Speaking American as Americans Speak It and Speaking English as Jesus and St. Paul Spoke It

Recently, I posted an item on Sarah Palin’s abuse of the English language, which included her observation that if immigrants don’t want to be stigmatized, they should start “speaking American.” Very coincidentally, later on that same day, I came across an item in the discussion list for the American Dialect Society that included a link to a much lengthier item posted previously to Language Log. The two items are re-posted here with the permission of the author, Ben Zimmer. They demonstrate concretely that Palin’s nativist sensibility has deep historical roots in American life.

 

First, the item from Language Log:

April 29, 2006

MA FERGUSON, THE APOCRYPHAL KNOW-NOTHING

Eric Bakovic recently invoked the famous saying attributed to Texas Governor Miriam Amanda “Ma” Ferguson: “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas!” Bloggers commenting on Bush’s opposition to “Nuestro Himno” (such as aldon of the Daily Kos) have also been recalling the quote, which is a favorite of another former Texas governor, Ann Richards. Though I haven’t been able to find any firm attributions of the quote to Ferguson during her own lifetime (she died in 1961), humorous variations on this know-nothing assertion are attested all the way back to 1881.

The earliest variants on the saying that I’ve found relate to the 1881 English Revised Version of the Bible, with the sentiment being that Saint Paul preferred the King James Version:

“Preaching on the Bible; Pulpit Opinions of the New Version.”
New York Times, May 23, 1881, p. 8
The Rev. Dr. Pentecost … illustrated the tenacity with which people cling to the old Bible by telling a story about an agent of a Bible society who was trying to collect money in a country church for a new translation of the Bible. The agent asked an old farmer in the congregation to contribute. “What’s the matter with the good old King James version?” the farmer replied. “That was good enough for St. Paul, and it’s good enough for me.”

“‘The New Covenant’ and its Critics.”
J W Hanson. The Universalist Quarterly and General Review.
Boston: Oct 1884. Vol. 21; p. 465
Prof. Schaff pertinently observes: There are many lineal descendants of those priests, who, in the reign of Henry VIII, preferred their old-fashioned Mumpsimus Domine to the new-fangled Sumpsimus; even in the enlightened State of Massachusetts, a pious deacon is reported to have opposed the Revision of 1881 with the conclusive argument, “If St. James’s Version was good enough for St. Paul, it is good enough for me!”
[Apparently quoting Philip Schaff’s Companion to the Greek Testament and the English Version (1883).]

Nebraska State Journal, June 16, 1901, p. 12
“The Sketch,” of London, says: “A new book on the history of the English Bible has a good story of a certain sprightly young deacon who, in preaching against the advocates of the revised version, startled his hearers by the contention that, if the authorized version was good enough for St. Paul, it was good enough for him!”
[Story also appears in: Davenport Daily Republican, February 27, 1902.]

Barry Popik of the American Dialect Society turned up a transitional form, where it is English, rather than the King James Version of the Bible, that is deemed good enough for Saint Paul:

New York Times, Jan 15, 1905 (Sunday Magazine), p. 8
Prof. Adolphe Cohn of Columbia University recently, in discussing the teaching of French and German in public schools, said that the attitude of a good many people on that subject was explained to him very aptly by a remark he had once overheard in a street car. Two elderly Irish women were talking about their children, when one remarked: “I won’t let my child be taught Frinch.”
“Why not?” inquired the other.
“Sure,” replied the first, “if English was good enough for St. Paul to write the Bible in it’s good enough for me.”

“Language of St. Paul.”
Puck, Sep 11, 1912, Vol. 72, Iss. 1854; p. 10
Among the Wesleyans of a century ago there was a well-known and eccentric preacher named David Mackenzie. … He was a lay preacher of the old order, and was admitted without having read the prescribed “Wesley’s Sermons,” and the rest. He boasted of his lack of “book learning,” and scornfully told a student of the new school, who was learning Latin, that “English was good enough for St. Paul; ain’t it good enough for you?” — Youth’s Companion.

So the saying was circulating widely with “St. Paul” rather than “Jesus” long before Ma Ferguson was elected governor of Texas in 1924. Though the Newspaperarchive database includes many Texas papers from the 1920s, I have yet to find any attribution of the “Jesus” quote to Ferguson during her administration (or afterwards, for that matter). I did find it credited to “a man in Arkansas” in 1927:

Chronicle Telegram (Elyria, Ohio), April 27, 1927
An official of the Rockefeller Institute states that, among hundreds of letters of denunciation received by the institution during the past year, one was from a man in Arkansas who took the view that all this modern education is dangerous, and that the new-fangled practice of grounding preachers in Latin and Greek is especially pernicious. They ought to be taught English, he said, adding in conclusion: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”

Considering how the quote in all its variants has been used primarily to ridicule the backwardness of unnamed Christians (a farmer, a pious deacon, and so forth) wary of new approaches to the Bible, I highly doubt Ma Ferguson ever said it — or if she did, she probably would have said it in self-effacing jest. My guess is that this was a free-floating bit of preacher humor that unfairly got attached to Ma Ferguson, much as Winston Churchill attracts various apocryphal witticisms.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 29, 2006 04:30 PM

 

The more recent item posted to the American Dialect Society’s discussion list:

At the time, the earliest known example of the “good enough for Jesus” phrasing (as opposed to earlier variations involving St. Paul) was one that appeared in the Apr. 27, 1927 Chronicle Telegram of Elyria, Ohio, attributed to “a man in Arkansas” writing a “letter of denunciation” to the Rockefeller Institute.

This item circulated in a number of newspapers, but the original version evidently appeared in the Dec. 4, 1926 issue of The New Yorker.

1926 New Yorker Item

 

 

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