42: Evelyn Underhill

2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA, the 40th anniversary of women of color, and the 10th anniversary of LGBTQ+ siblings.

It’s an incredibly important marker for the ELCA, though it is only the beginning for the Church, as women are still denied ordination across the denominations and hold less than 15% of the leadership positions in the worldwide church! Therefore, in 2020, we in the Oregon Synod will highlight one woman from Christian history every week. Some you may know, others you may not, but all worthy of our respect and gratitude.

#42: Evelyn Underhill

Without any formal academic or religious training, Evelyn Underhill established herself as a leading expert on mysticism. She is best known for her groundbreaking book, Mysticism (published in 1911). To the traditional 3-stage understanding of the mystical journey (purgation illumination and unification), she added two more stages: conversion and surrender. Popular at the time of its writing, this spiritual classic has never been out of print. Even without formal qualifications, her work garnered great respect. She was the first woman outside lecturer in religion at Oxford, the first woman invited to give a lecture to Anglican clergy, and the first woman to be included in a Church of England commission. However, her popularity did take a hit in the 1930s when she publically embraced pacifism. She published a total of 39 books (and many, many more articles). She was a skilled spiritual director. She was also a leading figure in the retreat movement and led many retreats. The transcriptions from the addresses she gave at these retreats are thought to form an even larger part of her legacy than her published works. On the subject of her life’s work she said: “If God were small enough to be understood, He would not be big enough to be worshipped.”