Sometimes quotations that are either mangled or completely fabricated gain wide circulation in sermons. Often, they reflect worthwhile thoughts and sentiments, but simply can't be attributed to those who are alleged to have said them. The power of the internet to perpetuate this sort of electronic urban legend - sometimes in a very short space of time - is astounding. Furthermore, the tendency of some preachers to troll the internet, cherry-picking unattributed quotations from the sermon manuscripts of others, can amplify such errors many times over. Here are a few fake or misleading quotations that have been making the rounds:
"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy."
attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., this one was all over the internet in just a few days in May, 2011, following the death of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. It evidently began its life as a Twitter tweet. The tweet's author started out with this sentence of her own before adding a genuine quotation by King. It went viral after others re-posted it, not realizing the first sentence was not a King quotation at all.
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
- Falsely attributed to Nelson Mandela, this actually comes from New Age author Marianne Williamson's book, A Return to Love.
Albert Einstein is an especially rich "source" of fake quotations, probably because of his status as one of the pre-eminent minds of modern times. If you're looking to make up an appeal to authority, you can't get more authoritative than him. Be especially careful of Einstein quotations that lack documentation.
"I refuse to believe that God plays dice with the universe."
- This is a misleading paraphrase of something Einstein actually wrote: "It seems hard to sneak a look at God's cards. But that He plays dice and uses 'telepathic' methods... is something that I cannot believe for a single moment." (Letter to Cornel Lanczos, March 21, 1942. Found in Albert Einstein: The Human Side, 1954).
"Two things inspire me to awe: the starry heavens and the moral universe within."
- Falsely attributed to Einstein, this comes from Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.
- Falsely attributed to Winston Churchill. A wonderful thought for a stewardship sermon, but there's no record of Churchill ever having said it.
- Falsely attributed to Sigmund Freud. Has also been incorrectly attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Mark Twain. According to Wikiquote, the earliest known occurrence of this statement is in a mystery novel, Sudden Death, by Rita Mae Brown (Bantam, 1983).
- Falsely attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Although it fits Lincoln's strategy for political reconciliation in inviting opponents to join his Cabinet, there is no record of his ever having said it.
"It's not those parts of the Bible I can't understand that bother me, it's the parts I do understand."
- Falsely attributed to Mark Twain. According to Wikiquote, this misattribution began in the 1970s.
"It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ."
- Falsely attributed to Patrick Henry. Although there's no question that Henry was more outspoken in his support for Christian faith than many of our nation's founders, there is no evidence - outside of some recent books by supporters of the Christian Right - that he ever made this comment. In fact, this is an editorial aside by a modern-day admirer of Henry, published in a 1956 issue of The Viriginian. The writer was commenting on Henry's famous statement from his Last Will and Testament that he wished above all else that he could bequeath his faith to his children.
"We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God."
- Falsely attributed to James Madison by David Barton in his 1989 book, The Myth of Separation Between Church and State. Although Barton has since admitted, under pressure from Madison scholars, that he could cite no source for the quotation, it is still widely parroted by others who earnestly wish it were real.