Sometimes a pithy phrase so captures the heart of what we want to be about that we are glad to send it through the web with shares and retweets. Even before social media enabled us to do this hundreds of times an hour, Christians were passing these quotes around.
But we also know that the authority of a recognized name will garner much more attention for a quote than that of an unknown. The Twitter version of this is an unknown person saying the same thing that a Bill Hybels and Rick Warren says. The latter always goes bigger and farther. It happened before social media as well, albeit at a much slower pace.
It’s not unusual for that pithy phrase to then get attributed to a person that can make it “viral.” Here are a few that are pretty famous and almost certainly falsely attributed.
“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.”
– attributed to St. Augustine
I’ve seen this one attributed to lots of different persons. It’s even a sort of motto for the Moravian Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church The most popular attributions seem to be either St. Augustine or John Wesley. Augustine wouldn’t have even believed this. Wesley might have agreed with the sentiment, but the very narrow way that he often defines what it requires to be faithful means that he would have thought the “non-essentials” category to be much more narrow than most moderns.
Georgetown Professor James O’Donnell has a pretty thorough analysis that traces the quote to two different sources in the early 17th century, one Lutheran and one Catholic.
“Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.”
– attributed to John Wesley
This one actually sounds like something that Wesley would say. I doubt that he would have so comfortably used the word “enthusiasm” given that it was a quite negative word in Wesley’s England. But it otherwise aligns with the kinds of passion that he desired from preachers and Christian workers. But the best Wesleyan historians claim that Wesley never said it. In fact, I cannot even find where this one was first attributed to him. Wikiquote claims that it didn’t appear before 2001, but I think that is a bit late. I have talked with several folks that say that they remember the quote from long before that. The famous “John Wesley’s Rule” (Do all the good you can….as long as ever you can.”) wasn’t likely Wesley either. But he said some things close to this, so it seems like less of an error.
“If I believed the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.”
– attributed to Martin Luther
This is really appealing for those of us that are looking for the most holistic version of the Gospel. I’ve quoted it a few times myself. But Luther had a much more traditionalist eschatology than could make sense of this one. I can’t say much more than that because the scholarship on this one is written in German, which I only read marginally. Like Wesley, Luther is falsely attributed with a number of different quotes. He also likely never said his most famous quote, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Even if he never said it, this one sounds a lot like Luther.
“Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
– attributed to St. Francis of Assisi
Of all of the above quotes, this one has probably been repeated the most in recent times. But we have no evidence that St. Francis said it. In fact, his emphasis on preaching ministry would not have aligned very well with it. While I think witness is highly dependent upon a person’s life, I’m rather glad that this quote never appeared until the mid-1990’s. It’s always necessary to use words. This reference is really more of a misinterpretation than a completely fabricated attribution. Francis has a quote that refers to various persons that were not permitted to preach for ecclesiastical reasons. Francis suggests that they will have to preach the Gospel with their deeds.
What quotes do you know of that are falsely attributed? I know that there are lots of quotes falsely attributed to the American founding fathers, but I decided to skip those. Add ones to the comments that you think are interesting.
Related Post: St. Patrick Was Not A Heretic, But His Analogies Are Another Story
Wesley Sanders says
A favorite of many, the Prayer of St. Francis (Lord, make me an instrument of your peace), cannot be found in any source prior to the early 20th century.
Linda Carter says
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and, as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’
Linda Carter says
The image of fire has several meanings in the scriptures and the writings of the early Christians. The idea of eternal torment is often presented as the “fire of hell,” or “the fiery pit.” But fire also signifies the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and in this saying of Abba Joseph, the person becomes a flame through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I’ll bet that this or other statements by the early fathers and mothers may have been the kernel of the saying attributed to Wesley.
For this reason I dislike the “meme” fad on Facebook. A saying is slapped over a picture of a luminary and we have instant wisdom. Very few bother to check the saying to see where it came from. Or even think about it long enough to see if it is a statement that is compatible with their own beliefs.
“The Twitter version of this is an unknown person saying the same thing that a Bill Hybels and Rick Warren says.”
Here’s the thing, though. I have no idea who Bill Hybels or Rick Warren are… but then, I’m not American.
Hybels and Warren are two of the biggest mega-church pastors in the US. Hybels is pastor of Willo Creek in Chicago-land. Warren is pastor of Saddleback in California. I can understand why that would be lost on a non-American. I guess I need to pay more attention to that since about 10% of my readership is outside the US.
Daniel King says
My favorite misattribution is when people who are a little religious but Biblically illiterate talk about their favorite Psalm in the Bible, “You know the one I’m talking about, the Psalm about the Footprints in the Sand.”
Terry Seufferlein says
Many people attribute the quote, “The world is a book, and those who never travel only read one page” to Augustine. He never said it. It does not appear until mid 1700s.
By the way, your link above, about Francis of Assisi’s quote not appearing until the 1990s is a dead link.
Oladipo Adedeji says
Thank you for the quote from St. Francis.