Some People Are Troubled by the Things in the Bible They Can’t Understand. The Things That Trouble Me Are the Things I Can Understand

Mark Twain? Hugh Elmer Brown? Joseph Fort Newton? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Could you please help me to trace the following quotation credited to Mark Twain:

It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.

The earliest citation I’ve seen is from the 1970s, but Twain died in 1910. Hence, I suspect that the ascription is inaccurate.

Quote Investigator: This quotation is difficult to research because it can be expressed in many different ways. At this time, QI has found no solid evidence that Mark Twain made this remark. No match was found during a search of the important “Twain Quotes” website edited by Barbara Schmidt. 1 Also, no match was found in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 2

The earliest citation located by QI occurred in the “Watertown Daily Times” of Watertown, New York in 1915. The freestanding quotation appeared in a box. Emphasis added to excerpts: 3

Mark Twain.
Some people are troubled by the things in the Bible they can’t understand.
The things that trouble me are the things I can understand.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1926 the columnist Hugh Elmer Brown ascribed an instance of the saying to Twain in “Chicago Sunday Tribune”: 4

The Bible is something to be used and not something to be frantically defended. It is wholly competent to defend itself. It is intrinsically adequate to make its own way in every generation. So long as it can do these things it needs no press agents, no defense societies, and no worry from us. Mark Twain remarked: “It is not the things which I do not understand in the Bible which trouble me, but the things which I do understand.”

The instance above also appeared in other newspapers such as the “Waterloo Evening Courier” of Waterloo, Iowa. 5

In 1941 the columnist Joseph Fort Newton credited Twain with another version of the saying: 6

Mark Twain put the matter simply and wisely: “Some people are troubled by things in the Bible they can’t understand. What troubles me are the things I can understand.” He found them hard to obey.

In 1948 a newspaper in Honolulu, Hawaii printed the following as “A Thought for Today”. This variant employed the word “scripture” instead of ‘bible”: 7

Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but I have always noticed that the passages that bother me are those I do understand.—Mark Twain.

In 1950 a variant appeared as a “Sunday School Lesson”: 8

Mark Twain once said, “I am not troubled by the things in the Bible which I do not understand, but I am troubled by those things which I do understand and which I find very difficult to measure up to.”

In 1955 “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Cincinnati, Ohio printed a version using the word “worried” instead of “troubled”: 9

The Bible not only records the experiences of man but it bears a message for people of our day. Mark Twain once said, “I am not nearly as worried about the part I don’t understand as I am about the part I do understand.”

In 1957 “The War Cry” periodical from the Salvation Army in Canada printed another instance: 10

The great humorist, Mark Twain once said a wise thing about the “difficulties of the Bible.” “Most people,” he remarked, “are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but, as for me, I have always noticed that the passages which troubled me most are those which I do understand.”

In 1969 the remark was inserted into the U.S Congressional Record: 11

Mark Twain once said: “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I have always noticed that the passages of Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.”

In 1977 the influential compilation “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter included a folksy version with the word “ain’t”: 12

It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand. —Mark Twain

In 2001 “Random House Webster’s Quotationary” included the saying and pointed to a compilation of Twain quotations from the 1980s: 13

It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.
MARK TWAIN (1835-1910). The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain, p. 24, ed. Alex Ayres, 1987

In conclusion, currently, QI would not credit Mark Twain with this saying. The variability is quite suspicious, and the earliest citations occurred after the death of Twain.

Image Notes: Portrait of Mark Twain from ParentRap at Pixabay. Picture of the Bible form Pexels at Pixabay.

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

Notes:

  1. Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched September 22, 2017)
  2. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1915 February 6, Watertown Daily Times, The Quiet Hour, (Freestanding quotation in a box), Quote Page 12, Column 6, Watertown, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1926 May 30, Chicago Sunday Tribune, The World’s Best Seller by The Rev. Hugh Elmer Brown (Pastor of the First Congregational Church, Evanston, Illinois), Section 1, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1926 June 12, Waterloo Evening Courier, Books: Bible World’s Best Seller by Rev. Hugh Elmer Brown (Pastor of First Congregational Church, Evanston, Illinois), Quote Page 8, Column 6, Waterloo, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1941 March 28, The Pittsburgh Press, Section 3, Plain Enough by Dr. Joseph Fort Newton, Quote Page 32, Column 3, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1948 March 10, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, A Thought for Today, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1950 August 11, The Newark Advocate, Sunday School Lesson for Sunday August 13: Spiritual Illiterates by Roy L. Smith, Quote Page 18, Column 2, Newark, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1955 November 7, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Bible Points Way To Man’s Partnership With God, Mt. Airy Pastor Declares, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1957 July 20, The War Cry: Official Organ of the Salvation Army in Canada and Bermuda, An Honest Confession, Quote Page 12, Column 3, Toronto, Canada. (Internet Archive) link
  11. 1969 November 24, Congressional Record of the House, (Text inserted into the Congressional Record: Sermon by Reverend Harold Hollings, assistant pastor of Landmark Baptist Temple, Cincinnati, Ohio), Start Page 35568, Quote Page 35569, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (Internet Archive)
  12. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Quote Page 70, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  13. 2001, Random House Webster’s Quotationary, Editor Leonard Roy Frank, Quote Page 62, Column 2, Random House, New York. (Paperback edition; Verified on paper)