There Are No Atheists in Foxholes

Plato? Michel de Montaigne? Hannah More? C. V. Hibbard? Warren J. Clear? Ruth Straub? William Thomas Cummings? Ernie Pyle? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When exposed to extreme peril many people reflect on the spiritual or supernatural dimension of existence. The following saying has been particularly popular during times of war. Here are two versions:

  1. There are no atheists in the trenches.
  2. There are no atheists in foxholes.

Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The first saying circulated during World War 1, and the second saying spread during World War 2. The earliest close match located by QI appeared in “The Western Times” newspaper of Devon, England in November 1914. A speaker at a memorial service for a fallen soldier held at St. Matthias’ Church, Ilsham read from the letter of an unnamed chaplain serving at the front. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1914 November 6, The Western Times, Col. Burn’s Late Son: Torquay’s Expression of Sincere Sympathy, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Devon, England. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref]

The writer further said, “Tell the Territorials and soldiers at home that they must know God before they come to the front if they would face what lies before them. We have no atheists in the trenches. Men are not ashamed to say that, though they never prayed before, they pray now with all their hearts.”

The adage does not have a clear origin, and anonymous is the most reasonable ascription. Yet, some popularizers have been named and citations given further below do list some individuals. Unsurprisingly, non-believers who have served in the military disagree with the adage.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The famous French Renaissance philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne died in 1592. In 1711 an English translation of an essay contained an interesting thematically related statement that Montaigne attributed to Plato. QI has not yet found a matching statement directly from Plato:[ref] 1711, Essays of Michael seigneur de Montaigne: In Three Books by Michel de Montaigne, Translated by Charles Cotton, Fourth Edition, Volume 2, Chapter 12: Apology for Raimond de Sebonde, Start Page 155, Quote Page 166, Printed for Daniel Brown, J Nicholson, B. Tooke et al, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

And what Plato says, That there are few Men so obstinate in their Atheism, that a pressing Danger will not reduce to an acknowledgment of the Divine Power. . .

Yet, Montaigne was unimpressed by this type of conversion in extremis and added this interrogative:

What kind of Faith can we expect that should be, that Cowardize and want of Courage does establish in us? A pleasant Faith, that does not believe what it believes, but for want of Courage to believe it.

In 1815 the playwright and religious writer Hannah More wrote a volume about Saint Paul that included a thematically pertinent statement:[ref] 1815, An Essay on the Character and Practical Writings of Saint Paul by Hannah More, Volume 2 of 2, Fourth Edition, Chapter 19, Quote Page 232, Printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Under circumstances of distress, indeed, prayer is adopted with comparatively little reluctance; the mind, which knows not where to fly, flies to God. In agony, nature is no Atheist.

In 1891 a condensed version of More’s remark appeared in “A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors” compiled by Tryon Edwards:[ref] 1891, A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors, Both Ancient and Modern, Compiled by Tryon Edwards, Quote Page 31, Column 1, Published by Cassell Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

In agony or danger, no nature is atheist.—The mind that knows not what to fly to, flies to God.—H. More.

In November 1914 a newspaper in Devon, England printed an instance of the saying about trenches attributed to an anonymous chaplain as mentioned previously:

We have no atheists in the trenches.

In November 1915 a newspaper in Grand Rapids, Wisconsin printed an editorial that included an instance attributed to a man who had seen conflict in France. Yet, the editorial suggested that the adage was an unwarranted generalization:[ref] 1915 November 30, Daily Leader, War and Religion (Editorial), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Grand Rapids, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

C. V. Hibbard, a Y. M. C. A. organizer, just returned from the battle fields of France says, “There are no atheists in the trenches of Europe.” How can he possibly know such a statement to be true? He visited only a few trenches in France, and his acquaintance with the few men in these trenches mush necessarily have been only slight. The great bulk of the men in the trenches of Europe he knows nothing of personally because he has never seen the trenches nor the men.

In June 1916 “The Times” of London printed a comment from a soldier as reported by the Lord Mayor of London:[ref] 1916 June 15, The Times, City Men at the Front: The Lord Mayor on His First Visit to France, Quote Page 6, Column 2, London, England. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

I can tell you, Sir, there are no atheists in the trenches. There is something in the air which tells us, when most eager to fight for our country, that we must trust to a Higher Power.

In February 1918 a religious periodical “St. Andrew’s Cross” printed an instance that enlarged the area devoid of atheists[ref] 1918 February, St. Andrew’s Cross: Official Organ of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew in the United States and Canada, Volume 32, Section: With the Army and Navy, Edited by Frederic W. Norcross, No Atheists “Over There”, Quote Page 239, Published by the Brotherhood of St. Andrew in the United States, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

A young officer, just returned from the fighting front in Flanders, says, “There are no atheists within a half mile of the front trenches.” Men may scoff and be indifferent when death appears to be a far-away thing reserved for some distant old age. But they become serious when it may descend suddenly from the clouds, or spring out of “no man’s land.”

On April 11, 1942 a widely distributed story from the Associated Press news service reported on the fighting and retreat of troops from Bataan in the Philippines. Lieutenant Colonel Warren J. Clear, an officer in the U.S. Army, described an incident during which he heard the foxhole adage spoken by an unnamed sergeant:[ref] 1942 April 11, Springfield Republican, Living on Corregidor Said Like Being on a Bull’s Eye: Infantry Officer Just Back From Philippines Tells of Privations, Endured by Troops on Bataan, (Associated Press) Quote Page 1, Column 2, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

The officer said that he and a sergeant who shared the same fox-hole prayed audibly during one particularly heavy bombing attack. The sergeant, Clear related, observed afterward that “there are no atheists in fox-holes.”

In July 1942 Warren J. Clear published his eyewitness account in “The Reader’s Digest” and elaborated on the scene with the unidentified sergeant:[ref] 1942 July, The Reader’s Digest, Eyewitness Epic: The Heroic Defense of the Philippines by Lieutenant Colonel Warren J. Clear, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 2,The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

I remember jumping into a hole during a particularly heavy bombing attack. A sergeant crouched lower to make room for me. Then all hell broke loose, and I wasn’t surprised to find myself praying out loud. I heard the sergeant praying, too. When the attack was over I said:
“Sergeant, I noticed you were praying.”
“Yes, sir,” he answered, without batting an eye, “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

A U.S. Army nurse named Ruth Straub stationed in the Philippines kept a diary during March and April 1942 which was excerpted in a newspaper article in September 1942. Straub wrote the variant statement “there is not an atheist on Bataan” in an entry:[ref] 1942 September 26, Morning World-Herald, Sisters of Bataan: “No Atheists on Bataan” by Lt Ruth Straub, A.N.C. (As told to Marcia Winn), Quote Page 8, Column 2 and 3, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

April 6. The Japs dropped more bombs. Shrapnel fell in the wards. One patient was hit while waiting in the chow line…I know there is not an atheist on Bataan. When the bombs come, everyone lies on the ground and prays aloud, regardless of who is around.

In 1942 Colonel Carlos P. Romulo published a memoir titled “I Saw the Fall of the Philippines”. Romulo credited a priest named William Thomas Cummings with the expression although the date he employed it seemed uncertain:[ref] 1943 (Copyright 1942; first published in 1942), I Saw the Fall of the Philippines by Colonel Carlos P. Romulo, Chapter: Navy Yard, Cavite, Quote Page 263, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

Then I saw Father William Thomas Cummings standing on a chair over this scene of bedlam and death. The tall, thin figure of this Maryknoll Mission priest, in the uniform that bore the Cross collar ornaments, was a familiar one on the battlefields. It was he who had said in one of his field sermons on Bataan:
“There are no atheists in the fox holes.”

In May 1943 the well-known war correspondent Ernie Pyle reported on his visit to North Africa where he spoke to Sergeant Charles Harrington who employed the adage:[ref] 1943 May 28, Harrisburg Telegraph, Battlefront Reader Has Own Ideas About M.P.’s by Ernie Pyle, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Sergeant Harrington is the only soldier I’ve ever seen who digs round foxholes instead of rectangular ones. He says that’s literally so it will be harder for strafing bullets to get at him, but figuratively so the Devil can’t get him cornered. He says he’s convinced the adage is true that “there are no atheists in foxholes.”

Over time the adage was reassigned directly to Ernie Pyle. For example, an article in a Hagerstown, Maryland newspaper in 1954 credited Pyle:[ref] 1954 September 9, The Daily Mail, Col. Kenneth E. Reecher Assuming Key Air Force Command in England, Start Page 1, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Hagerstown, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Piloting that crippled ship back to Thurleigh, near Bedford, England, Ken found time to reflect and agree with Ernie Pyle that “there are no atheists in foxholes”—nor in cockpits!

In conclusion, the earliest citations known to QI point to an anonymous origin during World War 1 for the adage using the word “trenches”. The World War 2 saying using the word “foxholes” also had an anonymous origin, and began circulating by April 1942. Warren J. Clear and Ernie Pyle were important popularizers of the expression. QI hypothesizes that the latter “foxholes” saying was derived directly or indirectly from the “trenches” saying. Interesting precursors were employed by Michel de Montaigne and Hannah More.

(Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake who uncovered the version of the adage that referred to trenches instead of foxholes. She also found pertinent instances of the precursor quotations ascribed to Michel de Montaigne and H. More. Additional thanks to Charles Doyle et al for the research on this topic in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” and to Barry Popik for the research available on his website.)

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