Skip to main content
Smith Libraries Exhibits

History about Sophia Smith's Journal

History about Sophia Smith's Journal

The following information comes from the Smith Alumnae Quarterly, August 1941.

"A recent gift, not only one of the greatest treasures that could have come to us, but also a volume of extraordinary interest which many of our brother libraries in New England would be very glad to have." 


As a Fiftieth Reunion gift, Helen French Greene 1891 has presented to the College the journal of Sophia Smith, which came to her from her father, John Morton Greene. It has been carefully bound into a new leather back, though the worn board covers have been kept, and a matching case with leather binding tooled in gold which will preserve the covers is part of Miss Greene's gift. These are on display in the Archives room of the Library. As an original document showing New England habits of thought and reading in the middle of the last century, this journal is of remarkable value to historians and litterateurs; while to us as a revelation of the character and ideals of our Founder, it is priceless.

There is a chapter on the journal and the personality it discloses in "Sophia Smith and the Beginnings of Smith College," by Elizabeth Deering Hanscom and Helen French Greene -- one of the Fiftieth Anniversary publications of the College. It tells how Mr. Greene, the new young pastor of the Hatfield Congregational Church and obviously a psychologist before books were written on that science or doctors had set up consulting rooms for mental ills, advised his elderly parishioner to keep a diary as an outlet for her introspective, rather morbid thoughts. Miss Smith began immediately with a substantial blue-ruled notebook, "top end down," heading each page "Personal journal" in her slanting, delicate hand; and continued to write at intervals during the last nine years of her life. The last entry is dated May 9, 1870; she died on June 12, leaving the journal with other papers to her minister, mentor, and friend.

All Smith alumnae know the story of that afternoon visit of May 1, 1861 when Sophia Smith came to the Hatfield parsonage in great distress of mind because her brother Austin had left her his considerable fortune, and she did not know what to do with it. She wept; she wanted advice. Her journal begins eleven days later. But nowhere in the journal, during all those nine years while Mr. Greene presented several plans for charitable bequests and became firmer in his own desire to see a college founded in Massachusetts where women could receive an education equal to their brothers' at Harvard and Amherst; while Sophia Smith signed one will and then another, and put off signing the last which established Smith College in Northampton until two months before she died because there had been company at her house -- nowhere is there a direct reference to any of the wills, nor even to the plan for a woman's college which must often have been discussed. These were secular matters, and it was generally Sunday when Miss Smith wrote in her journal. Miss Hanscom and Miss Greene have pointed out with rare insight how the New England Sabbath colored the journal:

Practically all the entries in the journal were made on Sundays, many of them on wet and stormy Sundays, when the writer could not go to church and when her deafness was more than usually troublesome. To those familiar with the ritual of the old New England Sabbath this is sufficient explanation. This was the day not alone of physical idleness but of self-examination and self-abasement, of meditation and introspection, of reflection on one's calling and election, and of much concern about one's latter end... No wonder that sitting with folded hands in her empty house, while the rain drenched Hatfield Street and the wind which she could not hear bent the great elms, she bewailed her sins, contemplated advancing age with terror, reflected on death and the hereafter, and in general worked herself into such a state that even washing day and Sarah must have seemed substantial blessings on Monday morning! [Sophia Smith and the Beginnings of Smith College, pp. 24, 25.]

Here, not quite in its entirety, we wish to print John M. Greene's own evaluation of the journal. This is Chapter 3 of a manuscript history of the beginnings of Smith College, written by Mr. Greene in the later years of his retirement, "his last labor of love for Smith College," his daughter, who edited it, says in her foreword. A typewritten copy of this history is bound and is in the Browsing Room. It was the source material for the Fiftieth Anniversary publication which we have quoted, but has not ever been published.

John M. Greene's Story

A FEW weeks after the death of Sophia Smith I met Deacon Hubbard in Northampton. He invited me to his office and there put into my hands a small bundle which he said contained Sophia Smith's Personal journal, my Plan of a Woman's College, and some letters which I had written to her and others about her affairs. [EDITOR'S NOTE--130 original documents pertaining to the beginnings of Smith College, including letters and John M. Greene's Plan of a Woman's College, all mounted and in a special case, were presented to the College by Miss Greene on March 5, 1933, the 101st anniversary of her father's birth.]. He said that on her deathbed Miss Smith expressed the wish that her journal and the above-mentioned documents be given to Mr. Greene. "He will know better than anyone else what to do with the journal. I give it to him to keep and use as he may think best."

It was at my suggestion that Miss Smith kept her Personal journal. When she first talked over with me the matter of the disposition of her property, I saw at once that she was very introspective and depressed; and I then advised her to keep a journal, and write in it daily or weekly the events of her life, giving a brief account of the persons she met, her thoughts about the books she read, and anything else that interested her and would draw her mind from herself and her afflictions. She soon purchased a blank book, and with the book top end down, made the first entry May 12, 1861. She kept it for nine years, making her last entry in it only a month before her passing away. There are in the book 277 entries, averaging about one page of fine writing to each.

As we read the journal we find that in her feelings Miss Smith is sometimes morbid, in her expressions she is not always free from cant. But her cant is more the spirit of the age in which she lived than a personal quality. The first half of the nineteenth century in New England abounded in cant. Everyone went to church on the Sabbath. The ministers preached Calvinistic doctrines which were so abstract and abstruse, so far away from the experience of ordinary mortals, that it was very easy, in religious matters, to say what one did not feel or fully comprehend....

Exaggerations, also, may be found in the pages of the journal. The language then becomes more the expression of emotion than of the intellect. She often calls her deafness "a great calamity." It began to be serious and troublesome to her when she was forty years of age. Before she was fifty she used a tube in conversation. To do that touched her pride. She often says in her journal, "It troubles me," and "It troubles me forever," i.e. all the time. At great cost she experimented with aurists to cure her deafness, but absolute failure was always the result. One effect of this was that she lost her judgment on this particular thing.

The following illustrates what I mean: Miss Smith was deeply interested in the Civil War. After the Battle of the Wilderness her pastor joined the service of the Christian Commission in Virginia. Writing in her journal June 19, 1864, she says:

I have been to church this forenoon; Mr. Greene has returned and preached this forenoon. I heard him no better than usual: only a few words.

And then she gives an excellent report of the sermon. The truth was that while she could not hear perfectly, she heard much more than she thought she did.

Miss Smith also borders upon exaggeration when she writes of her "loneliness." One might get the impression that she had very little company and almost no friends. We need to remember that until her sister Harriet's death in 1859 she had a constant friend in that sister. Harriet led and directed in everything. When such a sister was taken away from one so dependent as she had been, we can see what a sense of loneliness and almost helplessness would come over her. "No one to talk with," "no one to advise me," "no one to counsel and instruct me," are the cry of her soul for the dear sister whom God had taken. But these expressions are not to be taken as indicating that Miss Smith had no friends who visited her. More than half the days of the year saw her with kind and cultured lady friends as guests in her home, often spending weeks and months. She was hospitable and enjoyed their society. She did all that could be done to make their visits pleasant. We find her journal so truly "personal" a book, however, that though she often says she enjoyed a visit, was made happy by it, and hoped it might be repeated, there is no record of the names of her guests nor of the things they said or did.

Since the journal is so emphatically personal, let us turn over its leaves and see what it discloses about Sophia Smith. If humility is the beauty of holiness, as some claim, then she was beautiful indeed, for humility appears on almost every page she wrote. She calls herself hard names. She did not see much that was good in herself. She had a deep sense of her own responsibility to God and to man. Early in her journal she says: "My name will be execrated, or be handed down with blessings." Often she asks God to enable her to act wisely in the disposition of the great trust which He had committed to her. Conscience was an important factor in her makeup. She clearly saw a difference between right and wrong, and she wanted her influence, her name, her property, and everything she said or did on the side of the right.

Miss Smith's religion did not spend itself in emotion. Her life and her faith were simple, humble, intensely practical. She was not therefore content with the passive virtues. She often speaks not only of her desire to be good, but to do good. Her words are:

And may I remember that God requires our service; that we were not sent here to live to self, but to do good to others.

Again she says, "May I try to do all the good I can." She often censures herself for indulging in a "pensive" mood. She rouses and spurs herself to action in doing or giving. She was very fond of hymns like "Onward, Christian Soldiers."

She was never satisfied with her present attainments, but was, to the very last of her life, striving for something higher and better. Pleasure or enjoyment was not the end she sought in any service she rendered, but "self-improvement." She read a book, not because it would please her fancy, regale the taste and imagination, but to improve her mind and strengthen her character. Her words are:

How important for me that I should improve every opportunity and advantage, to make up for this great trial and bereavement, and strive after greater perfection, to be more like my Saviour whose whole life was spent for others, not for Himself.

There is nothing that her mind reverts to oftener than that she may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of God, and all that is good.

Sophia Smith realized to an unusual degree the personal presence of God as a kind and loving Father, and of Christ as a Sympathizing Friend and Saviour. Of Christ she wrote in her journal: He is ever near to His disciples. He is nearer than the most intimate [friendship] ever formed on earth. He dwells in them. He is united to them. He does all for them. He does not leave them alone; He comes to them. He is with them in all troubles.

She often said to me: "The most beautiful verse in the Bible is, 'Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.' " And one proof that His presence was a reality to her is that she rarely in her journal speaks of God as "our Father," but as "my Father"; or of Christ as "our Saviour," but "my Saviour." That is a great fact as regards her faith, and love, and hope. She knew whereof she spoke. Jesus was to her not a figment of the imagination, not a mere dogma in the intellect, nor was He a person far away and a stranger; but He was near at hand, close to her, a familiar Friend, a beloved Guest in her heart and home.