I was working on my Nature quote pages the other day and came across the following while searching for new quotes to add to the collection:
“There is religion in everything around us — a calm and holy religion in the unbreathing things of nature, which man would do well to imitate. ”
The quote was attributed to John Ruskin, but the source I was using, like so many others, only gave a name and no other information.
This particular source, Edge-tools of speech (free ebook) was published in 1899 and as such is should be free of some of the common attribution issues that infect the web today. I don’t really remember when it happened, but I do remember that I began to question the sources of my quotes some time within the last several years. I then started on a quest to only post things that I could actually verify, and absent total verification , I could at least point to the fact that it was “quoted in” this or that collection.
Today however, attribution of a quote to this person or that circulates as fast as someone can do a copy and paste. What surprises me is how many times I’ve worked on finding a source only to note that the number one google hit for that particular quote has it 100 percent wrong!
So now I check my sources and search away before anything gets added to the quote library. Additionally, each time I add a new quote I spend sometimes up to an hour or so trying to verify older quotes in the collection.
But back to the quote at hand, when searching, John Ruskin is always attributed as the author. By the time you get down to the fourth listing on a Google search you can purchase a coffee mug from Zazzle with these words pasted on the cup.
Sometimes you can see a phrase and look at the supposed author and say to yourself, “Mark Twain would never have used those words,” and other times you look at the author’s date of birth and get a general feel of authenticity for the period, even if it’s a translation.
I had no feelings about this particular quote and was searching only to try and find a source that would tell me where these words were memorialized. Generally the first step in that process is to expand the search by clicking on the drop down link and look under Books and then start searching through various book pages that might contain the words or the quote I am looking for, or a footnote that identifies the source.
In the Books category, in the second reference listed, Eliza Cook’s Journal (October 1849) the quote is published in a section titled “God in Nature” but curiously enough, there is no author attributed. That seemed strange, since I had seen a wide attribution to John Ruskin. Born in 1819, he would have been 30 years old in 1849 so we know that the period is right. Time to keep clicking and searching.
By the time we get to the fifth entry the quote appears again, only to have the author of the piece claim “I know not the author.” Great. Keep searching.
Several more times the quote is attributed to Ruskin, until we get to the next to the last entry on the first page. All of a sudden things change, and the quote and the context is titled: Religion by J. G. Whittier.
In a way, this is kind of exciting. Did I stumble on something that a whole lot of people have missed for over a hundred years, including the great Bartlett’s Quotations?
So who is J. G. Whittier anyway? Turns out that he is also from the period, born John Greenleaf Whittier, a famous Quaker poet. Checking the date of the publication of this edition of the Boston Literary Magazine, 1833 and John Ruskin’s birthday, February 8, 1819, we find that Ruskin would have been only 14 years old at the time the quote fist appears in print.
Later another set of authors, C.S.Wilson and David A.Randall, published the following: Thirteen Author Collections Of The Nineteenth Century And Five Centuries Of Familiar Quotations, (1950) in which they note that “Religion in Everything” was written by Whittier and first published in a book in Wreath for St. Crispin. In that 1848 publication the section is identified as being “Extracts of Whittier’s Prose.”
So now we have conflicting evidence that includes a host of collections that attribute the quote to Ruskin and two sources that attribute it to Whittier. How do we make the call?
I am comfortable giving credit to Whittier, since the earliest print record publishes it at the time when Ruskin would have only been 14 years old. Secondly, consider the context of the writing; Ruskin goes on to become ” the leading English art critic of the Victorian era,” while Whittier was a Quaker poet who is also well known for his hymns, especially “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”
I’ve got no idea how this piece got attributed to Ruskin, but I would like to set the record straight, and give credit where credit is due.
The Boston Literary Magazine, Volume 1, Boston 1833: Religion : J. G Whittier
We pity the man who has no religion in his heart – no high and irresistible yearning after a better and holier existence; who is contented with the sensuality and grossness of earth; whose spirit never revolts at the darkness of its prison house, nor exults at the thought of its final emancipation. We pity him, for he affords no evidence of his high origin – no manifestation of that intellectual prerogative, which renders man the delegated lord of the visible creation. He can rank no higher than the animal nature; the spiritual could never stoop so lowly. To seek for beastly excitements – to minister with a bountiful hand to praved and strong appetites – are attributes of the animal alone. To limit our hopes and aspirations to this world, is like remaining forever in the place of our birth, without ever lifting the veil of the visible horizon which bent over our infancy.
There is religion in everything around us — a calm and holy religion in the unbreathing things of nature, which man would do well to imitate. It is a meek and blessed influence, stealing in, as it were, unawares upon the heart. It comes quietly and without excitement. It does not rouse up the passions; it is untrammeled by the creeds, and unshadowed by the superstitions of men. It is fresh from the hands of its author, and glowing from the immediate presence of the Great Spirit which pervades and quickens it.
It is written on the arched sky. It looks out from every star. It is on the sailing cloud, and in the invisible wind. It is among the hills and valleys of earth – where the shrubless mountain top pierces the thin atmosphere of eternal winter – or where the mighty forest fluctuates before the strong wind, with its dark wave of green foliage. It is spread out like a legible language upon the broad face of the unsleeping ocean. It is the poetry of nature. It is this which uplifts the spirit within us until it is strong enough to overlook the shadows of our place of probation; —which breaks, link after link, the chain that binds us to materiality, and which opens to our imagination a world of spiritual beauty and holiness.
In our family home we had a copy of one of his books – or maybe his poems were in one of the books on our shelves. I haven’t thought of him in ages. Nice to see him mentioned and be reminded of those long, summer days laying in the grass, reading books full of stuff like this 🙂
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I appreciate your post about this misattributed quote. This is a process I’ve gone through a few times, and your persistence is very much appreciated.
Thanks for the kind words. It’s nice to know that someone appreciates the effort. And trust me, sometimes it’s a significant effort. There is someone out there who does a great job of finding the author, or best chance thereof, and his name is the Quote Investigator. https://quoteinvestigator.com/