Many years ago I did a piece of research on a quotation falsely attributed to Patrick Henry. I see that a post at American Creation has credited Rational Rant for uncovering a piece of the true history of the item, so once again—I apologize if any readers I may have are tired of hearing this story yet again—let me rehearse the story of this fake quotation.
It begins, in a way, with something Patrick Henry actually did write. On 20 November 1798 the once-fiery orator and successful lawyer sat down to write his last will and testament. After carefully dividing up his lands, money, and slaves amongst his wife and children, he added a pious afterthought:
This is all the Inheritance I can give to my dear family, The religion of Christ can give them one which will make them rich indeed[.]
The founder passed away in June of the next year, leaving damn little behind him as a legacy to the nation. His words, that had inspired a revolution, were for the most part lost. When William Wirt attempted to collect them for his sketch of Patrick Henry’s life (issued 1816) he had to do for the most part with recollections, fragments, and speeches patched together from the fading memories of those who had been present.
Around 1823 somebody thought it worthwhile to excerpt the “religion of Christ” passage from Henry’s will, and it went the rounds of various periodicals. It wasn’t quite the way Henry had written it, however. Somehow it had undergone a strange metamorphosis:
I have now disposed of all my property to my family; there is one thing more I wish I could give them, and that is the Christian Religion. If they had that, and I had not given them one shilling, they would be rich; and if they had not that, and I had given them all the world, they would be poor.
This version was reprinted in numerous sources up to the present time, but not without challenge. Sometime in the early 1840s James W. Alexander, a Presbyterian minister, went to Charlotte county, Virginia, and obtained the actual words direct from the will. He published them in 1847 as part of a volume called Thoughts on Family Worship. The two versions have remained in competition ever since.
In 1956 a historical revisionist writer for The Virginian used the passage—the fake version—as a springboard for his own thoughts on religion in America. This author wrote:
There is an insidious campaign of false propaganda being waged today, to the effect that our country is not a Christian country but a religious one—that it was not founded on Christianity but on freedom of religion.
It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by “religionists” but by Christians—not on religion but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity and freedom of worship here.
In the spoken and written words of our noble founders and forefathers, we find symbolic expressions of their Christian faith. The above quotation from the will of Patrick Henry is a notable example.
Several people thought this piece of revised history was worth quoting on its own, but it wasn’t until 1988 that somebody had the bright idea of crediting part of the 1956 comment to Patrick Henry himself. It appeared as his (according to David Barton) in a book called God’s Providence in American History by Steve C. Dawson, and was almost immediately picked up and popularized by Barton himself in his Myth of Separation. From there it spread far and wide. Somebody even added that it was from a speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses in May 1765, despite the fact that Henry was first seated there late that month and no speeches of his are recorded for that time except the famous one in support of his Stamp Act resolutions, reconstructed from memory years after his death. The incongruity of Henry’s speaking of “this great nation” before it even came into existence, and his foreknowledge that “peoples of other faiths” would be “afforded asylum, prosperity and freedom of worship here” at a time when religious freedom was nonexistent in most of the colonies apparently shot by the oblivious transmitters of Barton’s fantasies. The thing is, like Chief Seattle lamenting the demise of the buffalo, Henry just plain knows too much. It’s a dead giveaway.
Most of this is a repost; the situation, however, remains clear. Patrick didn't say it. Somebody else did, and yet another person attributed the words to Patrick Henry, either by mistake, or deliberately. Patrick Henry bears no responsibility for it.