James Solomon Russell vs. Evelyn Underhill

Did you miss us? We do hope you survived two consecutive days without the opportunity to exercise your right to vote. But we're back and loaded up with another full week of first round matchups. In fact, we're exactly halfway done with the first round -- eight matchups down, eight to go.

In case you missed Friday's result, Margaret of Castello easily defeated Simon Gibbons 70% to 30%. She'll go on to face Eva Lee Matthews in the Saintly Sixteen.

It's not everyday in Lent Madness that we have two saints whose lives overlapped, but that's exactly the situation in today's matchup. James Solomon Russell, born a slave in the American South, was a church planter and cleric. He faces Evelyn Underhill, English mystic, writer, and teacher. Time to vote!

James Solomon Russell
James Solomon Russell—preacher, church planter, teacher, and college president—was born on December 20, 1857, to an enslaved woman named Araminta in Virginia’s Mecklenburg County. His father worked on a plantation just over the North Carolina border.

When the family gained their freedom after the Civil War, they reunited and became sharecroppers in Palmer Springs, Virginia. The young James went to a nearby school, where the schoolmaster believed in his intelligence so much that he accepted tuition in the form of labor and farm produce. The teacher also encouraged James to attend Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. James earned a teaching degree from what is now Hampton University, and then he returned to Palmer Springs and taught at the local school. As part of his daily curriculum, he had the students recite the Apostles’ Creed. This practice impressed the local Episcopal women, who decided to bankroll the school.

It took James four years at Bishop Payne Divinity School (the segregated version of Virginia Theological Seminary) to earn his degree (partially because he had to earn his way through and partially because he was the only student in the school at the time.) He was ordained a deacon in 1882 and sent back to Mecklenburg County as a missionary. The diocese equipped him with a horse and some money to build a church. He was ordained a priest in 1887.

From this inauspicious start, James founded one church but decided that what people really needed was a college. So he started the Saint Paul Normal and Industrial School in 1888 in Lawrenceville. He served as college president while continuing to be a church planter and missionary around south-central Virginia, and when the Diocese of Southern Virginia split in 1893, he was appointed archdeacon.

By the time James retired in 1931, he had founded thirty-seven churches, with more than 2,000 congregants. He had been twice elected as a suffragan bishop but refused (in Arkansas and in North Carolina) because he wanted to stay with church planting and with his college. The year he retired from St. Paul College, enrollment was 800 students.

Collect of James Solomon Russell
O God, the font of resurrected life, draw us into the wilderness and speak tenderly to us, so that we might love and worship you as your servant James Solomon Russell did, in assurance of the saving grace of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Megan Castellan


Evelyn Underhill
Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941) was a writer, novelist, and pioneer of Christian mysticism. Her books were widely read, especially Mysticism, which was published in 1911.

As a child, she had a keen awareness of peaceful stillness breaking into her reality, “like the ‘still desert’ of the mystic—in which there was no multiplicity nor need of explanation.” These experiences inspired a life of writing and exploration of spiritual matters. At first, Underhill was agnostic in her explorations but later became interested in Catholicism and ultimately embraced Anglo-Catholicism. Her mentor, Baron Friedrich von Hügel, encouraged her away from pure intellectualism to a more practical and charitable understanding of the spiritual life.

A child of her romantic Edwardian generation, Underhill believed life and religious experience ought to center in the heart. She sought to make spiritual teaching accessible to those interested in the trends of psychology, scientific advance, the resurgence of the medieval, and spiritualism. As Victorian taboos lifted, a new generation found the Edwardian period liberating in its celebration of sensuousness, the feminine, and the very un-Victorian possibility of personal, ecstatic fulfillment. Underhill became immensely popular, and in the 1920s she led retreats, took on hundreds of spiritual directees, and became a prominent public figure, speaking on the radio and teaching contemplative prayer.

Although Underhill’s family did not share her spiritual interests, she devoted herself to her parents and husband. Her writing did not keep her from her social obligations. She entertained, did charitable works, and kept a strict daily schedule that allowed her also to write, study, pray, and meditate. Underhill believed that the incarnation of Jesus revealed God to be present in the world, making sacred the mundane tasks of everyday, suffusing all moments and endeavors of life with the eternal. It is no wonder that she is among the most beloved spiritual teachers of the modern age.

Collect for Evelyn Underhill
O God, Origin, Sustainer, and End of all creatures: Grant that your church, taught by your servant Evelyn Underhill, may continually offer to you all glory and thanksgiving, and attain with your saints to the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have promised us by our Savior Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Amber Belldene


James Solomon Russell vs. Evelyn Underhill

  • James Solomon Russell (66%, 5,385 Votes)
  • Evelyn Underhill (34%, 2,819 Votes)

Total Voters: 8,204

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James Solomon Russell: Courtesy of The Archives of the Episcopal Church
Evelyn Underhill: [Public domain]


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124 comments on “James Solomon Russell vs. Evelyn Underhill”

  1. Both worthy of winning, and with nothing against mysticism, I'm going with the one who overcame his meager beginnings, worked to become educated, became an educator and built churches as well.

    1. I'm with you, John - Both very worthy, and unusually gifted. but rising from enslavement is very impressive . . .

    2. I’m with you, too, John. No problem deciding for Russell today. Nice that Underhill made time for her social obligations (!) but Russell’s life and energy are truly inspiring,

    3. I voted for James Soloman Russell. His road must have been very difficult. Just because the Civil War ended, we know that prejudice and hatred did not. He must have been very dedicated and worked hard to accomplish so much.

  2. I was very surprised when I saw James Solomon Russell's name! I worked at St. Paul's College, the historically Black college that he founded for two years. Although now closed, it provided education for students who may ordinarily not have gone to college. In addition, the students built the college, literally, constructing all the early buildings!

    1. Having lived in Virginia & attending St. George’s Episcopal Church, we often donated money to St. Paul’s. Familiar with the area & found reading about James Solomon encouraging. Had to vote for him rather than a mystic.

    1. Well Mary, Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was a mystic and believed that the incarnation of Jesus revealed God to be present in the world, making sacred the mundane tasks of everyday, suffusing all moments and endeavors of life with the eternal. She said “ … a positive act is something given; not something given up". We have thousands and thousands of James Solomon Russells in the world but only one Evelyn Underhill.

    2. Cruelty, I think. Remember when they put the Wesley brothers against each other? And the 2 Augustines? SEC, do you think cruelty is a becoming Christian virtue?

      1. Anyone who advances long enough will eventually face another favorite. Does it matter that much which round they face off in?

    3. Thank you for pondering about the meaning of mystic -- here is a definition I found of the term, mysticism from the Oxford Dictionary: Belief in union with the divine nature by means of ecstatic contemplation, and belief in the power of spiritual access to ultimate reality, or to domains of knowledge closed off to ordinary thought. Also applied derogatorily to theories that assume occult qualities or agencies of which no empirical or rational account can be offered. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100220424. Mystics have been embraced and rejected by the church. I like to think of mystics as persons whose spiritual authority is based on their reflection on the domains of knowledge closed off to ordinary thought. This reflection may occur in the context of ecstatic and/or contemplative spiritual experiences. Some have considered the writings of mystics like Underhill as having some kind of theological authority (more like spiritual guidance and direction literature). Many have found these writings to be very valuable for their faith experience. However, as much as I admire Underhill, I voted for Russell. I think we need church planters and visionaries. Russell's story offers a model of ministry that may be worth thinking about in the early 21st century. Perhaps, Russell's story may inspire church planters to design new ecclesiastical structures (physical, theological and spiritual) that would include spaces for mystics...

  3. I was so excited to vote for Evelyn Underhill this LentMadness cycle until I read James Solomon Russell's biography. Then, I resolved to settle for a reawakening of the spiritual life within Anglicanism until I saw the missionary witness of Russell. So, flipped a coin. The right person will advance and I will be more edified either way.

  4. I vote for James Solomon Russell as we are going to visit the principal of Codrington College in Barbados today.
    Codrington is the "oldest tertiary institution in the English-speaking Caribbean" and celebrates its 275th anniversary this year. This year 13 seminarians from dioceses throughout the Caribbean attend Codrington College.

    1. One of the reasons that James Solomon Russell refused election as a bishop “for colored work” was that he realized that a bishop must be a bishop for all people. The bio also did not mention that he was denied admission to Virginia Seminary because they did not admit African Americans at the time. They later gave him an honorary doctorate. Russell was a person of infinite integrity.

        1. Hi Megan....remembering you at W&M and Bruton Canterbury.....always fun to read your saint writings! Hope all is well....

      1. Agree with Rev Ed....as a native So.East Virginian, I voted for Russell, great visionary for education . Loved St. Paul’s College...

  5. This was a tough one.
    Underhill 's spirituality of belief that our everyday simple tasks are full of the real Christ is quite a draw for someone like me who feels the same way. "Joshua" is here with us and He is showing us the true simplicity of being Christians.
    While Russell's life works show the faith and thru the schoolwork and churches affected many more than anyone knows, his refusal of the archdeacon position told me more of his faith and dedication to the simple miracles of support those around himself. So he got my vote.

    1. Pat, I agree with you that simple tasks are full of the real Christ - and I’d bet that Russell believed that too. I am especially reminded of that today because I am ironing altar linens - I think Altar Guild work is an act of devotion and meditation. I laud and appreciate mystics and their contributions to spiritual development it today the Planter won my mind and my heart.

    2. Brother Lawrence also believed that our everyday, simple tasks (such as washing dishes and wincing at the occasional crashing sound) reflect Christ in all of us.

      Faith without works is dead. James Solomon Russell today.

  6. James Solomon Russell's story is inspiring, but I must go with the great teacher of mysticism. We lauded Deacon Anna a couple of years ago, who also was a church builder. Her story was similar to Russell's. We have yet to honor a mystic. Evelyn Underhill almost single handedly revived mysticism and the works of the medieval mystics for us in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She wrote about mysticism in World War I; in 1914 she published Practical Mysticism in which she acknowledged that during times of stress and crisis people dismiss mysticism as a "passive attitude of self-surrender." She defends mysticism as giving people "renewed vitality"; it increases not decreases "the wisdom and steadfastness of those who try to practise it." She defines mysticism as "the art of union with reality." We only know anything by uniting with it, she tells us, and the ultimate reality is God. For most of us, "the hare of reality is already jugged," but the mystic knows "the living, lovely, wild, swift-moving creature which has been sacrificed in order that he may be fed." It is the mystic who best knows the value of human life and its cost, who can recognize both the beauty and the loss inherent in living. We should continue to resist injustice and usher in the beloved community, but the mystic best knows why that matters.

    1. Evelyn Underhill was one of the mystics we met when studying with our beloved pastor, Evelyn Newman, who married us in her first wedding. Both Evelyns were most important in the spiritual development which resulted eventually in my becoming an ordained United Methodist clergy and Scott's becoming an occasional church organist. It was so good to be reminded of those teachings this morning, and to vote for one of my spiritual guides, Evelyn Underhill.

    2. Thank you St Celia. I was feeling guilty for not voting for Russell. I had the privilege of attending a one day retreat put on by the Evelyn Underhill society and so my thinking was biased towards her. She really brought mysticism into the modern age, and reintroduced us to the world of Julien of Norwich. She died as England was being bombed by the Germans, truly ushering in the Age of Modern Mysticism.
      Russell will probably win this round, but I was thrilled to see Underhill got a chance, and maybe some people will be motivated to learn more about her.
      But Russell is a very worthy contender for the Golden Halo!

      1. Yes! She gets my vote all the way. Especially for her connection to Mother Julian (my personal spiritual guide). And we used to worship at a wonderful church in St Andrews, Scotland where she worshipped, and I went on retreat to the retreat center she founded in Pleshey, England. I feel a connection to her.

    3. Thank you St. Celia!

      Sad that so few “get mystics” - they point to a direct experience of God in the everyday.

    1. Every party needs a pooper. That's why we invited you. Perhaps you should steer your nag aside awhile and enjoy the view. We are on pilgrimage, and there are many new things to see and marvel at even if today's earnest talk does not divert or nourish you. Tomorrow's might be the lion-against-Christian rabble-rouser you will enjoy.

          1. It is Daylight SAVING Time! No "s" thank you very much. What's not to like about an extra hour of sunshine in the afternoon?

    2. It's Monday morning which is not an auspicious event to begin with and then your comment stocked the resident snark in me. However, I'm restraining myself to simply say--we are entitled to our individual opinions. For me it is a very tough choice and I need to wait until the Monday morning wears off a bit more.

    3. So which is your problem with these two -- a former slave who found Jesus and helped the community grow or a woman who found peace and joy through contemplation?

      Part of Lent Madness is realizing the contributions of those who went before us so that we can use our gifts to further the cause of justice and peace in the world.

    4. With apologies for the length of this quote, here is CS Lewis's response to your "BLAH" --

      It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.

      The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

      It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

      All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

      It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

      There are no ordinary people.

      You have never talked to a mere mortal.

      Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

      But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

      This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.

      We must play.

      But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

      And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.

      Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

      —The Weight of Glory (HarperOne, 2001), pp. 45-46.

      1. Thank you for this recommendation, Mary Beth. It led me to the highlight of my day. I look forward to my next listen!

    5. Not everyone can or should be a dramatic figure, especially those modern enough that we know a fair amount about their lives and works and about whom legends have not flourished.

      Without the quiet saintly lives, it's hard to appreciate the very dramatic ones.

  7. Happy to vote for James. Am connected to Mecklenburg and northern Vance, NC (then Granville) via ancestry. That area now mostly under Kerr Lake was an interesting place according to what I read. There were quite a few free persons of color (FPC) in that area but also many large slave owners. Been by St. Pauls, Lawrenceville many times.

  8. Evelyn Underhill has always drawn me, but as a canonical resident of the Diocese of Southern Virginia (where our Megan got her start, dontcha know), I have to vote for Russell. It’s very sad, indeed, that St. Paul’s has closed; but it’s very good that black students now have so many more educational doors open to them than was once the case.

    1. Well expressed, Dana. I also felt torn. I was ultimately moved to vote for Underhill’s vision of God present in the world.

  9. Evelyn opened many eyes and hearts, but as a classroom teacher, I am called to vote for Russell. From slave to college president is impressive and inspiring to my life, even on days when I feel like a slave to the system.

  10. This was a difficult decision but went with Russell given his heroic story and obvious faith and dedication to the lives of the largely uneducated in the American South. However Underhill was a close call - back in the 70s when I was preparing for Confirmation my director, Fr. Leland Udell in Burlington, Vermont assigned me to read Underhill's Worship which greatly influenced my understanding of liturgy. She's now in our calendar of saints.

  11. Another tough choice. I voted for Evelyn Underhill because her spirituality, while centered in the heart and extended into everyday life, remained intellectual. What a marvelous Anglican priest or bishop she would have been, had such a thing been possible in the time and place in which she lived!

    1. James Russell is a worthy deacon to support;
      his example is an inspiration.
      His faith for his people was a mighty fort;
      each church he sowed was for the weary a station.
      Though forty days in comparison with life is short,
      we can offer these saints the gift of our attention.

  12. Voting for Russell though Underhill is worthy too. Wish we could move both forward today!

  13. My last paper (50 pages!) in seminary was on Evelyn Underhill. As an illustration of God’s tender love for us, there was a photo in her book of the Creation of Adam. The stone carving was in Charted Cathedral. The image depicted the great tenderness of our Creator. On a seminary graduation trip to visit my daughter in France, we went to Chartes Cathedral so that I could see that carving. Heartwarming! You can find this image online: God loves Adam into being at WordPress.com.

    1. God loves Adam into being! What a marvelous way of putting it! It is also true that God has loved each one of us into being, and continues to love us into more authentic being!

  14. Both of these people speak to me, but I am in the midst of reading Clément's The Roots of Christian Mysticism, and am hungry for this meal that I knew nothing about when growing up as a cradle Episcopalian. I love "the peaceful stillness breaking into her reality". She gets my vote today.

  15. As a contemplative being, I feel drawn to Evelyn. Her gifts to the people can be used by all. It doesn't take any equipment to search the cosmos with our minds and spirits. It certainly helped me when funds were short. Yet I admire also James for rising above so many obstacles and remaining determined to help others instead of giving in to bitterness. The deciding point in my mind is my friend Debbie, who is so excited to see James in the bracket.

    1. Before I vote, I always check in with you and St. Celia. Today she posted first - and I thought you were going to vote for Evelyn as well. Then you threw the curveball! I thought this vote would be closer than it's turning out to be.

      1. Sorry, Jeanine. I thought I was going to vote for her as well, but I ran into my friend before I got to the polls. I'm surprised by how well Mr. Russell is doing, myself. We've had a few surprises already this Lent. It's just madness!

  16. Evelyn Underhill has been my inspiration for many years, as I’ve traveled my own spiritual journey toward God. Every year, as I’ve “journeyed” through Holy Women, Holy Men, Evelyn Underhill stands tall as one of my favorite saints. I can only hope that others are so inspired by her example.

  17. Would love to vote for JS Russell but have to go with Evelyn Underhill. I have forgotten a lot about college days (more than a few years ago) but one of my touchstone memories is of walking across the quad reading Underhill’s Mysticism. I began meditating around that time, and the copy of Mysticism I was reading that day? It’s still with me.

    1. Looking for this book on-line I found Practical Mysticism and Essentials of Mysticism but not a book just called Mysticism. Am I missing something?

      1. "Practical Mysticism" sounds oxymoronic. Guess I'll have to read that one to see what she means!

  18. James’ road was imminently more difficult than Evelyn’s. Also after recently having read “the warmth of other suns” there is no other choice. The task is hard and long, but I think James is a real contender for the golden halo.

  19. Both James Solomon Russell and Evelyn Underhill are worthy contenders, but I voted for Underhill because of the appeal of her notion of practical mysticism.

  20. This is the hardest daily choice so far. Underhill and Russell present a Mary and Martha contrast. Both the contemplative and the active life are important, so it is hard to choose. This was a 50.5 vs. 49.5 decision! I finally voted for Underhill because presumably the motivation for a life of good works flows from spiritual inspiration. I reread the short bio-blurb on Russell, but found no explanation for what drew him to the church and the priesthood.

    1. Right, it is a Mary/Martha decision. Thanks for the idea, that helps. As a Mary always feeling somewhat looked-down-upon for not 'doing', I shall vote for Evelyn without 'cheating' and looking at the standings first!

    1. Mary, This is an excellent article treating Evelyn Underhill's faith journey. I found the way the author categorizes her understanding of intercessory prayer in her later years particularly interesting. The concluding paragraph with its echoes of Romans 12:1 gives us all food for thought by having us consider life itself as a prayer. The message conveyed here is far more active than contemplative or mystical in the early sense of that word. "At the end of her life, after having considered many options, she concluded that prayer was about availing oneself to the purposes of God, not invoking the activity of God for either spiritual assurance or earthly benefit, but for conformity to the life and ministry of the one through whom we pray: Jesus Christ, the crucified. On the shelves of spiritual books of our day, this understanding is not a big seller. Underhill’s early writings are most frequently reprinted, with later writings difficult to find. Yet in the world today, what sort of people of prayer would God ask us to be? Ones who strive for spiritual development alone, or ones who offer their lives as living intercessions, empowered by the Spirit, sent by Christ, to do God’s will? Might the latter define all of our lives of prayer." Evelyn gets my vote today.

  21. Not an easy choice today between two more than worthy opponents. However, in loving memory of my wonderful Nain (grandmother), who lived a life of Christian service, and raised four children alone, having lost her her husband in the Great War), I voted for Evelyn Underhill. Underhill's books and radio talks were a great source of spiritual comfort to Nain, who, as a Welshwoman, knew that the mystical and the reality were two sides of the same coin.