The Command ‘Be Fruitful and Multiply’ Was Promulgated When the Population of the World Consisted of Two Persons

William Ralph Inge? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The number of people on planet Earth has grown to the remarkably large figure of 7.5 billion. A passage in the Book of Genesis of the King James Bible encourages fertility:

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Yet, the world is quite different today. I vaguely recall a quotation accentuating that difference by mentioning the initial biblical population figure. Would you please help me to find that quotation?

Quote Investigator: In 1931 William Ralph Inge who was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London published “More Lay Thoughts of a Dean”. The book contained a reprint of a newspaper essay titled “Should We Limit Our Population?” which included the following: 1

The command “Be fruitful and multiply”—promulgated, according to our authorities, when the population of the world consisted of two persons—must be obeyed now that it contains 1,800 millions, even if the result is that from time to time “millions die of starvation, in extremest agony.”

Encouraging fertility makes sense when a group is small, but Inge believed that the population of 1.8 billion in the 1920s indicated that the situation of humanity had changed dramatically. Humans had wildly succeeded in multiplying, and Inge believed it was desirable to make an effort to control population growth in Britain.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The preface of “More Lay Thoughts of a Dean” stated that the essays in the book had previously appeared in “The Evening Standard” of London between 1928 and 1931. QI has not yet been able to access a digital archive containing the desired newspaper issues. However, QI did locate a reprint of “Should We Limit Our Population?” in the “Yorkshire Evening Post” of April 10, 1929 in the British Newspaper Archive. 2 The passage above containing the quotation was present.

In 1977 the influential compilation “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter included an instance of the quotation: 3

The command Be fruitful and multiply [was] promulgated, according to our authorities, when the population of the world consisted of two persons. —Dean William R. Inge

In conclusion, William Ralph Inge should recieve credit for the words he wrote in the 1931 collection of newspaper columns. The phrasing was awkward because it suggested that Inge was condoning the command to be fruitful when he really viewed it as obsolete or inapplicable to current circumstances. The version in 1977 with the interpolated word “was” clarified the sense and employed a compact form.

Image Notes: Smartphone displaying a montage of faces from geralt at Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. 1931, More Lay Thoughts of a Dean by William Ralph Inge, Section: Right or Wrong: Some Vexed Questions, Chapter 6: Should We Limit Our Population, Quote Page 48, Putnam, London and New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1929 April 10, Yorkshire Evening Post, Should We Limit Our Population? by the Very Rev. W. R. Inge, D. D., Dean of St. Paul’s, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  3. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Overpopulation, Quote Page 363, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)