Considered a classic by many, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life was written by Hannah Whitall Smith in 1875. Smith was a Quaker at the time but had imbibed the Holiness Movement and the teachings of the so-called Higher Life Movement often associated with the Keswick Convention. Unknown to many of her admirers, both then and now, was the fact that Smith’s personal life was a mess, with serious marital and parental issues. Doctrinally she ultimately moved into universalism and came later to doubt her own Higher Life teachings (see www.PFO.org/hwsmith).
As for the book that made Smith a celebrity, it has sold millions of copies and is still popular today, perhaps because of the implied promise in the title. There is much in The Christian’s Secret that is orthodox and biblically sound, but the controlling theme is not. Smith taught a “let-go and let God” form of Christianity that guaranteed a life of rest and happiness, as well as holiness. It is a life in which “we do not do anything, but He (Christ) does it” (p. 29). Smith gives this definition:
Its chief characteristics are an entire surrender to the Lord, and a perfect trust in Him, resulting in victory over sin and inward rest of soul; and it differs from the lower range of Christian experience in that it causes us to let the Lord carry our burdens and manage our affairs for us instead of trying to do it ourselves (pp. 37-38).
The following explains the concept:
Most Christians are like a man who was toiling along the road, bending under a heavy burden, when a wagon overtook him, and the driver kindly offered to help him on his journey. He joyfully accepted the offer but when seated in the wagon, continued to bend beneath his burden, which he still kept on his shoulders. “Why do you not lay down your burden?” asked the kind-hearted driver. “Oh!” replied the man, “I feel that it is almost too much to ask you to carry me, and I could not think of letting you carry my burden too” (p. 38).
Smith’s invitation is “to give up all your efforts after growing, and simply let yourself grow.”
Coupled with these Higher Life teachings are two other emphases. First is the idea that this victorious living begins with a one-time complete surrender to God. She writes, “This must, then, be a settled matter; you have wholly yielded yourself to the Lord, and from henceforth you do not in any sense belong to yourself; you must never even so much as listen to a suggestion to the contrary” (p. 66). Smith further defines such surrender:
This is what thy consecration meant. It meant inevitable obedience. It meant that the will of thy God was henceforth to be thy will, under all circumstances and at all times. It meant that from that moment thou didst surrender thy liberty of choice, and gave thyself up utterly into the control of thy Lord. It meant an hourly following of Him, whithersoever He might lead thee, without any turning back (p. 205).
When one has finally surrendered to God he can look forward to entire sanctification: “But the sanctification the Scriptures urge, as a present experience upon all believers, does not consist in maturity of growth, but in purity of heart; and this may be as complete in the early as in our later experiences” (p. 33).
Smith’s ideas can be recognized in many evangelical circles today, but they are not well reasoned from Scripture and thus represent her holiness/mystical background rather than biblical teaching. As one reviewer wrote, she over promises and under delivers.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel