"Wesley, misquoted - Methodism’s founder gets a little too much credit"
by Mary Jacobs, Sep 16, 2011 in UM Portal
It made for a great Tweet:
“Set yourself on fire with passion & people will come for miles to watch you burn—John Wesley.”
After megachurch pastor Craig Groeschel posted that saying on Twitter, more than 100 people passed it along by “re-tweeting.”
The only glitch: As far as historians can tell, John Wesley never uttered those words.
“I have no idea where that one came from,” said the Rev. Richard Heitzenrater, professor emeritus of church history and Wesley studies at Duke Divinity School and a leading authority on John Wesley, founder of Methodism.
More than 200 years after his death, the words of John Wesley (1703-1791) still carry a lot of weight among United Methodists and others in the Wesleyan tradition. Wesley’s prolific writings are rife with maxims that are wise, practical and quotable, and church members still cite them on topics ranging from Christian unity (“If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand”) to the global church (“I look on all the world as my parish.”)
But a few of the most popular Wesley quotations, it turns out, weren’t by John Wesley.
“There are many misattributions, from the Wesley Grace to the Wesley Rule to who knows what,” said Dr. Heitzenrater, who is working on a book about the most famous quotations of Wesley—including a chapter on quotes often misattributed to Wesley.
Absence of evidence
In 1996, the General Conference chose these “Wesleyan words” as its motto: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”
“It’s a nice saying,” said Dr. Heitzenrater. “But it’s not Wesley.”
Similarly, United Methodists can find the “Rule of Life” attributed to Wesley in the lyrics of a hymn (Worship & Song
, No. 3117): “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” An earlier edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations credited those words to Wesley, Cokesbury stores once sold a paperweight with a short version of the quotation, and many United Methodist pastors cite this as a favorite quote on their Facebook pages. But, Dr. Heitzenrater says there’s no evidence that Wesley wrote those words.
John Wesley never said that he burned all his sermons every seven years, nor did he write the “Three Simple Rules” or the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.
And the words of the “Wesley Grace,” which was once printed on the Methodist Women’s Society tea napkins—”Be Present at our table, Lord / Be here and everywhere adored / These favors bless and grant that we / May feast in fellowship with thee.”—may have been prayed by Wesley, but the blessing’s author was John Cennick, a Calvinist.
So how did Mr. Wesley get credit for so many words that he never said?
“Once [a passage] is misquoted and accepted, there’s a snowball effect,” said Geoffrey D. Klinger, associate professor of communication at DePauw University and a United Methodist. “People feel they can use that misrepresentation.”
The Rev. Kevin Watson, a theology instructor at Seattle Pacific University, noticed that when he identified a few of Wesley’s “misquotes” on his blog, deeply committed
, a few visitors left harsh comments suggesting they didn’t welcome the factual clarification.
“That was the most surprising thing, how emotionally attached people were to some of Wesley’s misattributed quotes,” he said.
Dr. Jerry Tarver, professor of speech emeritus at the University of Richmond, says that misquotes may reflect an increasingly cavalier attitude toward accuracy in contemporary culture.
“While we recognize that defacing someone’s property clearly qualifies as a crime, defacing a line or stanza will bring social disapproval only in rare cases,” he said. “Preachers, politicians and business executives seem to feel that they are speaking for a great cause and the careless liberties they take with the words of others don’t matter much.”
In some cases, Wesley actually repeated the quote in question—but he was citing someone else. Wesley did say, “Once in seven years I burn all my sermons,” but he was quoting another preacher, and making the point that he did not agree.
Some famous Wesley “misquotes” are simply paraphrases of what Wesley actually said—a common source of error, according to the Rev. Brent Strawn, associate professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology and an ordained Church of Nazarene minister.
“Sometimes we put something in our own words, and it’s not malicious, it’s part of the way we appropriate things,” he said.
For example: Wesley is often quoted as saying “He may be as orthodox as the devil, and as wicked.” That’s a paraphrase of what Wesley actually said: “He may be almost as orthodox as the devil (though indeed not altogether; for every man errs in something, whereas we can’t well conceive him to hold an erroneous opinion) and may all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart.”
Similarly, Wesley is often quoted as saying, “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” The actual quote, however, is slightly different: “Having, First, gained all you can, and, Secondly, saved all you can, Then give all you can.”
In some cases, authors’ interpretations of Wesley’s work become popularly—and mistakenly—understood as Wesley’s own words. For example, the Three Simple Rules that appear in a book by the same name by Bishop Rueben Job (“Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.”) have become part of the United Methodist lexicon. Many now assume that Wesley wrote them, but, while the first two are direct quotes, the third rule, “Stay in love with God,” is an interpretation of Wesley’s writing.
Similarly, the Wesleyan quadrilateral (reason, tradition, Scripture and experience) was not directly from John Wesley. It’s a synthesis of Wesley’s theology crafted by theologian Albert Outler. Not only did Wesley not produce the quadrilateral, scholars debate whether Wesley would entirely agree with it.
Dr. Strawn noted that some people think “Cleanliness is next to godliness” is in the Bible, but Wesley said it. It’s possible, though, that Wesley was repeating a common proverb. Francis Bacon may have said it first.
Wesley scholars agree that, when it comes to tracking down the authenticity of quotes, the Internet is both a fount of endless information as well as misinformation. When one website misquotes Wesley, others cut-and-paste and repeat the error.
For example: Do a Google search for “do all the good you can” and the first dozen or so hits will cite the quotation as coming from John Wesley. You’ll have to scroll down to the 14th hit—a Wikiquotes page on John Wesley—for the first hint that Wesley as the source is disputed.
Mr. Watson adds that Wesley left ample documentation of his words in letters, sermons and journals. “Historians do have a sense of what Wesley sounded like and how he communicated with people,” he said. Most historians would agree, for example, that the quote about setting oneself on fire with passion doesn’t sound like Wesley.
Finally, while Wesley did leave extensive written records—including his extensive journals, written in the code that Dr. Heitzenrater famously cracked—Dr. Ted Campbell, associate professor of church history at Perkins School of Theology, notes that historians can only make determinations based on available evidence.
“One of the grand dicta of historical study is, ‘You can’t prove a negative,’” he said. “You can’t prove that Wesley did not say something.”
To check a quote for accuracy, Dr. Heitzenrater recommends a book, Wesley Quotations
(The Scarecrow Press, 1990), by Betty M. Jarboe, a collection of quotes indexed by topic. “If it’s not in there, the chances are pretty good Wesley didn’t say it,” he says. (His book about Wesleyan quotations is two to three years away from publication.)
Another way of checking accuracy is to look for a citation (i.e. the letter, sermon or other document in which Wesley purportedly made the comment) and go to the source to check for accuracy. Many of Wesley’s writings are available online at www.umc.org
“If a website doesn’t source the quote, to me, that’s a sign of unreliability,” says Jeffrey Rudy, a Ph.D. student in Wesleyan Studies and a member of Nicholasville (Ky.) United Methodist.
Dr. Heitzenrater cautions that even accurate quotes may be misinterpreted. He’s equally bugged when Wesley is cited correctly but out of context, such as Wesley’s declaration that he was “a man of one book.”
“We forget that the ‘man of one book’ in fact published hundreds and read thousands of books, and threatened to dismiss preachers who claimed that, as ‘men of one book,’ they read only the Bible,” he said.
Whether Wesley said them or not, some of these popular quotes are still worth repeating. Many are “citable as Methodist folk wisdom, even if wrongly attributed to Wesley,” according to Dr. Campbell.
“The sentiment ‘In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity’ is a thoroughly Methodist and Wesleyan concept,” he said, even though the original words are documented as the work of a Lutheran theologian.
Similarly, “‘Do all the good you can’ is a great example of Methodist folk wisdom, and to be commended as such, even if it was incorrectly attributed to Wesley,” he said.
But when attributing quotes to Wesley, accuracy is still important for United Methodists, Mr. Watson said.
“There’s a certain weight that comes from a Wesley saying,” he said. “If we’re going to give it that weight, we need to be accurate.”
Things Wesley DID say
1. The best of it all is, God is with us.
2. I am always in haste, but never in a hurry.
3. I look on all the world as my parish.
4. Beware you be not swallowed up in books!
5. Read the most useful books, and that regularly and constantly. Steadily spend all morning in this employ, or, at least five hours in four-and-twenty.
6. A Christian abhors sloth as much as drunkenness.
7. The more labor the more blessing.
8. Fervor for opinions is not Christian zeal.
9. Can anything but love beget love?
10. Do a little at a time that you may do the more.
11. I have often repented of judging too severely, but very seldom of being too merciful.