By Louisa Finn, fourth generation Smiley family member
Episode #6: Sarah Smiley’s Journey South
The Sister of Mohonk’s Founder: A portrait in courage
As a child wandering the halls of Mohonk, I encountered the photo of Sarah Smiley in the hallway outside the Main Dining Room with a mixture of foreboding and amusement. The stark nature of her dress, and the serious, almost condemning look in her strong face made me wonder if I could be, or wanted to be, related to this person. It would be many years before I found that Sarah was a firebrand, controversial in her own family, and a fiercely independent woman, by any standards. Someone I’m exceedingly proud to call an ancestor!
Sarah Frances Smiley started out life steeped in the silent mysticism of the Quaker tradition– as had her older brothers Albert (Mohonk’s founder) and Alfred. But her spiritual path was to be quite different. She discovered that through rigorous study of the Bible, she was rewarded with an unparalleled sense of faith and salvation. Her study led her through Protestantism to the teachings of the Anglican Church, where she was destined to become a famous Evangelical preacher.
Albert and Alfred did not support her religious views; however, they provided her a monetary allowance for her needs, which enabled her to pursue her avocation. That Sarah’s spiritual journey burgeoned through reading and study led her to found a school of Anglican learning in 1889, The Home Society for the Study of Holy Scriptures. This was a kind of lending library along with coursework, which facilitated women’s ability to study the Bible for themselves (without male interpretation)–an unusual idea in that time! By the end of her life, Sarah amassed a library of over 6,000 volumes for this purpose.
Though Albert Smiley would not give money to Sarah’s religious project during his lifetime, he left a surprise gift in his will “to my sister Sarah, the sum of five thousand dollars to use as she may choose. May it be blest to the largest fulfillment of her hopes!” This she immediately left to her beloved library and school.