A Happy Family Is But an Earlier Heaven

George Bernard Shaw? John Bowring? John Browning? John Bouring?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some envision heaven filled with a joyous, loving, and interconnected group of people united on a higher spiritual plane. If one is a member of a happy family here on Earth then it is possible to obtain a glimpse of this future possibility. One may express this notion as follows:

A happy family is an earlier heaven.

This statement has been attributed to playwright George Bernard Shaw, political economist Sir John Bowring, and parliamentarian Sir John Browning. Would you please help me to identify the correct originator?

Quote Investigator: Sir John Bowring’s career was long and varied. He wrote articles about economics, served as a Member of the U.K. Parliament, worked a literary translator, and was appointed Governor of Hong Kong. In addition, his Unitarian faith inspired him to write many hymns. In 1837 a volume of “Hymns for Public and Private Worship” compiled by John R. Beard included a work celebrating domestic life titled “Home Joys” credited to Bowring containing the following two verses. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The pilgrim’s step in vain
Seeks Eden’s sacred ground;
But in home’s holy joys, again
An Eden may be found.

A glance of heaven to see,
To none on earth is given;
And yet—a happy family
Is but an earlier heaven.

Bowring’s name was followed by an asterisk, and the accompanying note stated that the hymn was an original “composed for the most part expressly for the volume”.

In 1841 John Bowring published the third edition of “Matins and Vespers: With Hymns and Occasional Devotional Pieces”. He included the hymn he wrote with slightly different punctuation. 2

A glance of heaven to see,
To none on earth is given;
And yet a happy family
Is but an earlier heaven.

The first edition of “Matins and Vespers” appeared in 1823, but the hymn containing the quotation under examination was absent. 3 QI has not yet seen the second edition and does not know whether it included the hymn and quotation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1847 “The Evergreen, Or Church-Offering for all Seasons” edited by James Mackay and Joseph Salkeld printed the hymn together with some suggested music: 4

SWEET ARE THE JOYS OF HOME
Air Altered from a Chant by T. Jackson

Bowring was knighted in 1854, and in 1855 the hymn lyrics were printed in “The London Journal: And Weekly Record of Literature, Science, and Art” within a section titled “Gems of Thought”. The journal credited Sir John Bowring. 5

In 1893 “The Daily Pantagraph” of Bloomington, Illinois printed the saying and credited “Browning” instead of “Bowring”. This was probably caused by a typo, and the error was repeated in later periodicals: 6

A happy family is but an earlier heaven.
—Browning.

Also, in 1893 the “Emporia Daily Republican” of Emporia, Kansas attributed the saying to “Bouring” instead of “Bowring”. This was probably another typo: 7

Be decent at home, for as Bouring says, “A happy family is but an earlier heaven.”

In 1940 “The News and Observer” of Raleigh, North Carolina printed a filler item which credited Browning: 8

Morning Tonic
(Sir John Browning.)
A happy family is but an earlier heaven.

Nowadays, the saying is often incorrectly credited to George Bernard Shaw. Misattributions are sometimes generated by inattentive readers who view two adjacent quotations and mistakenly transfer the ascription of one quote to another.

For example, the 1974 collection “Instant Quotation Dictionary” included the following two adjacent statements about families: 9

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.
George Bernard Shaw

A happy family is but an earlier heaven.
John Bowring

It is conceivable that a reader who consulted this reference decided that Shaw was the creator of the quotation about happy families. Of course, this suggestion is highly speculative.

In 1982 “The Call-Leader” of Elwood, Indiana printed the same two quotations next to one another. 10

The 1997 book “Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes” also printed quotations ascribed to Shaw and Bowring contiguously: 11

Parentage is a very important profession; but no test of fitness for it is ever imposed in the interest of the children.
—BERNARD SHAW
Everybody’s Political What’s What?

A happy family is but an earlier heaven.
—JOHN BOWRING

In 2007 the “Sioux City Journal” of Iowa ascribed the saying to Shaw: 12

“A happy family is but an earlier heaven.”
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) Irish dramatist

In conclusion, this quotation was crafted by Sir John Bowring and appeared within a hymn that he wrote which was published in 1837. The attributions to George Bernard Shaw and Sir John Browning are spurious.

Image Notes: Public domain image of people walking on a beach from Hamsterfreund at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Alice Elliott whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1837, A Collection of Hymns for Public and Private Worship, Compiled by John R. Beard, Hymn Number 517: Home Joys by Bowring (Dr. Bowring), Verse Number 6, Start Page 311, Quote Page 312, Published by John Green, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1841, Matins and Vespers: With Hymns and Occasional Devotional Pieces by John Bowring, Third Edition Altered and Enlarged, Hymn: Home Joys, Start Page 267, Quote Page 268, Published by J. Green, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1823, Matins and Vespers: With Hymns and Occasional Devotional Pieces by John Bowring, (Quotation is absent), Printed for the author and sold by G. and W. B. Whittaker, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1847 January, The Evergreen, Or Church-Offering for all Seasons Edited by James Mackay and Joseph Salkeld, Volume 4, Number 1, Sweet Are the Joys of Home, Air Altered from a Chant by T. Jackson, Quote Page 32, Published by Salkeld, Peck & Stafford, New Haven, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1855 January 27, The London Journal: And Weekly Record of Literature, Science, and Art, Number 518, Volume 20, Gems of Thought, Home by Sir John Bowring, Quote Page 335, Printed and Published for the Proprietor by George Vickers, at the Office of the “Weekly Times’, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  6. 1893 January 17, The Daily Pantagraph, All Sorts, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Bloomington, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1893 January 20, Emporia Daily Republican, (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 5, Emporia, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1940 July 27, The News and Observer, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1974, Instant Quotation Dictionary, Compiled by Donald O. Bolander, Dolores D. Varner, Gary B. Wright, and Stephanie H. Greene, Topic: Family, Quote Page 112, Career Institute, Mundelein, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1982 December 16, The Call-Leader, Quotes to remember, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Elwood, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1997, Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes: Wit and Wisdom for All Occasions, Quote Page 52 and 53, Published by Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  12. 2007 September 20, Sioux City Journal, Today’s Quote, Quote Page A8, Column 1, Sioux City, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)