No Explanation Is Needed for a Believer; No Explanation Suffices for an Unbeliever

Franz Werfel? John LaFarge? George Seaton? Irving Wallace? Charles Brent? James G. Stahlman? Dwain Hobbs? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Events deemed miraculous have always been controversial. Believers readily accept a supernatural explanation, but skeptics are unwilling to endorse this viewpoint. Religious pilgrimage sites such as the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France boast many seemingly miraculous cures, but detractors resist unconventional explications. A two part statement depicts these clashing perspectives. Here are four versions:

No explanation is needed for a believer;
no explanation suffices for an unbeliever.

To a non-believer, no explanation is possible.
For a believer, no explanation is necessary.

To those who believe no explanation is necessary;
to those who do not believe no explanation will satisfy.

For those who believe in God no explanation is necessary.
For those who do not believe in God no explanation is possible.

A message of this type appears at the beginning of the popular award-winning 1943 film “The Song of Bernadette”. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” of Missouri in December 1882. This concise instance occurred within an editorial discussing the credibility of the biblical tale of the prophet Jonah who was engulfed by a giant aquatic creature and survived. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The story of Jonah and the Whale is of course one of the first biblical difficulties which skeptics and unbelievers take hold of, and the temptation to gain this easy vantage-ground has been strengthened by the attempt on the part of Bishop Ryan to reconcile the miracle with natural law and by the assumption that the great sea monster which swallowed the prophet was a special creation or an animal otherwise unknown to science.

There is no necessity of resorting to such explanations. No single miracle can be explained, and there is no use in trying. No explanation is needed for a believer; no explanation suffices for an unbeliever. There are people who honestly refuse to believe in any miracle, either of Christ or of the prophets before Him or of the saints since His day.

No author was specified for the passage above; hence, it should be considered anonymous. Attempting to trace this saying has been very difficult because it can be expressed in many ways.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1934 “The Reader’s Digest” published “The Miracles of Lourdes” with a note stating that the text had been condensed from an article in “Fortune” magazine. The piece attributed a version of the saying to a Catholic priest: 2

Father John LaFarge, cultivated U.S. churchman, editor of the Catholic weekly America, and member of a family noted in American arts, has remarked apropos of Lourdes: “For those who believe in God no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God no explanation is possible.”

On April 21, 1934 “The China Press” of Shanghai, China printed the condensed article from “Fortune” which included the remark ascribed to John LaFarge. 3

On April 25, 1934 “The Times-News” of Hendersonville, North Carolina reprinted an opinion piece from “The State” of Columbia, South Carolina containing the following: 4

As that great Catholic, John La Farge, remarked about the miracles reported from Lourdes: “For those who believe in God no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God no explanation is possible.”

In 1937 the remark attributed to LaFarge continued to circulate in the pages of the “Valley Morning Star” newspaper of Harlingen, Texas: 5

But there are, of course, many skeptics. Anatole France, the famous French writer, once said that “one wooden leg is worth all the discarded crutches of Lourdes.”

But, as against that, John La Farge, cultivated American churchman, and member of a family noted in American arts, said just this:

“For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.”

There’s truth in that. For Lourdes stands as a great symbol of faith—faith that a higher power does exist; a higher power that can be moved by faith …

In 1940 two family members privately published a book of tribute for dentist Charles Nelson Johnson of Chicago, Illinois. The volume included a remembrance by friend Earl E. Graham who attributed the saying under analysis to “Bishop Brent”. QI conjectures that he was referring to prominent religious figure Bishop Charles Brent of the Episcopal Church: 6

I remember Bishop Brent’s saying, many years ago, in reference to certain adjustments in human lives, “To those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary—to those who don’t, no explanation is possible.”

In 1941 Franz Werfel published “Das Lied von Bernadette”, and the following year it was translated from German to English and published as “The Song of Bernadette”. QI examined the English text and was unable to find the saying. 7

In 1942 syndicated Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons wrote about the forthcoming movie version of “The Song of Bernadette”. Parsons stated that the film would contain an instance of the saying which she attributed to a French archbishop; however, when the movie was released it contained a different phrasing for the quotation: 8

Werfel said he had no religious creed or sect in mind when he wrote his book—that it was for all of God’s people. The foreword in the picture will be the words of a French archbishop, who said:

“To those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. To those who don’t believe in God, no explanation will do.”

During the prologue of the 1943 film “The Song of Bernadette” the following quotation was displayed as text without attribution. George Seaton wrote the screenplay: 9

For those who believe in God no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.

In December 1943 an Associated Press article asserted that an actor in the film “The Song of Bernadette” uttered the saying. QI has not attempted to verify this claim. As noted above, the saying did appear at the start of the film: 10

It could be called a propaganda film. If so, what it propagandizes is faith; the ability to believe in something that cannot be explained. This is summed up by the dean of Lourdes, magnificently played by Charles Bickford, when he says: “To those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary; to those who don’t, no explanation will suffice.”

In March 1945 columnist James G. Stahlman of the “Nashville Banner” of Tennessee printed the following succinct formulation: 11

To the BELIEVER,
No explanation is necessary.
To the UNBELIEVER,
No explanation is possible.

In November 1945 a church announcement printed in a Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania newspaper credited the saying to Franz Werfel: 12

“To those who believe no explanation is necessary; to those who do not believe no explanation will satisfy.” —Werfel.

In 1948 “The Tablet: A Catholic Weekly” of Brooklyn, New York printed this version: 13

“The parish priest has no time for these up-to-the-minute godless pseudo-scientists. They commence always with the denial of the existence of God. And so, for such unbelievers, no explanation is possible; but for believers in the power of God and His Holy Mother no explanation is necessary.

In 1954 Father John LaFarge published an autobiography titled “The Manner Is Ordinary”. He credited himself with an instance of the saying. The following excerpt mentioned “American magazine”, but the periodical LaFarge actually wrote for was called “America”: 14

Writing of Lourdes in later years for the American magazine, I summed up the question of the miraculous cures in a sentence that the motion picture, Song of Bernadette, featured (without credit to the author): “For those who believe in God no explanation is needed; for those who do not believe in God no explanation is possible.”

A Plainfield, New Jersey newspaper in 1956 attributed the saying to Dunninger. This was probably a reference to the popular magician Joseph Dunninger who performed on the radio and television as a mentalist. He employed the saying as a motto: 15

Borrowing Dunninger’s favorite phrase, “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.”

In 1969 “Quotations for Speakers and Writers” compiled by Allen Andrews included the following entry: 16

For those who believe in God no explanation is needed; for those who do not believe in God no explanation is possible.
(Of the cures at Lourdes)
FATHER JOHN LAFARGE b. 1880

In 1978 a journalist in Shreveport, Louisiana visited Reverend Dwain Hobbs who was conducting a revival meeting. Hobbs employed the saying: 17

“To a non-believer, no explanation is possible,” he says of one of the principles he preaches that prosperity will come to the faithful. “For a believer, no explanation is necessary.” “If I’m preaching prosperity, he adds, “I’d better be living prosperity.”

In 1984 the best-selling author Irving Wallace published “The Miracle” which displayed the following epigraph: 18

“For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.”
—REV. JOHN LA FARGE, S.J.

In 1997 “Chambers Dictionary of Quotations” attributed the saying to the screenwriter of “The Song of Bernadette”: 19

George Seaton pseudonym of George Stenius 1911-79

US screenwriter and director. He won Academy Awards for both Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and The Country Girl (1954).

For those who believe in God no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God no explanation is possible.
1943 Prologue to The Song of Bernadette.

In conclusion, this saying appeared in the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” of Missouri in 1882. The author was not specified; hence, the saying is anonymous. It is difficult to trace because of its mutability, and earlier instances probably exist.

Father John LaFarge employed an instance that appeared in “The Reader’s Digest” in April 1934. This version also appeared at the beginning of the 1943 movie “The Song of Bernadette” without attribution.

(Great thanks to Jonathan Lighter whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Lighter noted the presence of the saying in the movie “The Song of Bernadette”. Thanks also to Bill Mullins who told QI that mentalist Joseph Dunninger used this saying.)

Update History: On August 8, 2020 the citation dated December 26, 1956 was added.

Notes:

  1. 1882 December 22, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jonah and the Whale, Quote Page 4, Column 2, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1934 April, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 24, The Miracles of Lourdes (Condensed from Fortune), Start Page 47, Quote Page 50, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1934 April 21, The China Press, Miracles Of Lourdes Perplex Doctors (Acknowledgment to Fortune magazine), Quote Page 10, Column 5, Shanghai, China. (ProQuest)
  4. 1934 April 25, The Times-News, Newspapers’ Opinion: We Still Shall Grow (Acknowledgment to Columbia State of South Carolina), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Hendersonville, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1937 July 28, Valley Morning Star, Human Side of The News by Edwin C. Hill, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Harlingen, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1940, Charles Nelson Johnson: A Tribute, Section: Remembrance from Earl E. Graham, Start Page 150, Quote Page 154, Published for private circulation by his daughter and son-in-law, Nelyon Johnson Dewson and John Reynolds Dewson. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  7. 1942, The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel, Translated from “Das Lied von Bernadette” into English by Ludwig Lewisohn, (Quotation was absent), The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1942 July 26, The Washington Post, Louella Parsons, Quote Page L4, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  9. YouTube video, Title: Bernadette (The Song of Bernadette, 1943), Uploaded on August 10, 2013, Uploaded by: Sergio Mura, (Quotation visible at 1 minute 26 seconds of 2 hours 31 minutes 24 seconds) (Accessed on youtube.com on August 7 2020)
  10. 1943 December 22, The York Dispatch, Hollywood Miracle (Associated Press), Quote Page 2, Column 2 and 3, York, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1945 March 30, Nashville Banner, From the Shoulder by James G. Stahlman, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1945 November 30, The Call, Section: Church Directory, Church: Messiah Church United Brethren In Christ, Pastor: Rev. Edward T. Uhler, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1948 September 11, The Tablet: A Catholic Weekly, Skeptics Jeer, Faithful Believe as Roses Bloom by John A. Greaves (Correspondent of N.C.W.C. News Service), Quote Page 10, Column 3, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1954, The Manner Is Ordinary by John LaFarge, Chapter 7: “Cand. S.J.” and Ordination, Quote Page 129, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  15. 1956 December 26, Plainfield Courier-News, This Side of Sports by Don Murray (Sports Editor), Quote Page 26, Column 1, Plainfield, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1969, Quotations for Speakers and Writers, Compiled by Allen Andrews, Topic: Miracle, Quote Page 301, Newnes Books, London and New York, (Verified with hardcopy)
  17. 1978 May 21, The Shreveport Times, Evangelist preaches ‘prosperity’ by Robert Moore (The Times Staff), Quote Page 8A, Column 6, Shreveport, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  18. 1984, The Miracle by Irving Wallace, Section: Epigraphs (Beginning of book), Unnumbered Page, E. P. Dutton, New York. (Verified with scans)
  19. 1997, Chambers Dictionary of Quotations, Edited by Alison Jones, With the assistance of Stephanie Pickering and Megan Thomson, Entry: George Seaton (pseudonym of George Stenius), Quote Page 857, Larousse Kingfisher Chambers Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)