[Originally posted at Fake History 9 July 2009]
Did Patrick Henry say
The Bible is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed
toward the end of his life?
No. Probably not, anyway. It’s another quotation based on a second-hand story, though better than some.
Ultimately the account appears to go back to George Dabney, one of Patrick Henry’s neighbors. (I say appears because there is an element of inference still, as we’ll see.) Captain George Dabney fought in the Revolutionary War, and afterwards was an associate of Declaration-signer and Virginia governor Thomas Nelson. According to a newspaper clipping reprinted in a Dabney family history,
Patrick Henry was his intimate friend and neighbor, and from him Mr. Wirt obtained much of the information which he has embodied in his life of Patrick Henry.
William Wirt (1772-1834) was the prosecutor in Aaron Burr’s treason trial, Attorney-General under James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, and the author of Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry (1817). From its introduction we learn that George Dabney was Patrick Henry’s friend during his childhood and youth, and that William Wirt got his information from him through Nathaniel Pope, as he himself was not acquainted with George Dabney.
In this book the story first appears. Wirt tells it like this:
Mr. Henry’s conversation was remarkably pure and chaste. He never swore. He was never heard to take the name of his Maker in vain. He was a sincere Christian, though after a form of his own; for he was never attached to any particular religious society, and never it is believed, communed with any church. A friend who visited him, not long before his death, found him engaged in reading the bible: “here,” said he, holding it up, “is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed: yet it is my misfortune never to have found time to read it, with the proper attention and feeling, till lately. I trust in the mercy of heaven, that it is not yet too late.” He was much pleased with Soame Jenyns’ View of the internal evidences of the christian religion; so much so, that about the year 1790, he had an impression of it struck at his own expense, and distributed among the people. His other favourite works on the subject were Doddridge’s “Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul,” and Butler’s “Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed.” This latter work, he used at one period of his life, to style by way of pre-eminence, his bible. The selection proves not only the piety of his temper, but the correctness of his taste, and his relish for profound and vigorous disquisition. [pp. 401-2, links added]
William Wirt gives no source, but when William Wirt Henry (Patrick Henry’s grandson) wrote his 1891 Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence, and Speeches he retold the same incident:
One of his neighbors going to see him found him reading the Bible. Holding it up in his hand, he said: “This book is worth all the books that ever were printed, and it has been my misfortune that I have never found time to read it with the proper attention and feeling till lately. I trust in the mercy of Heaven that it is not yet too late.”
His source for this is “Statement of George Dabney, MS. Letter to Mr. Wirt, Wirt’s Henry.” And as he notes in his introduction that he had “access to nearly all of the material used by Mr. Wirt, including most of the communications received from the contemporaries of Mr. Henry,” it seems a reasonable assumption that both versions came from the same source.
So on the plus side, assuming that the George Dabney connection to be correct, the story emanates from a person close to the alleged source. On the minus side we still don’t know whether Dabney was the “friend” or “neighbor” who supposedly heard this, or whether he was only reporting what somebody else had told him. And, distinctly on the minus side, this is a familiar sort of legendary embellishment, the story about the man near death who seeks comfort from the Bible. If it never happened, somebody probably would have invented it.
Also, and I may be a little hyper-critical here, Henry seems to have been well-acquainted with the Bible. Certainly his reading matter (as described above) is extremely heavy-going without familiarity with the Christian scriptures, and I personally find it difficult to believe that Henry had “never found time to read it with the proper attention and feeling till” shortly before his death. To me that has a strong flavor of legendary embellishment.