Missionaries, Ministers, Money, and Manure: Don’t Pile ’em Up, or So They Say

April 13, 2017 § 3 Comments

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I once heard a friend (and fellow missionary at the time) say something on the order of

Missionaries are like manure. Pile them all together and they stink, but spread them out and they do good things.

He isn’t the only one who’s used fertilizer imagery to point out that missionaries tend to cause each other problems when they’re in close proximity to each other. But where did the missionary-manure comparison originally come from?

Well, one blogger cites a quotation from Luis Palau, in which the evangelist credits a Wycliffe missionary in Mexico for coming up with the phrase, after watching a cow walk by. But that doesn’t quite jibe with the testimonies of others (including Philip Yancey, in Church: Why Bother? [Zondervan, 1998]) who claim that Palau applied the simile to the church:

The church is like manure. Pile it together and it stinks up the neighborhood; spread it out and it enriches the world.

Comparisons of manure with types of people aren’t limited to only “missionaries” and “the church,” though all the ones I’ve been able to find do concern people who have an involvement with religion. Consider these examples:

The reference to “ministers” above is from a sermon by William Sloane Coffin, given in 1978, in which he says he heard the correlation to manure from a “distinguished theologian” twenty years earlier. That version is

Ministers are like manure: spread out in the field they have a certain usefulness. But when brought together in a heap, well, the odor gets pretty strong.

But a more precise earlier dating comes from the Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the State Bar of California, volume 19, published in 1950. In it, the speaker refers to his “dear friend Lord MacMillan,” who tells about a Scottish minister who couldn’t bring himself to attend synod meetings, saying,

Ministers are like manure; when they are spread out over the land, they are very beneficial to the community.

But people aren’t the only things that are like manure. Nope, not just people. There’s

This last one is significant, because it deals with money, which leads us closer to the great-great-grandfather of the “is like manure” idea. But first lets take a look at a great aunt . . . from the mouth of Dolly Gallagher Levi.

In 1953, Thornton Wilder wrote the play The Matchmaker, a revision of his earlier work The Merchant of Yonkers, from 1938. In it, Dolly quotes her late husband, Ephraim:

Money, I’ve always felt, money—pardon my expression—is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about encouraging young things to grow.

In 1964, The Matchmaker was made into the musical Hello, Dolly! which then became a movie in 1969. (The about in the above line becomes around in the musical versions.) This is probably where “money is like manure” gained the most attention in modern times, but it certainly didn’t originate there. Over a hundred years earlier (August 20, 1836, to be exact), Horace Greeley’s The New-Yorker included this “adage”:

Money is like manure, of no use until it be spread.

And now we get back to the oldest relative of the phrase—at least the oldest one that’s been found in print. It’s from Francis Bacon’s Of Seditions and Troubles, way back in 1625:

Above all things, good policy is to be used, that the treasure and monies in a state be not gathered into few hands; for, otherwise, a state may have a great stock, and yet starve: and money is like muck, not good except it be spread. This is done chiefly by suppressing, or, at the least, keeping a strait hand upon the devouring trades of usury, engrossing, great pasturages, and the like.

Where did Bacon come up with this? Well, in the same year, he also published Apophthegmes New and Old. Collected by the Right Honourable, Francis Lo. Verulam, Viscount St. Alban. One of these apothegms (wow, I just looked that word up and found out I’ve been mispronouncing it) he ascribes to a Mr. Bettenham:

Mr. Bettenham used to say; That Riches were like Mucke: When it lay, upon an heape, it gave but a stench, and ill odour; but when it was spread upon the ground, then it was cause of much fruit.

In a letter written to Thomas Hobby, Bacon references the death of his friend “Mr. Bettenham” (The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon [collected by James Spedding, 1868]). Assuming this is the same person from Apophthegmes, the saying would have to predate 1606, when Bacon penned the letter.

So all told, that’s a more-than-400-year history, which means my friend didn’t come up with the idea on his own. And neither did J. Paul Getty or Will Rogers or J. I. Packer or an acquaintance of  Francis Chan. No, the complete line of succession is not nearly so straightforward . . . or recent. Rather, to quote another quotable source, the venerable REO Speedwagon, it instead hews closer to (sing along with me)

Heard it from a friend

who heard it from a friend

who heard it from another. . . .”

And so it—usually—goes.

(for more research on the money-manure connection, see The Quote Investigator and The Big Apple)

[photo: “Cow Manure,” by Ian Barbour, used under a Creative Commons license]

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