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Fake Quotations: Patrick Henry on “Religionists”

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 14 June 2009

Did Patrick Henry say:

It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ!



This is a line from a 1956 piece in The Virginian that was about Patrick Henry, not by him. The text of this item read:

“I have now disposed of all my property to my family. There is one thing more I wish I could give them, and that is the Christian Religion. If they had that and I had not given them one shilling they would have been rich; and if they had not that and I had given them all the world, they would be poor.”

Patrick Henry, Virginia,
His Will

There is an insidious campaign of false propaganda being waged today, to the effect that our country is not a Christian country but a religious one—that it was not founded on Christianity but on freedom of religion.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by ‘religionists’ but by Christians–not on religion but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity and freedom of worship here.

In the spoken and written words of our noble founders and forefathers, we find symbolic expressions of their Christian faith. The above quotation from the will of Patrick Henry is a notable example.

How this came to be attributed to Patrick Henry, despite the third-person mention of him as a noble founder and forefather, is not clear.  My personal guess is that somebody along the line mistook the “above quotation” as referring to the sentence that immediately preceeded the phrase, rather than to the actual excerpt given at the beginning of the piece.  That’s only a guess, however.  Mendacity knows no rules.  I think it’s entirely possible that somebody just liked the phrase, attributed it to Patrick Henry because the name was handy, and sent it on its merry way.

Why anybody would accept it as Henry’s is equally puzzling. The language is twentieth-century.  The word “religionists,” for example.  In Patrick Henry’s time it meant a fanatic, a person obsessed with religion; not as here people of different religions (or something like that).  The piece looks back on the founding of “this great nation” (would Patrick Henry really have used that phrase?) as something in the past, and it seems to know that “peoples of other faiths” are going to be “afforded asylum, prosperity and freedom of worship” in it. It’s wrong historically, and it’s wrong linguistically.

As far as I can determine the first person to attribute this saying to Patrick Henry was minister David Barton in his book The Myth of Separation (1988).  (Chris Rodda calls my attention to David Barton’s footnote crediting the quotation to “a 1988 book called ‘God’s Providence in American History’ by Steve C. Dawson.”) Barton has since disavowed it, though he suggested that it was possible that Patrick Henry’s uncle really said it (no evidence for this assertion provided).  It continues to be quoted as Henry’s in many books and on innumerable websites.


More Christian Nation Falsehoods (Ed Brayton)

This Great Nation was Founded Not By Religionists (sbh)

Patrick Henry Redux (sbh)

Fake Patrick Henry Quote Found (Ed Brayton)


Posted in Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation, Patrick Henry | 4 Comments »