Prove all things

1 Thessalonians 5:21—“Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”

A proverbial verse which could fit nearly any context.

The rate of quotations to 1 Thessalonians 5:21 in Chronicling America, 1836–1922. See the full visualization for the complete trend line and to see quotations to this verse on newspaper pages.

Some biblical verses offered expressions or turns of phrase which could be used in a great many circumstances. They were pliable to the point of view of the author who employed them, bolstering the author’s authority or rhetorical appeal but offering no firm or obvious point of view themselves. One such verse was 1 Thessalonians 5:21: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”

That proverbial expression made its way into a number of different contexts. In this case, the trend in quotation over time is not particularly significant, and spikes in usage can mostly be explained by a few newspapers that used the verse in their masthead so that it appeared in every issue. Rather, the verse was used rather steadily across time.

The verse appeared on the masthead of at least two newspapers, the San Marcos Free Press and the Lexington, Kentucky Examiner, an abolitionist newspaper. In those contexts, the verse was an indicator of the purpose of a newspaper: to put political statements to the test. It was also used in advertisements for other newspapers to indicate their key principles. The Southern Light, a “monthly religious and literary journal” advertised itself with this verse. Another newspaper trying to get off the ground used the verse in advertising itself as The Berean, the title a reference to Acts 17:11 and the Bereans who searched the scriptures.

The Southern Light advertised itself as upholding the standards of 1 Thessalonians 5:21. Edgefield Advertiser (Wilmington, NC), 16 January 1856.

The Southern Light advertised itself as upholding the standards of 1 Thessalonians 5:21. Edgefield Advertiser (Wilmington, NC), 16 January 1856.

Another key context in which the verse could be used were advertisements. Here the verse was used as a challenge to test the quality and efficacy of any number of products. The product could be vegetable pills to cure any ailment; stomach bitters; baking powder; or any number of other goods. Of course some products failed the test of health and quality, most notably alcohol. This text was among the dozens of verses that temperance advocates used to advance their cause.

But then the verse could be used in any number of other contexts as well. Farmers were encouraged to not simply do what their fathers had done, but to test those methods in pursuit of better agricultural practice. Anyone introducing an argument or disagreement might use the words. One newspaper quoted the verse in defense of “Southern rights,” arguing for what it took to be the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution. The verse was even the answer to a newspaper quiz.

Almost never was this verse used in some obviously Christian or religious context. Rather it was a stock phrase useable by anyone with an argument to make. It was a verbal allusion and a rhetorical device where the meaning was independent of the text, and the text’s meaning was entirely dependent on the author’s purpose in quoting it.