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Evelyn Underhill
Evelyn Underhill 1926.png
Born (1875-12-06)6 December 1875
Wolverhampton, England
Died 15 June 1941(1941-06-15) (aged 65)
London, England
Occupation Novelist, writer, mystic
Genre Christian mysticism, spirituality
Notable works Mysticism

Evelyn Underhill (6 December 1875 – 15 June 1941) was an English Anglo-Catholic writer and pacifist known for her numerous works on religion and spiritual practice, in particular Christian mysticism. Her best-known is Mysticism, published in 1911.


Underhill was born in Wolverhampton. She was a poet and novelist as well as a pacifist and mystic. An only child, she described her early mystical insights as "abrupt experiences of the peaceful, undifferentiated plane of reality—like the 'still desert' of the mystic—in which there was no multiplicity nor need of explanation". The meaning of these experiences became a lifelong quest and a source of private angst, provoking her to research and write.

Both her father Arthur Underhill and her husband, Hubert Stuart Moore, were writers (on the law), London barristers, and yachtsmen. She and her husband grew up together and were married on 3 July 1907. The couple had no children. She travelled regularly within Europe, primarily to Switzerland, France and Italy, where she pursued her interests in art and Catholicism, visiting numerous churches and monasteries. Neither her husband (a Protestant) nor her parents shared her interest in spiritual matters.

Underhill was called simply "Mrs Moore" by many of her friends. She was a prolific author and published over 30 books either under her maiden name, Underhill, or under the pseudonym "John Cordelier", as was the case for the 1912 book The Spiral Way. Initially an agnostic, she gradually began to acquire an interest in Neoplatonism and from there was increasingly drawn to Catholicism against the objections of her husband, eventually converting before becoming a prominent Anglo-Catholic. Her spiritual mentor from 1921 to 1924 was Baron Friedrich von Hügel, who was appreciative of her writing yet concerned with her focus on mysticism and who encouraged her to adopt a much more Christocentric view as opposed to the theistic and intellectual one she had previously held. She described him as "the most wonderful personality. ... so saintly, truthful, sane and tolerant" (Cropper, p. 44) and was influenced by him toward more charitable and down-to-earth activities. After his death in 1925, her writings became more focused on the Holy Spirit and she became prominent in the Anglican Church as a lay leader of spiritual retreats, a spiritual director for hundreds of individuals, guest speaker, radio lecturer and proponent of contemplative prayer.

Underhill came of age in the Edwardian era, at the turn of the 20th century and, like most of her contemporaries, had a decided romantic bent. The enormous excitement in those days was mysteriously compounded of the psychic, the psychological, the occult, the mystical, the medieval, the advance of science, the apotheosis of art, the rediscovery of the feminine, the unashamedly sensuous, and the most ethereally "spiritual" (Armstrong, p. xiii–xiv). Anglicanism seemed to her out-of-key with this, her world. She sought the centre of life as she and many of her generation conceived it, not in the state religion, but in experience and the heart. This age of "the soul" was one of those periods when a sudden easing of social taboos brings on a great sense of personal emancipation and desire for an El Dorado despised by an older, more morose and insensitive generation.

As an only child, she was devoted to her parents and, later, to her husband. She was fully engaged in the life of a barrister's daughter and wife, including the entertainment and charitable work that entailed, and pursued a daily regimen that included writing, research, worship, prayer and meditation. It was a fundamental axiom of hers that all of life was sacred, as that was what "incarnation" was about.

She was a cousin of Francis Underhill, Bishop of Bath and Wells.


Underhill was educated at home, except for three years at a private school in Folkestone, and subsequently read history and botany at King's College London. An honorary Doctorate of Divinity was conferred on her by Aberdeen University and she was made a fellow of King's College. She was the first woman to lecture to the clergy in the Church of England and the first woman officially to conduct spiritual retreats for the Church. She was also the first woman to establish ecumenical links between churches and one of the first woman theologians to lecture in English colleges and universities, which she did frequently. Underhill was an award-winning bookbinder, studying with the most renowned masters of the time. She was schooled in the classics, well read in Western spirituality, well informed (in addition to theology) in the philosophy, psychology, and physics of her day, and was a writer and reviewer for The Spectator.

Early work

Evelyn Underhill 50 Campden Hill Square blue plaque
Blue plaque, 50 Campden Hill Square, London

Before undertaking many of her better-known expository works on mysticism, she first published a small book of satirical poems on legal dilemmas, The Bar-Lamb's Ballad Book, which received a favourable welcome. Underhill then wrote three unconventional, though profoundly spiritual novels. Like Charles Williams and later, Susan Howatch, Underhill uses her narratives to explore the sacramental intersection of the physical with the spiritual. She then uses that sacramental framework effectively to illustrate the unfolding of a human drama. Her novels are entitled The Grey World (1904), The Lost Word (1907), and The Column of Dust (1909). In her first novel, The Grey World, described by one reviewer as an extremely interesting psychological study, the hero's mystical journey begins with death, and then moves through reincarnation, beyond the grey world, and into the choice of a simple life devoted to beauty, reflecting Underhill's own serious perspective as a young woman.

The Lost Word and The Column of Dust are also concerned with the problem of living in two worlds and reflect the writer's own spiritual challenges. Underhill's novels suggest that perhaps for the mystic, two worlds may be better than one. For her, mystical experience seems inseparable from some kind of enhancement of consciousness or expansion of perceptual and aesthetic horizons—to see things as they are, in their meanness and insignificance when viewed in opposition to the divine reality, but in their luminosity and grandeur when seen bathed in divine radiance. But at this stage the mystic's mind is subject to fear and insecurity, its powers undeveloped. The first novel takes us only to this point. Further stages demand suffering, because mysticism is more than merely vision or cultivating a latent potentiality of the soul in cosy isolation. According to Underhill's view, the subsequent pain and tension, and final loss of the private painful ego-centered life for the sake of regaining one's true self, has little to do with the first beatific vision. Her two later novels are built on the ideal of total self-surrender even to the apparent sacrifice of the vision itself, as necessary for the fullest possible integration of human life. This was for her the equivalent of working out within, the metaphorical intent of the life story of Jesus. One is reunited with the original vision—no longer as mere spectator but as part of it. This dimension of self-loss and resurrection is worked out in The Lost Word, but there is some doubt as to its general inevitability. In The Column of Dust, the heroine's physical death reinforces dramatically the mystical death to which she has already surrendered. Two lives are better than one but only on the condition that a process of painful re-integration intervenes to re-establish unity between Self and Reality.

All her characters derive their interest from the theological meaning and value which they represent, and it is her ingenious handling of so much difficult symbolic material that makes her work psychologically interesting as a forerunner of such 20th-century writers as Susan Howatch, whose successful novels also embody the psychological value of religious metaphor and the traditions of Christian mysticism. Her first novel received critical acclaim, but her last was generally derided. Yet her novels give remarkable insight into what we may assume was her decision to avoid what St Augustine described as the temptation of fuga in solitudinem ("the flight into solitude"), but instead acquiescing to a loving, positive acceptance of this world. Not looking back, by this time she was already working on her magnum opus.

Writings on religion

  • Mysticism (1911)
  • Ruysbroeck (1914)
  • The Mysticism of Plotinus (1919)
  • Worship (1936)


Underhill's life was greatly affected by her husband's resistance to her joining the Catholic Church, to which she was powerfully drawn and entered upon the year of their marriage. At first she believed it to be only a delay in her decision, but it proved to be lifelong. He was a writer himself and was supportive of her writing both before and after their marriage in 1907, though he did not share her spiritual affinities. Her fiction was written in the six years of 1903–1909 and represents her four major interests of that general period: philosophy (neoplatonism), theism/mysticism, the Catholic liturgy, and human love/compassion. In her earlier writings Underhill often wrote using the terms "mysticism" and "mystics" but later began to adopt the terms "spirituality" and "saints" because she felt they were less threatening. She was often criticized for believing that the mystical life should be accessible to the average person.

In Underhill's case the quest for psychological realism is subordinate to larger metaphysical considerations which she shared with Arthur Machen.

Two contemporary philosophical writers dominated Underhill's thinking at the time she wrote "Mysticism": Rudolf Eucken and Henri Bergson. While neither displayed an interest in mysticism, both seemed to their disciples to advance a spiritual explanation of the universe. Also, she describes the fashionable creed of the time as "vitalism" and the term adequately sums up the prevailing worship of life in all its exuberance, variety and limitless possibility which pervaded pre-war culture and society. For her, Eucken and Bergson confirmed the deepest intuitions of the mystics. (Armstrong, Evelyn Underhill)

Among the mystics, Ruysbroeck was to her the most influential and satisfying of all the medieval mystics, and she found herself very much at one with him in the years when he was working as an unknown priest in Brussels, for she herself had also a hidden side.

One of her most significant influences and important collaborations was with the Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian mystic, author, and world traveler. They published a major translation of the work of Kabir (100 Poems of Kabir, calling Songs of Kabir) together in 1915, to which she wrote the introduction. They did not keep up their correspondence in later years. Both suffered debilitating illnesses in the last year of life and died in the summer of 1941, greatly distressed by the outbreak of World War II.

Evelyn in 1921 was to all outward appearances, in an assured and enviable position. She had been asked by the University of Oxford to give the first of a new series of lectures on religion, and she was the first woman to gain such an honour. She was an authority on her own subject of mysticism and respected for her research and scholarship. Her writing was in demand, and she had an interesting and notable set of friends, devoted readers, a happy marriage and affectionate and loyal parents. At the same time she felt that her foundations were insecure and that her zeal for Reality was resting on a basis that was too fragile.

By 1939, she was a member of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, writing a number of important tracts expressing her anti-war sentiment.

After converting to Anglicanism, and perhaps overwhelmed by her knowledge of the achievements of the mystics and their perilous heights, her ten-year friendship with Catholic philosopher and writer Baron Friedrich von Hügel turned into one of spiritual direction. Charles Williams wrote in his introduction to her Letters: 'The equal swaying level of devotion and scepticism (related to the church) which is, for some souls, as much the Way as continuous simple faith is to others, was a distress to her...She wanted to be "sure."

In a later letter of 12 July the Baron's practical concerns for signs of strain in Evelyn's spiritual state are expressed.

Although Underhill continued to struggle to the end, craving certainty that her beatific visions were purposeful, suffering as only a pacifist can from the devastating onslaught of World War II and the Church's powerlessness to affect events, she may well have played a powerful part in the survival of her country through the influence of her words and the impact of her teachings on thousands regarding the power of prayer.

Surviving the London Blitz of 1940, her health disintegrated further and she died in the following year. She is buried with her husband in the churchyard extension at St John-at-Hampstead in London.

More than any other person, she was responsible for introducing the forgotten authors of medieval and Catholic spirituality to a largely Protestant audience and the lives of eastern mystics to the English-speaking world. As a frequent guest on radio, her 1936 work The Spiritual Life was especially influential as transcribed from a series of broadcasts given as a sequel to those by Dom Bernard Clements on the subject of prayer. Fellow theologian Charles Williams wrote the introduction to her published Letters in 1943, which reveal much about this prodigious woman. Upon her death, The Times reported that on the subject of theology, she was "unmatched by any of the professional teachers of her day."


Evelyn Underhill is honored on June 15th on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican churches, including those of the Anglican Church of Australia, Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil, Church of England, Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and Anglican Church in North America.

See also

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