Do All the Good You Can; In All the Ways You Can

John Wesley? Nicholas Murray? Laban Clark? Kirwan? Dwight L. Moody? Tombstone in Shrewsbury? Anonymous?

wesley08Dear Quote Investigator: John Wesley was a prominent English religious figure whose teachings inspired Methodism. The following elaborate injunction is sometimes called “John Wesley’s Rule of Life”:

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 you ever can.

Would you please explore the provenance of this multipart expression?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have been unable to find these precise words in the oeuvre of John Wesley who died in 1791; however, there is evidence that he delivered sermons containing passages providing a partial match.

The 1799 work “Sermons on Several Occasions” by Reverend John Wesley contained a homily on “The Law Established through Faith” with the following guidance. Emphasis in excerpts added by QI: 1

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Neither is love content with barely working no evil to our neighbour. It continually incites us to do good: as we have time, and opportunity, to do good in every possible kind, and in every possible degree to all men.

The collection also contained a sermon on “The Use of Money” by Wesley with the following instructions: 2

No more waste! Cut off every expence which fashion, caprice, or flesh and blood demand. No more covetousness! But employ whatever God has intrusted you with, in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree, to the household of faith, to all men.

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the 1852 book “The Riches that Bring No Sorrow” by Erskine Neale who used a footnote to ascribe the words to someone named Dr. Murray: 3

And one—the most legitimate—inference from the Sacred Volume was systematically overlooked: “Do all the good you can; in all the ways you can; to all the people you can; and just as long as you can.”

†Dr. Murray.

An 1868 citation given further below indicated that an American Presbyterian clergyman Nicholas Murray employed a version of the statement above, and this person might be the Murray referenced; however, Murray credited an unnamed ninety-one year old man.

QI believes that the excerpt above may have evolved from Wesley’s words. Admittedly, the components of this excerpt have a parallel structure that makes it more interesting and memorable than Wesley’s version.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1853 a collection called “The Methodist Preacher: Containing Twenty-Eight Sermons on Doctrinal and Practical Subjects” included a sermon by Laban Clark that contained a thematic partial match 4

With the holy flame of loving zeal burning in our bosoms, we shall not stop to make cold and philosophical calculations of the amount of good we may possibly do at the cheapest rate. But we shall be ready to do all the good we can, at all times, and in all the ways we can; not measuring our bounty by the liberality of others, but to the extent of the ability which God giveth.

Also in 1853 a periodical called “The Mothers’ Friend” printed a strong match, but the creator was anonymous: 5

A FACT FROM A MOTHERS’ MEETING.

A good woman who is in the habit of going out as a sempstress, carried from the Maternal Meeting a paper, a Mothers’ Friend, and some other little books. The paper contained the following advice:—

Do all the good you can—
In all the ways you can—
At all the seasons you can—
To all the people you can—
And as long as you can.

With this she purposed wisely, resolved firmly, and persevered with determination to spread religious knowledge.

In 1854 John Wesley’s remarks extolling altruism continued to circulate; “The Bankers’ Magazine and Statistical Register” printed a footnoted excerpt from Wesley’s sermon on money although the phrasing differed from the 1799 text: 6

No more waste! Cut off every expense which fashion and caprice demand. Employ what God has given you in doing good, all possible good, in every possible way, in every possible degree, to the household of faith and to all men.”*

* Wesley’s Sermon “On the Use of Money.”

QI believes that the circulation of excerpts such as the one above helps to explain why many found the label “John Wesley’s Rule” plausible when it was applied to the statement under analysis.

In 1854 a collection of essays titled “Past Meridian” included a four part instance of the statement with an anonymous ascription: 7

I have somewhere seen four homely rules which comprise true wisdom, and whose observance would prevent much remorse:

“1. Do all the good you can;
2. In all the ways you can;
3. To all the people you can;
4. Just as long as you can.”

In 1856 “The Scottish Christian Journal” printed a six-part instance: 8

Do some good, for you can:
Do all the good you can,
In all the ways you can,
To all the people you can,
At all the times you can,
And as long as you can.

In 1868 a book called “The Pearl of Parables” linked the saying to an individual who used the pseudonym “Kirwan”, i.e., a Presbyterian clergyman Nicholas Murray who was born in 1802 and died in 1861, 9 but the author clearly stated that Murray was simply relaying a remark from an unnamed ninety-one year old man: 10

We remember Dr. N. Murray the famous “Kirwan” of America, mentioning that in his youth he met an old disciple, ninety-one years of age, and in taking leave the venerable pilgrim left with his young friend a charge which he had never forgotten: “Do all the good you can—to all the people you can—in all the ways you can—and as long as you can.” If that rule were carried out by each Christian, it would soon change the face of society.

In 1873 the periodical “Advocate of Peace” credited a six-part instance to John Wesley. This was the first ascription of a version of the popular modern saying to Wesley seen by QI: 11

RULES FOR DOING GOOD.

“Do all the good you can,
In all the ways you can,
To all the people you can,
In every place you can,
At all the times you can,
As long as ever you can.”
John Wesley

In 1883 the popular evangelist Dwight L. Moody visited Brattleboro, Vermont and the local newspaper reported on his speech which included an instance of the saying: 12

Let your motto and your earnest endeavor be to “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the people you can.”

In 1886 the “Reading Mercury, Oxford Gazette” of Berkshire, England credited Wesley with a seven-part instance: 13

Have you, even in the smallest measure, or with the least desire, tried to follow John Wesley’s golden advice?—

“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.”

In 1888 a New York monthly “The Pulpit Treasury” attributed the saying to Dwight L. Moody in a section called “Beautiful Thoughts”: 14

“If I could go down to my grave and have it honestly written above it, ‘He did what he could,’ I would rather have it than a monument of gold reaching to heaven. Do all the good you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.“—Moody

In 1895 the periodical “Record of Christian Work” printed an instance in a section called “Nuggets from Mr. Moody’s Bible”. Interestingly, the words were not credited to a person; instead, a location in England was specified: 15

This is an inscription on a tombstone at Shrewsbury, England:

“For our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake
Do all the good you can
To all the people you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the places you can,
As long as ever you can.”

In 1915 an instance appeared in “Letters of John Wesley” edited by George Eayrs. The text did not appear in the body of a letter; instead, Eayrs presented it in a footnote with the label “Wesley’s rule” but without a supporting citation: 16

‘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.’

In 1942 H. L. Mencken included an instance of the saying in his massive compilation of quotations, and he also cited a tombstone in England although the wording differed from tombstone version given previously: 17

For the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
Do all the good you can,
To all the people you can,
In all the ways you can,
As long as ever you can.
Inscription on a tombstone at Shrewsbury, England

In conclusion, John Wesley may be credited with the words in the 1799 collection of sermons. However, currently, there is no substantive evidence that he crafted the popular modern multipart expression. The earliest instance in 1852 was attributed to “Dr. Murray”, but a citation in 1868 stated that Nicholas Murray disclaimed credit and referred to an anonymous elderly man as his source. Dwight L. Moody used the expression, but he did not craft it. Please note that this entry only presents a snapshot of ongoing research.

Image Notes: Cropped section of the painting “Charity Relieving Distress” by Thomas Gainsborough accessed via WikiArt.org. Cropped section of a portrait of John Wesley circa 1788 by William Hamilton accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Blake Leyers whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Update History: On September 28, 2016 the 1915 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1799, Sermons on Several Occasions (A New Edition) by the Rev. John Wesley (Late Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford), Sermon 36: The Law Established through Faith: Discourse 2, Start Page 478, Quote Page 486, Printed by Edward Baines; Sold by T. Hannam, The Preachers in the New Itinerancy, and the Booksellers, Leeds, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1799, Sermons on Several Occasions (A New Edition) by the Rev. John Wesley (Late Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford), Sermon 50: The Use of Money, Start Page 662, Quote Page 675, Printed by Edward Baines; Sold by T. Hannam, The Preachers in the New Itinerancy, and the Booksellers, Leeds, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1852, The Riches that Bring No Sorrow by The Rev. Erskine Neale, Chapter 6: Cavendish—The Philosopher, Quote Page 110, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1853, The Methodist Preacher: Containing Twenty-Eight Sermons on Doctrinal and Practical Subjects, Sermon 22: The Nature and Design of the Atonement by Rev. Laban Clark (Presiding Elder of New Haven District), Start Page 285, Quote Page 294, Derby and Miller, Auburn, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1853, The Mothers’ Friend: A Monthly Magazine, Volume 6, Edited by Ann Jane, A Fact from a Mothers’ Meeting, Quote Page 38, Ward and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1854 June, The Bankers’ Magazine, and Statistical Register, Volume 8, Edited by J. Smith Homans, The Morals of Money.—The Fallacies and Failings of Monied Men, Start Page 956, Quote Page 967, Published by J. Smith Homans, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1854, Past Meridian by Mrs. L. H. Sigourney (Lydia Howard Sigourney), Chapter 13: About Money, Quote Page 210, D. Appleton & Co., New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1856, The Scottish Christian Journal, Volume 4, Picked-Up Pearls, Quote Page 32, Thomas Grant, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1898 Copyright, Library of the World’s Best Literature: Ancient and Modern, Edited by Charles Dudley Warner, Volume 29 of 30, Biographical Dictionary of Authors, Entry: Nicholas Murray “Kirwan”, Quote Page 398, R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1868, The Pearl of Parables: Notes on Luke XV. 11-32 by The Late James Hamilton, Chapter: The Festival, Start Page 145, Quote Page 158, Jas. Nisbet & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1873 June, Advocate of Peace, Rules for Doing Good, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts, (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  12. 1883 August 17, The Vermont Phoenix, Moody in Brattleboro, Quote Page 2, Column 7, Brattleboro, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1886 February 27, Reading Mercury Oxford Gazette, Reflections for Quiet Moments by Archdeacon Farrar in the Sunday Magazine, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Berkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  14. 1888 April, The Pulpit Treasury: An Evangelical Monthly, Volume 5, Number 12, Beautiful Thoughts, Quote Page 765, Column 2, E. B. Treat, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  15. 1895 January, Record of Christian Work, Volume 14, Number 1, Hints and Helps, Nuggets from Mr. Moody’s Bible, Quote Page 13, Column 1, Fleming H. Revell Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  16. 1915, Letters of John Wesley, Edited by George Eayrs, Footnote 1, Quote Page 423, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  17. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Good, Quote Page 475, Column 2 Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)