No, St. Francis didn’t say that. (Or Thomas Merton. Or Buddha. Or C.S. Lewis.) Where do we get these fake religion memes?

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Recently I logged on to Facebook to find this lovely meme from Thomas Merton:

Merton meme

It’s a great sentiment, but my BS radar went off at the attribution to Merton. This language of “growing spiritually” is awfully modern for someone who died half a century ago and dedicated his adult life to a religious tradition that he believed contained, at its foundations, an unchanging truth.

And, sure enough, it’s not from Merton. People here and here who have searched through his actual writings haven’t been able to find it. My own (admittedly lazier) search using Google Books also turned up nothing authentic.

There are plenty more where this came from: quotes that have circulated ad infinitum on social media but can’t be traced to the famous religious figure who allegedly said them. Here are some popular ones.

peace-prayer

The Prayer of St. Francis Some Unknown French Dude

I was crushed to find out this famous prayer is not actually from St. Francis. This is one of the only prayers I have memorized — thank you, Sarah McLachlan and Buffy — and it was read at my wedding. I love this prayer.

But it’s an early-twentieth-century French prayer that somehow got stuck on the back of an image of St. Francis, and much like a modern-day meme tends to forever cement a connection between words and pictures, the association was born. By WWII people were calling it the Prayer of St. Francis, and we’ve never looked back.

Just-Pursue-It_Be-the-change

Gandhi’s Anonymous’s “Be the change”

Since I used this quote in at least two speeches before I found out that Gandhi never said it, I’m now officially part of the problem. I’m wicked sorry.

The New York Times attempted to track the source of this and found “no documentary evidence for the quotation.” And unfortunately, as the article points out, our insistence on pinning this quote to Gandhi does some violence to what he actually taught. His message “involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.”

82771dd81da2eae79929d6856d860b01

Buddha — Er, Jack Kornfield

This is such a great quote. It’s got all that “All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” homespun wisdom about everyday life.

But as this article points out, it’s from Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, which was not, as the title would suggest, actually written by the Buddha. Jack Kornfield’s meme-worthy words have gotten an enduring Buddha imprimatur.

quote-do-all-the-good-you-can-by-all-the-means-you-can-in-all-the-ways-you-can-in-all-the-places-you-john-wesley-355045

John Wesley’s “Make All the Memes You Can”

Drat. I really wanted this to be from Wesley. Whoever created it even took the time to emulate eighteenth-century speech patterns (“as ever you can”), so mad props.

See here and here for the dubious provenance of this quote. (Also in dispute: ““In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”” Apparently Wesley didn’t say that either. Sigh.)

quote-there-is-a-light-in-this-world-a-healing-spirit-more-powerful-than-any-darkness-we-may-mother-teresa-43-77-65Mother Teresa Richard Attenborough

Even Mother freakin’ Teresa is not immune to Internet fraud. According to motherteresa.org, these famous words were from Richard Attenborough, the filmmaker who produced and directed Gandhi (and who, as an actor, was responsible for creating all those dinosaurs in Jurassic Park; is this payback?).

Poor Richard. I couldn’t find a single meme of his quote with his name and photo attached.

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C.S. Lewis  Yeah, for real, it’s C.S. Lewis

Surprise! These words actually were written by Lewis. They can be found in The Four Loves . . . immediately before Lewis utterly destroyed this premise of nonattachment by arguing the exact opposite point of view.

Here’s a great post that analyzes this passage and says that context is key. You have to read the whole thing. Lewis set up the argument as a kind of “Yeah, sure, it sounds really reasonable to say that we shouldn’t risk our hearts on relationships and people we may lose. However, this safety is absolutely not what Christ wanted from us. Love means risk.” (By the way, this ineloquent paraphrase is enough of a defamation to have Lewis rolling in his grave, so can we agree not to make a meme out of it?)

quote-if-christ-were-here-there-is-one-thing-he-would-not-be-a-christian-mark-twain-36-78-67

Mark Twain Probably some Emergent Christian in the 21st century

I searched all of Mark Twain’s writings at this website, and I got nothin’. I guess it’s possible that this came from a speech he gave at some point, but it doesn’t seem to be in anything he published. Given the very contemporary sentiment, it’s more likely to be of modern invention.

But I don’t want to leave you on such a depressing note, so amidst all of these forgeries I submit for your consideration a historical gem that is clearly perfect in both concept and origins:

fb-internet-lincoln-quote-960x720

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    [Ed note: This comment has been deleted for violating one of the major rules of this blog, which is that it is not a place to mock people’s religious beliefs. Disagree, sure. Debate. But if you want to simply ridicule or caricature someone else’s religion, take it elsewhere. That’s not what this site is for.

    Also, as a side note, please try to keep the comments at least somewhat related to the post in question.]

  • Bob

    Interesting as I read, “Flunking Sainthood
    No, St. Francis didn’t say that.” Nor would he have… Why so off the rails JR?

  • Elder Anderson

    My favorite disappointment is Kurt Vonnegut’s (fake) 1997 MIT commencement address. I’m a big Vonnegut fan, and the speech fooled me anyway. Still, it’s a fine speech full of pithy wisdom….

  • Elder Anderson

    And, speaking of Vonnegut, the “Serenity Prayer” appears in his book Slaughterhouse Five. This prayer was floating around back in the 1970’s peace and love era. Read about its long and spotty history of misattribution on Wikipedia. The story I heard back in the day was that it was found on parchment stashed in the cornerstone of a medieval church.

  • Kristine A

    Just the other day I used a quote for a post that fit perfectly; it was attributed to Shakespeare, but quite obvious it wasn’t him. I didn’t go digging but cared more about the sentiment than the attribution. After being called out on it I learned my lesson. Just re-meme the thought if I can’t track it down. #lessonlearned

  • Et tu, Serenity Prayer? I thought that was legitimately a Niebuhr quote. But you’re probably right; here’s an article about it that at least casts doubt on Niebuhr as the original author: http://archives.yalealumnimagazine.com/issues/2008_07/serenity.html

  • Yeah, I’ve done this too. Recently I’ve started saying “attributed to” unless I know for sure!

  • A Happy Hubby

    I like the quote, but I often see it attributed to Marjorie Hinkley. She read the quote in a talk, but was not the one who coined it.

    “I don’t want to drive up to the pearly gates in a shiny sports car, wearing beautifully, tailored clothes, my hair expertly coiffed, and with long, perfectly manicured fingernails. I want to drive up in a station wagon that has mud on the wheels from taking kids to scout camp. I want to be there with grass stains on my shoes from mowing Sister Schenk’s lawn. I want to be there with a smudge of peanut butter on my shirt from making sandwiches for a sick neighbor’s children. I want to be there with a little dirt under my fingernails from helping to weed someone’s garden. I want to be there with children’s sticky kisses on my cheeks and the tears of a friend on my shoulder. I want the Lord to know I was really here and that I really lived.”

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    Censorship is a sign of weakness, Jana.

  • CarrotCakeMan

    My mother’s nursing school put that in a multi-year yearbook published in 1949, calling it “The Nurse’s Prayer” without attribution. Both my mother and her best friend and classmate, my favorite aunt, would quote that prayer.

  • I don’t like it either but this is a business/for profit website and as such it’s a must. else it gets overun with repentbots and franbots.
    no wait
    http://www.suzyspellcheck.com/repent-bot-version-3-0/
    oops too late. bring out your dead

  • Perhaps censorship is indeed a sign of weakness. So are bullying insults, Debbie. And if you care to lodge another one here, you will find yourself censored permanently.

  • Fred M

    I remember several years ago in elders quorum meeting the teacher brought up a quote attributed to a 10th century Catholic priest in which he had a vision of true followers of Christ fleeing their homes and finding safety in the mountains. Or something like that. The point was that this priest had had a vision of the Mormons settling in Utah. I questioned the quote and where it came from. The teacher had no response–I think it was something that had been made up years ago and passed around. There’s way too much of that in the church.

  • patrick

    ” The “Prayer of St. Francis” was not written by St. Francis, and many other great religious quotes can’t be traced to the famous people whose names are memed with them. ”

    Moses as in the Torah ?
    Jesus – as in the Bible ?
    Mohammad as in the Koran ?
    The Abrahamic God as in all the above ?

  • Pete Haynsworth

    St. Luke’s Church in East Greenwich, RI will be using “God is on the Cross”, said to be authored by Dietrich Bonnheoffer, for this year’s Lenten study. After reading just a couple of the “days” of the book, it became clear that Bonnheoffer’s words represent just a sliver of its content.

    The vast majority of the content of “God is on the Cross” – 40 chatty reflections – is presumably from the pen of its “editor” and “compiler, ” Jana Riess.

    The entire book is dishonest at a minimum. Ironic, given this blog post’s misattribution theme.

  • Nicholle

    Though not a religious quote per se…Nelson Mandela didn’t come up with this one either…but people misattribute this to him. Poor Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most fright…”

  • Shawnie5

    Please add “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians” which has been falsely attributed to Gandhi by every Christian-hater invading Christian forums for the last twenty-five years. Gandhi never said it — it was misattributed by a book review of Christ of the Indian Road by E. Stanley Jones.

  • Pete — Actually, in that compilation the various days’ main reflections are entirely from Bonhoeffer, and the daily verses are all from the Bible. The main reflection for each day doesn’t have the original book listed only because they all come from the same source, which is “If I Could Live This Day with You,” a collection of Bonhoeffer’s writings for which WJK already owned the translation rights. I’m sorry if it was not clear to you that those main quotations are all directly from Bonhoeffer and not written by me or anyone else.

    The shorter quotations on the facing pages are primarily from Bonhoeffer’s letters (both the ones he wrote and the ones he received), though there are a couple from other sources, like Catherine of Siena and Mechthild of Magdeburg.

    The only part of “God Is on the Cross” that I wrote myself are the three pages of “Editor’s Preface” at the very beginning, explaining a bit about Bonhoeffer’s life.

    Blessings on your Lenten group.

  • The Great God Pan

    The Twain quote might indeed be apocryphal, but the site you linked to is upfront about not being a database of everything he ever published, let alone wrote. The quote is normally listed as coming from a notebook, not a published work.

    And while the sentiment may seem contemporary, it’s not out of line with things we know he wrote. In fact, it could be someone’s half-remembered version of this passage from The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1:

    “Measured by our Christianity of to-day, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the Deity nor His Son is a Christian…”

  • Daniel

    Though I cannot lay my hands on it now, the “Prayer attributed to St Francis,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, has been attributed to an Anglican cleric in later centuries.

  • WJD

    Though not a religious quotation, in a similar vein the famous line about the definition of insanity that gets attributed to Albert Einstein was verifiability penned by Rita Mae Brown.

  • Jim

    I have found over and over again, that people like these quotes, and when you tell them that they were not said by the person the “meme” claims said them, they become indignant and angry and often say “Well, it doesn’t matter.” Sadly I think it DOES matter.

  • justmary

    Perhaps it was a “vision” of the Cathars.

  • Elder Anderson

    You can always attribute it to Francis Bacon and dare anybody to prove otherwise. 🙂

  • Naila

    Regarding the C.S. Lewis quote on non-attachment, here’s a favorite of mine as I recall it from (I’m pretty sure) Niels Bohr: “The opposite of a profound truth is very often another profound truth.” Words and concepts are by nature limited, often true in some senses but not in others. I hold most dichotomies and “direct opposites” open to suspicion.

    By the way, I think Rumi also gets his share of miscellaneous attributions.

  • Damian

    I love this. Thank you for the research, but you missed two of my favorites. The Mandela one has already been mentioned but this one is particularly egregious: “I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it”. (Please note that it is a quote, quoting itself).

    There is no record in cannon of Christ saying it would be “worth it”, though I believe it is. But in fact he does say to take up his yoke, for his yoke is “easy”. The irony is rich, but the sentiment valid for many faithful person struggling with the challenges of this mortal coil. In fact you could find plenty of scriptural support for the idea.

  • Elder Anderson

    I’ve seen the following “verse” trotted out with respect to LGBT members, and I find it highly distasteful:

    Love the sinner, hate the sin.

    As it turns out, this and all the following “verses” aren’t found in the Bible (though some are related to Bible verses).

    Spare the rod, spoil the child.

    Money is the root of all evil.

    Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

    The Lord moves (works) in mysterious ways.

    Pride goeth before a fall.

    The Lord helps those who help themselves.

    This too shall pass.

    A fool and his money are soon parted.

    To thine own self be true.

    Charity begins at home.

  • Sabelotodo2

    I really hated to see the John Wesley quote debunked; Hilliary Rodham Clinton has quoted that one often as the spiritual basis of her political activism. This certainly doesn’t help her issues with the public’s overwhelmngly negative perception of her veracity. Seems she just can’t catch a break . . .

  • Elder Anderson

    Here’s a blast from the past. Anybody remember “Desiderata”?

    Go placidly amid the noise and haste
    And remember what peace there may be in silence…

    This prose poem was written by Max Ehrman in 1927, but I remember all the new age posters in the 1970’s said “Found in Old St. Paul’s Church Baltimore, 1692”.

    Various recordings (Leonard Nimoy!) credited the poem to different authors, but I don’t think anybody credited Ehrman. The poem was assumed to be public domain.

    They didn’t have Internet back then. 🙂

  • The Prayer of St. Francis is not from St. Francis? That one hurts.

    As for the Wesley quote, it is more a misquote than a misattribution or fabrication (there are plenty of completely bogus Wesley quotes floating around).

    In his sermon “Worldy Folly” Wesley wrote: “Do good. Do all the good thou canst.” Likewise in his “Plain Account of Christian Perfection” he wrote, “Do all the good you possibly can to the bodies and souls of men.” So the quote, though not his exact words, does reflect his sentiment and belief. Unlike other bogus Wesley quotes (perhaps most famously “What one generation tolerates, the next will accept) which don’t even match with his teachings and beliefs.

    Enjoyed the post.

  • The “In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essential, Liberty; and in all things Love” quote is from a German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius.

    It was used by the Moravian Church or “Unitas Fratrum” meaning Unity of the church. They are if not the earliest at least one of the earliest protestant movements started in the mid 1400’s based on the teachings of Jan hus.

  • Bob

    “…there is nothing [thought,said or done] which is good save it comes from the Lord… Omni 1:25…regardless of who gets or takes credit for it…

  • Elder Anderson

    Wait. Doesn’t everything, both good and bad, ultimately come from the Lord? Even fake Internet memes? 🙂

  • Matthew

    My Favorite: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” was NOT from Benjamin Franklin

  • A Happy Hubby

    So that quote on beer came directly from God then? 🙂

    Now if it was “Women are proof God loves us and wants men to be happy” then I could believe that Ben said that.

  • Elder Anderson

    I think Ben would have said “…. wants us to be busy.” 🙂

  • Christopher Chase

    The Twain attribution doesn’t sound like one I’ve heard, but it would not have been out of line with Twain’s later skepticism, as found in his “Letters From The Earth” volume.

  • Thank you!

  • Pan — good point about the website I linked to not including his unpublished writings. It’s plausible that perhaps it’s in his unpublished manuscripts, since on Goodreads the attribution is simply “Notebook.”

    However, when I Google the quote I can’t find any instance of it before the age of the Internet, and that to me is the most damning evidence. Many of these old chestnuts attributed to Wesley, etc., appeared in other collections/quote books throughout the 20th century, even if it was doubtful that the person given credit for the saying was really the originator. With the Twain quote, though, the earliest example I’ve found on Google Books is a 1966 collection of Twain — but the Christ quote only appears in one place in the book, which is the new preface to the 2nd edition that was added 35 years later (2001)! In fact, there’s only a single Google Books page of results that feature this quote, and 2001 is the very earliest. The others are 2006, 2010, 2013, etc. Not promising.

  • Thanks a lot, Shawnie. 😉 Now I am even more depressed! I really loved that quote . . .

  • Karen Harper

    St. Francis is my confirmation saint. I know he didn’t write the beautiful poem that is often attributed to him but I feel certain that the author was inspired by St. Francis, as I am inspired by him every day of my life. And that’s good enough for me.

  • Mother Teresa has been credited with writing the “Paradoxical Commandments,” otherwise known as “Anyway.” It’s an awesome text, but it was written by a guy named Kent M. Keith. He even wrote a book about it. But I still see it attributed to Mother Teresa.

  • ““In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”” … Actually this quote is normally falsely attributed to Augustine, not Wesley.

  • Mack

    Some really good research, but the diction is redolent of a junior high school hallway – why “Mother freakin’ Teresa?”

  • Elder Anderson

    Personally, I like the way Jana writes. Same as me. I write the way I talk. Using a bunch of big words doesn’t make you sound smart. It’s the ideas that matter.

    “Never use a five dollar word when a 50 cent word will do.” -Twain

    *Disclaimer: maybe not the exact quote.

  • Michael Corliss

    Although I’m now convinced that Mohandas Gandhi didn’t say the “Be the change” thing, his descendant, Arun Gandhi, featured it when he spoke at my high school.

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  • Bob

    Whatever of good reaches you, is from Allah, but whatever of evil befalls you, is from yourself. And We have sent you as a Messenger to mankind, and Allah is Sufficient as a Witness. Quran chapter 4 verse 79

  • Three things:
    1. The first of those two quotes attributed to John Wesley were in fact based upon very similar things that he did in fact write.
    2. The 2nd of those quotes attributed to Wesley was in fact said by him; i.e., he frequently quoted Augustine’s famous words. So much so that many people just assumed Wesley coined that phrase.
    3. It should go with out saying that hardly *any* of the quotes on the too many memes created by David Avocado Wolfe “Public Figure” were originally written by him – but that doesn’t stop him from putting his name on them. ; )

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  • I have a number of these on my blog. Here is but one of my favorites, used on all sides of many controversies: http://liberlocorumcommunium.blogspot.com/2008/07/luther-on-importance-of-jumping-in.html.

  • They weren’t Augustine’s words (http://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/augustine/quote.html). So far as we now know, they derive from Marco Antonio De Dominis, writing in 1617: http://liberlocorumcommunium.blogspot.com/2010/03/in-necessariis-unitas-in-non.html.

  • Phillip

    “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity,” is usually attributed to Philipp Melanchton. It has long been oft quoted by Moravian Christians due to their association with and influence by Count Nicolas von Zinzendorf, a Lutheran pietist. Wesley famously had some interesting fellowship with some Moravians on a ship to America once. It’s conceivable that the saying came into use with Wesley and Weslyans.

  • Phillip: please read my blog post here (http://liberlocorumcommunium.blogspot.com/2010/03/in-necessariis-unitas-in-non.html), and if you can cite the very phrase in Melanchthon (and not simply fragments of the same *idea*, as in, e.g., Liber Ratisbonensis IV, of 1541 (“Conservatur autem, dum retinetur doctrinae unitas, in iis saltem, quae ad pietatem et salutem sunt necessaria”)), then please do that as well. No one questions that the *idea* was in the air in even the time of (say) St. Augustine. The question is, rather, Who coined the *very phrase*? And on that point the *scholarly* consensus of well over a century had been not Melanchthon but Peter Meiderlin (1582-1651), anagrammatico-pseudonymously Rupertus Meldenius, writing in 1626. But this was overturned in 1999 by the Dutch scholar H. J. M. Nellen, who found it almost 10 years earlier than that in a 1617 work of the renegade Catholic bishop Marco Antonio De Dominis. And to my knowledge, no one has as yet bested Nellen.

  • Fr. John A. Boylan, OEF

    Actually, Francis “would have” said that. I am a Franciscan. So was the “French dude.” The prayer is very much “in the spirit of Francis”. It was “adopted” by our community long before the rest of the world “never looked back”. Fr. John Boylan, OEF

  • Thank You! I have been creating *Anachrons* (a portmanteau from “Anachronistic Icons”) for nearly 20 years. They all incorporate quotations (some of them anachronistic as well). I have taken some flak for daring to “not” attribute any quote to anyone unless I was as sure as I could be. Albert Schweitzer, for example, did not write the beloved Prayer for Animals, which I give away as a free download on my St. Roch and St. Gertrude pages.

  • Fr. John A. Boylan, OEF

    The “Prayer of St. Francis”, Bill, was not written by Francesco di Bernadone, But neither was it written by a “French dude” unfamiliar with the saint. He was a Franciscan. As am I. The prayer is most certainly “in the spirit” of Francis, reflecting his life and spirituality. The famous prayer was adopted by our community long before the rest of the world inevitably caught it as well! Pace e Bene! Fr. John

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  • Love this!

  • There’s a 2014 reversal to the 2008 article you cite in which that same highly-respect author finds new evidence that Niebuhr did author the Serenity Prayer — see: “I Was Wrong About The Origin Of The Serenity Prayer,” available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/15/serenity-prayer-origin_n_5331924.html or http://religionnews.com/2014/05/15/commentary-discovered-wrong-origin-serenity-prayer/. Also, thanks for a fantastic article debunking misattribution!

  • NICHOLAS ELDER

    One that annoys me [as it is so unlike anything the supposed author wrote] is
    Christ has no body on earth but yours…
    attributed to Teresa of Avila, but as far as I can find out, never in Spanish.
    Nada te turbe, on the other hand, exists as a manuscript.

  • Great piece on fake or out of context quotations. I’ve been doing a series focusing on C.S. Lewis that you might consider checking out:
    http://www.essentialcslewis.com/confirming-c-s-lewis-quotations-series-overview/

  • Mary Luti

    The “Christ has no body…” quote is definitely not Teresa’s. Nit her style, and not her theology, and it is nowhere to be found in any of her writinings. It belongs in part to Methodist minister, Guy Pearse. He wrote the first few lines in 1888. The rest was added in 1892 by English Quaker, Sarah Eliza Rowntree, of the York, England, Rowntrees, who were chocolate makers, like the Cadburys of Birmingham. But a chocolate loving Quaker is not as sexy as a 16th century mystic. Who wants Sarah Eliza Rowntree when you can have Teresa of Avila? That’s what a well-known blogger said to me when I pointed out the misattribution on his site. He said, “Yeah, I know, but Teresa’s name makes people want to read it.”

    The “Nada te turbe…” may not be hers either, but at least it is in her spirit, and she might well have. It was found, tradition says, tucked in one of her prayer books as a bookmark.

  • Dana

    “Pride goes before destruction; a haughty spirit before the fall.” Proverbs 16:18

    Close enough.