Few Souls Are Saved After the First Twenty Minutes of a Sermon

Mark Twain? John Wesley? John M. Bartholomew? Arthur Twining Hadley? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Lengthy orations on spiritual topics are unlikely to change the views of resistant audience members. Here are three versions of a pertinent adage:

  • Few sinners are saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon.
  • Few souls are saved after the first half-hour of a sermon.
  • No souls saved after the first 15 minutes.

This saying has been credited to humorist Mark Twain and 18th-century English evangelist John Wesley. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI occurred in 1864 within “The Monthly Journal of the American Unitarian Association”. No attribution was specified, and the crucial phrase was placed between quotation marks signaling that it was already in circulation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The correct view of this subject is contained in the statement, that there should be no indecent haste in disposing of topics so dignified as those of the pulpit, but “few souls are saved after the first half-hour.”

The first known ascriptions to John Wesley and Mark Twain occurred many years after their respective deaths. Thus, the evidence supporting these ascriptions is weak.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In July 1867 “The Christian Register” of Boston, Massachusetts tentatively credited John Wesley with this saying, however, Wesley had died many years earlier in 1791. Thus, this citation provided very weak evidence: 2

As to preaching, John Wesley often spoke in picturesque scenes, where excited multitudes craved the most stimulating addresses; but it is said that he honored in his practice the famous proverb sometimes attributed to him,—“Few souls are saved after the first half-hour.” The sermons of Jesus abound in parables and pithy sayings to quicken attention, but they must have been short or the common people would not have heard him gladly.

Also, in July 1867 “The Vermont Chronicle” of Windsor, Vermont credited Wesley: 3

Of even John Wesley, in his day, it is reported that he said, frequently, “Few souls are saved alter the first half-hour.”
Happy are they who succeed in “the first half-hour.”

In 1871 “The Christian Register” again attributed the saying to Wesley: 4

John Wesley has the credit of saying, in behalf of short sermons, “Few souls are saved after the first half-hour.” Is it not equally true that few souls are saved when the temperature is below fifty degrees? We were never more convinced of “the foolishness of preaching” than last Sunday morning, when we addressed a shivering assembly who would have relished, for that time only, a hotter theology than we could conscientiously preach to them.

In 1886 “The Baltimore Sun” of Maryland reported that a local judge used the expression: 5

In passing upon the prayers, Judge Phelps said he had the rare felicity of granting all that was asked on both sides. He named two hours on each side for argument before the jury. The counsel thought they ought to have more time. “It is said respecting sermons that there never was a soul saved after the first twenty minutes,” remarked Judge Phelps.

In 1887 a newspaper in Kansas published a piece suggesting that visits to comfort sick individuals should be brief: 6

Brevity is the soul of visiting, as of wit, and in both cases the soul is hard to grasp. As some preacher used to follow a sound maxim for his sermons, “No soul saved after the first twenty minutes,” so you can not aid in saving the sick body after the first five.

In 1891 the attribution to Wesley continued to circulate in the pages of a Vermont newspaper: 7

Five minutes over-time will clip the wings of the best eloquence. John Wesley said that no soul could be saved after the first thirty minutes. We live in a much more rapid age than his, and shall be safe in placing the outside limit at twenty-five minutes, with a frequent preference for twenty.

Also in 1891 the “New York Tribune” reported that a new preacher named John M. Bartholomew was reinvigorating the Second Universalist Church in New York: 8

He is an extemporaneous speaker and believes firmly that “nobody can be saved after the first half hour” of preaching.

In 1908 the President of Yale University Arthur Twining Hadley employed the saying while speaking at an Alumni Dinner: 9

When anybody is coming to preach in Battell Chapel and asks how long to preach, we tell him courteously that he may have as long a time as he wants, but that no souls are saved after the first twenty minutes [Prolonged laughter and applause].

In 1909 a newspaper in Buffalo, New York printed a piece about the Yale President Hadley while acknowledging “Bohemian” magazine. The full quotation was somewhat different, but the core quip was the same: 10

When these visiting preachers occasionally ask President Hadley how long they shall speak he invariably replies, “There is no limit, sir, upon the time you may preach; but there is a Yale tradition that no souls are saved after the first twenty minutes.”

In 1911 a St. Louis, Missouri newspaper attributed the remark to an unnamed President of a New England college: 11

“But I may as well tell you,” added the shrewd President, “that there is a tradition here that very few souls are saved after the first fifteen minutes.”

In 1925 the “Rutland Daily Herald” of Vermont published a variant using “sinners’ instead of “souls”: 12

Hez Snyder told the Minister last Sunday that very few sinners were saved after the first 30 minutes of the Sermon.

In 1931 “Mason City Globe-Gazette” of Mason City, Iowa printed two thematically related anecdotes about the desirability of short sermons. The first tale was about Yale President Hadley. The time was reduced from twenty minutes to ten. The second tale was about Mark Twain: 13

TAKE TIME TO BE BRIEF — A visiting clergyman at Yale asked President Hadley just how long he ought to speak at chapel.

“Oh, there’s no set rule,” replied Hadley, “but there’s a tradition here at Yale that no souls are saved after the first 10 minutes.”

LO! THE POOR HEATHEN — And the other famous story of Mark Twain who, five minutes after listening to a foreign missionary, decided to contribute $10 to save the heathen.

The Doc kept on talking, however, and after he’d rounded out an hour and the collection basket came by Mark Twain said: “Instead of contributing $10 I stole a dime out of it.”

One important mechanism for generating misattributions occurs when a well-known name such as Mark Twain’s appears close to a quotation. Sometimes the quotation is re-assigned to the well-known person. In this case, a careless reader of the excerpt above might believe that Twain instead of Hadley employed the quotation.

Interestingly, in 1934 a newspaper in St. Louis, Missouri attributed a version of the saying to Twain who died many years earlier in 1910: 14

. . . Mark Twain’s wise crack about how “Few souls are saved after the first twenty minutes” . . .

In 1948 the important reference “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” attributed the saying to Twain based on a 1935 citation: 15

Few sinners are saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon.
The Hannibal Courier-Post, March 6, 1935

In conclusion, the earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1864. The saying was surrounded by quotation marks indicating that it was already in circulation, and the creator was anonymous. In 1867 the influential religious figure John Wesley received credit, but Wesley died in 1791, so this linkage is very weak.

Yale President Arthur Twining Hadley helped to popularize this saying as shown by the 1908 citation, but it had already been in use for decades. Twain implausibly received credit many years after his death.

Image Notes: Painting of “Sermon in a Village” by Vasily Perov circa 1861. Image has been cropped, resized, and retouched.

Notes:

  1. 1864 May, The Monthly Journal of the American Unitarian Association, Volume 5, Number 5, Stray Hints Too Parishes, Start Page 215, Quote Page 219, American Unitarian Association, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1867 July 6, The Christian Register, The Demand for Brevity, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1867 July 20, The Vermont Chronicle, Short Services, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Windsor, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1871 February 11, The Christian Register, Brevities, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1886 April 20, The Baltimore Sun, The Nicholson Will Trial, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Baltimore, Maryland. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1887 January 13, Sterling Gazette, Visiting the Sick, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Sterling, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1891 October 2, The Vermont Chronicle, The Training of Children and Youth in Christian Doctrine, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Montpelier, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1891 October 25, New York Tribune, The Pastor Brings Enthusiasm: Universalists Plan To Build A Large New Church In West Harlem, Quote Page 5, Column 2, New York, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1908 July 8, Yale Alumni Weekly, Volume 17, Number 40, The Alumni Dinner: President Hadley’s Annual Financial Announcements, the Alumni Fund, and Speeches of the Day, Start Page 988, Quote Page 988, New Haven, Connecticut. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  10. 1909 May 3, The Buffalo Express, Yale’s absentminded President (From the Bohemian Magazine), Quote Page 3, Column 5, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1911 October 08, St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Section: The Monthly Magazine Section, Cruelty to Listeners by Brander Matthews, Start Page 14, Quote Page 15, Column 1, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1925 June 11, Rutland Daily Herald, “Hayville Center”: Local News, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Rutland, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1931 February 5, Mason City Globe-Gazette, Bo-Broadway by Joseph Van Raalte, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Mason City, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1934 September 13, St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Section 3: Society, Teaching Women How to Talk, Quote Page 1C, Column 1, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Topic: Sermon, Quote Page 429, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified with hardcopy)