There But For the Grace of God, Go I

John Bradford? George Whitfield? John Newton? Sherlock Holmes? Philip Neri? Dwight Moody? Apocryphal?

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Dear Quote Investigator: A deeply religious individual once saw a man being led to the gallows and said:

There but for the grace of God, go I.

In modern times, this proverbial phrase is used to express empathetic compassion and a sense of good fortune realized by avoiding hardship. A version has been ascribed to the preacher John Bradford who died in 1555:

There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford

But the earliest citation I have seen was published in the 1800s. A similar story has been told about others including John Newton and Dwight Moody. Is there earlier support for the existence of this saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1771 a sermon was delivered in Kidderminster, England about a man who had been robbed and murdered. The criminal had been apprehended, tried, and executed. The preacher mentioned John Bradford and presented a somewhat clumsy and lengthy version of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

…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.’

The passage above matched the modern version because it included two key elements. Bradford invoked the grace of God, and he indicated that he might have been substituted for the malefactor, but the phrasing was quite different. This was the earliest match located by QI, and it was published more than two hundred years after the death of Bradford. Of course, future research may antedate this citation.

In 1774 a more concise instance of the saying was spoken during a sermon delivered at the Parish Church of St. Anne, Black-Friars, London. The phrasing still differed from the modern instance, but it moved closer: 2

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 Bradford.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1808 a collection of letters was published under the title “Universal Goodness; or God’s Good Will to Every Man, As manifested in the Scriptures of Truth”. The fourth letter written by Thomas Brocas included an instance of the saying attributed to Bradford: 3

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.”

In 1818 a biographical work about a pastor named Andrew Fuller included an interesting variant of the saying credited to Bradford: 4

…acknowledgments of such men as John Bradford, the martyr, who, on seeing a man go to be publicly executed, said, ‘There goes John Bradford by nature.’

In 1822 “A Treatise on Prayer: Designed to Assist in Its Devout Discharge” was published, and it contained an exact match for the modern instance of the saying containing Bradford’s name: 5

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.

In 1845 the periodical “The Oberlin Evangelist” printed a modified anecdote in which the person heading toward the gallows was replaced by a drunkard. The saying was ascribed to George Whitfield instead of John Bradford: 6

It is reported of Whitfield, that on seeing a poor drunkard reeling along the streets, he exclaimed with tears, “But for the grace of God, there goes George Whitfield.”

In 1848 a book titled “Religion Teaching by Example” printed an instance of the tale with a drunken man, and the sympathetic remark was credited to John Newton: 7

“There goes John Newton, had it not been for grace,” said that humble man of God, as he saw a profligate reeling along the street; and so has every Christian occasion to say, as he looks around and sees how many are lost to hope!

In 1851 the book “Lavengro: The Scholar—The Gipsy—The Priest” included an instance of the anecdote with a man condemned to death instead of a drunkard. The comment was assigned to John Newton: 8

Oh, crime and virtue, virtue and crime!—it was old John Newton, I think, who, when he saw a man going to be hanged, said, “There goes John Newton, but for the grace of God!”

In 1891 Arthur Conan Doyle published a new story titled “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” in “The Strand Magazine”. Conan Doyle’s famous character Sherlock Holmes employed the remark: 9

“God help us!” said Holmes, after a long silence. “Why does fate play such tricks with poor helpless worms? I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.'”

In 1903 a religious periodical called “The Dolphin” printed an instance of the tale that credited Philip Neri with a version of the remark: 10

Did not Philip Neri say to Philip, as he saw a criminal haled to execution: There thou goest, Philip, but for the grace of God! And if thou hast escaped all these things, and the many more too numerous to mention, go down on thy knees, and thank thy God for His mercies!

In 1937 the story was told with the prominent evangelist Dwight Moody playing the central role: 11

You have heard the story, have you not, concerning Dwight Moody, the famous evangelist, and the drunken man? Moody was walking along a Chicago street with a friend one day. Staggering by and finally reeling into the gutter went the drunken man. Turning to his companion Moody said, “There, but for the grace of God, goes Dwight Moody.”

In 1942 H. L. Mencken published the saying in his massive compendium of quotations. Mencken noted that the words had been attributed to multiple individuals: 12

There, but for the grace of God, goes _____.

Author unknown, but commonly credited to JOHN BRADFORD (1510-55). (He is said to have applied the words to himself on seeing a criminal pass by on the way to the gallows. He himself was burned at Smithfield, July 1, 1555. The saying is also attributed to RICHARD BAXTER (1615-91), JOHN BUNYAN (1628-88) and JOHN ESLEY (1703-91))

In conclusion, the earliest evidence located by QI in 1771 points to John Bradford as the creator of this statement. However, this citation appeared more than two centuries after the death of Bradford. In addition, there are many different versions of the remark, and the phrasing has evolved over time.

Support for other possible creators is considerably weaker. Some later individuals may have repeated a remark or used a template that was already in circulation. Future evidence may help to clarify the origin.

Image Notes: John Bradford Appeasing the Riot at St. Paul’s Cross from an 1887 copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs illustrated by Kronheim via Wikimedia Commons. John Bradford portrait from Wikipedia with an acknowledgement to a 19th century book titled Life of Master John Bradford.

Notes:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 1818, The Work of Faith, the Labour of Love, and the Patience of Hope, illustrated; in the Life and Death of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, Late Pastor of the Baptist Church at Kettering, Chiefly extracted from his own papers by John Ryland, Second Edition, Quote Page 25, Published by Button & Son, Paternoster Row, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1822, A Treatise on Prayer: Designed to Assist in Its Devout Discharge by Edward Bickersteth, Quote Page 75, Published by A. Van Santvoord & M. Cole, Schenectady, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1845 March 26, The Oberlin Evangelist, Volume 7, Number 7, Sermon by Prof. Finney: Rejoicing in Boastings, Quote Page 50, Column 1, Printed and Published by James M. Fitch, Oberlin, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1848, Religion Teaching by Example by Richard W. Dickinson (Richard William Dickinson), Quote Page 55, Published by Robert Carter, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1851, Lavengro: The Scholar—The Gipsy—The Priest by George Borrow (George Henry Borrow), Quote Page 37, G. P. Putnam, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1891 October, The Strand Magazine, Edited by George Newnes, Volume 2, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Adventure IV: The Boscombe Valley Mystery by A Conan Doyle, Start Page 401, Quote Page 416, Published at Burleigh Street, Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1903 January, The Dolphin, Volume 3, Number 1, Under the Cedars and the Stars: Part II: Winter by P. A. Sheehan (Patrick Augustine Sheehan), Start Page 53, Quote Page 68, American Ecclesiastical Review, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1937 March 4, Berkeley Daily Gazette, (Advertisement for Berkeley Community Chest), Quote Page 15, Column 1, Berkeley, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  12. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Grace, Quote Page 488, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)