Better to Light a Candle Than to Curse the Darkness

Eleanor Roosevelt? Confucius? Chinese Proverb? William L. Watkinson? E. Pomeroy Cutler? James Keller? Oliver Wendell Holmes? Adlai Stevenson? John F. Kennedy?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love the emphasis on constructive action in the following saying:

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

These words have been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, Confucius, and several other people. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest appearance located by QI occurred in a 1907 collection titled “The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America” by William L. Watkinson. A sermon titled “The Invincible Strategy” downplayed the value of verbal attacks on undesirable behaviors and championed the importance of performing good works. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet is it far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.

In September 1907 Watkinson’s sermon “The Invincible Strategy” was reprinted in a periodical called “China’s Millions” which was published by a Protestant Christian missionary society based in China. 2

Thus, the expression was disseminated to a group of people in China. Nowadays, the words are sometimes ascribed to Confucius or labeled a Chinese proverb, but QI has not found compelling evidence to support that assignment.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1911 a book of biblical commentary titled “The Great Texts of the Bible” printed a slightly rephrased version of the expression and credited Watkinson in a footnote: 3

Yet it is far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.2
2 W. L. Watkinson

In 1925 the adage continued to circulate in the religious sphere. “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York reported on a sermon Reverend E. Pomeroy Cutler was planning to deliver. The saying was presented as an anonymous proverb: 4

“As the main thread of my sermon,” said Mr. Cutler. “I am taking a quotation from the extra-canonical works of Estras: ‘I shall light a candle of understanding in thy heart, which shall not be put out,’ and a proverb: ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the dark.’

In 1938 “The Waterloo Press” of Waterloo, Indiana printed a filler item that matched the modern saying with an anonymous label: 5

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.—Anon.

In 1940 Dr. Bruce R. Baxter, President of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon employed the saying while addressing a graduating class. The words were linked to a famous Chinese sage: 6

In asking for a “vision of mind rather than that of the eyes,” Dr. Baxter quoted Confucius to the seniors: “It is better to light a candle than curse in darkness.”

In 1945 a “Questions Answered” column in “The Hartford Courant” implausibly credited Oliver Wendell Holmes; no specification for Jr. or Sr. was given: 7

Q. Who said “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness?” B.K
A. Oliver Wendell Holmes is the author of the saying.

In June 1946 “The New York Times” printed a request with a garbled version of the saying in the “Queries and Answers” section: 8

F. H. S. wants the identity of this line, probably from Lowell, Whittier or Holmes: “Light a candle before you enter and curse darkness.”

Two weeks later “The New York Times” printed a response from a correspondent. Unfortunately, the answer appeared to be inaccurate: 9

DOROTHY U. TROUBETZKOY, West Hartford, Conn.: F. H. S. (June 9) might have in mind the old Chinese proverb of Confucius, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” It is quite likely that it has been quoted or adapted by poets where your correspondent may have seen it.

In 1948 a Catholic periodical discussed a new book titled “You Can Change the World” by Father James Keller who was the founder of the Christophers religious movement. The saying under investigation was the motto of the movement: 10

As a Maryknoller, Father Keller is full of Oriental lore. He has a reply to those who think they cannot stir up enough vision to be part of his Christ-bearer plan. It is an old Chinese proverb—“Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”

In 1960 John F. Kennedy used an instance in his acceptance speech after receiving the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party: 11

We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us thru that darkness to a safe and sane future.

In 1962 former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt died. Many statements of praise were printed from her admirers. Adlai Stevenson used the candle expression in his plaudit. Thus, she was linked to the saying: 12

Adlai E. Stevenson, United States representative to the United Nations, said: “Like so many others. I have lost more than a beloved friend. I have lost an inspiration. She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”

In 1965 “Proverbs, Epigrams, Aphorisms, Sayings, and Bon Mots” by Jacob M. Braude included this entry: 13

Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.
—Chinese

In September 1965 Charles M. Schulz published a “Peanuts” comic strip in which Linus told Charlie Brown about the saying: “Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness”. The final two panels of the four panel strip revealed that Lucy resisted the guidance of the adage: 14

In conclusion, QI tentatively credits William L. Watkinson with crafting this expression. His sermon published in 1907 helped to popularize the saying. The publication in “China’s Millions” meant that Chinese missionaries were exposed to the adage. That might explain why it was later assigned a Chinese origin. The attribution to Confucius is currently unsupported.

Image Notes: Candle cradled in two hands from Myriams-Fotos at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Chad Copeland whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and continue this exploration. Thanks to discussant Randy Alexander. Also, thanks to the “The Yale Book of Quotations” edited by Fred Shapiro and “The Quote Verifier” by Ralph Keyes both of which listed the Adlai Stevenson citation and other valuable citations. The 1907 citation is now listed in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”. Many thanks to Jonathan Caws-Elwitt who pointed to the instance in the “Peanuts” comic strip.)

Update History: On March 24, 2017 the excerpt from the 1965 comic strip was added.

Notes:

  1. 1907 Copyright, The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America by W. L. Watkinson (William Lonsdale Watkinson), Sermon XIV: The Invincible Strategy, (Romans: xii, 21), Start Page 206, Quote Page 217 and 218, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1907 September, China’s Millions, The Invincible Strategy by Rev. Wm. L. Watkinson, (Sermon printed by special permission of the Methodist Publishing House from the book “The Supreme Conquest” by W. L. Watkinson), Start Page 135, Quote Page 137, Column 2, Morgan and Scott, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1911, The Great Texts of the Bible: Romans (Completion), Edited by Rev. James Hastings, The Polemics of Christianity, Start Page 325, Quote Page 340, Charles Scribners’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1925 May 4, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Rev. E. Pomeroy Cutler on “Lighting Candles”, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1938 June 2, The Waterloo Press, (Filler item), Quote Page 1, Column 4, Waterloo, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1940 June 3, The Capital Journal, Baxter Talks To Graduates, Quote Page 12, Column 2, Salem, Oregon. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1945 January 6, The Hartford Courant, Questions Answered by Haskin Service, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  8. 1946 June 9, New York Times, Queries and Answers “Light a Candle”, Quote Page BR35, Column 1 and 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  9. 1946 June 23, New York Times, Queries and Answers “Light a Candle”, Quote Page BR16, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 1948 December 3, The Advance Register (The Catholic Advance), Listening In, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Wichita, Kansas, (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1960 July 16, Chicago Daily Tribune, Here Is Text of Kennedy’s Acceptance: Promises Leadership to Nation, Quote Page N5, Column 2, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  12. 1962 November 8, New York Times, President Kennedy Leads Nation in Expressing Sorrow at Death of Mrs. Roosevelt, Quote Page 34, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  13. 1965, Proverbs, Epigrams, Aphorisms, Sayings, and Bon Mots by Jacob M. Braude, Series: Complete Speaker’s and Toastmaster’s Library, Topic: Ambition, Quote Page 3, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  14. 1965 September 9, The Berkshire Eagle, Comic Strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz (Syndicated), Quote Page 26, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)