s you may recall, I’ve been reviewing the steps in the textual transmission of a bizarre fake George Washington quotation. It has led us from a step in an argument attempting to demonstrate the existence of a supreme being assigned to Washington by a playwright (It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a Supreme Being) to its simplification while making it apply to human governance by a preacher (It is impossible to govern the universe without God), and to a further tweak putting it firmly in the realm of terrestrial affairs by a politician (It is impossible to govern the world without God). Our next (and final) stop in this little road show leads us to the lawyer—Howard Hyde Russell.
Born in 1855, the son of a Protestant Episcopal clergyman, Howard Hyde Russell grew up to become in turn a clerk, a cattle-herder, a newspaper editor, and a lawyer, before finally giving in and following in his father’s footsteps. Although his law-practice is said to have been lucrative, he gave it up in 1883 to study theology, and in 1885 he became a Congregational minister. In taking this course he may have been influenced by his wife Lillian (they married in 1880) who was obsessed with religion.
Merely being an ordinary minister wasn’t enough for him; in 1888 he turned to the “temperance” movement as an outlet for his energies. In 1893 he helped establish the Ohio Anti-Saloon League, of which he was named the first state superintendent. Two years later he took part in founding the American Anti-Saloon League and was named the first national superintendent. He lived long enough to see both the birth and death of Prohibition in the United States, eventually dying in 1946 at the age of ninety.
For our purposes the main thing he accomplished in his life was writing one book: A Lawyer’s Examination of the Bible, a work of recycled Christian apologetics that wrapped up the arguments (along with the outmoded scholarship) of the likes of Paley and McIlvaine into a colorful package to put under the tree of a new generation. The volume came out in 1893, the same year that saw him turn his interests to the anti-alcohol movement.
This slick repackaging of tired apologetics is couched in the conceit of a trial:
We will place the gospel of Christ on trial and by aid of the clearest reason we possess, and under the careful scrutiny of legal rules and precedents, we will test and weigh for ourselves the evidences which prove Christianity to be the God-given religion for mankind. [p. 16]
So the case of Christianity vs. Infidelity is presented, with the readers as the jury. Russell at the outset however restricts his jury to believers. “Christ discriminated—as should we—between doubt and unbelief. Doubt is ‘Can't believe’—unbelief is ‘Won’t believe.’ Doubt is honest, unbelief is obstinate. Doubt looks for light, unbelief is content with darkness.” In other words, believers who have doubts are welcome; unbelievers are not. Human reason is not welcome either: “pride in the powers of human reason, is often the source of prejudice against the Christian Religion [sic].”
Russell tells the following anecdote:
They have a court tradition in an Iowa County, how upon the trial of an important case, after the counsel for the prosecution had ended his argument and before the defendant's counsel began to speak, one of the jurors ran out of the Court-room into the jury-room. When the Court asked an explanation of his conduct he said, “I have got my mind made up now, and I don’t want to have it disturbed.” There is many an error of law and fact, in court and out of court, because the opinion had been formed before the facts had been heard.
In view of Russell’s extremely one-sided presentation of what he likes to think of as evidence this is, shall we say, humorous. There is no question of anything in his book disturbing the minds of his reader-jurors. Here, for example, is his treatment of Thomas Huxley, called on page 44 as a witness for Infidelity: “What then do we know about the originator or originators of the gospel? absolutely nothing. * * * * I repeat without the slightest fear of refutation that the four gospels, as they have come to us are the work of unknown writers.” “In this matter as in many others, infidelity merely enters its denial,” Russell claims. “But denial is not disproof. The objection of infidelity must according to law be overruled.”
Okay, not so fast. This may fly in Russell’s kangaroo court, but we’re in a higher court now, the Court of History, and we’d like to hear what Huxley had to say for ourselves. And the result turns out badly for Russell—because Huxley didn’t actually write what Russell claims. To say that Russell misrepresents Huxley would be an understatement. Russell flatly lies about what Huxley is saying. He did so under necessity—if he had allowed Huxley to testify freely it would have been fatal to his case.
As is often the case, context means everything. Now the context of Huxley’s remarks was an ongoing (let us say) discussion between him and Henry Wace, author of the still-useful Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature, concerning the true meaning of the word agnosticism. Like certain present-day atheists (though for different reasons) Wace was determined to bulldoze the distinction between disbelief and unbelief, insisting that agnosticism was merely a weak synonym for infidelity. Huxley, who after all had coined the word, wrote to set him straight. (And honestly the article is not one of Wace’s shining moments.) This back-and-forth extended over several articles and was joined by others, the whole thing being eventually archived for posterity (that’s us) in a volume entitled Christianity and Agnosticism: A Controversy (New York, 1889).
In discussing the plausibility of the story of the Gadarene swine Huxley observed that the episode belongs to the “groundwork” of the first three gospels, rather than the “superstructure.” This refers to the contemporary status of the synoptic problem—the issue of the relationships among the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is self-evident that the three share a common textual ancestor; comparison allows extraction of the parts where the three run together. This triple tradition, or “groundwork” as Huxley calls it, may be assumed to be a source. (The consensus of opinion today is that the common source and canonical Mark are in fact identical; in other words that Mark is Matthew’s and Luke’s source. But B. H. Streeter et al had yet to come along, and this is where matters lay then.) It is in this context that Huxley observes:
What then, do we know about the originator, or originators, of this groundwork—of that threefold edition which all three witnesses (in Paley's phrase) agree upon—that we should allow their mere statements to outweigh the counter-arguments of humanity, of common sense, of exact science, and to imperil the respect which all would be glad to be able to render their Master? ¶ Absolutely nothing. There is no proof, nothing more than a fair presumption, that any one of the Gospels existed, in the state in which we find it in the authorized version of the Bible, before the second century, or, in other words, sixty or seventy years after the events recorded. And, between that time and the date of the oldest extant manuscripts of the Gospels, there is no telling what additions and alterations and interpolations may have been made.
Huxley’s point here was that we know alterations were made to the gospels during the time when manuscript evidence is available—the additions of an ending to Mark and of the story of the woman taken in adultery to John are the most noteworthy (though far from the only) examples—and that we have no way of knowing what alterations may have been made earlier. He argued this point at the necessary length, presenting the necessary evidence—which means that Russell was twice wrong here—Huxley wasn’t saying what Russell claimed, nor did he merely enter a denial sans evidence. “Judge” Howard Hyde Russell is, to use a technical term, full of shit.
And further, Russell deliberately falsified the quotation, substituting the words “the gospel” for Huxley’s “this groundwork.” He further tacked on a footnote from the same page that actually was (at least indirectly) about the authorship of the gospels, but was a side-note for Huxley. To back up a little Huxley had made an observation in an earlier piece (“Science and the Bishops,” The Nineteenth Century, November 1887, p. 632) about alleged miracles like withering a fig tree or cursing pigs with demonic possession “Whether such events are possible or impossible, no man can say; but scientific ethics can and does declare that the profession of belief in them, on the evidence of documents of unknown date and of unknown authorship, is immoral.” An anonymous author in The Quarterly Review (“Robert Elsmere and Christianity,” October 1888, pp. 288-290) took issue with Huxley, claiming that “the case against the authenticity of the New Testament books has in the main completely broken down.” He says that even Ernest Renan (who had written a skeptical life of Jesus decades before this) had admitted as much, though in fact Renan explained the similarities of the synoptic gospels in part by assuming that subsequent scribes had attempted to make them more complete by borrowing from each other. Huxley replied to this in a footnote repeating that the gospels “as they have come to us” are the work of unknown writers—that is, that whoever may have written the hypothetical original works, our present documents had been altered in unknown and unknowable ways.
Russell’s reply is lame but predictable. It’s the old appeal to tradition bit. Christians have always believed in the “authenticity” of the gospels in an unbroken tradition going back practically to the beginning, therefore they are “authentic.” QED. Russell traces the tradition back all the way to Hermas and Barnabas, companions of the apostles. Too bad he apparently hadn’t bothered to consult Joseph Lightfoot’s relatively recent edition of the Apostolic Fathers. He would have learned that nobody still suffered from the illusion that the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas were actually written by the Hermas mentioned in Romans or the Barnabas who figures in Acts.
So what have we learned from this side-excursion? Well, we’ve picked up at least two valuable things about Howard Hyde Russell. His scholarship was wretched and he was entirely capable of altering a quotation to serve his ends. With these things in mind we are now ready to examine his (alleged) George Washington quotation.
Washington is dragooned into being a witness for the plaintiff concerning the “authenticity of the testimony” on p. 40, along with a number of other U. S. presidents and an incongruous Queen Victoria. Thus Andrew Jackson is made to testify “That book, sir, is the rock on which our republic rests,” as he had in the account in Morris’s book. And Martin Van Buren likewise is made to say as he had in Wilson’s pamphlet “The atonement of Christ is the only remedy and rest for the soul.” Russell, unlike Wilson, obviously did not rely on a single source for the bulk of his quotations.
So what about the Washington quotation? What he received was the saying as Henry Wilson had left it: “It is impossible to govern the world without God.” But in that form it didn’t really serve its purpose. This is unsurprising; it originally meant that a divine force was needed to keep the world running, not that God had to be a copilot at the world’s helm. That was easily fixed; the infinitive “to govern” could be neatly split with an adroit “rightly” and all was well with the world. A greater difficulty was the fact that Russell’s book was about the Bible, and this saying made no mention of it. The addition of three small words—“and the Bible”—took care of that problem, and voila! the saying as we know it at last achieved its canonical form.
Now of course it’s always possible that Russell was not the person responsible for this bit of tinkering, that he found it ready-made in some second-hand repository, but there is no necessity for assuming that—at least, on the available evidence. Occam’s razor and all that. Russell had the motive, the means, and the opportunity to commit this bit of forgery, and as we saw from his alteration of the Huxley quotation, his ethics did not bar him from falsifying evidence if it served his ends.
So this reasonably brings to an end the story of this fake quotation. A playwright first gave it to us in the form It is impossible to govern the universe without the aid of a supreme being—this as part of an argument for the existence of God; a preacher simplified it to It is impossible to govern the universe without God and applied it to temporal affairs; a politician cemented that interpretation by changing the word universe to world; and a lawyer gave it a final twist by adding rightly and and the Bible, to create the ultimate version:
It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.
I’ll have a few final observations tomorrow.
Sources and further information:
James Terry White (ed.), “Russell, Howard Hyde,” The National Cyclopedia of American Biography (J.T. White, 1906), vol. 13, p. 330
John William Leonard et al (eds.), “Howard Hyde Russell,” Who's who in New York City and State, Issue 3 (L.R. Hamersly Company, 1907), p. 1136
“Howard Hyde Russell,” Ohio: A Four-Volume Reference Library on the History of a Great State (Chicago: Lewis Pub. Co., 1937), vol. 4, pp. 391-393
“Howard Hyde Russell,” Anti-Saloon League Museum website, Westerville Library
Howard Hyde Russell, A Lawyer’s Examination of the Bible (Fleming H. Revell, 1893)
Edwin A. Abbott, “Gospels,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, ninth edition, vol. 10, pp. 789-854 [useful for the state of the synoptic problem at the end of the nineteenth century]
Henry Wace, Thomas Henry Huxley et al., Christianity and Agnosticism: A Controversy (D. Appleton, 1889)