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Fake Quotations: Washington and Governing without God

Posted by sbh on Friday, 3 July 2009

Did George Washington say

It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible.

in his farewell speech of 1796?

No. Not then or any other known time.

This particular version is relatively modern. The statement appears to go back (through several permutations) to a claim made by an 1835 biographer on unknown authority. Supposedly George Washington said to a gentleman skeptical of the existence of a Supreme Being:

It is impossible to account for the creation of the universe without the agency of a Supreme Being.

It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being.

It is impossible to reason without arriving at a Supreme Being. Religion is as necessary to reason, as reason is to religion. The one cannot exist without the other. A reasoning being would lose his reason in attempting to account for the great phenomena of nature, had he not a Supreme Being to refer to; and well has it been said, that if there had been no God, mankind would have been obliged to imagine one.

You will note of course that the sense here is quite different from the sense of the derivative version. When the version quoted above is dragged out, it is with the intention of showing that Washington believed that God and the Bible were an essential part of governing a nation.  In the 1835 version Washington is explaining that it is impossible for the universe to run without God keeping it going, so to speak.  But the thing is, if there is a genuine version, this one is it.

Is this version likely to be authentic?  Not particularly.  These are not Washington’s words, but somebody’s recollection of Washington’s words written down after an unknown period of time.  No authority is given, and the words are at least second hand, and maybe even further down the transmission chain.  But this is as good as it gets.

A quick check of Google books shows that this particular version continued to be quoted independently of the mutation that we’re now going to follow.  In 1867 the American Tract Society put out Testimonies of American Statesmen and Jurists to the Truths of Christianity.  This contained the following piece, attributed to George Washington:

It is impossible to govern the world without God. It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the Providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits and humbly implore his protection and favor. I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs, than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that agency which was so often manifested during the revolution; or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of Him, who is alone able to protect them. He must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.

Okay, this is an interesting little florigelium. After the first sentence, the only part of this that is really under consideration, we have a bit from the 1789 Thanksgiving proclamation, another bit from a private letter of 11 March 1782 to John Armstrong, and a final bit from a letter to Brigadier-General Nelson of 20 August 1778.

You will notice that the sentence here has undergone a notable shift.  The “universe” has become the “world” and “the aid of a Supreme Being” has become “God”.  And in this version, followed as it is by the stuff about it being the duty of nations to acknowledge God, makes it easy to think that he’s talking about national politics rather than celestial mechanics.  This version survived independently (though truncated to just this statement and the Nelson letter fragment) also as this 1922 example shows.

Let me put the next mutation after the first two versions so that the reader gets a picture of the gradual changes so far:

It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being.

It is impossible to govern the world without God.

It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.

This new permutation goes back at least to 1893, when it turns up in A Lawyer’s Examination of the Bible by Howard H. Russell.  The meaning in this version has completely shifted from the cosmic to the ephemeral, from the universe to the affairs of men.

These two derivative versions are clearly bogus.  The only version with any claim to authenticity is the first, and its claim is not high.  No authority is given, nor is there any way to tell how close we are to the (alleged) auditor of this argument.  On the other hand the paraphrase of Voltaire at the end makes it unlikely to be a pious fiction.  That’s not enough to redeem it as source material, but it gives it an interest it might otherwise not reflect.

Update (25 May 2016)

I have written a series of posts giving a fuller history of this fake quotation at Rational Rant. They are:

Without God and the Bible: Introduction
Without God and the Bible Part 1: The Playwright
Without God and the Bible Part 2: The Preacher
Without God and the Bible Part 3: The Politician
Without God and the Bible Part 4: The Lawyer
Without God and the Bible: Concluding Remarks


4 Responses to “Fake Quotations: Washington and Governing without God”

  1. […] “religionists” misattribution or the Washington “impossible to govern without the Bible” concoction. One of the sites given above promotes all three of these fake quotations, and has the gall to […]

  2. Reb said


    • sbh said

      In fairness to David Barton I should point out that many of these fake quotations, and this one in particular, were circulating long before he took hold of them and popularized them. It is also worth noting that David Barton has at least partially retracted some of his wilder claims, listing a number of these on his unconfirmed quotations page. On the other hand I have written him personally about some of these whose sources are known (the fake Patrick Henry “religionists” quotation for one) and have yet to receive a reply–nor has he corrected his errors either at his website or elsewhere. Honest scholars (as I know from personal experience) issue corrections when shown to be in error, and usually give credit to the discoverers. Charlatans, on the other hand, usually do not.

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