Great Quote, Tim Kaine, But John Wesley Never Said That

Image via REUTERS / Scott Audette / RNS

It may not rank up there with Donald Trump’s “Two Corinthians” coinage or Hillary Clinton’s tortured email explanations, but a phrase that Tim Kaine used in an effort to yoke his Catholicism to the Methodist faith of his Democratic running mate deserves closer scrutiny.

“I’m a Catholic. Hillary is a Methodist,” Kaine said during a Florida rally on July 23 as Clinton introduced him as her vice presidential pick. “Her creed is the same as mine: Do all the good you can.”

Kaine was riffing on a famous saying attributed to John Wesley, one of the 18th-century founders of Methodism, which says, in full:

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

While there are, of course, significant theological differences between Catholicism and Methodism, the two Christian traditions do share the social justice approach that phrase represents — embodying the injunction that “faith without works is dead.”

It’s also the perfect motto for the Democratic candidates of 2016, who are trying to attract faith-based voters based on the power of their policies more than their preachifying.

The only problem is that Wesley never said the words attributed to him.

“You can add this quote to other quotes that are stubbornly connected to John Wesley, despite the fact that there is no source that connects them to Wesley’s pen,” Kevin Watson, assistant professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory University wrote in a 2013 blog post.

The adage certainly sounds like something Wesley, who died in 1791, would have said. But it appears it was first linked to him back in 1904 — and it’s been running wild ever since.

“Wesley and others were frequently misquoted before social media, but with the advent of Twitter misquoting Wesley seems to be more regular,” wrote Watson, contributing to one of many scholarly efforts — largely fruitless — to set the record straight. “Wesley said enough interesting, surprising, and even controversial things that we should not need to attribute things to him that he did not actually say.”

The campaign has given the myth another boost since Clinton — a lifelong Methodist who is set to be officially nominated as the Democratic presidential nominee Thursday — likes to invoke the line.

It’s not the first time such universal wisdom has stuck to a particular religious figure.

Catholics love to cite the famous adage from St. Francis of Assisi, who reportedly said: “Always preach the gospel. Use words if you have to.” Only there’s no record Francis ever said that, though it also fits with his approach to evangelization.

It seems that some stories, as they say in the tabloids, are just too good to check out.

Via Religion News Service.

David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author, and filmmaker. He writes for RNS and until recently covered the religion beat for AOL's Politics Daily. He blogs at Commonweal magazine, and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.

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