Fake History

At the crossroads where legend and hype meet

  • Recent Comments

    Parents: Beware Chri… on Fake Quotations: Patrick Henry…
    response to Mr. Wein… on Adams and the General Principl…
    Stuart on “No king but Jesus” and the Am…
    Ruth on Comment Grab-Bag
    sbh on Adams and the General Principl…
  • Archives

  • Topix

Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

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.

Posted in Bible, Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation, George Washington | 1 Comment »

Fake Quotations: Harvard Student Handbook

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 19 July 2009

Did the original Harvard Student Handbook have

Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, John 17:3; and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation for our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.

as its first rule?

No. This is a misquotation (and a bad one) of rule 2, not rule 1.

This rule is taken from “Rules, and Precepts that are observed in the Colledge,” as printed in New England’s First Fruits, a 1643 booklet printed in England.  Rule 2 (again, not rule 1) reads:

2. Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and lesus Christ which is eternall life, Joh. 17. 3. and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.

And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himselfe by prayer in secret to seeke it of him Prov 2, 3.

Where did this garbage at the end of the pseudo-quotation come from?

Well, a document sometimes entitled “Forsaken Roots” started making its way around the internet by 2002.  In its original form it contained this:

In the original Harvard Student Handbook, rule number 1 was that students seeking entrance must know Latin and Greek so that they could study the scriptures: “Let every student be plainly instructed and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ, which is eternal life, John 17:3; and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisdom, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seek it of him (Proverbs 2:3).

Up to a point this is a reasonably accurate modern-spelling version of the original with two strange lapses: the insertion of the word “Jesus” in front of the word “Christ” and the silent omission of the words “in the bottome” immediately after “Christ”.  Okay, that explains a bit, but where on earth did that gibberish about the ten commandments come from?

Well, later in the document we have the rhetorical question:

Is it not a permissible objective to allow our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments?

Now early in the transmission of “Forsaken Roots” the document was violently (and seemingly mindlessly) shortened by the omission of two sections.  One of these omissions included every word between “foundation” (in the Harvard rules quotation) and “our children” (in this rhetorical question).  Apparently the word “for” was inserted in the gap to produce:

…and therefore to lay Jesus Christ as the only foundation for our children to follow the moral principles of the Ten Commandments?

A number of copies actually have it end with a question mark and no closing quotation mark, as rendered above, though most have smoothed it out a bit by replacing the question mark with a period and closing quotation mark.  The short form of “Forsaken Roots,” by the way, has circulated most widely under the title “History Forgotten.”

In its original form “Forsaken Roots” referred to the first rule as requiring students to know Latin and Greek.  This is correct.  The first rule ran:

1. WHen any Schollar is able to understand Tully, or such like classicall Latine Author extempore, and make and speake true Latine in Verse and Prose, suo ut aiunt Marte; And decline perfectly the Paradigim’s of Nounes and Verbes in the Greek tongue: Let him then and not before be capable of admission into the Colledge.

Where “Forsaken Roots” went wrong was in quoting part of the second rule without citing it as the second rule, thus making it seem as though the first rule was being quoted.  Not a major sin, but still very sloppy work.  The silent alterations to the text are likewise extremely sloppy, though as they don’t distort the meaning, they fall short of criminal.

Since “History Forgotten” has circulated, the fake form of the second rule from “Rules and Precepts” has been pulled out and circulated separately, without anybody seeming to notice that it’s absolute gibberish.

(In the above transcriptions I have replaced the long s (ſ) with an ordinary s.  Thus “Verſe and Proſe” become “Verse and Prose” as above.)


America’s Christian Roots (sbh; this version has the lacunae of the abbreviated text in blue)

New England’s First Fruits (Anonymous, 1865 reprint at Google Books)

On the Authorship of “New Englands First Fruits” (Worthington C. Ford, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1909)

Posted in Bible, Fake quotation | 3 Comments »

Fake Quotations: Patrick Henry and the Worth of the Bible

Posted by sbh on Thursday, 9 July 2009

Did Patrick Henry say

The Bible is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed.

toward the end of his life?

No.  Probably not, anyway.  It’s another quotation based on a second-hand story, though better than some.

Ultimately the account appears to go back to George Dabney, one of Patrick Henry’s neighbors.  (I say appears because there is an element of inference still, as we’ll see.)  Captain George Dabney fought in the Revolutionary War, and afterwards was an associate of Declaration-signer and Virginia governor Thomas Nelson.  According to a newspaper clipping reprinted in a Dabney family history,

Patrick Henry was his intimate friend and neighbor, and from him Mr. Wirt obtained much of the information which he has embodied in his life of Patrick Henry.

William Wirt (1772-1834) was the prosecutor in Aaron Burr’s treason trial, Attorney-General under James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, and the author of Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (1817). From its introduction we learn that George Dabney was Patrick Henry’s friend during his childhood and youth, and that William Wirt got his information from him through Nathaniel Pope, as he himself was not acquainted with George Dabney.

In this book the story first appears.  Wirt tells it like this:

Mr. Henry’s conversation was remarkably pure and chaste. He never swore. He was never heard to take the name of his Maker in vain. He was a sincere Christian, though after a form of his own; for he was never attached to any particular religious society, and never it is believed, communed with any church. A friend who visited him, not long before his death, found him engaged in reading the bible: “here,” said he, holding it up, “is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed: yet it is my misfortune never to have found time to read it, with the proper attention and feeling, till lately. I trust in the mercy of heaven, that it is not yet too late.” He was much pleased with Soame Jenyns’ View of the internal evidences of the christian religion; so much so, that about the year 1790, he had an impression of it struck at his own expense, and distributed among the people. His other favourite works on the subject were Doddridge’s “Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul,” and Butler’s “Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed.” This latter work, he used at one period of his life, to style by way of pre-eminence, his bible. The selection proves not only the piety of his temper, but the correctness of his taste, and his relish for profound and vigorous disquisition. [pp. 401-2, links added]

William Wirt gives no source, but when William Wirt Henry (Patrick Henry’s grandson) wrote his 1891 Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches he retold the same incident:

One of his neighbors going to see him found him reading the Bible. Holding it up in his hand, he said: “This book is worth all the books that ever were printed, and it has been my misfortune that I have never found time to read it with the proper attention and feeling till lately. I trust in the mercy of Heaven that it is not yet too late.

His source for this is “Statement of George Dabney, MS. Letter to Mr. Wirt, Wirt’s Henry.”  And as he notes in his introduction that he had “access to nearly all of the material used by Mr. Wirt, including most of the communications received from the contemporaries of Mr. Henry,” it seems a reasonable assumption that both versions came from the same source.

So on the plus side, assuming that the George Dabney connection to be correct, the story emanates from a person close to the alleged source.  On the minus side we still don’t know whether Dabney was the “friend” or “neighbor” who supposedly heard this, or whether he was only reporting what somebody else had told him.  And, distinctly on the minus side, this is a familiar sort of legendary embellishment, the story about the man near death who seeks comfort from the Bible.  If it never happened, somebody probably would have invented it.

Also, and I may be a little hyper-critical here, Henry seems to have been well-acquainted with the Bible.  Certainly his reading matter (as described above) is extremely heavy-going without familiarity with the Christian scriptures, and I personally find it difficult to believe that Henry had “never found time to read it with the proper attention and feeling till” shortly before his death. To me that has a strong flavor of legendary embellishment.


Should a Class Focusing on the Bible be Taught in Public School? (sbh)

A View of the Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion (Soames Jenyns, 4th edition, page images at Google Books)

Posted in Bible, Fake quotation, Patrick Henry | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted in Bible, Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation, George Washington | 4 Comments »

Fake Quotations: Congress on School Bibles

Posted by sbh on Monday, 15 June 2009

Did the United States Congress pass this resolution

The Congress of the United States recommends and approves the Holy Bible for use in all schools.

in 1782?

No.  Not in 1782 or any other year.

On this one there’s no real story behind it all, no misunderstanding to clear up—it’s a fake pure and simple.  And it’s the sort of fake that shouldn”t deceive anybody who has the slightest understanding of American history.

First, of course, the United States Congress didn’t exist in 1782.  Even assuming that its predecessor, the Continental Congress, is meant, it’s still nonsensical (and of course the Continental Congress never passed such a fatuous resolution).  What the forger seems to have done in this case is to use a genuine resolution recommending a Bible published by a Philadelphia printer, Robert Aitkin, for its care and accuracy in printing (colonial printers were notoriously careless and inaccurate) as the basis for this forgery:

Whereupon, Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled, highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion as well as an instance of the progress of arts in this country, and being satisfied of the care and accuracy in the execution of the work, they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorise him to publish this recommendation in the manner he shall think proper.

The words in bold are the ones lifted by the forger.  The phrase “for use in all schools” is apparently the forger’s own, though it may have been suggested by these words in Robert Aitkin’s petition: “your Memorialist begs leave to inform your Honours that he hath begun and made considerable progress in a neat Edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools.”


Debunking an Email (Ken Ashford)

Barton Revises History to Promote the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools (Chris Rodda)

Dubious Documents: The Case of the Bible of the Revolution (sbh)

Posted in Bible, Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation | 2 Comments »