A list of the most quoted verses of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is not simply a popularity contest for the Bible. Rather, that list indicates the “canon within a canon,” at least within the public sphere. The Bible as a book had significant symbolic weight in the public sphere, but each verse was not equally weighted. On the contrary, only a relative handful of texts were quoted in any great quantity. The King James Version contains 31,102 verses in the Old and New Testaments, leaving out the Apocrypha. But slightly fewer than 3,000 verses were quoted in Chronicling America to any measurable degree. The examples given in the essay about Bible-filled pages are something of an exception in the way that they tended to quote long passages. For the most part, Bible verses were quoted out of context as individual verses rather than as passages. In other words, if the Bible was a part of the mental furniture of some nineteenth-century Americans, these most frequently used texts were the favorite chair: the only furniture that got appreciable use.
It would be a step too far to infer that because these were the most frequently quoted verses, that they were therefore common and familar to the American public. One thinks of the reports of the colporteurs for the American Bible Society and American Tract Society, who in their efforts to distribute Bibles and tracts frequently remarked on how many people had never even seen a Bible, or in some instances even heard of Jesus.1 However, we can infer that these were the texts that people who felt a need to deploy the Bible in public were most likely to turn to.
What made these verses of the canon within the canon so comparatively quotable relative to the rest of the Bible? To understand that, let us look at roughly the top twenty most quoted verses in the period 1840 to 1926 and categorize them by the apparent reason that they were frequently quoted. You can follow the links to individual verses in order to see the specific instances where these verses were quoted.
The two top verses
Rank 1. Luke 2:14. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
The most quoted verse was Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” This verse, coming in the Gospels in connection with the story of Jesus’ birth, was quite obviously a Christmas verse. But even a cursory look at the dates on which the verse was quoted shows that it was used in far more contexts than just Christmas. The verse was often used for a humanitarian purpose, with the phrase “peace, good will toward men” lending itself to use during war time. The cyclical nature of the verse shows ascending popularity during the lead up to and aftermath of the Civil War, during the Spanish-American War and the war in the Philippines, and during the Great War. The celebrity preacher Thomas De Witt Talmage used the verse in a Decoration Day sermon that asked, “Can we not be at peace on earth when this moment in Heaven dwell in perfect love Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, William T. Sherman and Stonewall Jackson and tens of thousands of northern and southern men who, though once looked askance at each other from the opposite banks of the Potomac and Chickahominy and the James and the Tennessee, now are on the same side of the river, keeping jubilee with some of those old angels who near nineteen centuries ago came down one Christmas night to chant over Bethlehem: ‘Glory to God in the highest; on earth peace, good will to men.’”2
Rank 2. Luke 18:16. “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”
The second most quoted verse was Luke 8:16 (and the other references with substantially the same text). This verse was used whenever children and religion were concerned. In particular it was part of the rising Sunday school movement of the early nineteenth century, as sometimes newspapers included Sunday school lessons with this verse emblazoned across the top. But it was also used for obituaries of children, whose mortality rate was high in the nineteenth century.
Key Christian texts
Among the most quoted texts were those from the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. Of any texts in the Bible, these were the most commonly used and the innermost part of the canon within the canon. The Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer have been since ancient times two of the key texts in the catechesis of new Christians as well as frequent subjects of sermons and other forms of moral and theological reflection. Below are the three verses from the Decalogue that were most frequently quoted.
Rank 11. Exodus 20:8. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
Rank 12. Deuteronomy 5:17. “Thou shalt not kill.”
When charted, you can see that both “Thou shalt not steal” and “Remember the sabbath day” have a more-or-less similar baseline, apart from a sudden spike in the early twentieth century when Theodore Roosevelt used the former verse as part of a speech decrying how the Republican nomination for president was “stolen” from him.
The other key text often quoted, sometimes together as a passage and sometimes as individual verses, was the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer tended to be a steadily quoted verse, though individual verses in the Lord’s Prayer had their own peaks. Below is the chart for Matthew 6:9, which is more or less the baseline for all of the verses in the Lord’s Prayer, and which shows a roughly constant rate of quotation throughout the century. However, you can consult the pages for other verses, including Matthew 6:10, Matthew 6:11, Matthew 6:12, and Matthew 6:13 to see the different peaks individual verses had.
Rank 13. Matthew 6:9. “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.”
Rank 14. Matthew 16:10. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.”
Rank 15. Matthew 6:11. “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Proverbial or memorable verses
The next major category of steadily quoted verses were those that were proverbial in some way or which had some memorable image that encapsulated a key idea of Christianity. Alternatively, the words of the verse were an interesting phrase applicable to different contexts even if divorced from any sense of the biblical context.
Rank 3. Matthew 7:16. “Ye shall know them by their fruits.”
An example of these would be Matthew 7:16, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” This saying of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew takes the form of a proverbial saying. It is New Testament wisdom literature, like much of the parables or other sayings of Jesus, modeled on the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. In the specific context, Jesus was referring to “false prophets.” But the imagery of the apothogem was so compelling that many people used the phrase to refer to many other contexts. To give but one example, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James referred to “our empiricism criterion: By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.”4 Perhaps in this kind of context it is better to understand the use of this verse not properly as a quotation, or even as an allusion, but rather as a turn of phrase which had entered the English language. This particular passage again shows a very steady rate of quotation across the period under study, demonstrating that it was not episodically quoted but part of the stock of the canon within a canon or even a part of the language itself.
By far the majority of these most frequently quoted texts are the words of Jesus from the Gospels. While this is not particularly surprising, especially given the centrality of Jesus in American Christians’ thinking, it is still noteworthy.5 While Jesus’ words are pithy, so are many other parts of the Bible, not least the Proverbs and Psalms.
Rank 4. Matthew 25:40. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Rank 5. Matthew 19:6. “Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Rank 6. John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Rank 8. Matthew 11:28. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Rank 9. Matthew 28:19. “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:”
Rank 10. Mark 16:15. “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”
Rank 11. Matthew 7:12. “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
Rank 12. Matthew 22: 14. “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Rank 13. Matthew 5:43. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.”
Rank 14. Matthew 22:37 (quoting Deuteronomy 6:5). “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”
Rank 15. John 8:32. “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
Rank 16. Matthew 6:33. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
John 3:16, perhaps the most recognizable of all verses in contemporary America, was not always so popular. Rather, its popularity grew gradually over time.
Matthew 22:14 (“many are called, but few are chosen”) also started to become vastly more popular over time, starting in the 1870s. With this particular passage it appears to be fair to say that there is no discernible pattern to the ascent. The verse was used for vacancies on the New York City policy force, political elections, sermons on predestination, missions, and so forth. Somtimes it was quoted as a Bible verse, but other times it was used simply as a useful turn of phrase. It may be safest to attribute the popularity of the verse to the popularity of the phrase, which gained new force in the national lexicon but which was divorced in many instances from any obvious connection to the Bible.
By way of contrast, John 8:32 was also a verse whose popularity increased over time. But unlike Matthew 22:14, the phrase “the truth shall set you free” was mostly used as a direct quotation from the Bible. A great deal of its usage in the newspapers in the second half of the century were sermons or other religious reflections.
Other proverbial verses
The sayings of Jesus were not the only proverbial statements to make it into the list of most quoted verses across the century, though it is perhaps somewhat surprising that the Book of Proverbs or the Psalms did not have a higher representation.
One verse from the Proverbs made the top twenty. Just as with Luke 18:16, the prevalence of Proverbs 22:6 shows how when the Bible was quoted, it was often on the theme of family and children.
Rank 7. Proverbs 22:6. “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
The next two verses were those whose key phrases were broadly applicable in non-Biblical contexts. In other words, like Matthew 22:14, they were verses where the turn of phrase was as important or more so than the theological reflection contained within it.
Rank 17. 1 Thessalonians 5:21. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
Rank 18. Galatians 6:7. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
Romans 8:28 was also broadly speaking a proverbial verse in the sense that it was a pithy saying that captured some important truth.
Rank 19. Romans 8:28. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
Verses used in obituaries
Finally, some of the most frequently used verses were those that were common in newspaper obituaries. Certainly the importance of obituaries to newspapers (and newspapers’ business) overstates the importance of these verses. But these verses were popular not simply becaue of obituaries, but because of the significance that death played in the life cycle of Christians. Religious observance was usually closely tied to key moments in the life cycle, from birth to marriage to death. The following five verses were most commonly used in obituaries (or commemorative speeches and sermons). Especially noteworthy is John 15:13, a verse which had especially popularity in times of war or other disaster to commemorate soldiers and sailors, and which shows the significance of the verse to public mourning.
Rank 5. Matthew 25:21. “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
Rank 6. Matthew 16:26. “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
Rank 7. John 15:13. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Rank 8. Revelation 7:17. “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.”
Rank 9. 2 Timothy 4:7. “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith:”
Colporteur Reports of the American Tract Society, 1841–1846 (Newark: New Jersey Historical Records Survey Project, 1940), p. 4–5, 11, 20, 29; for the distribution of the Bible, see John Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016). ↩︎
The Kinsley Graphic (Kinsley, KS), 05 June 1891, p. 3. On the use of images like Talmage’s to help forget the emancipatory purpose of the Civil War, see David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002). Talmage also used the verse in a curious apologia for the Russian Tsar. Daily Tobacco Leaf-Chronicle (Clarksville, TN), 21 Nov. 1892, p. 3. ↩︎
This verse almost certainly gets an unfair advantage because its unusual vocabulary (“thou shalt”) combined with its pithiness makes it easier to detect than other verses. ↩︎
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (Modern Library, 1929), 21. ↩︎
Richard Wightman Fox, Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004); Stephen R. Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003). ↩︎