The Duty of Newspapers Is To Comfort the Afflicted and To Afflict the Comfortable

Mr. Dooley? Finley Peter Dunne? William Randolph Hearst? Willmott Lewis? Frederick W. Burnham? Clare Boothe Luce? Kara V. Jackson? Lawrence Weschler? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Here are four phrases describing the duty of a newspaper or religious institution:

  • Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable
  • Comfort the tormented, torment the comfortable
  • Comforting the disturbed, disturbing the comfortable
  • Comfort the troubled, trouble the comfortable

Would you please explore which phrase was crafted first and determine the identity of the creator?

Quote Investigator: Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunne wrote a popular syndicated column featuring the distinctive voice of Mr. Dooley. The fictional character’s pronouncements used Irish dialectical speech and spelling. The following appeared within a 1902 column titled “Mr. Dooley on Newspaper Publicity”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, conthrols th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.

Here is a rendering using standard spelling:

The newspaper does everything for us. It runs the police force and the banks, commands the militia, controls the legislature, baptizes the young, marries the foolish, comforts the afflicted, afflicts the comfortable, buries the dead and roasts them afterward.

Finley Peter Dunne was not solemnly describing the duties of a newspaper; instead, he was comically outlining the comprehensive power of newspapers of that era.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Dunne’s columns achieved further circulation when they were reprinted in a series of collections. The 1902 collection “Observations by Mr. Dooley” included the column above. 2

In November 1902 an Albuquerque, New Mexico newspaper printed a description of the jocular bylaws of a new secret society. A version of the phrase above written with a standard spelling was included: 3

In the line of benevolence they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Don’t pay any old debts and let all the new ones get old as fast as they can. It is against their interest to pay principle and against their principle to pay interest.

In 1914 a newspaper in Danville, Kentucky printed a filler item using the word “duty”. This formulation matches the most common modern version: 4

Mr. Dooley says the duty of the newspapers is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

In 1922 a trade publication about coal called “The Black Diamond” printed an instance with an anonymous attribution: 5

The humorist must have had this kind of newspaper in mind when he said, ‘they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’

In 1923 Duncan Aikman reviewed a play and employed a variant expression using “troubled” instead of “afflicted”. The phrase described the actions of the ghostly main characters of the play “Melloney Holtspur” by John Masefield: 6

Ghosts step in and out of old pictures and suits of armor, pet the children, annoy the lovers, stimulate the dying to make plot-jamming confessions, comfort the troubled, trouble the comfortable and so on.

In 1928 the “Los Angeles Times” reviewed a biography of the prominent newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. The reviewer stated that the phrase under examination was Hearst’s slogan: 7

At that time he was a tall, gangling youth. He began his journalistic career with the slogan, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” and charged head on into the corrupt gang of slithery politicians who at that time were exploiting San Francisco.

In April 1936 Willmott Lewis delivered a speech at the annual luncheon of the Associated Press news service. Lewis was a correspondent for “The Times” of London based in the U.S. He used the expression, but disclaimed credit: 8

Sir Willmott quoted a British definition of the duty of the press as “to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

In June 1936 Willmott Lewis received credit for the saying in the pages of an Edmonton, Canada newspaper. The name “Willmott” was misspelled as “Wilmott”: 9

Sir Wilmott Lewis—The duty of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.

In March 1944 an editorial writer in a Latrobe, Pennsylvania newspaper attributed the saying to an unnamed “young minister” who applied it to the church: 10

In a recent sermon, a young minister said, “The business of the church is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” This sort of saying sticks in the mind—because it is so true. For that is just what Jesus Christ did.

In July 1944 the saying was applied to a religious ministry by a pastor in Virginia: 11

Said Frederick W. Burnham pastor, Richmond, Va.: “The business of the ministry is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

In 1945 a church minister in New Jersey employed a variant with “troubled” instead of “afflicted”: 12

He also stressed a minister’s obligations in these troublous times, stating humorously that some say a minister’s function is to “comfort the troubled, and trouble the too-comfortable.”

In 1950 author and politician Clare Boothe Luce employed a variant phrase containing “distressed” instead of “afflicted” while praising former U.S. First Lady and activist Eleanor Roosevelt: 13

“No woman has ever so comforted the distressed – or distressed the comfortable,” she said.

In 1964 a newspaper in Alabama printed the title of a public address by an educator containing an instance of the phrase with “disturbed”: 14

Dr. Kara V. Jackson, speaker Sunday morning for a Women’s Day program at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, will address the congregation from the subject, “Comforting the Disturbed, Disturbing the Comfortable.”

In 1989 the “Santa Cruz Sentinel” of California published a profile of Lawrence Weschler who was a staff writer for “The New Yorker” magazine. Weschler employed an instance with “tormented”: 15

“I question authority,” said Weschler. “What’s that line? ‘One should comfort the tormented and torment the comfortable.’

In conclusion, Finley Peter Dunne crafted the expression “comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable” for his syndicated newspaper column in 1902. Dunne did not assert that the phrase defined the duty of a newspaper; however, that formulation entered circulation by 1914 or earlier. Variations adhering to the same template and using words such as “troubled”, “disturbed”, and “tormented” evolved over time.

Image Notes: Picture of newspaper from moritz320 at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Marvin Warren and Phillip Runkel whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Warren was interested in the variant using “disturbed”, and Runkel was interested in versions applied to religion. Runkel already knew about the 1902 Dunne linkage.)

Notes:

  1. 1902 October 4, The Province, Mr. Dooley on Newspaper Publicity by F. P. Dunne, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1906 (Copyright 1902), Observations by Mr. Dooley by Finley Peter Dunne, Chapter: Newspaper Publicity, Start Page 238, Quote Page 240, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1902 November 1, The Albuquerque Daily Citizen, The Art Club: New Secret Society Organized—Aims and Purposes, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1914 April 28, The Danville Messenger, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Danville, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1922 March 11, The Black Diamond, Volume 68, Number 10, New York State Retailers in Regional Meeting, Quote Page 219, Column 1, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  6. 1923 July 15, The El Paso Times, Section: Book News by Duncan Aikman, Masefield Tells Us What Hell Is, and How to Get Out (Book review of “Melloney Holtspur” by John Masefield), Quote Page 29, Column 1, El Paso, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1928 June 17, Los Angeles Times, Section: The Times Literary Page, Books and Their Makers, A Melancholy Cagliostro by Thomas F. Ford (Book Review of “Hearst: An American Phenomenon” by John K. Winkler), Quote Page 24, Column 7, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1936 April 21, Nebraska State Journal, Journalists Stress Obligation To Press (Associated Press), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1936 June 5, Edmonton Journal, What Men Say, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Edmonton, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1944 March 11, The Latrobe Bulletin, Church News: Editorial, Business of the Church, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Latrobe, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1944 July 28, Naugatuck Daily News, As We Were Saying, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Naugatuck, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1945 January 29, The Daily Home News, 300 Persons Attend Installation of New Minister at Second Reformed Church Here by Ingrid Waller, Quote Page 7, Column 2, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1950 May 21, The Minneapolis Star, On Worldwide News Front, Quote Page 17, Column 1, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1964 October 11, The Montgomery Advertiser, Educator To Speak To Women, Quote Page 10C, Column 5, Montgomery, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1989 May 1, Santa Cruz Sentinel, New Yorker staffer pens no story before its time by Steve Shender (Sentinel staff writer), Quote Page A2, Column 4, Santa Cruz, California. (Newspapers_com)