September 8, 2019 § 2 Comments
In 1866 and 1867, Mark Twain wrote a number of letters to the San Francisco newspaper Alta California, detailing his travels from California to New York, by way of Nicaragua. In 1940 they were collected and published under the title Mark Twain’s Travels with Mr. Brown. In one of those letters, a dispatch from New York dated May 18, 1867, we find what has become one of his more famous quotations on travel:
[N]othing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.
In context, Twain is describing “The Traveller’s Club”:
That is a human institution. Its President is a Californian, and its members hail from more places than there are on the Atlas. They have kindly complimented me with the privileges of the place for a month, and I went up the other night at ten and spent a very pleasant evening till two or three o’clock in the morning.
Of course I met pleasant people, because nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people. An Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotchman, an Italian or so, several Frenchmen and a number of Americans were present, and you couldn’t ask a question about any possible country under the sun, but some fellow in the crowd had been there and could give the information from personal experience. . . .
They said they were going to send me a formal invitation to make a speech before the Club, as Du Chaillu did, and I said I would be glad to accept it, but I did not know then that they go and invite a whole raft of ladies to be present on such occasions, to look at a poor victim and make him lose his grip, and so I hope they will forget to send the invitation, now.
You ought to start a Travellers’ Club in San Francisco. You have got an abundance of material, and that sort of an organization is much pleasanter than political one-idea affairs, such as clubs generally are.
Subsequent letters to Alta California didn’t need to wait so long to be put into book form. Published in 1869, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress, chronicles his trip to Europe and the Holy Land and became a classic in travel literature. Volume two of the book contains an even more popular (in my estimation) travel quotation, in the form of
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
The full paragraph is as follows:
I have no fault to find with the manner in which our excursion was conducted. Its programme was faithfully carried out—a thing which surprised me, for great enterprises usually promise vastly more than they perform. It would be well if such an excursion could be gotten up every year and the system regularly inaugurated. Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
Twain’s view sounds right, but don’t take my word for it, just ask SCIENCE. As reported in PsyPost, researcher Jiyin Cao says that he and his colleagues were “intrigued” by Twain’s quotation, so they conducted five studies to test the idea. The results suggest that Twain knew what he was talking about:
In this paper, my coauthors and I tested this assumption: Does travel make people more trusting? Does travel lead people to have a more charitable view of humanity? Given the trend toward globalization and the increasing popularity of foreign travel, this will be an important and interesting question to explore. In addition, we compared two aspects of foreign experiences: the number of countries one visits (breadth) and the length of time one spends abroad (depth), and explored which one plays a critical role in the process. Across five studies, using different research methods including a longitudinal study, we found that breadth but not depth of foreign experiences increases generalized trust. In other words, the more countries one travels, the more trusting one is. Breadth is important here, because breadth provides a great level of diversity in people’s foreign travel experiences, allowing them to reach such a generalized assumption.
Earlier in The Innocents Abroad, Twain has more to say about the benefits of travel: self awareness. (This one I don’t see quoted much.)
The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother.
And then there’s the well known
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Yes, Twain had a lot of things to say about travel . . . but this last quotation isn’t one of them. Despite many online and offline sources attributing it to Twain, Quote Investigator‘s Garson O’Toole finds it no earlier than in 1990, when H. Jackson Brown, Jr. included it in his book P. S. I Love You. The inspirational author credits the saying to his mother, Sarah Frances Brown.
And as long as we’re trekking down this path, so to speak, Twain also didn’t say, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” (I know, this is stretching the travel theme a bit, but the word is in there.)
Back to O’Toole: He writes that Bonnie Taylor-Blake located the phrase “falsehood will fly from Maine to Georgia, while truth is pulling her boots on” in an 1820 issue of the Portland Gazette. And then in 1821, William Tudor, in The North American Review, ascribed “a Lie would travel from Maine to Georgia while Truth was getting on his boots” to congressman Fisher Ames. In Twain’s writings, though, nothing similar appears.
Bummer! Mark Twain didn’t say everything.
But now I’ll leave this discussion on a more positive note—positive because here’s something that did come from Twain, and positive because it recognizes another beneficial aspect of getting out and about. With Huckleberry Finn as his spokesperson (a passenger, by the way, in a boat held aloft by a balloon, floating around the world), Twain wrote the following in 1894:
I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.
Yes, Huck, you said it. You sure did. And I figger we don’t need no research to know that it’s true.
(Mark Twain, “Letter 18,” Alta California, June 23, 1867; Twain, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress, American, 1869; Eric Dolan, “New Study Confirms Mark Twain’s Saying: Travel Is Fatal to Prejudice,” PsyPost, December 9, 2013; Garson O’Toole, “Twenty Years from Now You Will Be More Disappointed by the Things You Didn’t Do than by the Ones You Did Do,” Quote Investigator, September 29, 2011; O’Toole, “A Lie Can Travel Halfway around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes,” Quote Investigator, July 13, 2014; Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Charles L. Webster, 1894)
[illustration: “USS Quaker City,” by Clary Ray, c. 1890, public domain]
March 13, 2019 § Leave a comment
Who said, “No matter where you are you will always be looking at the same moon as I am”?
Romance writer Nicholas Sparks in Dear John? Nope. Immigrant mouse Fievel Mousekewitz in An American Tale? Nope again, though I’ve seen both credited. “Anonymous” is the best source I’ve found (though I’m open to any well-documented suggestions).
My searching, though, did turn up an interesting passage from African-American abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth, in her Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave. The words aren’t exactly the same, but the sentiment is there—regardless of how far apart people are, they can still feel connected when they share the sight of the moon overhead.
In her autobiography, dictated to Olive Gilbert, Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) tells about her mother’s lessons for her and her younger brother. Mau-mau, as her daughter called her, had “some ten or twelve children” in all, but the older ones had been sold and taken away from her. Though Mau-mau Bett, the daughter of slaves from Guinea, spoke Low Dutch, Truth presents her words translated into English:
‘My children, there is a God, who hears and sees you.’ ‘A God, mau-mau! Where does he live?’ asked the children. ‘He lives in the sky,’ she replied; ‘and when you are beaten, or cruelly treated, or fall into any trouble, you must ask help of him, and he will always hear and help you.’ She taught them to kneel and say the Lord’s prayer. She entreated them to refrain from lying and stealing, and to strive to obey their masters.
At times, a groan would escape her, and she would break out in the language of the Psalmist—‘Oh Lord, how long?’ ‘Oh Lord, how long?’ And in reply to Isabella’s question—‘What ails you, mau-mau?’ her only answer was, ‘Oh, a good deal ails me’—‘Enough ails me.’ Then again, she would point them to the stars, and say, in her peculiar language, ‘Those are the same stars, and that is the same moon, that look down upon your brothers and sisters, and which they see as they look up to them, though they are ever so far away from us, and each other.’
Thus, in her humble way, did she endeavor to show them their Heavenly Father, as the only being who could protect them in their serious condition; at the same time, she would strengthen and brighten the chain of family affection, which she trusted extended itself sufficiently to connect the widely scattered members of her precious flock.
It’s an idea that crosses continents, languages, and cultures. It’s lasted hundreds of years and very well should last forever. Many miles. One moon. What could possibly disrupt that mathematical simplicity?
Maybe some extra moons?
According to China Daily, scientists in China have plans to put an artificial moon in place above the city of Chengdu by the year 2020. Covered with a reflective coating, the satellite would be able to reflect sunlight onto the earth’s surface at night in the same way that the real moon does. But the made-in-China moon would be eight times brighter, says Wu Chunfeng, head of the Tian Fu New Area Science Society. Other improvements over the natural moon are that it’s location and brightness could be controlled and it could be turned off if needed.
If successful, the moon over Chengdu would provide lighting one-fifth as bright as regular streetlights, and could save $174 million per year in electricity costs. If the first, experimental, moon is successful, says Wu, the plan is to launch three more in 2022, with those three being “the real deal with great civic and commercial potential.”
If you think it sounds like a bad idea—or maybe too good to be true—you can join the skeptics in the following video:
But don’t count the Chinese out just yet. They already have some experience in creating less-than-celestial bodies. As reported by Bloomberg Businessweek, China has built two islands, one circular, like the sun, and the other in the shape of a crescent moon. Located in Sun Moon Bay in the waters off Hainan, the two pieces of land cover approximately one square kilometer (about a third of a mile). The moon island was begun by private developers in 2015 (go to the Bloomberg article for a photo), but China has since banned such commercial projects because of environmental damage.
China has more credentials on the sun-building front as well. In 2006 (back to China Daily again for details), scientists in China brought its “artificial sun,” the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), online. EAST is a tokamak magnetic fusion reactor located in Heifei that last year reached a record 100 million degrees Celsius (over 180,000,000 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s over six times hotter than the sun up in the sky.
And finally, in January, China became the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon. BBC reports that one of the purposes of the Chang’e-4’s mission is to gain “insights into the internal structure and history of the Moon.” Sounds as if that knowledge could come in handy for building a new one.
But until China’s lunar creativity comes to fruition, Mau-mau Bett’s words will still hold true. And the belief they represent will continue to be the stuff of longings, of comfort, and of song:
(Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828, with a Portrait, Olive Gilbert, ed., 1850; Zhang Zhihao, “Man-Made Moon to Shed Light on Chengdu in 2020,” China Daily, October 19, 2018; Sim Chi Yin, “Dubai Has Palm Islands, but China Has a Sun, Moon, and Flower,” Bloomberg Businessweek, March 4, 2019; Cao Zinan, “China’s ‘Artificial Sun’ Achieves Major Breakthrough,” China Daily, November 13, 2018; Paul Rincon, “What Does China Want to Do on the Moon’s Far Side?” BBC, January 4, 2019)
August 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
Somewhere, in one of the back rooms of the internet, sits a frazzle-haired, bespectacled gentleman thumbing through a box of yellowed index cards. On each card is typed out a well-known saying, often in multiple versions, and it’s the man’s job to assign to each one a source. He doesn’t track down the actual origin, but rather he writes down who it sounds as if might have come from. To do this, he refers to a wall chart over his desk that shows a spectrum of names, ranging from the profound—Confucius—to the nonsensical— Yogi Berra—with prominent figures filling in the space in between. His assignments go out to the many and sundry quotation sites around the world wide web. After he’s worked his way through all the cards, he refills the box and starts again. His is the Office of Misattribution.
Even with such an imprecise methodology, it seems odd that a single quotation could be assigned to both ends of the authorial range: Confucius and Yogi Berra. But at least one phrase has that distinction:
Wherever you go, there you are.
(also with the versions “No matter where you go . . .” and “Wheresoever you go . . .”)
First off, I’ll say that I’ve seen no real evidence for its origin. (As I’ve written before, it’s the kind of thing my father would attribute to Shakespeare, but he was just kidding.) Google searches most often show it belonging to Confucius, or, more specifically, coming from the The Analects of Confucius. But when I go to The Analects, I don’t find it, nor anything close. I’m thinking that those who claim Confucius as the source would lean toward explaining the meaning of the phrase as “You can’t escape yourself. No matter your new location, you will bring your past, your faults, your regrets with you.”
Those who would claim the saying belongs to Yogi Berra would probably think it’s simply stating the obvious: “You are where you are.” But I’m pretty sure Berra, who subtitled a book “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!” didn’t create it either. He was, though, in the same ballpark, so to speak, when he came up with
If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.
In another perspective on the theme, the popular spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle talks about intentionally being present in the moment, when in his book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, he says:
Ordinary unconsciousness is always linked in some way with denial of the Now. The Now, of course, also implies the here. Are you resisting your here and now? Some people would always rather be somewhere else. Their “here” is never good enough. Through self-observation, find out if that is the case in your life. Wherever you are, be there totally.
The Christian missionary and martyr Jim Elliot wrote something similar 47 years earlier in his journal:
Wherever you are, be all there.
To this, he added, “Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”
The idea behind these last two selections reminds me of the phrase
Bloom where you are planted.
Who originally said that? According to the internet, it might be Mary Engelbreit, Paul Harvey, Mother Teresa, Cory Booker (with blossom instead of bloom), Nardi Reeder Campion’s Aunt Grace, Nancy Reader Campion’s Aunt Grace, St. Francis of Sales, an Afghan proverbist, or someone in the Bible. The Office of Misattribution certainly has been busy on that one.
(Yogi Berra, When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It!: Inspiration and Wisdom from One of Baseball’s Greatest Heroes, 2001; Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Namaste, 1997; Elisabeth Elliot, ed., The Journals of Jim Elliot, Revell, 1978)
February 21, 2018 § Leave a comment
I hope that none of your your travels turn out like what’s depicted in the artwork above. The oil painting, completed by Edwin Henry Landseer in 1864, shows two polar bears ravaging what’s left of Sir John Franklin’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage, a sailable path through the Arctic Ocean from Europe to India and China. Franklin set out in 1845 with two ships and their crews, totaling 134 men. Three years later, the ships became stuck in the ice of the Canadian Arctic and all had to set out on foot (except for five who had been sent home shortly after the voyage began). After walking away from their vessels, named the Erebus—after Greek mythology’s personification of darkness—and the Terror, none survived.
The explorer John Rae, in 1854, came across some Inuit who were carrying personal items from the Franklin expedition. They had collected them from abandoned campsites, where they had also found signs of cannibalism amongst the crew.
The title of the painting, Man Proposes, God Disposes, says something about the sometimes harsh intersection of humanity’s plans with divine governance. But the artist’s intention may have had less to do with theology and more to do with portraying the hubris of an English society that felt nothing could stand in the way of its forward progress.
Even though the men of the Franklin expedition seemed well-prepared, many today call the trek “doomed” from the beginning. The New York Times Magazine reports that the two ships carried enough food for three years, including “32,289 pounds of preserved meat, 1,008 pounds of raisins and 580 gallons of pickles.” But that may have been as much a curse as a blessing.
In 1850, a search party of Americans and British found three graves on Beechey Island, Canada, containing the bodies of three crew members who had died in 1846. Canadian anthropologist Owen Beattie, in 1984, dug up the graves and performed autopsies on the bodies. He found they contained high levels of lead, leading him to believe that the crew had been poisoned by their food, stored in tins with lead solder.
Four years ago, underwater archaeologists with Parks Canada discovered the Erebus at the bottom of Queen Maud Gulf. Ryan Harris, lead diver of the group, says that the mission’s fate was already sealed from the day they set out, not because of errors from its leader, but by poor planning from those above him. ‘‘Franklin and his men were doomed the moment they received orders from the admiralty. He followed those orders to a T and into the worst choke point in the Arctic Archipelago,” Harris tells The New Yorker Magazine. “The notion that Franklin was anything but a sterling naval officer I just can’t accept. He followed his orders faithfully and died.’’
Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes now hangs in the College Picture Gallery of Royal Holloway, University of London, where it can be viewed throughout the year, except during exams. At that time, the painting is covered with the Union Jack, as legend says that students who look at the image will fail their tests . . . or slip into madness.
That tells us about the subject of Landeer’s painting, but where did the title come from? The phrase “Man proposes, God disposes” is not original to the artist (and it doesn’t come from the Bible, either, as many assume—at least not directly). Rather, it first appeared in The Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas à Kempis in the early 15th century. The relevant passage is in book 1, chapter 19, titled “Of the Exercise of a Religious Man,” which discusses a Christian’s consistency in keeping daily devotions. While Landseer’s use of “Man proposes, God disposes” is a look back on failed plans, Thomas à Kempis’s usage has a somewhat different bent, more of a call to rely on God’s help to reach a plan’s fulfillment.
The life of a Christian ought to be adorned with all virtues, that he may be inwardly what he outwardly appeareth unto men. And verily it should be yet better within than without, for God is a discerner of our heart, Whom we must reverence with all our hearts wheresoever we are, and walk pure in His presence as do the angels. We ought daily to renew our vows, and to kindle our hearts to zeal, as if each day were the first day of our conversion, and to say, “Help me, O God, in my good resolutions, and in Thy holy service, and grant that this day I may make a good beginning, for hitherto I have done nothing!”
According to our resolution so is the rate of our progress, and much diligence is needful for him who would make good progress. For if he who resolveth bravely oftentimes falleth short, how shall it be with him who resolveth rarely or feebly? But manifold causes bring about abandonment of our resolution, yet a trivial omission of holy exercises can hardly be made without some loss to us. The resolution of the righteous dependeth more upon the grace of God than upon their own wisdom; for in Him they always put their trust, whatsoever they take in hand. For man proposeth, but God disposeth; and the way of a man is not in himself.
While the wording “Man proposes, God disposes” (“Nam homo proponit, sed Deus disponit in Latin), is not found in the Bible, the idea behind it is.
There is Proverbs 16:9 (NIV),
In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.
and Proverbs 19:21 (NIV),
Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.
Also, the phrase following “Man proposes, God disposes” in Imitation of Christ, comes from Jeremiah 10:23, in the King James Version:
O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.
Let me repeat, I hope that none of your travels turn out like what’s depicted in Landseer’s painting.
Instead, as you resolve to explore new territories, whether that be through outward excursions or inner searchings, may you be hemmed in as gently as possible, when necessary. And when you’re striving down the right path, may God’s grace strengthen you to continue on.
(Leanne Sharpton, “Artifacts of a Doomed Expedition,” The New York Times Magazine, March 18, 2016; Laura MacCulloch, “The Haunted Painting of Fabled Franklin Ship Discovered in the Canadian Arctic,” The Conversation, September 11, 2014; Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, translated by William Benham , ca 1420)
[artwork: Man Proposes, God Disposes, by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1864, public domain]
June 4, 2017 § 2 Comments
Political commentator Bill Kristol, speaking earlier this year at a Harvard forum titled “The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era,” had some good things and some bad things to say about the state of modern media. For the most part, he said, he’s optimistic; but he understands the need for caution, closing his talk with this:
I ran into John McCain this morning, actually, at National Airport—he was coming in from somewhere, I was flying out. I asked him how things were going, and he responded with one of his favorite quotations. I think it’s a fake quotation, actually—he really said it to me, but I think his description of it is fake. He said, “As Chairman Mao always liked to say, ‘It’s always darkest before it turns pitch black.’”
I’ll cast my lot with Kristol: I think McCain is misquoting Mao Tse-tung. And McCain probably knows it, too, but that hasn’t stopped the senator from Arizona from making it one of his go-to lines. In fact, he used it so much during his 2008 presidential campaign that it caught the attention of China’s news outlet Huanqiu.com. An author there, Wang Qichao, writes that McCain’s catch phrase is no more than a parody of what Chairman Mao really said: “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
Now that’s an expression I’m familiar with. But is it truly a Mao-made metaphor? According to Wang, it comes from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (also known as The Little Red Book). But I’m thinking this may be one of those cases where a well-known saying is misattributed to the kind of well-known figure who gets credited for most everything quote-worthy (think Benjamin Franklin and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the US).
In the article, Wang writes that Mao’s saying is “黎明前的黑暗,” which is a Chinese idiom that translates as “darkness before dawn.” The closest thing from Mao I could find in Quotations is “黑暗即将过去，曙光即在前头,” which originally comes from a report given by Mao, “The Present Situation and Our Tasks,” in 1947. Here’s the relevant passage in English, with the specific phrase in bold:
The Communist Party of China, having made a clear-headed appraisal of the international and domestic situation on the basis of the science of Marxism-Leninism, recognized that all attacks by the reactionaries at home and abroad had to be defeated and could be defeated. When dark clouds appeared in the sky, we pointed out that they were only temporary, that the darkness would soon pass and the sun break through.
Regardless of how close either of these may be to “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” a form of that phrase predates Mao by a few hundred years. Back in 1650, preacher and historian Thomas Fuller wrote,
[I]t is always darkest just before the Day dawneth.
The phrase appears in the following:
Afterwards, whilest David was marching (at least wise in presence) with Achish against Saul, the Amalekites in his absence burnt Ziglag, carrying away all the people therein captive. Griefe hereat so prevailed in Davids men at their return, that in anguish of their hearts, they were ready to stone him. Could better be expected from them? Behold their originall, they were at first, men in debt and distress, whose severall discontents made them generally contented to join together; so that not David, but his necessities chose them to attend him, who now in adversity discovered their impious dispositions. But David to avoid this showre of stones ready to rain upon him, run for shelter to God his Rock, in whom he comforted himself. Thus, as it is always darkest just before the Day dawneth, so God useth to visite his servants with greatest affli∣ctions, when he intendeth their speedy advancement. For immediate∣ly after, David not onely recovered his loss with advantage, but also was proclaimed King of Israel: though some war arose for a time between him and Ishbosheth.
It’s an interesting saying, “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”
Scientifically speaking, is just before dawn the darkest part of the night? That depends on when you say dawn begins. Certainly, at midnight, it stops getting darker as soon as it starts getting lighter.
But the phrase’s deeper meaning, at least the way we use it today, is that we shouldn’t give up, no matter how grim the circumstances. Victory is undoubtedly ahead. The trouble with this thinking is that it’s self defining: If things get worse, then you’ve not yet reached the darkest point. If they get better, then the worst has ended. And if you surrender, then you can’t know that the sun wasn’t about to rise.
Does darkness sometimes signal a coming dawn? Yes, I believe it does. But always? It’s not quite that simple. As memorable as they may be, six words aren’t enough to handle all the philosophy and theology needed for that topic.
Stay tuned: On August 21 of this year, many in the US will see the first total eclipse observable on American soil since 1979. I wonder what McCain will have to say about that.
(Bill Kristol, “Bill Kristol: Remember, Demagogues Thrived Long before the Internet Disintermediated the News, Too,” Nieman Lab, February 1, 2017; Wang Qichao, “McCain Repeatedly Misquotes Chairman Mao,” translated by Mark Klingman, WorldMeets.us, August 7, 2008, Chinese version at Sina.com; Mao Tse-tung, “敢于斗争，敢于胜利,” 毛主席语录, People’s Press, 1965; Mao Tse-tung, “Dare to Struggle and Dare to Win,” Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1966; Mao, Tse-tung, “The Present Situation and Our Tasks,” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1947; Thomas Fuller, A Pisgah-sight of Palestine and the Confines Thereof with the History of the Old and New Testament Acted Thereon, 1650)
April 13, 2017 § 3 Comments
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.
[photo: “Cow Manure,” by Ian Barbour, used under a Creative Commons license]