Famous Christian Quotes . . . That Aren’t Real

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Some of the most famous Christian quotes floating around out there are on the internet aren’t real. To put it another way, the quotes are real, but they’re sometimes misattributed to famous Christians instead of lesser-known writers. Or no one knows the actual origin of the quotes at all.

As someone who has sometimes passed along “fake quotes” without knowing it, I’ve started a collection so that others will know about them and stop spreading them. (Thomas Kidd offers a good suggestion for figuring out if a quote is real before passing it on.)

Christians care about truth. We shouldn’t spread quotes, no matter how good, if they’re not real. Here are some to avoid.

Bonhoeffer’s ‘Silence’ Quote 

The dust jacket of Eric Metaxas’ biography on Bonhoeffer includes this quote:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

This quote bounces around all over the place, from people on both the right and also the left. It’s been used by pro-life activists who champion the defense of the unborn. Some on the right used the quote when trying to persuade fellow believers not to abstain from voting for president in 2016 and to vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils. Some on the left have used the quote to rally support for broader immigration policy or resistance to Trump’s policies.

Stephen Haynes points to research from Warren Throckmorton (here and here) tracing the quote to a 1971 book by Robert K. Hudnut. From there, the words made their way into the “Heroes” exhibit of a Philadelphia museum. Later, they made it into Metaxas’s biography. Once the quote got online, it went viral. The truth is, it’s not a Bonhoeffer quote. So don’t spread it.

Spurgeon’s ‘Trace God’s Hand’ Quote

“When you can’t trace God’s hand, you can still trust God’s heart.”

I love this quote and have tweeted it before, but a friend of mine informed me that it’s not from Spurgeon. It’s actually part of a 1989 song from Babbie Mason who wrote “Trust His Heart” with Eddie Carswell. In an interview, Mason attributed the idea to Spurgeon: “God is too wise to be mistaken. God is too good to be unkind. And, when you can’t trace his hand, you can always trust his heart. The actual wording comes from his sermon “A Happy Christian”:

The worldling blesses God while he gives him plenty, but the Christian blesses him when he smites him: he believes him to be too wise to err and too good to be unkind; he trusts him where he cannot trace him, looks up to him in the darkest hour, and believes that all is well. (MTP 13:103)

The Mythical Chesterton

There are three quotes often attributed to Chesterton that didn’t start with him. Here’s the most famous one:

“When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing—they believe in anything.”

The earliest known appearance of this quote comes from a 1937 study of Chesterton by Emile Cammaerts, The Laughing Prophet, in this form: The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything.

Robin Rader of Zambia argued that the epigram can be found divided between two adjacent Father Brown stories: It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense. [“The Oracle of the Dog” (1923)] You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief—of belief in almost anything. [“The Miracle of Moon Crescent” (1924)] Cammaerts was discussing “The Oracle of the Dog” when he wrote down that paraphrase of Chesterton’s view. (See more on this quote here.)

“The man who rings the bell at the brothel, unconsciously does so seeking God.”

Chesterton would have agreed with the sentiment here, following the Augustinian understanding of sin as misdirected desire. But as Glenn Stanton points out, the quote actually comes from a 1945 novel, The World, the Flesh and Father Smith, by Bruce Marshall.

In answer to a newspaper’s question, “What is Wrong With the World?”  G. K. Chesterton wrote in with a simple answer: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

This one is half true, I’ve recently discovered. First, it should be noted that Chesterton did write a book called What’s Wrong With the World, and according to this explanation, a critic said the book should have been “What’s Wrong with the World” IS G. K. Chesterton. But that’s not where this quote comes from. Nowhere did Chesterton write in such a simple answer like “Dear Sirs, I am.” But he did write an essay in which he echoed a similar sentiment. Kevin Belmonte recently alerted me to its origin.

GKC’s letter was written in response to a letter writer named “A Heretic,” whose letter was entitled “What’s Wrong with the World” (August 14, 1905). Chesterton’s response came in the form of an essay on the Wednesday, August 16, 1905, edition of The Daily News. In that essay, Chesterton writes:

“The answer to the question, ‘What is Wrong?’ is, or should be, ‘I am wrong.’ Until a man can give that answer his idealism is only a hobby.”

The full essay is reprinted in Julia Stapleton’s text, “Chesterton at the Daily News: literature, liberalism and revolution, 1901-1913, volume 3, January 1905 to June 1906,” (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012), pages 167-168. (The price tag for that the Daily News volumes is a little much for me, but would make a great Christmas present for Chesterton fans!)

Dale Ahlquist finds the humor in Chesterton misquotes:

“We must point out the irony that critics have chastised Chesterton for misquoting other writers, while he is the most misquoted writer of all. No one would be more pleased than G. K. Chesterton.”

C. S. Lewis on Body and Soul

“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

Hannah Peckham shows how this “pithy summation of the distinction between body and soul is almost exclusively attributed to Lewis,” but explains that the quote is not found in Lewis’ swriting or letters. Beyond that, she writes:

Given the central themes of Lewis’s fiction and non-fiction, we can safely say that he would never intend to convey the belief that our bodies are simply temporary shells. Readers and fans know that the worlds he created are deeply physical. The trees are alive; the animals speak; a roaring lion appears most clearly to a small child.  And the gods will not meet us until we have faces.

A similar quotation is found in Walter M. Miller’s 1959 science fiction novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz. One character says this: “You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.”

Luther in the Battle

“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the Devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

No one can find the original source from this quote. Authors and writers quote each other’s use of the quote, but as Denny Burk points out, the closest thing comes to a letter in the Weimar edition of Luther’s works: [D. Martin Luther’s Werke : kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimarer Ausgabe) : [3. Band] Briefwechsel, ed. (Weimar: H. Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1933), 81-82]. Here’s a scan of the relevant text from the Weimar edition. Here’s a rough translation:

“Also it does not help that one of you would say: ‘I will gladly confess Christ and his Word on every detail, except that I may keep silent about one or two things which my tyrants may not tolerate, such as the form of the Sacraments and the like.’ For whoever denies Christ in one detail or word has denied the same Christ in that one detail who was denied in all the details, since there is only one Christ in all his words, taken together or individually.”

Francis of Assisi: Preach the Gospel

“Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”

Surely we all know by now that Francis of Assisi never said this, right? He was a man who took the command to “preach the gospel to all creation” so literally that he actually preached to the birds. Here’s Mark Galli explaining how this is apocryphal.

This saying is carted out whenever someone wants to suggest that Christians talk about the gospel too much, and live the gospel too little. Fair enough—that can be a problem. Much of the rhetorical power of the quotation comes from the assumption that Francis not only said it but lived it. The problem is that he did not say it. Nor did he live it. And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age.  

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