The scene: the little Lakeland town of Keswick, in the heart of the most beautiful mountain scenery in England. The time: the last week of June, 1875. From all over the United Kingdom a few hundred men and women converged for an informal convention of Bible readings, addresses, and prayer meetings designed to “promote practical holiness.”

They came because the vicar of Keswick, Canon Dundas Harford-Battersby, had issued a general invitation. He and the close friends at his elbow offered no elaborate plans; indeed, the intended principal speaker, Robert Pearsall Smith, had canceled his acceptance and was about to sail back to America after a nervous breakdown compounded by suspicion of infamous conduct. But Harford-Battersby refused to give up. A year previously his Christian life had been transformed by a discovery that he wanted to share. He would have been astonished and gratified had he known that what he began in 1875 would become an annual event, and celebrate its hundredth birthday, and turn a placename into a universal word.

The Keswick Convention arose in an England stirred by the evangelism of D. L. Moody, but the first steps owed nothing to him and everything to a Quaker glass manufacturer from Philadelphia, Robert Pearsall Smith, one of the oddest characters to blaze briefly across the religious scene. He arrived in London’s rich and cultured Mayfair in the spring of 1873 to create a quiet sensation with his message that a devout Christian need not lead an existence of gloom and defeat. Most of his early disciples were clergymen and upperclass laymen—the only people in that age with leisure to attend “conversational breakfasts,” where Pearsall Smith and his wife, Hannah Whitall Smith, expounded Scripture to prove ...

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