Who Wait Until Circumstances Completely Favor His Undertaking Will Never Accomplish Anything

Martin Luther? J. J. Van Oosterzee? Johann Eduard Huther? Saint Timothy? Jesse Lyman Hurlbut? Confucius?

luther07Dear Quote Investigator: The famous religious reformer Martin Luther who died in 1546 has been credited with a comment about the need to take action and avoid perpetual delays:

For truth and duty it is ever the fitting time; who waits until circumstances completely favor his undertaking, will never accomplish anything.

I have been unable to locate a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the ascription to Martin Luther was flawed. Instead, the quotation evolved from a remark written by a German theologian named Johann Eduard Huther who was a Pastor at Wittenförden Bei Schwerin in the 1800s. The mistake was probably caused by confusion between the names “Huther” and “Luther”.

The earliest match in English located by QI appeared in 1868 in volume 8 of “A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures” edited by John Peter Lange. The Second Epistle to Timothy was analyzed by a theologian named J. J. Van Oosterzee. The translation from German to English was performed by E. A. Washburn and E. Harwood. Oosterzee presented a quotation with an attribution to “Huther”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Timothy should fulfil his calling, not indeed when the time was so inopportune that they could receive no benefit, but when to himself it might be inconvenient. “For the truth, it is ever the fitting time; who wait until circumstances completely favor his undertaking, will never accomplish anything, but will remain in inactivity;” Huther.

Huther was referred to many times in the volume when excerpts from his commentaries were reprinted. Oddly, QI was unable to find the full name for Huther listed within the book. Nevertheless, QI believes that Johann Eduard Huther who was born in 1807 crafted the quotation in German. Indeed, an alternative translation of the statement into English appeared in a book of biblical exegesis published in 1881. The section of the book containing the quotation was about the Second Epistle to Timothy, and it was written by Johann Eduard Huther: 2

For the truth, the occasion is always seasonable. He who desires to wait until the occasion seem completely favorable for his work, will never find it. This is particularly true of the exercise of the evangelic office.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1876 a book of religious lessons by Reverend Jesse Lyman Hurlbut was published. An instance of the quotation appeared in lesson 12. The words were attributed to LU, and a table of abbreviations at the beginning of the volume indicated that LU referred to Luther: 3

For the truth it is ever the fitting time; who waits until circumstances completely favor his undertaking will never accomplish any thing, but will remain in inactivity—LU.

In 1887 a New York based periodical about missionary work called “The Spirit of Missions” printed the saying as a filler item with an ascription to Luther: 4

For truth it is ever the fitting time; who waits till circumstances completely favor his undertaking will never accomplish anything.—Luther.

In 1891 “A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations” by Tryon Edwards included a modified version of the saying that used the phrase “truth and duty”: 5

For truth and duty it is ever the fitting time; who waits until circumstances completely favor his undertaking, will never accomplish anything.—Luther.

In 1897 “The Practice Builder: A Treatise on the Conduct and Enlargement of a Dental Practice” by Charles R. Hambly presented a surprising ascription for the saying: 6

Confucius said, “He who waits until circumstances completely favor his undertaking will never accomplish anything.” There are several dentists who are making money through their literary quality

In conclusion, QI believes that the ascription to Martin Luther was incorrect. Instead, the origin in English can be traced to the 1868 citation above which presented a translation of a German comment written by Johann Eduard Huther. The phrase “truth and duty” was a later elaboration of the phrase which initially only mentioned “truth”.

Image Notes: Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder via Wikimedia Commons. Representation of Saint Timothy via Wikimedia Commons.

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

Notes:

  1. 1868, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical by John Peter Lange, Translated from the German and edited by Philip Schaff, Volume 8, First and Second Epistles to Timothy by J. J. Van Oosterzee, Translated from the German by E. A. Washburn and E. Harwood, Exegetical and Critical Analysis of the Second Epistle to Timothy, Chapter 4, Verse 2, Quote Page 112, Column 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1881, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament by Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Volume 11, The Pastoral Epistles by J. E. Huther (Johann Eduard Huther), (Fourth Edition Author’s Preface Dated November 1875), Section: The Second Epistle to Timothy), Quote Page 314, T & T. Clark, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1876, The Lesson Compend for 1877 by Rev. Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, Lesson XII: Paul’s Last Words, Quote Page 137, Nelson & Phillips, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1887 January, The Spirit of Missions, Volume 52, Number 1, (Filler item), Quote Page 14, Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, 22 Bible House, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1891, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors, Both Ancient and Modern by Tryon Edwards, Section: Opportunity, Quote Page 389, Column 1, Cassell Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1897, The Practice Builder: A Treatise on the Conduct and Enlargement of a Dental Practice by Charles R. Hambly, Making Money Outside of Dentistry, Start Page 327, Quote Page 329, American Dental Publishing Co., Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link