An Introduction by William DeArteaga
Helen Smith Shoemaker (1903-1983)
Helen Smith was born into a wealthy and socially prominent family that had little concern for religious matters and rarely attended church. That was hardly the expected background for a woman who would one day establish a world-wide ministry of prayer, the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer, and who would be the perfect helpmeet* and prayer foundation of Sam Shoemaker’s successful ministry.
Helen’s parents sent her study at Vassar (briefly), and then to Florence, Italy, where she fell in love with Italian art and decided on art as her career. She pursued artistic studies in New York and Paris. This was the “good life,” and Helen developed as a “flapper.” She believed devote Christians were uncouth and prone to wear “flat heels and hipped-roof hats.”
“I thought of my husband too much as a possession with which to insure my comfort and security, and too little as a partner in a great adventure which would require self-sacrifice from us both..”Helen Smith Shoemaker
After she returned to her father’s home in Princeton her sister began dating one of Shoemaker’s student-disciples. This young man convinced Helen to attend a Buchman session led by Sam in Larchmount, New York. Helen’s refined eyes saw it as “a dreadful little conference centre.” Her future brother-in-law bore down, challenging her to commit her life to the Lord. She asked what would this involve, and was given the Buchman response: “God has a plan; you have a part; find it and follow it.” Helen made a reluctant commitment, but, once taken, it grew and she never looked back. The first thing Helen surrendered to the Lord was her ambitions to be a famous sculptress. Instead, Helen volunteered for various organisational and evangelistic tasks within the Oxford Group, and threw herself with enthusiasm into the Buchman work.
As a teenager Helen had seen Shoemaker preach at Princeton, and like everyone else was impressed by his good looks and preaching enthusiasm. After her commitment to the Oxford Group (Not to be confused with the Oxford Movement -ed.) Sam asked her to come to Calvary House as a staff worker for his church. She was placed in charge of several woman’s group. Not unexpectedly, a romantic relationship developed between the two. Sam was unusually shy, but managed a successful courtship and they were married in 1930, and Helen began her career as Sam’s helpmeet and prayer warrior. Her spiritual maturity did not come immediately or easily:
“When I married, I had no conception of what was needed to be a good wife, a successful mother, and the first lady of a parish with all its demands and responsibilities. I didn’t feel I should have to share my husband at any time of the day or night with other people. I resented the constant intrusions on our family privacy and the frequent upset of my private plans and dreams….
I thought of my husband too much as a possession with which to insure my comfort and security, and too little as a partner in a great adventure which would require self-sacrifice from us both..”
“I wouldn’t change places with all the laymen’ wives in captivity. I love all the fun and all the opportunity and all the challenge, yes and all the trials – of being a parson’s wife.”Helen Smith Shoemaker
Grace by grace Helen discovered that the secret of peace and joy in her home life was the surrender of normalcy. The Shoemaker parsonage became an inn and hospice, where the lonely were comforted, the hungry fed, and all encouraged. Helen was able to fulfil her instincts as graceful hostess within Sam’s modest budget. She continued in charge of woman’s prayer groups at Calvary, and grew in experience in prayer and leadership.
Helen bore Sam two daughters, Sally and Helen, ten years apart. The birth of her first child resulted in complications which almost killed her and it took two years for her full recovery. All the while her spiritual life and dedication to the Lord grew, both in private prayer and in family life:
We meet in our bedroom before breakfast. Our daughter [Sally] is not forced to come, but we are always there at the time, and she comes quite naturally. Sometimes she reads a portion of the Bible, sometimes one of us does; sometimes we pray as we’re led for special people and over special problems, sometimes we say the Lord’s prayer together. We always have a short time of quiet, waiting on God, and we share with each other the direction that has come for the day. We generally ask Jesus to stand watch over our thoughts, our words, and our acts and ask Him to help us not to do anything that would disappoint Him or hurt anyone else.
Like other Christians, the demands and stresses of WWII (US involvement: 1941-1945) forced Helen to a new and higher level of ministry. She was touched by the plight of the many wounded serviceman filling the area service hospitals. Helen prayed for guidance as to how to help and was led to a ministry of encouragement and hospitality. She and six other women from Calvary opened up their homes to service men who were well enough to be given week-end leaves, and they also visited hospitals constantly to befriend and encourage the recovering servicemen.
Her most important ministry developed late in the war when victory seemed elusive and casualty lists never ending. Helen noticed that the Episcopal church as a whole did little to foster intercessory prayer for the protection of the servicemen. She knew how effective it could be and determined to mobilise a more united prayer effort. In 1944 Helen met a most improbable ally for this ministry, Mrs. Polly Wiley. Polly was temperamentally and theologically as different from Helen as could be. She was a liberal academician, but also executive assistant to the rector at the Church of the Ascension in downtown New York City, and had many contacts throughout the city. Polly influenced and mobilised the liberal women of the diocese, while Helen did the same among the more evangelical. They all met weekly at St. Thomas’ in 5th Ave. for prayer. Most who came were totally inexperienced in prayer, some relied on written prayers to be read before the group, others read from the Book of Common Prayer, but step by step they developed a powerful intercessory prayer life.
The group proceeded so well that Helen was asked by the Bishop’s assistant to form similar intercessory groups in other parishes. Helen and Polly jumped into this work, and by the time Helen followed her husband to his new call in Pittsburgh (1952) there were organised intercessor groups in ninety parishes. Helen had acquired a reputation as an expert on prayer and was called upon to speak about the topic. The talks were developed into articles and then a series of books. All that work was done in addition to her hectic parish duties. In January of 1948 Sam wrote in his diary:
“Helen works too hard, but I know no answer for it. Her book Prayer and You came out this year and has brought an additional lot of people to seek her out day after day. She is really almost as much in demand as I am, speaks well, greatly helps people. I don’t know what I would do without her in the business of my life. Our home is too often invaded by our work, yet we both love it and love doing it together.. It has been a spiritual partnership from the first and never closer than now.”
It was in Pittsburgh that Helen’s prayer ministry blossomed unexpectedly into something well beyond any one’s plans or expectations. After setting into her new parsonage at Calvary Church Pittsburgh, Helen addressed the parish’s women auxiliary on prayer. They asked her to elaborate. She began a School of Prayer, a weekly six-part series for the women of the parish. This was received so well that eight prayer groups were immediately formed. The School of Prayer became a yearly event drawing increasingly inter-denominational audiences.
Bishop Austin Perdue of Pittsburgh encouraged the prayer fellowships to be expanded to every parish of the diocese. He also urged formal incorporation. In 1958 the groups founded by Helen and Polly were incorporated as the Anglican Fellowship of Prayer. Helen was initially fearful that this name would limit its ecumenical draw, but Bishop Perdue wisely foresaw that it would open new doors throughout the worldwide Anglican family of churches. In fact, the Fellowship grew to worldwide coverage; to this day organising prayer conferences and activities in many countries. Throughout her Pittsburgh years Helen toured the U.S. speaking about prayer, and continuing her writing ministry.
Helen served as keynote speaker of President Kennedy’s prayer breakfast in 1962. She was personally invited by Billy Graham to represent the Episcopal Church at the First Congress of World Evangelism in Lausanne. Yet in spite of these many honours and prestige she always kept a prayer circle of women whom she could pray with and share her victories and sorrows. At a time when it was neither fashionable nor politic, she and her husband actively supported the Civil Rights movement, and Helen spent much effort with her husband defining and expanding the layman’s role as minister to the Church.
Towards the end of her life she wrote: “I wouldn’t change places with all the laymen’ wives in captivity. I love all the fun and all the opportunity and all the challenge, yes and all the trials – of being a parson’s wife.”
Six years after Sam’s death, while in prayer, Helen received the message: “You still have a gift to realise before you die.” It was her gift for sculpting, surrendered at the beginning of her Christian walk. For years, Helen had had a fascination with angels, enchanted by their beauty and their role in the spiritual world. Her angel sculptures became “the most exciting project I ever engaged in.”  It was a major undertaking, in which she sculpted the four great Archangels: Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel. The figures were done in combination style that drew from classic and modern traditions. The technical demands were awesome. She worked in clay, but the figures cast in bronze, plaster or silicone so they could be sold to churches and individuals at different price ranges. After this project she sculpted the head of Christ and several other items.
She finally succumbed to a stroke in 1983, but to the very end of her long life interceding for others, and prayer was “her passion and her discipline.”
* Helpmeet: i.e. a help suitable for him. Authorised Version of the Bible (1611) See: Genesis 2:18: “help meet”. As distinct from the more common, “help mate” which does not carry the same depth of meaning. -ed.
Bibliography of Helen Shoemaker’s books on prayer:
- The Exploding Mystery of Prayer. Seabury 1978.
- I Stand by the Door. Word, 1977 – biography of her husband, the Rev. Sam Shoemaker.
- The Magnificent Promise; The Unifying Power of Prayer. Abingdon, 1985
- Power Through Prayer Groups: Their Why and How. Fleming H Revell, n.d.
- Prayer and Evangelism. Word, 1974.
- Prayer and You. Fleming H. Revell, 1948.
- The Secret of Effective Prayer. Literary Licensing, 2011 (recent reprint).
- Leaping Off into Space: A travel Guide to Risk and Imagination. Janice L. DeRuiter, Helen J. Shoemaker. Winding Stream, n.d.
Helen’s books on prayer are technically out of print, but reappear constantly on used book websites. Try especially http://www.abebooks.com – my last query there produced over 100 hits.
My own published books are all available on Amazon, and here is the link to my author page so you can browse the titles and order HERE.
Her father, H. Alexander Smith, held an important administrative post at Princeton University. He entered politics and served as US. senator from New Jersey (1944 through 1958).
Gillespie, Joanna B., “Helen Shoemaker: Artist in work and In Life,” Journal of Woman’s Ministries, (Spring, 1987) 4.
Helen Smith Shoemaker, “I am a Parson’s Wife…” The Episcopalian, Sept. 1986, A.
Helen Smith Shoemaker, Prayer and Evangelism, Waco, Word Books, 1974, 68-74.
Helen Smith Schoemaker, I Stand by the Door, (Waco: Word Books, 1967) 72.
For details on its present day ministry contact: Anglican Fellowship of Prayer, P.O. Box 31, Orlando, FL 32802 Tel: (407) 246-0316.
Helen Smith Shoemaker, “The Power of Prayer,” The Living Church, Jan., 1984, 12.
Shoemaker, “Parson’s Wife,” B.
Gillespie, “Helen Shoemaker,” 7.
W. Courtland Robinson, “In Celebration of the Life of Helen Smith Shoemaker” [grandson), eulogy, author’s collection.