Quotes that never were: Forged
religious quotations: a cottage industry
Concerning the accuracy of religious quotes:
There has been an enormous proliferation of false quotations of
a religious nature attributed to American political and religious leaders. In particular,
many authors and webmasters attribute sayings to the American Founding Fathers that appear to have been
made up out of thin air. I suppose
that this extends to sayings by the Founding Mothers on religion as well, except we don't recall having ever seen any of the
James Hutson, Chief of the Manuscript Division of the
Library of Congress has written a book titled "The Founders on Religion: A
book of Quotations." The cover states:
"Partisans of various stripes have long invoked quotations
from the founding fathers to lend credence to their own views on religion
and politics. This book by contrast, is the first of its genre to be
grounded in the careful examination of original documents by a professional
Hutson cites only quotations known to be valid. We hope that he has a second book in mind: one which documents
the common forgeries attributed to the founders. That would be a fascinating
A famous "quotation" by Patrick Henry:
The first apparent forgery that we ran across was a famous sentence allegedly
written by Patrick Henry:
"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!"
An impressive statement. It certainly gives credence to the
belief that the founders of America were all or predominately devout Christians.
It is a popular quotation. A search for the phrase "this great
nation was founded not by religionists" on
www.google.com returned almost 1,000 hits!
One common feature of most of the quotations is that they do not cite the
source. We suspect that most webmasters have simply quoted the writings of other
It turns out that Patrick Henry probably never said this. At
least, nobody has been
able to locate it in any of his surviving papers. It is almost certainly a forgery.
A famous "quotation: by George
According to about 580 web sites, George Washington
"It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the
According to Wikipedia:
"Washington is known to have made some official statements of public
piety, but this is not one of them. Though this assertion is very widely
reported to have been said in
Washington's Farewell Address (17 September 1796), this is not
actually the case, as any search of the documents would reveal. It has also
presented as having been part of his Proclamation on 1795-JAN-01 of
1795-FEB-19 as a day of national Thanksgiving in this form:
"It is in an especial manner our duty as a people, with devout
reverence and affectionate gratitude, to acknowledge our many and great
obligations to Almighty God, and to implore Him to continue and confirm
the blessings we experienced. It is impossible to rightly govern the
world without God and the Bible. 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."
In the above paragraph the italicized portion appears to be entirely
bogus, and there is no actual record of such a statement ever having been
made by Washington. The first sentence is an almost accurate rendition of
Washington's official proclamation, being a portion of this segment:
"In such a state of things it is in an especial manner our duty
as a people, with devout reverence and affectionate gratitude, to
acknowledge our many and great obligations to Almighty God and to
implore Him to continue and confirm the blessings we experience.
Deeply penetrated with this sentiment, I, George Washington, President
of the United States, do recommend to all religious societies and
denominations, and to all persons whomsoever, within the United States
to set apart and observe Thursday, the 19th day of February next as a
day of public thanksgiving and prayer, and on that day to meet together
and render their sincere and hearty thanks to the Great Ruler of Nations
for the manifold and signal mercies which distinguish our lot as a
It is to be noted that there is genuine piety expressed in this
statement, but it is not of any sectarian kind, Christian or otherwise. The
last portion of the bogus statement which uses it is a truncation of what
might also be another genuine statement. In A Life of Washington
James K. Paulding, Washington is quoted as having stated:
- 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.
In the spurious version of the Thanksgiving proclamation which uses a
portion of this, Washington's allusions to
famous statement that "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to
invent him" has been omitted. In the cases of these "quotations" it
seems that if statements suitable to their sectarian interests do not exist,
some people feel it necessary to invent them. 8
James Hutson. "The Founders on Religion: A book of
quotations," Princeton University Press, (2005). Read
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
Barbara and David Mikkelson, "National Capital,"
"Patrick Henry: Misquotations," God & Country, at:
Tom Peters et al., "Misquoting by the Religious Right,"
David Barton, "The Myth of Separation," WallBuilder
Press, (1991), Page 120.
Dave Barton, "Questionable Quotes," WallBuilders.
This is apparently no longer online.
Results of a Google search for the full quotation on
"George Washington," Wikiquote, Wikipedia, at:
text is reproduced here under the terms of the GNU General Public License.
See the GNU Free Documentation License at:
Copyright © 2005 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
First posted: 2005-NOV-06
Last updated: 2005-NOV-06
Author: B.A. Robinson