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Washington and American Schools Revisited

Posted by sbh on Sunday, 30 January 2011

Did George Washington write:

What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ

on 12 May 1779?

No. As I commented before, this is another instance of a fake quotation being framed around a genuine kernel. In this case the phrases in blue were taken from Washington’s reply to a Delaware tribal delegation, while the words in red are adapted from a modern evangelist.

A bit of background is in order here. The Lenape (known as the Delawares to the colonists) lived originally in present-day New Jersey, along with adjacent areas of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York. Pressure from the colonists and the Iroquois forced them west into the Ohio valley, where they were when the American Revolution broke out. The war divided them; some supported the British, some supported the revolutionaries, and a third faction, under the influence of a Moravian mission led by David Zeisberger, were strict pacifists.

On 16 December 1775 the Continental Congress assured Captain White Eyes, a leader of the pro-revolutionary Lenape:

We are pleased that the Delawares intend to embrace Christianity. We will send you, according to your desire, a minister and a schoolmaster to instruct you in the principles of religion, and other parts of useful knowledge. [Journals of the Continental Congress, volume 3, p. 433]

And on 10 April 1776 the Continental Congress resolved:

That the commissioners for Indian affairs in the middle department, or any one of them, be desired to employ, for reasonable salaries, a minister of the gospel, to reside among the Delaware Indians, and instruct them in the Christian religion; a school master to teach their youth reading, writing, and arithmetic; and also, a blacksmith to do the work of the Indians in the middle department. [Journals of the Continental Congress, volume 4, p. 267]

And again, when the Lenape agreed to the Treaty of Fort Pitt on 17 September 1788—the first treaty the new government would negotiate with any group of native Americans—they were promised even more. In addition to the “articles of clothing, utensils and implements of war” they were supposed to receive, the government of the United States promised them that it would at least consider that

should it for the future be found conducive for the mutual interest of both parties to invite any other tribes who have been friends to the interest of the United States, to join the present confederation, and to form a state whereof the Delaware nation shall be the head, and have a representation in Congress… [Treaty with the Delawares in Charles J. Kappler, Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties (Washington, 1904), volume 2, pp. 3-5]

Relations soured quickly after the treaty however. Captain White Eyes, the Lenape leader most favorable to the United States, died while acting as a guide for an American military expedition. The official story was that he died of smallpox, but George Morgan, who brought up George White Eyes, the captain’s son, after his death, wrote on 12 May 1784:

His father was treacherously put to death at the moment of his greatest exertions to save the United States, in whose service he held the commission of a colonel

and

I have carefully concealed and shall continue to conceal from young White Eyes the Manner of his Father’s death, which I have never mentioned to any one but Mr. Thompson & two or three Members of Congress. [in Joseph Henderson Bausman and John Samuel Duss, History of Beaver County, Pennsylvania (New York, 1904), volume 1, p. 32)]

The result was catastrophic as far as friendly relations were concerned. In early 1789 the pro-American Lenape sent an embassy to the Continental Congress. Among the issues on the table were delivery of the clothing and goods promised them, the need for instructors who could teach their children useful arts, and their desire for support for the Moravian mission under David Zeisberger. As evidence for their desire to cooperate with the new nation they sent three young people to the Congress to receive an American education—George White Eyes, son of the murdered leader, age 8; John Killbuck, age 16, son of Captain Killbuck (another key leader), and Thomas, age 18, Captain Killbuck’s half-brother. (For the record Thomas was apprenticed to a farmer to learn agriculture and blacksmithing, while John and George went to Princeton.) [Louise Phelps Kellogg, Frontier Advance on the Upper Ohio 1778-1779, (Madison, 1916), p. 319]

On its way to Congress the embassy happened to pass near Washington’s troops. It was 12 May 1779. Washington wrote of this:

The deputies from the Delaware Nation arrived at Head Quarters two days ago. They presented me with a long memorial on various points, which they intend to present also to Congress. I was a little at a loss what answer to give and could have wished they had made their first application there. But as an answer could not be avoided, I thought it safest to couch it in general but friendly terms and refer them to Congress for a more particular one.

Washington assured the delegation that he had read their paper, and that he “rejoice[d] in the new assurances you give of their friendship. The things you now offer to do to brighten the chain, prove your sincerity. I am sure Congress will run to meet you, and will do every thing in their power to make the friendship between the people of these States, and their Brethren of the Delaware nation, last forever.” To Congress, however, Washington was more candid, writing, “Though there is reason to believe, they have not adhered very scrupulously to their pretended friendship, it appeared to me to be our present policy at least to conciliate; and in this spirit my answer was conceived.”

Three of the points brought up by the Lenape delegation were their need of supplies, the education of three of their youths by Congress, and their desire to receive practical and religious instruction in their own country. Let’s consider these points one by one.

On the first point, the Lenape petition read:

That when Congress and the Delaware Nation renewed their Friendship, as above mentioned, the former promised, & engaged to supply the latter, in Exchange for their Peltries, with Cloathing and other Goods; which from Custom have become absolutely necessary for the Subsistance of their Women and Children. This Engagement has been renewed on the party [sic] of Congress at four different Treaties successively, without ever having been complied with in any degree…

As a military man Washington of course had nothing to do with this issue. He assured them

I am sorry to hear that you have suffered for want of necessaries, or that any of our people have not dealt justly by you. But as you are going to Congress, which is the great Council of the Nation and hold all things in their hands, I shall say nothing about the supplies you ask. I hope you will receive satisfaction from them.

As we’ll see, this would be his pattern with all the replies—an expression of sympathy, followed by an expression of confidence in the Continental Congress.

About the three boys the petition read:

That the said Delaware Nation have on the Invita[t]ion of Congress by their Commissioners & Agent, sent down three Children of their principal Chiefs to be placed at School by Congress. These Children if they live, and imp[r]ove the Advantages offerd to them will naturally have great Interest & Influence in the Councills of the said Nation who therefore wish them to be educated accordingly & for this favour we beg leave to be obligated to the Wisdom and Genarosity of Congress alone.

And Washington expresses his pleasure in their gesture and his confidence in Congress’s reaction:

I am glad you have brought three of the Children of your principal Chiefs to be educated with us. I am sure Congress will open the Arms of love to them, and will look upon them as their own Children, and will have them educated accordingly.

And about instruction for their youth at home the petition read:

… the said Delaware Nation repeatedly applyed to Congress through their Commissioners & Agent, for School Masters and Mistresses to be sent among them, & for useful Tradesmen and Husbandmen to instruct the Youth of their Nation in useful Arts … [and] have established a Town where numbers of them have embraced Christianity under the Instruction of the Reverend and worthy Mr David Ziesberger whose honest zealous Labours & good Examples have Induced many of them to listen to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been a means of introducing considerable order, Regularity and love of Peace into the Minds of the whole Nation—the[y] therefore hope Congress will countenance & promote the Mission of this Gentleman, so far as they may deem expedient…

And again Washington expresses pleasure and confidence:

My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.

And here, lest you’ve forgotten the main point of all this, let us observe the kernel of the fake quotation—the words “learn,” “above all,” and “the religion of Jesus Christ,” spoken mainly about the Ziesberger mission embraced by the Lenape. Please note there is not one word here about American schools, or what children should learn in them.

In my previous account I made no attempt to trace the actual origin of this fake quotation, since it appears to be very modern and its falsity is obvious. Some people actually criticized me for this—and while it isn’t necessary, I personally find it satisfactory to explain how the mistake came to be. In this case, the missing link appears to be the confused and inaccurate account of this incident that appeared in David Barton’s popular volume, Original Intent. On p. 85, as part of a meditation on the place of religion in American education, Barton wrote:

Perhaps George Washington, “The Father of the Country,” provided the most succinct description of America’s educational philosophy when Chiefs from the Delaware Indian tribe brought him three Indian youths to be trained in American schools. Washington first assured the chiefs that “Congress … will look upon them as their own children,” and then commended the Chiefs for their decision, telling them that:

You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention.

By George Washington’s own words, what youths learned in America’s schools “above all” was “the religion of Jesus Christ.”

Note the similarity of this last sentence to the fake quotation—it’s in the past instead of the present tense, there are quotation marks around Washington’s actual words, we have “youths” instead of “students”, and “America’s” instead of “American”, but in other respects it is identical. Barton’s inaccurate summary—Washington of course was not speaking of what the youths would learn in American schools, but what the Lenape were learning in their own institutions—clearly led to this fake quotation.

A likely explanation is that somebody, whether by accident or design, omitted the quotation marks and made the other changes and attributed the concoction to Washington. As I noted in my previous account the oldest reference Google Books turned up for the fake was from 2006, in a book called Is God with America? by Bob Klingenberg (p. 188). The passage there reads:

How far have we fallen? To answer that question, we have but to listen to a quote from President George Washington. On May 12, 1779, speaking to and assuring the Delaware Indian Chiefs, the founding father of America said: “What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ.” Public education and Christianity were spoken in the same sentence. Ipso facto! Not only would the Indian children learn Christianity in America’s schools, it was the paramount subject in the classroom. President Washington put it his way: “Above all!”

Kingenberg has taken Barton’s confusion and amplified it. Again, Washington was not speaking about American schools in this passage at all. After saying that he was “glad you have brought three of the Children of your principal Chiefs to be educated with us” he moves on to “the other matters” of receiving instructors to teach useful arts and of getting support for David Ziesberger’s mission. It is in that connection that he said “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ.” He may well have hoped and expected that the three sons of Lenape leaders would likewise have received such instruction, whether in or out of school, but he didn’t say it, which is the only point at issue here. Barton’s mistake and somebody’s failure to check original sources are the clear sources of this particular fake quotation.

Links

Is God with America? (Bob Klingenberg [Amazon Books])

Speech of Delawares to Washington and Congress (in Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, volume 23)

Speech to the Delaware Chiefs (George Washington)

To the President of Congress (George Washington)

“Revisionism: A Willing Accomplice” — The Remarkable Hypocrisy of David Barton (Part 1) (Chris Rodda)

A Brief History of the Delaware Indians (Richard C. Adams, Senate Document 501, 59th Congress, 1st session)

Update: David Barton on Thomas Jefferson: Gnadedhutten and the Christian Indians (Warren Throckmorton)

Wikipedia Articles

Lenape

Christian Munsee

David Zeisberger

Gnadenhutten Massacre

Fake Quotation Sources

Founding Fathers Quotes (Eads Home Ministry)

George Washington Quotes (Revolutionary War and Beyond)

Freedom of Religion (Eternalchoice; this one adds the revealing observation that “Apparently ol’ George didn’t get the memo that the founding fathers were supposed to think teaching Christianity in schools was tyranny.”)

Is America a Christian Nation: More Quotes from Our Founders (Shades of Grace)

Arguments for Prayer in School (All About History)

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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.

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

Fake Quotations: Washington and American Schools

Posted by sbh on Friday, 2 April 2010

Did George Washington write:

What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ

on 12 May 1779 (or at any point in his life)?

No. This is another instance of a fake quotation being framed around a genuine kernel—in this case the words given in blue above.

It is a curious fact that George Washington almost never used the expression “Jesus Christ” in his extant writings. The genuine ones, anyway. Where reality lacks, invention often races in to fill the void, and so various fake George Washington prayers and prayer-books and the like have come down to us, and some of them refer in fulsome terms to Jesus Christ, but, as I said, there is only one genuine reference, and it was discovered and first printed only in the twentieth century. It is from this document that the words “learn,” “above all,” and “the religion of Jesus Christ” were lifted.

I’ve often been struck by the lack of a sense of history betrayed in so many of the modern fake quotations that have come to my attention. For George Washington to be commenting on students learning about the religion of Jesus Christ in schools ought to set off anybody’s BS detector. When would he have been likely to say such a thing? As a colonial surveyor? As a soldier in the French and Indian War? As a general during the Revolution? As President of a new nation that had no public school system? He had no kids, but I suppose he could have been commenting on the education of a young relative or friend, but, really—it’s a stretch. It just isn’t likely. If the fake had been attributed to somebody known to be interested in education—Noah Webster and William McGuffey come to mind—it might pass. But it seems unlikely on the face of it to have come from George Washington.

And of course it didn’t. The genuine document emerged as part of events in the west during the Revolutionary war. The Delaware Indians had been formidable opponents in earlier conflicts, but under the influence of Moravian missionaries, whose pacifistic brand of Christianity dampened their war ardor, they had settled down somewhat. The Continental forces wanted to keep it that way. Efforts to keep the lid on the situation took a blow when in November 1778 influential chief White Eyes died during an American expedition. The official story was that he had caught smallpox; it came out later that he had been murdered by members of the militia. In a last ditch effort to save the peace the pacifist and pro-Christian party among the Delawares sent out an embassy to the Continental Congress. Passing near George Washington’s forces they presented him with their petition. The date was 12 May 1779.

Washington was taken aback. He had no instructions from Congress on how to deal with the situation. The delegation, he wrote,

… presented me with a long memorial on various points, which they intend to present also to Congress. I was a little at a loss what answer to give and could have wished they had made their first application there. But as an answer could not be avoided, I thought it safest to couch it in general but friendly terms and refer them to Congress for a more particular one. Though there is reason to believe, they have not adhered very scrupulously to their pretended friendship, it appeared to me to be our present policy at least to conciliate; and in this spirit my answer was conceived. I hope I may not have deviated from the views of Congress. I send a copy of my answer.

It is this “answer” that contains Washington’s only use of the phrase “Jesus Christ”. The relevant sentence was a reply to their 4th (in part) and 5th points:

4th … The Delaware Nation think they cannot give more ample Testimony than this, of their firm Resolution to continue an inviolate Friendship with the United States of America to the end of time; and for this desirable purpose the said Delaware Nation repeatedly applyed to Congress through their Commissioners & Agent, for School Masters and Mistresses to be sent among them, & for useful Tradesmen and Husbandmen to instruct the Youth of their Nation in useful Arts: These, tho expensive at present, may in time be fully repaid to the United States in many respects.

5th That the said Delaware Nation have established a Town where numbers of them have embraced Christianity under the Instruction of the Reverend and worthy Mr David Ziesberger whose honest zealous Labours & good Examples have Induced many of them to listen to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which has been a means of introducing considerable order, Regularity and love of Peace into the Minds of the whole Nation—the[y] therefore hope Congress will countenance & promote the Mission of this Gentleman, so far as they may deem expedient; and they may rely that the Delaware Nation will afford every encouragement thereto in their Power.

Washington replied to these points:

My ears hear with pleasure the other matters you mention. Congress will be glad to hear them too. You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are. Congress will do every thing they can to assist you in this wise intention; and to tie the knot of friendship and union so fast, that nothing shall ever be able to loose it.

There is, of course, nothing in this about American schools, or about what students should learn there.

The fake quotation is very modern, probably twenty-first century in origin. I’ve made no special effort to run down its history; the oldest reference Google Books turned up was from 2006, in a book called Is God with America? by Bob Klingenberg (p. 188). The passage there reads:

How far have we fallen? To answer that question, we have but to listen to a quote from President George Washington. On May 12, 1779, speaking to and assuring the Delaware Indian Chiefs, the founding father of America said: “What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ.” Public education and Christianity were spoken in the same sentence. Ipso facto! Not only would the Indian children learn Christianity in America’s schools, it was the paramount subject in the classroom. President Washington put it his way: “Above all!”

In light of the passages cited above, the rank dishonesty of this account needs no special emphasis.

Links

Is God with America? (Bob Klingenberg [Amazon Books])

Speech of Delawares to Washington and Congress (in Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, volume 23)

Speech to the Delaware Chiefs (George Washington)

To the President of Congress (George Washington)

“Revisionism: A Willing Accomplice” — The Remarkable Hypocrisy of David Barton (Part 1) (Chris Rodda)

Posted in Christian, Christian Nationitis, Fake quotation, George Washington | 3 Comments »

Alleged Quotations: Washington and the Duty of Nations

Posted by sbh on Monday, 6 July 2009

Did Washington say:

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.

in 1789?

Yes, almost.  This was part of his Thanksgiving proclamation, the first in the nation’s history under the Constitution.  The text ran as follows:

City of New York, October 3, 1789.

Whereas 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 to implore his protection and favor, and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th. day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the People, by constantly being a government of wise, just and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

The proclamation is in the handwriting of William Jackson and signed by Washington.

As noted the proclamation was issued in response to a request from Congress.  The resolution was introduced in the House on 25 September by Elias Boudinot (P, NJ), the one-time president of the Continental Congress who would later write The Age of Revelation in reply to Paine’s The Age of Reason and serve as first president of the American Bible Society.  “Mr. Boudinot said,” according to the Annals of Congress, that “he could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the Untied States of joining, with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.”  The resolution he proposed:

Resolved, That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.

There were rumblings of discontent at the proposal.  Aedanus Burke (A, SC) objected to “this mimicking of European customs, where they made a mere mockery of thanksgivings.  Two parties at war frequently sung Te Deum for the same event, though to one it was a victory, and to the other a defeat.”

Boudinot rejoined that he “was sorry to hear arguments drawn from the abuse of a good thing against the use of it.  He hoped no gentleman would make a serious opposition to a measure both prudent and just.”

Thomas Tudor Tucker (A, SC) made some pointed objections: he “thought the House had no business to interfere in a matter whcih did not concern them.  Why should the President direct the people to do what, perhaps, they have no mind to do?  They may not be inclined to return thanks for a Constitution until they have experienced that it promotes their safety and happiness.  We do not yet know but they may have reason to be dissatisfied with the effects it has already produced; but whether this be so or not, it is a business with which Congress have nothing to do; it is a religious matter, and, as such, is proscribed to us.”

Roger Sherman (P, CT) “justified the practice of thanksgiving, on any signal event, not only as a laudable one in itself, but as warranted by a number of precedents in holy writ: for instance, the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the temple, was a case in point.  This example, he thought, worthy of Christian imitation on the present occasion; and he would agree with the gentleman who moved the resolution.”

Elias Boudinot additionally justified the proclamation by citing the practice of the Continental Congress, and the matter was voted on and passed.  A joint committee consisting of Boudinot, Sherman, and Peter Silvester (P, NY) from the House, and William Samuel Johnson (P, CT) and Ralph Izard (P, SC) from the Senate, laid the resolution before President Washington.  And as we saw above Washington proclaimed 26 November a day of prayer and thanksgiving on 3 October 1789.

Links

Thanksgiving Proclamation (Text at University of Virginia)

The Thanksgiving Proclamation (Papers of George Washington)

The Constitution and Separation of Church and State part 1 (Jim Allison)

Posted in Christian, George Washington, Legitimate quotation | 1 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 »