Quote: There but for the grace of God go I

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jun 20 18:21:09 UTC 2014

The benchmark reference The Yale Books of Quotations has an entry for
the saying listed in the subject line of this message.

[Begin excerpt]
John Bradford
English martyr, ca. 1510–1555

[On seeing criminals being led to execution: ] But for the grace of
God there goes John Bradford.

Quoted in The Writings of John Bradford (1853). Usually quoted as
"There but for the grace of God go I."
[End excerpt]

The Wikipedia entry for John Bradford has a citation in 1822. In
addition, the entry states that the expression "cannot be traced to
before 1800". Thus, Wikipedia provides an inadvertent challenge.

[Begin excerpt]
The tradition of attribution of the phrase to Bradford dates to at
least the early 19th century, as it is found in A treatise on prayer
by Edward Bickersteth (1822):

The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to
execution, exclaimed, "there, but for the grace of God, goes John
Bradford." He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart
which had brought the criminal to that shameful end. (p. 60)

[End excerpt]

Quite a few years elapsed between 1555 and 1822. Perhaps some list
members will be interested in tracing this expression/anecdote further
back in time. Many phrasings are possible and deciding upon matches is
somewhat subjective.

The earliest relevant citation for the anecdote/quotation that I've
found, to date, appeared in a 1771 sermon about a murdered man.
Quotation marks were used for a phrase ascribed to John Bradford. The
expression was somewhat clumsy and used the pronoun "he":

[ref] 1771, Murther lamented and improved: Sermon Preached at
Kidderminster, June 16, 1771. On Occasion of the Death of Mr. Francis
Best, Who was Robbed and Murthered by John Child, on Saturday, June 8,
by Benjamin Fawcett, Quote Page 14, Shrewsbury: Printed by J. Eddower,
and sold by J. Buckland, Pater-noster-Row, London. (Google Books Full
View) link [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
On the contrary, when Mr. Bradford, an eminent martyr, in the bloody
reign of Queen Mary, saw a malefactor going to Tyburn, he humbly
adored the distinguishing grace of God, 'to which says he, it is
entirely owing, that John Bradford is not in that man's condition.'
[End excerpt]

The following remark from a 1774 sermon included a statement that
moved closer to the Wikipedia and YBQ instance of the quotation.

[ref] 1775, Free Will and Merit fairly examined: or Men not their own
Saviors: The Substance of a Sermon Preached in the Parish Church of
St. Anne, Black-Friars, London On Wednesday, May 25, 1774 by Augustus
Toplady, Vicar of Broad Hembury,  (Footnote split across two pages),
Quote Page 24 and 25, Printed for J. Mathews, in The Strand, London.
(Google Books Full View) link [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
I have heard, or read, concerning that excellent Dignitary of the
Church of England, Mr. John Bradford (who was also burned for adhering
to her Doctrines), that, one Day, on seeing a Malefactor pass to
Execution, he laid his Hand to his Breast, and lifted his Eyes to
Heaven, saying, "Take away the GRACE of God, and there goes John
[End excerpt]

Here is an instance in a letter published in 1808.

[ref] 1808, Universal Goodness; or God's Good Will to Every Man, As
manifested in the Scriptures of Truth, (Second Edition), Letter IV by
Thomas Brocas, Start Page 19, Quote Page 23, Shrewsbury: Printed and
sold by T. Wood, Sold also by B. Crosby, Paternoster-Row, London.
(Google Books Full View) link [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
And because they can find no scripture to countenance them in their
pride, they generally quote some old John Bradford, who was used to
say when he saw any one going to the gallows, "Ah! who has made me to
differ? But for the grace of God, there goes John Bradford."
[End excerpt]

Would love to see illuminating citations before 1771. (Note that the
1771 cite is within a multipart volume that GB assigns a date 1752.
But the earlier date is correct only for the first part of the

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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