Fake History

At the crossroads where legend and hype meet

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Washington and God in the Picture

Posted by sbh on Monday, 9 August 2010

Did George Washington claim

You cannot govern without God in the picture

as quoted here?

Okay, people, you’re not even trying, are you? This one is absolutely ludicrous, from the twentieth-century colloquialism of the second-person general statement to the relatively recent phrase “in the picture” (in this sense, anyway). No, George Washington didn’t say it. He didn’t write it. It’s not his.

This is in fact a misquotation of something written in various forms by James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000), evangelical theologian and author of many inspirational and devotional books. This version comes from his The Gospel of John: an expositional commentary, p. 1332:

Second, without God in the picture we have no sure means of guiding government properly.

Boice wrote similar things elsewhere, but I rather doubt that he ever put it in the second person (as the version quoted at the top of the page has it), based on my limited exposure to his writing style. I could easily be wrong on this point, however, and I don’t insist upon it.

The attribution to Washington may have come about through confusion with another fake quotation, the without-God-and-the-Bible statement I debunked earlier, and sometimes now quoted in the form

It is impossible to govern a nation without God and the Bible.

But as far as this present item is concerned, both saying and concept are Boice’s, not Washington’s; and if the saying seems attractive, it should be correctly quoted and attributed. If it is supposed to gain added stature by its attribution to the first president of the United States and the father of his country rather than to its true author, then it’s probably best to leave it undisturbed in the bag of stale tricks.

One Response to “Washington and God in the Picture”

  1. DogTags said

    This post seems more in the way of a “strawman” than actually useful in educating anyone. I agree that sometimes over-exuberant Christians use misquotations or unconfirmed quotes to show our Godly heritage. Even though your anti-religious bias invades any substantive analysis you post, I find your blog helpful in weeding out the chaff of incorrect quotations. There are far too many actual quotes to demonstrate our Godly heritage in America to resort to using fake ones. But this particular post is aimed at a quotation that that really no one is claiming to be real.

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