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Annie Smith: A More Relatable Adventist Pioneer

Annie Smith Self Portrait

In April 1976, when I was a precocious 10-year-old reading books and magazines intended for adults, the painting of a young woman appeared on the cover of the The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. She had long hair and soulful eyes, and was dressed in the fashion of the mid-19th century. It is believed to be a self-portrait

What surprised me most was that this was not a picture of Ellen G. White Instead, this was Annie Rebekah Smith.

As a child, I hunted for women’s names.

In my history textbooks at school, amid the masculine names of kings, prime ministers, presidents, generals and inventors, I thrilled every time I saw a woman’s name. In Sabbath school, I latched onto the books of Esther and Ruth. I looked for evidence that people like me had left traces in history. 

Then there was Adventist history. It wasn’t hard to find a woman’s name there: Ellen G. White appeared on almost every page. 

The oft-repeated stories of White’s life assured me that a woman could, indeed, have an important role in God’s work. All you needed to do was suffer a life-threatening injury in childhood, bear the burdens of ill-health and poor education along with the burden of your gender, and, of course, be filled by the Holy Spirit with the gift of prophecy.

Not exactly a role model I could aspire to emulate.

So I responded eagerly to that face on the cover of the Review, and to the story in its pages, “Annie Smith, Her Life and Love.” It was written by Ron Graybill, who was the assistant secretary of the Ellen G. White Estate.1 It was the story of the only other female Adventist pioneer, besides Mrs. White, whose name I ever heard mentioned in my childhood. 

Annie Smith (1828–1855) was, to me, much more relatable than White. Like me, Annie was an aspiring author, a woman who got a good education and used it the way I planned to use mine—to teach and to write. Instead of prophecy, Annie got the gift of a tragic romance and an early death. 

As a young reader, what I learned about Annie Smith was this: she fell in love with John Nevins Andrews, but was heartbroken when he chose another woman. Annie’s death at age 27 was due to tuberculosis, which shortened countless lives in 19th century America and cut like a scythe through Adventist pioneers in their twenties. But Ellen White encouraged an alternative reading in which Annie died of a broken heart. “Annie’s disappointment cost her her life,” White wrote in a letter to Andrews in 1855, not long after Smith’s death.2

Annie Smith’s story had it all: talent, ambition, dedication to God, unrequited love, and early death. She was the perfect Tragic Adventist Heroine.

Now, looking at her story from an adult perspective, I wonder if the way in which her story is told does a disservice to her—and perhaps to Adventist women in general, particularly young women looking, as I once did, for role models.

Graybill’s article relies heavily on the only source that describes Annie Smith’s life in any detail: a biographical sketch that her mother, Rebekah Smith, wrote sixteen years after Annie’s death. In that family story, Annie is framed as an idealized young Christian woman, working selflessly for the Advent cause, facing death with courage and faith.

The article contains one detail not found in Rebekah Smith’s account: Graybill writes that in 1850, Rebekah “was becoming more and more concerned about Annie’s avid pursuit of secular success in literature and art.”3 Graybill’s source here is J. N. Loughborough’s 1892 book Rise and Progress of the Seventh-day Adventists: With Tokens of God’s Hand in the Movement and a Brief Sketch of the Advent Cause from 1831 to 1844.

Loughborough writes of both Annie and her brother Uriah that “The mother feared the children were drifting away to the world, and in fact, her fears were not wholly groundless.” He adds that Rebekah Smith asked Joseph Bates to pray with her for the conversion of her children.4

While Rebekah Smith’s short biography of her daughter does not indicate that she ever worried about Annie being tempted by worldly fame and success, she hints at this when she writes that after Annie’s conversion “The whole current of her mind was changed, and nobler aspirations took possession of her heart. From a position of exaltation and honor among men, she had now turned her eyes to an inheritance incorruptible.”5 Ambition for worldly success in any good Christian, but especially in a woman, is clearly positioned as a spiritual failing.

At her mother’s urging, Annie attended one of Bates’s meetings and joined the Advent movement. She spent the next four years—the rest of her life—working as a copy editor for the The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald and a frequent writer of poems for it and The Youth’s Instructor.

In “Home Here, and Home in Heaven,” the long poem published just after her death, Annie Smith wrote:

In view of years in earthly pleasures spent,
Of all my follies since I’ve borne the cross,
Of good I might have done, with blessings lent,
While mortal shall I mourn my lasting loss….

No more with worldly schemes my interests blend;
For holier purposes absorb my soul,
That will, until they reach their blissful end,
My thoughts, my feelings and my acts control.6

To a modern reader, Annie’s “earthly pleasures” and “worldly schemes” seem modest indeed. In her late teens and early twenties she studied French and oil painting at Charlestown Female Seminary in Massachusetts,, taught at various schools, and had a few poems published in a popular women’s magazine called The Ladies’ Wreath. 

But the lure of literary and artistic success—and perhaps the prospect of a job that paid an actual salary rather than just room and board—must have lingered in her mind throughout the time she spent writing and editing for what would become denominational publications. Giving up earthly fame and glory to dedicate oneself to the Lord’s work is a recurring theme in her poetry.

Another theme in Smith’s poetry was disappointment in both love and friendship. As Ron Graybill notes, these references to loss and even betrayal fit nicely with the theory that John Andrews led Annie to believe he might marry her, then rejected her in favor of Angeline Stevens (a theory otherwise supported only by the cryptic references in Ellen White’s 1855 letter to Andrews). However, Graybill also points out that Annie wrote about similar themes in her secular poetry, published before she ever joined Adventism or met John Andrews.7 Perhaps she had endured an earlier heartbreak, or perhaps unhappy romances and broken friendships were simply subjects that interested her as a writer.

The exact nature of the relationship between Annie Smith and John Andrews—or whether a relationship existed at all—may never be known. What interests me is how firmly this possible romance, which is never mentioned in her mother’s biographical sketch, is entrenched in the popular story of Smith’s short life. 

When we mythologize the lives of Christian women, marriage and motherhood are usually the ultimate destiny. If the saintly woman in question doesn’t marry, then a thwarted love affair makes for almost as good an ending: it allows a purer devotion to God, while still placing a man at the centre of a woman’s biography.

Because the stories of Adventist women pioneers were so rarely told when I was growing up, it was easy for me to imagine an Ellen White/Annie Smith dichotomy in my mind. Not exactly the “madonna/whore” dichotomy of art and popular culture, but perhaps a “prophetess/poetess” dichotomy. 

The prophet, Ellen White, is able to be a leader precisely because (as popularly depicted) she is frail both physically and intellectually. Lacking any ambition of her own, she becomes an empty vessel that the Spirit can fill and use. The aspiring young poet and painter, Annie Smith, can do God’s will only by emptying herself of ambition, denying all faith in her own talents. Even then, her reward will be to die young, remembered by posterity more as a spurned lover than as a talented writer.

In fact, while Annie Smith was uniquely prolific as a poet, she was far from unique in her contribution to early Adventist writing and publishing: the names of women writers are prominent in the pages of TheYouth’s Instructor in those years. They included James White’s sister Anna, who took over editing the paper in 1854 and, like Smith, died of tuberculosis soon afterwards. Though the early Advent movement was a product of its patriarchal society, it was open to the work of women writers, even those who could not claim divine inspiration as Ellen White did.

To the modern reader, Annie Smith’s surviving poetry sounds similar to much pious nineteenth-century verse: sentimental, didactic, flowery and earnest. Her most enduring work is probably the hymn “I Saw One Weary” (number 441), in which she extolled the courage of Adventist pioneers, and in which some readers believe she inserted herself (disguised, of course, with male pronouns) as:

…one who left behind
The cherished friends of early years,
And honor, pleasure, wealth resigned,
To tread the path bedewed with tears.8

Amid the stoic piety and sweet sentimentality of her verses, a poem that didn’t make it into any hymnbook stands out as my favorite. “Proof Reader’s Lament” is a comic poem about the exacting standards of her work at the Review.

“Too bad! Too bad!” I hear them cry,
“You might have seen with half an eye!
Strange, passing strange!! How could you make
So plain, so blunderous a mistake!”9

This fleeting glimpse of a young copy editor’s sense of humor, with its vivid flavor of life in the publishing business, lifts Smith’s voice off the dusty pages of history perhaps more effectively than any of her more serious work.

It’s impossible to judge, nearly 170 years after her death, how Annie Smith’s talent might have developed if she had lived longer. What strikes me is how much this educated, ambitious, creative young woman’s biography was molded—during her life, and even more after it— into a symbol for Adventists. Ambition must be sacrificed; devotion to God and to duty must be placed above all; suffering must be borne with saint-like patience.

Such a portrayal tells us less about Annie Smith herself than it does about the family, the church, and the community that memorialized her. Her literary and artistic talent and ambition, her desire for an education and a career, even her sense of humour – all are overshadowed by the values that early Adventism – and the nineteenth-century world in which it emerged – considered appropriate for women. Dedication to the Lord’s work and erasure of any self-will: this is what Rebekah Smith, and perhaps Uriah Smith, wanted Adventists to remember about their daughter and sister. Add in the possibility of an unrequited romance and the tragedy of early death, and this is the version of Annie Smith that left a trace on history. This is the Annie Smith that remained, more than a century after her death, for an Adventist girl like me to learn about and, perhaps, emulate. 

We can’t know what poems or prose a mature Annie Smith might have written. Perhaps even more sadly, we can’t know what the Adventist church might have been like if, from the beginning, it had not only used the work of talented women, but taught them that “ambition” was not a dirty word, and that pursuing success and following God were not mutually exclusive.


  1. Graybill 1976. (This article was an abridged version of Graybill 1975, originally published in Adventist Heritage). ↩︎
  2. E.G. White to J.N. Andrews, 1855. ↩︎
  3. Graybill 1976, pg. 4 ↩︎
  4. Loughborough 1892, pg. 160-1. ↩︎
  5. R. Smith 1871, pg. 99. ↩︎
  6. A. Smith, 1855, pg. 24 ↩︎
  7. Graybill 1975, pg. 18-19. ↩︎
  8. A. Smith, “I Saw One Weary” ↩︎
  9. A. Smith, “Proof Reader’s Lament,” in R. Smith, 1871, pg. 128. ↩︎
Trudy J. Morgan Cole

About the author

Trudy J. Morgan-Cole is an author of mostly historical fiction set in Newfoundland, including: Cupids Trilogy (A Roll of the BonesSuch Miracles & Mischiefs, books 1 & 2) as well as Most Anything You Please, A Sudden Sun, That Forgetful Shore, and By the Rivers of Brooklyn. She has also written several books of inspirational fiction, many of which are re-imaginings of Bible stories. These include Esther: A Story of CourageJames: The Brother of Jesus, and Lydia: A Story of Philippi.  She describes herself as “a Christian who loves Jesus, but finds some of his followers scary and a Seventh-day Adventist who doubts, questions, and loves my church passionately.” More from Trudy J. Morgan-Cole.
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