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Aldert Smedes, 1810-1877
"She Hath Done What She Could," or the Duty and Responsibility of Woman; a Sermon, Preached in the Chapel of St. Mary's School, by the Rector, and Printed for the Pupils at Their Request
Raleigh: Printed by Seaton Gales, 1851.


According to Martha S. Stoops' brief biography, Aldert Smedes was born in 1810 in New York City to Abraham Kiersted and Elizabeth Sebor Isaacs Smedes. It is unclear why Smedes kept his mother's surname. The oldest of twelve children, Smedes began his education at Columbia College but finished it at Transylvania University before graduating from the General Theological Seminary and being ordained as an Episcopal deacon. Smedes married Sarah Pierce in 1833, with whom he had nine children. He was ordained a priest in 1834. Smedes was the rector of St. George's Church in New York from 1836 to 1839; he resigned to run a private school for girls with his mother in New York following a chronic throat illness. In 1842, Smedes opened another girls' school, St. Mary's School, in Raleigh, North Carolina (now St. Mary's College), which "became the embodiment of Aldert Smedes's conviction that society could be transformed through the influence of educated Christian women, and he gathered a competent and exceptionally dedicated faculty" (Stoops). Over 1900 women were educated at the school during Smedes' tenure, and many became teachers; the school itself became an important cultural center in Raleigh. The speech summarized herein was presented by Smedes at St. Mary's around 1851; he died in 1877.

Smedes opens his speech with an explanation of its title. Citing Mark 14:8, Smedes summarizes the story of a woman who poured "a box of Ointment of Spikenard, very precious," upon the head of "the Savior" (p. 3). When another faulted her for "the apparent waste, our gracious Savior not only vindicated his shrinking daughter from the charge, but cheered her affectionate heart, and commended to imitation her generous zeal, in the all-expressive eulogy, 'She hath done what she could'" (p. 3). Accordingly, Smedes focuses his attention on "the duties and responsibilities of a woman,—thus showing, not only what she can do, but what she must do, if she would be entitled to the commendation, 'She hath done what she could'" (p. 3).

To reach such a commendation, according to Smedes, a woman should first focus on her role during the time "which precedes her entrance upon the relations of wife and mother" (p. 4). In lieu of concerns with dress, gossip and "selfish cares," the young woman should instead "promote the glory of God, and diffuse happiness around her" by aiding her own mother with her younger siblings and educating them in the ways of salvation, and by performing "reading and studies, as will fit her, not only to sustain well her part in general society, but to discharge, with grace and intelligence, the engrossing duties of her after life" (pp. 4, 5). Finally, this stage between childhood and womanhood, according to Smedes, provides a woman with a special gift, for "at no period of life, is a woman more at liberty to exercise towards the poor, the ignorant, and the distressed, those offices of love which so well become her sex, and which she can discharge without overstepping the limits of the most shrinking modesty" (p. 6). As an example, Smedes mentions the impact of the woman Sunday School teacher who can care for "the lambs of . . . [the] flock" (p. 7).

Smedes warns marriageable women to choose a mate wisely, for "a woman who has given her heart, and her hand, herself and her all, in the holy estate of matrimony, to a man, in whose moral and religious integrity she has not good reason to confide, has in one of the points most essential to her own welfare, and the good of the community, failed to do what she could, and exposed herself to the severest retribution" (p. 8). If a woman does find herself married to a violent, unholy, or merciless man, Smedes urges her to use "patience . . . humility . . . meekness . . . longsuffering . . . [and] heavenly mindedness" to "address him in the most winning and persuasive manner" (p. 9). The wife is responsible for shutting the door "against anger, clamor, wrath, bitterness, evil-speaking, murmurs discontent, reproaches, and complainings" (p. 9). Only thus "may the Christian wife often become the minister to her husband's salvation" (p. 9).

Perhaps the only job more important than that of wife, according to Smedes, is the role of mother: "As the clay is in the hands of the potter, so, it may almost be said, are the hearts of her children, under the discipline of a pious and intelligent mother" (p. 11). She steers their religious grounding, "their taste, and manners, and general character" as well as their education (p. 12). Smedes encourages the education of young girls under the care of their mother, for "she must be trained from her infancy in the knowledge and love of her duties toward God and man" if she will achieve her full potential (pp. 14-15). But he also believes that women should develop "a broad and deep foundation . . . in those departments of study, which tend to strengthen and establish the mind, and improve the reasoning faculties" (p. 15). Only with such preparation will the young woman be able to enter society, choose a spouse wisely, and raise her children properly. According to Smedes, when the young woman is "thus fitted and prepared for the holy estate of matrimony, she is the richest prize—she is the dearest treasure this earth contains" (p. 15).

Works Consulted: Stoops, Martha S., "Aldert Smedes, 1810-1877," Documenting the American South, used with permission from Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, ed. William S. Powell, accessed 1 July 2010.

Meredith Malburne-Wade

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