I WAS born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the year 1832. My parents were strict Quakers, and until my marriage at nineteen, I knew nothing of any other religion. I had an absolutely happy childhood and girlhood. I think so now, as I look back upon it, and my diary, kept from the time I was sixteen years old, shows that I thought so then. One of my first entries made in 1848 was as follows:—“Sixteen years of my life have passed, and, as I look back at the bright and happy days of my childhood, and at the quieter but more earnest enjoyments of my youth, my heart feels almost bursting with gratitude to my kind and gracious Creator who has filled my cup of joy almost to overflowing. Truly my life has been one fairy scene of sunshine and of flowers.”
This may seem a very roseate view to take of one’s life, and might be set down to the enthusiasm and glamour of youth. But on looking back now at seventy years of age, I can still say the same.
Under date of l0th mo., 7th, 1849, when I was seventeen years old I wrote:—“I cannot understand it. I have thought that unless trials and afflictions come to wean me from the joys of this life, I shall never seek the higher and holier joys of Heaven. But instead of afflictions, every day my blessings increase. All around me conduces to my happiness; the world is very beautiful, my friends are the loveliest and kindest that any one ever had; and scarcely a trial or vexation comes to cast a cloud over my pathway. And this happiness, this Fate of happiness, I might almost call it, extends even to the smallest circumstances. Whatever I leave to God to decide for me He always decides just as I want Him to. ... There is a continual clapping of hands and shouting of joyful voices in my heart, and every breath feels almost as if it must terminate in a smile of happiness. Mother says I laugh too much, but the laugh is in me, and will come out, and I cannot help it.”
The same year under date of 12th mo., 29th, I wrote:“What a happy, happy home is ours. I could not but think of it to-day as the merry jokes and tones of heartfelt pleasure echoed around our family board. And this evening, too, as we gathered together in our simple but comfortable parlour, it came over me with a perfect throb of joy. Father was sitting on one end of a sofa leaning his head on one hand, with the other hand resting on mother’s lap; she sat next, and my head was in her lap, and I occupied the rest of the sofa, I have no doubt, gracefully and well. Sallie was sitting in a chair at the end of the sofa leaning her head on father’s shoulder, and Lop-no-Nose (my sister Mary) was seated at all our feet, leaning first on one and then on another. All of us were talking as hard as we could, and feeling as if there was nothing wanting, but our absent, dearly loved brother Jim, to make our happiness complete. Many perhaps would smile at such quiet, unobtrusive pleasures, but for my part they are the kind of pleasures I enjoy most heartily and entirely. We can never weary of them, nor feel that their first beauty has gone, but each succeeding day makes them deeper and more earnest. Perhaps I am weak and foolish to take so much enjoyment in things which so many laugh at as unworthy of thought. I know I am but a child, and pleased, as children are, with very little things. And yet to me they are not little. A few of my father’s pleasant jokes, spoken when I am brushing his hat or coat in the morning, will fill my heart with sunshine for a whole day. And I am happy if I may read aloud to my mother some book which I love, or even if I may sit quite still and think. Oh, I do love my home better than any other place I know of! I wonder if I love it too much. Sometimes I fear I do, for even if I leave it for one night I am more homesick than I would like any one to know, except those for whom I long. Even when I simply take a walk I often almost feel as if I could cry to go home again. It is very foolish, but I cannot help it. I should die if I had no one to love, no home!
“But for one thing, and I would be perfectly happy,—a father and mother, dearer, nobler far, than I can express, a brother and sisters, uncles and aunts, and cousins, and friends, all to love me, and, better far, all for me to love—with these priceless blessings I could not but be happy. One thing I say, prevents it, but it prevents it only a very little. It is the knowledge that I am not prepared for eternity, and the small prospect I have that I ever shall be. I wish it would give me more uneasiness, and that I might feel the urgent necessity there is for me to act. But I cannot compel myself to feel it, and so I go on as careless and indifferent as though I had not the eternal salvation of my soul resting upon me. I know it is very dangerous, but I really can do nothing towards rousing myself; and so, in spite of it, I am happy—happy in myself, happy in my home—my own dear home, happy in my parents, my brother and sisters, and my friends, happy in this beautiful world in which I am placed—in short, happy everywhere and in everything,—thank God!”
In 1850, when I was eighteen, under date 4th mo., 25th, 1850, I write:“I have been thinking to-day of my present life, and I could hardly find words to express its happiness. Relatives, friends, circumstances, all are nearly perfect. Outwardly I have scarcely anything to wish for, unless it is for plenty of money to give away, and to buy flowers with. I am crowned with blessings every day and all the day long. Oh, there never was any one so blessed! ... Everything is so beautiful, and everybody is so lovely, and I can enjoy it, and do enjoy it all to the very full. Sometimes I have such heart gushes, as I call them, that I can scarcely contain myself. I love them dearly, and yet after all perhaps they are a little foolish. They are caused by such slight things—a blade of grass, a leaf waving in the wind, a bright happy golden dandelion, even an old barrel, or a heap of stones, or the creaking of a shoe, often the rattling of a cart, or some equally common sound, give me for the moment a sense of most exquisite happiness. Why, I cannot tell. It is not the beauty of the sight nor the harmony of the sound, but only a something, I know not what, that causes my heart to gush up joyfully, and my very soul to expand. I sometimes think it must be association; but with what? I do not love creaking shoes nor rattling carts, and yet often when walking along the street I fairly laugh from inward pleasure at the something in that creaking or rattling. It is not so always. A hundred shoes may creak, and a hundred carts may rattle, and a hundred barrels or heaps of stones may be around me, and jar painfully on ear and eye; but once in a while comes the one, and then comes the heart gush. To-day a drop of rain fell on my forehead, and I could have laughed aloud. But it was very silly; and I am a foolish child altogether, and fear I always shall be. ... Yesterday we went with mother to the Shelter (a home for little colored orphans). It was all very interesting there, but nothing pleased me so much as when the little Blackies repeated, ‘Sparkle, sparkle, water pure, dirty hands I can’t endure,’ with all the same gestures and motions I used so often to do myself at the ‘Infant School.’ That gave me a right earnest heart-gush. I seemed almost to see myself in short frocks and panties, a little white apron, and one of those (as we thought) inimitable nets with a beautiful bow on the side, which mother used to think was almost too gay, enclosing my frisky hair, sitting on the highest bench of all in the school, and feeling, and no doubt looking, as proud as a queen.”
Again under date 7th mo., 9th, 1850, (after describing the pleasure of a little trip away from home):“And yet the pleasantest of all was to get home again last night. Home is home, and there is no place like unto it. Every day I enjoy it more and more, and every day I am happier. Last night I felt too happy almost. I fairly wanted to turn heels over head in my exuberance, and I did scream with delight. And all for no particular reason; only the influences around me were so beautiful, and it seemed just then so glorious to live—to live, and suffer patiently, and work earnestly and nobly, and trust cheerfully, for years and years, until the glorious end shall come and bring the reward of peace and everlasting happiness.”
Later in the same year I write under date of 7th mo., 16th:—“In two weeks we start for a journey through the New England States and to Newport. It is grand, this plan of going to Newport—just the very place I had set my heart on visiting this summer, though I did not at all expect it. But somehow, I can scarcely tell how, whenever I set my heart on anything I am nearly always gratified. From a child it has been so. I can scarcely remember being ever much disappointed, and I am sure every step of my life hitherto has been through sunshine and flowers. But I do not wonder, with such kind and good parents it could not be otherwise. They really could not do more than they do to make us happy, and they succeed beautifully. ... I believe I do not know any children who have so many enjoyments clustered in their home, although I know many whose parents are far richer.”
I might multiply these extracts almost indefinitely, for my diaries up to the age of nineteen are, with the exception of my religious struggles, which seemed very tragic, but did not really affect my spirits much, one long jubilant song of happiness. At nineteen I married, and a new life began for me, which had its own more mature joys; but girlhood was over, and its simple girlish “Fate of happiness,” as I called it, was exchanged for the woman’s life of sober responsibilities, and weighty, although delightful, cares.
In looking back now I can see that this “Fate of happiness” was created by two causes,—my health and my parents. As to health, I never knew, through all the first eighteen years of my life, except once when I had an attack of bilious fever, what it was to be even ailing. I never had a headache, I did not know I had a back, I never got tired, I had a perfect digestion, and nothing ever caused me the loss of a single hour’s sleep. Moreover I was blessed with what people nowadays call “la joie de vivre,” and simply to live seemed often happiness enough for me.
But the chiefest charm of my life was that I possessed the most delightful father and mother that ever lived. In the narrow Quaker circle into which I was born, very few of the opportunities for amusement or excitement that come to young people nowadays, were open to us, and all the fun we could extract from life was of the most simple and innocent kind. But with such a father and mother as ours, no outside pleasures were needed. They were so sympathetic and loving, and so entirely on our side under all circumstances, that we looked upon them, not as uncomfortable criticising “grownups,” but almost as children like ourselves, with the same tastes and interests as our own. We considered them far better comrades than any others we knew; and no fun the world ever had to offer was half so attractive to us as a quiet talk with our mother, or a good game of romps with our fun-loving father.
They often used to say that they wanted their children to have a happy childhood “tucked under their jackets”; for they were sure it would make us better men and women, and they took care that we should have this priceless boon. In looking back it seems to me that there were absolutely no clouds over my childhood’s sky. One of the much amused young people of the present day said to me once, with rather an accent of pity, “It seems to me you did not have many amusements when you were young.” “We did not need to,” was my prompt reply. “We had our father and mother, and they were all the amusements we needed. They made our lives all sunshine.”
I wish I could give to others the vivid picture I have of their inexpressible delightfulness. We knew, down to the very bottom of our hearts, that they were on our side against the whole world, and would be our champions in every time of need. No one could oppress us, neither playmates, nor friends, nor enemies, not even our teachers, (those paid oppressors of children, as we felt all teachers to be), nor any one the whole world over, without having to reckon with those dear champions at home; and the certain conviction of this, surrounded us with such a panoply of defence, that nothing had power to trouble us overmuch. “We will tell father,” or “We will tell mother,” was our unfailing resource and consolation in every sorrow. In fact, so sure was I of their championship, that, when any of my friends or school fellows were in trouble, I used to say, “Oh well, never mind, come home with me and let us tell my father and mother;” feeling sure that that dear father and mother could set the whole world straight, if the chance were only given them. And when the answer would come, as it often did, “Oh, that would be of no use, for your father and mother cannot do everything,” I would say, with a profound pity for their ignorance, “Ah, you do not know my father and mother!”
One of my sisters remembered to her dying day, with a deep sense of gratitude, a deliverance our father gave her from an oppressively long lesson before she was six years old. Kindergartens were not invented then, and all children were required to study abstract lessons in a way that would be considered almost inhuman in these days. My sister was toiling over a sum with a hopeless sense of incapacity, and with tears trickling over her cheeks, when my father entered the room and said: “Ho, Liney, what is going wrong?” She told him as well as she could, and she says she could never forget his tone of absolute comprehension and sympathy as he said, “Why, of course it is too hard for my little Sally Dimple; but never mind, put it away, and I will make it all right with thy teacher.” And my sister says so strong a conviction came to her at that moment of her father’s championship, that she went through all the rest of her school life with an absolute sense of protection that made it impossible for any “hard lessons” ever to trouble her again.
It was not that our father or mother encouraged us to shirk any duty that they felt we were capable of performing. But they had so much sympathy with us, and such a sense of real justice in their dealings with us, that they seemed always able to discriminate between the possible and the impossible, and to protect us from the latter, while cheerily stimulating our efforts after the former. They never took it for granted, as so many “grown-ups” do, that, because we were children, we must necessarily be in the wrong; but they judged the case on its own merits. I believe it was this certainty of their justice that was more of a steady comfort to us than almost anything else; and I am very sure it has helped me to understand the perfect justice of my Heavenly Father in a way I could not otherwise have done.
As I say, they always stimulated us to all right effort, but this was never by commands or by harsh scolding, but always by sympathy and encouragement. They recognized our individuality, and respected it, giving us principles for our guidance rather than many burdensome rules.
As far as possible they threw the responsibility of our conduct upon ourselves. This degree of personal liberty was a necessity to my freedom loving nature. Under any other régime I should have wilted and withered; or else, which I think is more likely, should have openly rebelled. But as it was, no matter how averse I might be to any task, or how discouraged at any difficulty, my father’s cheery voice repeating one of his homely proverbs, “Come, come, Han, stand up to the rack, fodder or no fodder,” would always drive away all my reluctance; and discouragements melted like snow before the sun, in the face of his courage-giving assertion, “What man has done, man can do, and” (he would slyly add) “consequently woman.” No child could have withstood such inspiring courage.
My father’s own life had been a living illustration of the courage that he so continually tried to instill into us. When a boy of sixteen, his father lost a large part of his fortune in some West Indian transactions, and his sons were obliged to do what they could for their own support. My father, with his adventurous spirit, chose the sea, and, beginning in the lowest place, he so rapidly worked his way upward, that, at the early age of twenty-four, he was made captain of an East Indiaman, at that time the largest ship in the port of Philadelphia; and his voyages in this ship were remarkably successful. He always attributed his success to the care and guidance of his Heavenly Father, upon whom he relied in all his affairs, and whose especial help he always asked and believed he always received, in every time of need. At the age of twenty-nine he gave up the sea, and went into business in Philadelphia, and here the same energy and the same reliance upon Divine help so prospered him, that he was able to make a comfortable competence for his declining years.
I well remember when I was a little girl often wondering what sort of a boy my father had been, and deciding, as I watched the roguish twinkles in the corners of his clear grey eyes, and the curves of fun around his genial mouth, that he must have been a perfectly splendid boy, and just the kind I would have liked for a playmate. For, getting on towards middle age as he was when we were young, we found him the best playmate we children ever had. Some of his old friends, who remembered him as a boy, used to tell us that he was at once the most provoking and the best beloved boy in all their circle. No one could keep their anger against him for more than a moment. Let his tricks be as vexatious as they might,—and he was, they say, full and brimming over with mischief all the day long,—no anger could withstand his genuine and openly expressed sorrow at any trouble he may have caused, and the hearty and generous restitution he was always ready to offer, nor the merry rebound of fun that would burst out the moment his apologies had been accepted. He was always the first to help in every case of need; and every one, whether friend or foe, knew they could rely on him for any service he was capable of performing. All his friends loved and admired him, even while they scolded him, and they generally found themselves laughing at the very moment when they meant to be the most severe and frowning. From childhood to old age this power of winning love and approval continued with him; and the fun of his boyhood, developing into the genial merriment of the chastened Christian heart, gave his mature character a nameless charm.
In fact I do not believe there ever was a more contagiously cheerful being than our father. No one could help feeling happier because of his presence. His very hand-shake was an uplift, and seemed somehow to make the world brighter than it was before, and to put you in a better humour with yourself and with every one around you. Many of my friends have told me that they would rather have had a hand-shake from him than receive a valuable gift from another man, because somehow, in that hand-shake, his heart seemed to go right to their hearts, with power to cheer and help. I remember well how, when my childhood’s sky would be all darkened by some heavy childish affliction, a cheery “Well, Broadie,” in his hearty voice, or some little passing joke spoken with a roguish twinkle of his loving grey eyes, would clear my sky in a moment, and make life all sunshine again. And, even when I was older, his power to cheer grew no less, and it was quite my habit, whenever I found myself down in the depths, to put myself somewhere in his way, with the certainty that even a moment’s peep at his strong cheery face would lift me out. I can even remember that, in his absence, the sight and feel of his dear old overcoat would somehow brighten everything, and send me off encouraged to be braver and stronger. To make life happier for every one with whom he came in contact seemed to be his aim and his mission, and rarely has any one succeeded so well. Some one said to me, many years after his death, that “John M. Whitall was the best loved man in Philadelphia”; and in certain circles I am sure this was true.
Our mother also was equally well beloved. She was a most delightful mother, not so full of fun perhaps as our father, but always ready to champion her children’s cause everywhere and at all times, and an unfailing rock of refuge to us in every emergency. Sweetness and goodness, purity and truth, seemed to emanate from her gracious presence; and, for every one who came in contact with her, she was an inspiration to all that was noble and good.
People talk in these days of an atmosphere surrounding each one of us, something like the nimbus that is always painted about the heads of saints. They say it seems to envelop the whole figure, and that it influences for good or evil all who come near it. It is called the “aura,” and is the outcome of each one’s character and inmost personality. Some auras, we are told, are dark and gloomy, and exert a depressing or even a wicked influence, while others are rose colour, or gold, or opal, or sky blue and full of light, and their influence is cheering and uplifting; and all this without perhaps a word being said in either case. If this theory is true I feel sure that my father and mother possessed “auras” full of heaven’s own sunshine, and, without knowing the reason, their children lived in perpetual cheer.
That a childhood so lived could not fail to have an enormous influence on the after history of any soul, seems to me incontrovertible; and I attribute my final satisfying discovery of my Heavenly Father largely to what I had known of the goodness of my earthly parents. They never said much about religion, for the Quaker fear of meddling between a soul and its Maker had created a habit of reserve that could not easily be broken through, but they showed plainly that their lives were lived in a region of profound faith in an ever present God. We could not but see that He was to them a reality beyond all other realities. Of religious teaching we had but little, but of religious example and influence we had a never-failing supply. Not by talking, but by daily living, were impressions made on our childish hearts.
I remember once however when my father did speak out of the fullness of his heart, and when what he said made a profound and lasting impression upon me. I was a very imaginative child, and consequently very frightened of the dark, which I peopled with all sorts of terrible monsters, lurking under beds or behind doors, ready to rush out and devour me at any moment. Of course, with the profound reticence of childhood, I never spoke of this; but somehow my father at last found out that I was afraid of the dark, and instead of ridiculing my fears or scolding me, as I felt in my poor foolish little heart I deserved for making such a row, he took me lovingly on his knee, and, putting his dear strong arm around me, he said, in tones of the most profound conviction, “Why, Han, did thee not know there is never anything to be afraid of? Did thee not know that thy Heavenly Father is always with thee, and that of course He will always take care of thee?” And as I still trembled and shivered, he added, as though surprised that there could be any one in the world who did not know this, “I thought of course thee knew this, child.” I never shall forget the profound impression this made upon me, nor the immediate and permanent relief from fear it gave me; and I have always been sure that this one statement of a fact, which was to my father the most tremendous reality of his life, has had more than anything else to do with the satisfying sense of God’s presence which has for so long been my portion. It was not a religious dogma my father stated on this, to me, memorable occasion, but it was a simple, incontrovertible fact which he was surprised I did not know; and, as being the statement of a fact, it was far more comforting than any amount of preaching or arguing could possibly have been. God was with me—and that was enough; for of course, being with me, He would naturally take care of me. I remember that when my father lifted me down from his lap and told me cheerily to run along and not to be frightened any more, I walked off in a stately sort of way, feeling as if somehow I was safe inside an invisible fortress where I could laugh to scorn all the lurking monsters of the dark, and could hear their angry rustles unmoved.
I dare say the rarity of any direct religious teaching from our parents helped to make the few occasions when they did speak more impressive; but, however this may be, I can truly say that, though often obscured for a time, the convictions of that occasion have always been with me at bottom, and thousands of times in my life since, my father’s words then, have brought me help.
Table of Contents Chapter 3 Home The Writings of Hannah Whitall Smith