More Fake Founding Fathers Quotes From Secularists

More Fake Founding Fathers Quotes From Secularists September 17, 2012

It is with great irritation that I call your attention to yet another article full of fake quotes from the founding fathers — not by David Barton and his ilk, but by someone on “our side.” Yes, I know this is a year old. I don’t care. This crap has to stop.

1. “Christianity is the most perverted system that ever shone on man”- Thomas Jefferson

Nope, he didn’t say that. This is a bad paraphrase from a letter to Joseph Priestly.

5. “There is not one redeeming feature in our superstition of Christianity. It has made one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.”- Thomas Jefferson

He didn’t say that either. The first sentence is entirely mythical. The second sentence is almost accurate; it’s taken from his Notes on Virginia, but he isn’t talking merely about Christianity, he’s talking about coercion. Here’s the full quote:

“Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.”

And another one:

10. “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it”- John Adams

This one really irritates me because there are only two kinds of people who could pass it on: Those who have never read the letter it comes from and those who are lying. Here’s the full quote, in which he actually says the exact opposite of what appears here:

“Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, ‘This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!’ But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.”

And here’s one that I see quoted a lot but have never seen an original citation for:

18. “The Bible is not my book, nor Christianity my profession.”- Abraham Lincoln

It shows up on hundreds and hundreds of webpages, but I can’t find any citation to any original Lincoln document. If someone has any insight into this, I’d appreciate it. But the bottom line is this: If you don’t know where the quote originally came from, you shouldn’t be citing it.

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  • Facebook has become a source of plenty of bad or out of context quotes, made up into pretty graphics with fancy fonts. I can barely stand even going on Facebook these days because of this endless stream of quotations.

  • Ed, could you point us to a list of reliable quotes by Founding Fathers on religion? The only ones I know of with any certainty (meaning I’ve read the actual writings) are from Thomas Paine.

  • As Abraham Lincoln once wisely observed, “The problem with Internet quotes is that they are so difficult to verify.”

  • sarahrice

    It doesn’t seem likely that the Abraham Lincoln quote is any more accurate than the others. He is generally quite positive about the Bible and religion as shown here in a list of quotes that do cite their sources.

    However he did say this, which amuses me. “The Bible says somewhere that we are desperately selfish. I think we would have discovered that fact without the Bible.”

  • Alverant

    This is why I hate using quotes. First it can be hard or even impossible to verify such a thing was said in the days before voice recordings. Second, it doesn’t matter so much what the FF said as what they wrote down into law. They expressly said no religion will be established in the USA and people have the right to freedom of religion. It doesn’t matter what kind of opinions Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, etc might have expressed when it comes right down to it, they set their opinions aside when it came to the government.

  • laurentweppe

    It Reminds me an interview of a former teacher at l’ENA (the french schools tasked with forming political elites -yes, we do have a school dedicated to that-) who actually said that one thing he taught people was to invent fake quotes and repeat these with perfectly faked certainty.

  • Childermass

    Ed thank you and keep up the good work.

    It is very important to attack fake quotes from our own side because if we don’t we are just hypocrites. And I know that some people don’t think the boat should be rocked, but if anything we should be more demanding on our own side then on our opponents. That is what keeps us from being mere fundamentalists of different creed than Christian fundies.

    Gregory@2 has good suggestion too. What we need is good list of quotes that come with full links to the original full-text documents. Make it easy for people to browse. Make it easy for them to dive in to the texts.

    Alverant@5. Yeah any quote by any founding father does not trump the Constitution’s explicate texts. But reality is that fake and misleading quote of the founding fathers is an effective tactic of our opponents. Ignoring them is not an option. One of the most effective means is to make sure people know what the founding fathers really thought. It is also a mistake to say what they said is irrelevant. In addition to the actual text of the Constitution and the laws enacted by Congress, courts and constitutional scholars do use the “legislative history” in their interpretations of the law and the Constitution. Thus what the founders had to say when they were debating these issues can still have consequences.

  • I share your annoyance, Ed. I try to look up sources most of the time. I’ll try to give greater scrutiny whenever I hear an unfamiliar quote, too.

  • kevinalexander

    I think it was John Quincy Adams or Abraham Lincoln who said “Facebook is the most egregious waste of computer capacity since Thomas Jefferson.”

  • abb3w

    Whacking Google Books, I found one (far too modern) source claiming it was a reply to Christian friends who were protesting Lincolns (impending but subsequently averted) duel with General James Shields over a satirical letter in the Sangamo Journal.

    The quote is given without source details in the 1906 “Views of religion” quote collection by L. K. Washburn. It is apparently included the same year in “Six Historic Americans” by…. John Eleazer Remsburg, who is apparently behind the bogus Jefferson quote “I do not find in Christianity one redeeming feature”. This immediately renders the quote highly suspect. This title is only available in snippet view. However, a few more whacks indicates that the 1906 may be a Remsburg anthology, and turns up the now-free E-Book “Abraham Lincoln: Was He a Christian?” by Remsburg in 1893, which gives more details; the quote is allegedly from a letter by one Mister W. Perkins, who Remsburg seems to report as an acquaintance of Lincoln that Remsburg corresponded with. Perkins again appears to reference the Shields duel.

    Despite this better detail, I would still consider the quote very dubious. It is reported by someone who apparently is not above distorting historical details (evidenced by the Jefferson matter), based on an alleged report some thirty-odd years after the fact given by an acquaintance, who himself may also have been less than unbiased. This puts it about as reliable as the Gospel of Mark.

    Contrariwise, US Census records should at least be able to turn up the existence of a suitable Perkins in Kentucky in the 1830s or so, if someone else wants to go wading deeper after this quote’s dubious pedigree.

  • abb3w

    Dammit, link broke. Let’s try this.

  • Alverant

    Childermass @7

    I never said they shouldn’t be ignored, just that I don’t like using them. If anything we should pay more attention to the quotes other people use because often they can’t be verified and can be exploited to give false credibility to a bad argument.

    Now there’s nothing wrong with using a quote if it sounds good, but need to separate what was said from who said it.

    I would also state that it doesn’t matter what the FF were feeling at the time. It was over 200 years ago and they intended for this country to grow and change with the times. I have no doubt they would be shocked at some of the things that are legal today. That doesn’t mean they should be illegal, but it does mean society has changed enough that we see the need for it TO be legal.

  • sbh

    The alleged Lincoln quotation rests on the authority of two anonymous men as recorded in an account by “Mr. Perkins, an old lawyer and journalist of Illinois, who was acquainted with Lincoln for upward of twenty years”. Perkins wrote “Two of my Presbyterian friends at Indian Point, near Petersburg, told me that they had interviewed Mr. Lincoln to prevent his impending duel with Shields–claiming that it was contrary to the Bible and Christianity. He admitted that the dueling code was barbarous and regretted much to find himself in its toils, but said he, ‘The Bible is not my book, nor Christianity my profession.'” (Perkins’ 1887 narrative as quoted in Abraham Lincoln: Was He a Christian? by John Eleazer Remsburg, pp. 204-205.) Lincoln’s aborted duel with James Shields was real enough; it happened (or rather didn’t happen) in 1842, but Perkins was writing in 1887, more than forty years later, and his account was not first-hand.

  • jayyoung

    Gregory: The Founders’ Constitution is a good resource.

  • abb3w

    Oh, and that should be Kansas, not Kentucky, that his father lived (or at least was “killed in the Black Hawk war”); and since Kansas wasn’t a state in 1840, it might not be listed in the Census data.

    But, checking one on-line US Census collection, there is a “Henry W Perkins” shown in Marion County, FL listed in the 1860, 1870, 1880, and 1900 census, born 1828 (or perhaps 1827).

    Though the tone of Mr. Perkins letter leaves little doubt he’s a biased witness.

  • NitricAcid

    “If you don’t know where the quote originally came from, you shouldn’t be citing it.”

    That’s a good phrase. I’ll probably quote it.

    And claim it was said by Ben Franklin.

  • sebloom

    @2 Gregory…you could also check out the AU web site. They have some good resources.

  • baal

    While we’re at it, let’s not forget that, “Aphorisms are the rich man’s quotation.” -Mittens Romney in late 1977.

  • Childermass


    Fair enough “ignore” was a bad word choice on my part.

    “I would also state that it doesn’t matter what the FF were feeling at the time.”

    It really does matter. If you want to interpret a 18th Century document, it really helps to know something about the 18th Century. It is very relevant what the various “founders” thought about what the Constitution meant. It is very relevant what the people who voted on the issue of ratification thought they were voting for. It is relevant what the people who wrote those words thought they wrote.

    “It was over 200 years ago and they intended for this country to grow and change with the times.”

    Indeed they did. They included a provision to amend the Constitution. (And it seems that these days the conservatives want to pretend that Civil War amendments did not change the constitutional structure of the country.) They also failed to define in the Constitution a bunch of terms such as “due process”, “cruel and unusual” etc. What society and its judges think of that does change. Now we need to consider centuries of how these have been considered in order to understand our Constitutional system works. And then there was the ninth amendment which suggests that there exists Constitutional rights unstated in the Constitution. I don’t see how that can be handled except in reference to over two centuries of legislation and litigation.

    In our system of government, what people thought in the past does matter in the interpretation of Constitutional.

    And yes it matters rhetorically too. If people think the founding fathers wanted federal government to merely not take sides between Christian denominations and nothing else then they are far more likely attack the separation of church and state. So what those men said so long ago has real-world implications.

    Most people are unlikely to read the founders directly and thus using quotes are useful. While quotation is worthless in determining the nature of physical reality even when in context, they are evidence of what the quoted persons thought.

  • A literate person uses multiple sources to determine citation credibility and accuracy.

  • agray19

    OK so, we have a problem with 1, 5, 10 and 18 fine. What about 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19 and 20?

  • Michael Heath

    agray19 @ 21,

    Laziness isn’t celebrated around here. If you want to make a case, make it. Don’t expect others to do your heavy lifting.

  • agray19

    If it matters what the “Founding Fathers were feeling at the time” than everyone should be allowed to own a musket and nothing else. If on the other hand it doesn’t matter which has been taken as a fact when it comes to the 2nd Amendment than shouldn’t that apply to religion as well.

    You see, we what 18th century when it comes to religion but we want modernity when it comes to guns. In other words we interpret what they said or wrote the way it’s convenient … to whom ever is making the argument. Why bother bringing them into the argument?

  • Michael Heath

    agray19 writes:

    In other words we interpret what they said or wrote the way it’s convenient .

    Wildly untrue. I don’t. Ed doesn’t. Jon Rowe doesn’t. Neither does Chris Rodda. Justice Stevens’ dissent in Heller certainly doesn’t. Perhaps you do, but to falsely assert we all fail on this matter is absurd.

  • agray19

    Well than 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19 and 20 must stand! Or are we just waiting for others to say something and than rush to find things to prove them wrong? How many times would you go to that party?

  • agray19

    Unfortunately it’s neither absurd nor false … it’s exactly what they did. And I am not saying that interpretation is wrong, on the contrary it’s exactly why the Constitution has endured this long. It is its original design made for interpretation that it its greatest value. The problem is with the principles and the way its interpreted. And by the way that is why the constitution and the laws are written on paper and not carved in stone because people made them and made them to be changed.

    And as far as it can be determined, aside from the claimed 10 Commandments, which presumably were carved in stone, the Bible is written on paper also.

  • Michael Heath

    agray19 writes:

    Well than 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19 and 20 must stand!

    Only if you falsely believe non sequiturs are legit (hint, they’re not).

    Listen agray19, if you want to argue in this venue and not be embarrassed, you’re going to have to avoid logical fallacies. Especially when they’re the sole premise of your argument.

  • Pingback: 16 quotes from historical Americans against the U.S. being a Christian Nation | The Opinion()

  • agray19

    “But the bottom line is this: If you don’t know where the quote originally came from, you shouldn’t be citing it.”

    I wish the original writes of the Bible had this quote. How many times have they written, in the Bible, “Jesus said”? How do they come to know what he said? Was there any opportunity for interpretation?

    But the bottom line is this: If you don’t know where the quote originally came from, you shouldn’t be citing it!

  • re: #18

    I found this, it seems to point to the source being one on Lincoln’s personal letters, it looks like visit to the Lincoln Library might be needed. for physical verification.

  • I intend to add a historical quotes search engine to in the near future. I think that you will like it. Right now what I have is three customized science search engines, depending on what you are looking for.

  • Allen Carson

    Hows about:

    Thomas Paine on the The Bible: When we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the bible is filled it would be consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalized humankind.