College London to study languages, philosophy and botany.
In 1907, she married Henry Stuart Moore, her closest friend since childhood. At about the same time, Evelyn Underhill became fascinated with the Christian tradition and developed an interest in spirituality. She began to spend long hours in the British Library reading the works of the great mystics which were to inform her own search for God. At the same time, she corresponded extensively with a number of spiritual advisers in order to develop her own faith. She was very dissatisfied with what she saw of the churches and worship and remained hesitant to commit herself to any particular tradition. During a number of spring holidays spent on the Continent, she encountered the Roman Catholic tradition and the Orthodox Churches and began to attend Mass at the chapel of Heythrop College, experiencing the divine mysteries of the Eucharist and the drama of the Mass without ever receiving the sacrament herself. For a time, she was very drawn to Roman Catholicism and considered joining the Roman Catholic Church. Two factors, however, restrained her from ultimately doing so: her fiancee’s hesitations about a possible close relationship with her confessor which might impinge on their marriage and the condemnation of ‘Modernism’ by the Pope which Underhill saw as an assault on the potential which science and theological research might have.
For a number of years she worked as an independent writer, culminating in her first major work Mysticism in which she explores different types of religious experiences, drawing on a variety of Christian tradition, on the work of psychologists and on non-Christian authors such as the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore.
Underhill’s work on mysticism was to become one of the great attempts to communicate mystical spirituality to a popular audience.
During the First World War, she was involved in naval intelligence and in helping the families of servicemen. It was not until after the war, that she became a well-known public speaker. In 1920, she was invited to give a series of lectures at Harris Manchester College in Oxford and became the first woman ever to appear on the lecture list of the Theology Faculty of Oxford University. It was in the following year, 1921, that Evelyn Underhill decided to make a formal commitment to the church of her upbringing, the Church of England. George Bell, then Dean of Canterbury Cathedral invited her to give a retreat address to women which was the beginning of her work as a retreat leader, first for lay people and subsequently for clergy that became one of her most important contributions to the life of the Church of England. Underhill began to see and to dwell on the wealth which the Anglican tradition had to offer. This is manifested in her second major book Worship which appeared in 1936.
Evelyn Underhill, though a prolific writer on spirituality and one of the most important thinkers in the Church of England in the first half of the twentieth century, had not received any formal theological education. She was and remained a married laywoman who was self-taught and in many ways restricted by the constraints which society put on her. And yet, she was honoured to become the first woman fellow at King’s College London in 127 and to receive an honourary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen. While she saw it as her duty to work in intelligence in the First World War, she died a committed pacifist during the second in 1941.
Her major contribution is the combination of mysticism and a deep commitment to the institutional church. Underhill’s mystic is not a recluse, but strongly committed to social action and living in this world. This is already obvious in her writings on the mystic encountering the challenges of war during the First World War. For Underhill mysticism and social action are by no means contradictory. This is for example visible in her participation in the Conference on Politics, Economics and Christianity in the 1920s.
Much of Underhill’s work is now outdated and superseded by modern scholarship. What, however, is of lasting significance for us today is her strong desire to communicate a sense of the holy, of the divine mysteries to a wide audience.
Natalie K. Watson