If You Marry the Spirit of Your Own Generation You Will Be a Widow in the Next

William Ralph Inge? Fulton J. Sheen? Leonard Cohen? Charles Haddon Spurgeon? E. Luccock? Joseph R. Sizoo?

Dear Quote Investigator: Any organization that aspires to multi-generational longevity must not become enmeshed in evanescent enthusiasms and fashions. Long-term steadiness and perspective are required. Here are two pertinent sayings:

  1. If you marry the spirit of your age, you will be a widow in the next.
  2. If you marry the spirit of your generation, you will be a widower in the next.

This notion has been credited to two prominent religious figures: William Ralph Inge who was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and U.S. Catholic Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen who was a popular broadcaster. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: William Ralph Inge known as Dean Inge or “The Gloomy Dean” delivered a series of lectures at Sion College in 1911 titled “Co-operation of the Church with the Spirit of the Age”. He cautioned that the church must not be caught up in transient worldly affairs: 1

. . . the Church must not be identified with any particular institution or denomination, or any tendencies which seemed to be dominant in our generation. The Church was a Divine idea which required tens of thousands of years to reach its full development. They must not secularise its message and endeavour to reach men’s souls through their stomachs.

For several decades Dean Inge kept a diary, and in 1911 he wrote a contemporaneous entry about the lecture series. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

I was moved to tell them that there are many spirits of the age, most of them evil; that we were not agreed what the Church means; and that it is not certain that religious bodies ought to co-operate with secular movements at all. Also, if you marry the Spirit of your own generation you will be a widow in the next.

This diary entry serves as evidence that Inge originated the saying under analysis; however, the entry only appeared publicly many years after its 1911 composition in the 1949 book “The Diary of a Dean”. The text above is from “The Manchester Guardian” which printed extracts from the book shortly before its publication.

Inge’s lecture series was discussed and quoted in 1911, but QI has not yet found a close match for the saying in periodicals of that period.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1890 popular English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon delivered a sermon that made a similar point, although he employed a different figurative framework. Inge advised against marrying the spirit of one’s generation, whereas Spurgeon advised against being the slave to one’s generation: 3

What, then, is it for a man to serve his own generation? I note, first, that it is not to be a slave to it. It is not to drop into the habits, customs, and ideas of the generation in which we live. People talk nowadays about the Zeitgeist, a German expression which need frighten nobody; and one of the papers says, “Spurgeon does not know whether there is such a thing.” Well, whether he knows anything about the Zeitgeist or not, he is not to serve this generation by yielding to any of its notions or ideas which are contrary to the Word of the Lord. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not only for one generation, it is for all generations.

The earliest published close match for the saying located by QI appeared in the 1931 collection “Old Errors and New Labels” by Fulton J. Sheen within an essay titled “The Theism of Atheism”. The pronoun “she” in the following excerpt referred to the Catholic church: 4

. . . in the wisdom born of the centuries she knows very well that what one generation calls modern the next generation will call unmodern. She knows also that Modernism is no more logical than a sect called “Three O’Clockism,” which would adapt our gods and our morals to our moods at three o’clock. The Church knows too that to marry the present age and its spirit is to become a widow in the next.

In March 1931 a newspaper in Hanover, Pennsylvania printed a small group of miscellaneous quotations under the title “Current Epigrams By Prominent Persons” including a differently phrased statement attributed to Sheen: 5

Marry the spirit of the age and you become a widow in the next. — The Rev. Fulton J. Sheen.

In the same month the quotation and attribution above appeared in other newspapers such as “The Kokomo Tribune” of Indiana 6 and the “Decatur Herald” of Illinois. 7

In 1934 Halford E. Luccock, Professor of Homiletics at Yale University, delivered a speech at a luncheon in Lexington, Kentucky, and he employed the saying without attribution: 8

“Preach Christ and not a special gospel,” Dr. Luccock advised the Kentucky ministers. “When the church weds itself to the prevailing spirit of the age, it finds itself widowed in the next age. Wherever the church has been tied up with a government or institution that is on its way out, the church is on its way out also,” the speaker said.

In 1939 Sheen wrote the preface to a book titled “Radio Replies”, and he included a thematically related comment about individuals who had strayed from spiritual belief: 9

. . . Christians only in name. They retain a few of its ideals out of indolence and force of habit; they know the glorious history of Christianity only through certain emasculated forms of it, which have married the spirit of the age and are now dying with it.

In 1948 the “Liverpool Echo” in England printed a filler item that attributed the saying with the word “generation” to Inge. This was the first published linkage to Inge found by QI: 10

“Nothing is so reactionary as being up-to-date. Marry the spirit of your own generation and you will be a widower in the next.“— Dean Inge.

In May 1949 “The Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette” printed a column by Inge that included an extended instance of the saying using “age” instead of “generation”: 11

If you marry the spirit of your own age, you will be a widow in the next. If you marry the spirit of the next age, they will build you a handsome sepulchre, but perhaps you will be killed before your day comes.

In December 1949 “The Manchester Guardian” printed an excerpt from “The Diary of a Dean” by Inge as mentioned at the beginning of this article. This excerpt was originally written in 1911: 12

Also, if you marry the Spirit of your own generation you will be a widow in the next.

In 1954 a Texas newspaper reprinted parts of an article by Edmund A. Optiz which ascribed another version of the saying to Inge: 13

“The late Dean Inge summed up the matter, with his characteristic wit. In answer to the argument that the Church must be up-to-date and go along with the times he answered, ‘If the Church marries the spirit of this age, she will be a widow in the next.’

In 1959 Fulton J. Sheen published a column with the saying: 14

The same is true of intellectual fashions: marry the spirit of the age, and you will be a widow in the next one. Freud will be as forgotten in twenty years as Wundt is today. Yet each has had their brief hour upon the stage. The liberal who worshipped Adam Smith in the last generation, has a son today who is in reaction to the last form of liberalism.

In 1966 a Sikeston, Missouri newspaper credited a prominent Presbyterian minister with an instance of the saying: 15

The church that is married to the spirit of the age will find itself a widow in the next generation. —Joseph Sizoo

In 1970 the ascription to Luccock was recalled in the pages of the “San Francisco Examiner” of California: 16

THOUGHT FOR TODAY: A church married to the spirit of the age in one generation is likely to be a widow in the next – without visible means of support. (Halford Luccock).

In 1997 a book review of a biography of noteworthy musician Leonard Cohen appeared in an Irish newspaper. The article included a thematically pertinent quotation from Cohen: 17

“Mostly I was on the front line of my own tiny life,” he said matter-of-factly about 1960s’ counter culture. “I never married the spirit of my generation because it wasn’t attractive to me… the thing died very quickly, the merchants took over, nobody resisted… my purity was based on the fact that nobody offered me much money…”

In conclusion, QI believes that William Ralph Inge should receive credit for the saying with the word “generation” based on the 1911 diary entry. The version using “age” apparently was derived from the version using “generation”. Fulton J. Sheen should receive at least partial credit for the “age” version because it was published first under his name. This analysis is tentative and future research may shift attributions.

Image Notes: Picture of the ruins of a building from Tim Hill at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, cropped, and resized.

(Great thanks to John Maher whose inquiry about an instance employed by a YouTube commentator led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1911 December 14, The Wells Journal, Christian Ministers and Politics, Quote Page 6, Column 2, County: Somerset, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  2. 1949 December 3, The Manchester Guardian, The Diary of a Dean by the Very Rev. W. R. Inge, (Extracts from “The Diary of a Dean” which is to be published by Messrs. Hutchinson on December 8, 1949), Date of entry: November 10, 1911, Quote Page 6, Column 6 and 7, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1892, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Sermons Preached by C. H. Spurgeon Revised and Published During the Year 1892, Volume 38, Sermon Title: His Own Funeral Sermon, Date Delivered: October 19, 1890, Start Page 73, Quote Page 75, Passmore & Alabaster, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1931, Old Errors and New Labels by Fulton J. Sheen, Chapter: The Theism of Atheism, Start Page 77, Quote Page 79, The Century Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1931 March 25, The Evening Sun, Current Epigrams By Prominent Persons, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Hanover, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1931 March 27, The Kokomo Tribune, Quotations, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Kokomo, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1931 March 27, The Decatur Herald, Unexpected Remarks, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Decatur, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1934 February 2, The Cincinnati Enquirer: Section: Kentucky Edition, Lexington To Be Host To Kentucky Christian Ministers’ Conference Next Year, Too (Associated Press), Quote Page 1, Column 2, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1939 September 13, The Derry Journal, Study and Question Corner: Answers to Common Queries, (Preface by Reverend Fulton Sheen to the U.S. edition of the book “Radio Replies”), Quote Page 8, Column 2, Northern Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  10. 1948 May 10, Liverpool Echo, Echoes and Gossip of the Day: Wise—or Otherwise, Quote Page 2, Column 6, County: Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  11. 1949 May 12, The Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, The Pendulum’s Swing: The Very Rev. W. R. Inge Discusses Some Ironies of History, Quote Page 2, Column 6, County: Durham, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  12. 1949 December 3, The Manchester Guardian, The Diary of a Dean by the Very Rev. W. R. Inge, (Extracts from “The Diary of a Dean” which is to be published by Messrs. Hutchinson on December 8, 1949), Date of entry: November 10, 1911, Quote Page 6, Column 6 and 7, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1954 August 31, The Odessa American, Better Jobs by R. C. Hoiles, Quote Page 10, Column 2 and 3, Odessa, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1959 August 22, The Ottawa Citizen, Ways of Killing Freedom by Fulton J. Sheen, Quote Page 16, Column 2, Ottawa, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1966 March 12, The Daily Standard, (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Sikeston, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1970 March 21, San Francisco Examiner, Turning Point: The New Secular ‘Myths’ by Max Christensen, Quote Page 9, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  17. 1997 February 9, The Sunday Tribune, Section: The Tribune Magazine, The poet of bedsit angst, (Book reviewer: Dermot Bolger, Book reviewed: “Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen” by Ira B. Nadel), Quote Page 24, Column 5, Dublin, Republic of Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive)