The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life

I’ve just started reading The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life by Hannah Whitall Smith. She was a famous Quaker in the late 19th/early 20th century. In fact, she may still be one of the most famous Quaker writers outside of liberal Quakerdom. (You can read a little more about and by her in Jessamyn West’s The Quaker Reader.)

The first part that really struck me, since I don’t care as much as some people whether or not her ideas are truly Scriptural, although I’m happy to report that it mattered very much to her and she quite certainly proved her point, was this:

It is our job to trust that God will transform us into what or whom we are called to be. It is God’s job to do the transforming. The trick is that we have to take the means that God chooses to transform us: we don’t get to choose. We might have liked to study and preach great words but instead God gives us elderly parents to comfort and read to. We might have liked to quietly write at our computers but instead God asks us to witness in the streets of Baghdad. Some of us thought we might become Quaker nuns but instead God gave us husbands and small children to teach us patience, forbearance and forgiveness.

Smith says it is our completeness of trust in God that marks our spiritual progress.

To those who worry about this kind of trust being just an excuse to keep women housebound and submissive, I’d say that the difference is in submission to God’s will which is not the same as submission to cultural norms or human oppression. It is truly a tragedy when any person hears God’s call and is prevented from responding fully by human conceptions of gender, race or class roles.

What I’m (always?) struggling with is the concept of God’s will for us. I think I believe that God knows us and wills the best for us.

Do I really? Do I really believe in that personal of a God/Goddess/Divine Presence? If not, why not?

Does God really have a Jesus face? This I know experimentally.

Or a Jesus heart? This is one of the metaphors that feels right to me, but not on any rational knowledge basis. It's more like an anthropomorphic way for me to comprehend something more vast and mysterious than I can quite wrap my human brain around.

And how does this fit with the Quaker process for corporate discernment of God’s will?

I don’t believe that God controls the outcomes for us. I believe that we live with the consequences of our choices, and of the choices made by many humans all along the course of history. For Smith, these choices would include whether we willingly enter into and learn from the path we are given or we chafe against it, becoming either apathetic or bitter and mean along the way. For Friends more generally, this would include the consequences of the discernment of earlier Meetings.

I’m also wondering about how this relates to another book more famous outside of Quaker circles than within, Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. Do the classic disciplines simply enable us to trust more fully? Or are they about enacting our own transformation? Hmmm.

P.S. This blog post was brought to you courtesy of an hour of waiting outside yesterday for the UPS truck since our intercom/doorbell system doesn’t work yet. I brought my book, my tea and my notebook down and sat on the edge of the planter box, listening to the sounds of the construction site on one side and the artificial waterfall on the other. I can’t decide whether this was more an example of discipline or of indulgence. Or a delightful congruence of both.

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Blogger kwattles said...

The book is also available online, at the website of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Their main page is at http://www.ccel.org/ and you can find two books by Hannah Whitall Smith by browsing their collection by Author.

The direct link is

9/11/2007 1:03 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thank you, Kirk. That's good to know, since I may be quoting from this book more in the next few weeks.

9/11/2007 1:21 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

It's definitely a classic, and I was very glad The Quaker Reader pointed me to her.

Every now and then someone claims that the 19th century Quakers and especially the Holiness movement were totally different from 18th century Quakerism, but I think both groups would have been very happy with your writing:

It is our job to trust that God will transform us into what or whom we are called to be. It is God’s job to do the transforming.

And I suspect earlier Quakers would have been happy as well. Where we go from there is a harder set of questions.

9/12/2007 7:59 AM  
Blogger Simon said...

That should have been "18th century Quietism", though I guess "18th century Quakerism" also works okay.

9/12/2007 8:10 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks, Simon. I wonder if her book is not so well known in part because the title sounds so smug. But the tone of the book is not that way at all. And as some writers have pointed out, she didn't have an especially easy or always happy life, what with a wayward husband and an extended period of disability near the end of her life.

I also liked her story of the woman who had a hard life who explained that she didn't carry all those burdens, she gave them to the Lord. As often as her worries came back, she just handed them right over. And thus managed to have some inner peace if not a lessening of her outward troubles. The lesson being that when we take our troubles to God in prayer, we have to leave them there, not carry them on with us.

9/12/2007 11:20 AM  
Blogger kwattles said...

Speaking of wayward husbands, your link to the Wikipedia entry on her leads to entries on her daughter Alys Pearsall Smith and son-in-law (Alys's husband) Bertrand Russell.

We don't need to go into the whole story here, but it's interesting to think that Russell may have had his mother-in-law in the back of his mind when he wrote on topics relating to religion. I think it gives another dimension when we consider people's life-stories, and how ideas and attitudes pass along and change from one generation to the next.

9/12/2007 1:00 PM  
Blogger quakerboy said...

Smith's book is wonderful. I keep a copy on my desk to read when I need a spiritual "lift". What many people do not know about Hannah Whitall Smith is that she was a universalist Christian. She believed that everyone would eventually be "saved".

Most of her books published by evangelical publishing houses edit out any reference to this.

She was a good Quaker in that she believed God calls us to nothing less than perfection and that God's grace extends to all...two very important Quaker distinctives I believe and two that we often overlook.

Try to find some of her other books. They are worth the read.

Peace out Robin,

9/12/2007 2:25 PM  
Blogger quakerboy said...

Here is an interesting article on Hannah and her understanding of universal salvation:


9/12/2007 2:28 PM  
Blogger Bill Samuel said...

Hannah Whitall Smith was raised a Quaker, left Quakerism and joined the Plymouth Brethren (who worship similarly but whose theology is quite different), and then rejoined Quakers. Meanwhile she is best known for her connection to the Holiness movement. So she's somewhat hard to pin down as to where she was in the organizational structure of Christianity. But this book stands on its own merits regardless of that, and has remained a classic since it was written.

9/12/2007 4:15 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks, guys, for continuing to clarify where Smith stands in the Christian pantheon.

The book is helping me understand Quaker perfectionism, which is a big element of the Holiness movement too, right? I'm wondering if I'll see a greater degree of perfection in me by the time I finish the book. Did it make a practical difference in your life?

9/12/2007 4:43 PM  
Blogger quakerboy said...

I certainly am not an authority on sanctification, but there is a bit of a difference between the early Quaker and Wesleyan understanding of holiness. Quakers saw holiness as a progressive work of God. The Wesleyan movement that influenced Quakers saw sanctification as a second definite work of grace.

As to the question, did the book make a practical difference in my life. I would say yes. I'm very very hard on myself...overly self-critical. Her book seems to say that we should put our all, including our self criticism at the foot of the cross. This quote from the book speaks to my condition: "Ask him to reveal hidden rebellion. If He reveals nothing, then believe there is nothing. Believe He has accepted you."

God's peace,

9/13/2007 8:24 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...


Glad I made my way to this post. My attention has been anywhere BUT blogs these days...

But your reference to this book has made me curious; it's a shame that (it looks like) QuakerBooks doesn't carry it.

On the other hand, I'm glad that Kirk pointed out the URL for the text online!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

9/17/2007 1:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful book. Smith's comparison of Law and Grace (in the "Bondage or Liberty" chapter) is something that's stayed with me for all the years since I first read it.

9/22/2007 9:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too have just become acquainted with this book. Where have I been? Or where has it been? It is a shot in the arm when one is considering the sovereignty of God. I believe Ms. Smith discovered that God is even in our outcomes that we bring about ourselves, that perfect peace will come when we accept everything that happens to us as from God's hand, and to rest and trust Him.

8/01/2008 9:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am 14 and needed a book to read. Since I have been having some doubts about God and the whole faith thing, my dad gave me Smith's book. I found the chapter on faith especially helpful. thanks hannah!!!!!!!!!!

7/17/2010 8:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a 5 year christian and working very hard to have faith. hannah's book helped me so much. oh, and i don't know much about quakers so y'all post some comments that tell me about you "thee thou" guys. I am a true to the bone, southern baptist and i was just wondering if quakers are really christians?

7/17/2010 8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although this post is some years old ..here we are, still commenting... I was looking for something specific from Hannah's book to copy and paste and I got here from Google.. I love this book and probably read it once a year. I am born again southern baptist. Although I don't believe in the second blessing and some of Hannah's other doctrine, I believe from her writings that she was a great believer who truly knew what trust and faith are. There are so may things from this book that I have learned and shared. I have been blessed from her writings.

1/08/2011 8:42 PM  

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