“Thoughts belong to everybody,” said Charles Haddon Spurgeon. “I must not wonder that other people steal my thoughts, since I have stolen so many of other people’s. For my part, I beg, borrow, and steal from every conceivable quarter, but when I steal a man’s coat, I tear it all to pieces and make a waistcoat [vest] out of it.”
Spurgeon certainly spoke those words tongue-in-cheek and with a smile on his face. However, when you read his sermons, you see how much good material was stored away in his memory and with what deftness he could bring out the right quotation at the right place in the message. “Steal” is perhaps too strong a word, for anything published is available to anybody who can read, and if writers don’t want to be quoted, they should stop publishing. If they aren’t given credit for the quotation, the use of it borders on plagiarism; but even plagiarism is a sort of backhanded compliment. British essayist Samuel Johnson said that there was “a community of mind” in quotations, which reminds me that the American educator Robert Hutchens compared the great books of western civilization to “a great conversation.” Quotations are a big part of that conversation.
Document the source
In his first inaugural address, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a statement that’s often been quoted: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It may have been an original thought, but as Bergan Evans points out in his excellent Dictionary of Quotations (Delacorte Press), the erudite president may have read it elsewhere. One possibility is The Essays of Montaigne (I.xvii), “The thing of which I have most fear is fear.” Or perhaps he recalled Thoreau’s adaptation of it, “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear” (Journals, Sept. 7, 1851). Most quotation books attribute the statement to Roosevelt, but the statement may go back as far as Julius Caesar!
In using other people’s thoughts, we must honestly try to document them, because the source of the quotation often supplies a great deal of the force behind the quotation. It’s possible to paraphrase somebody and still get the point across, but why bother? Let the original writers or speakers have their say and bask in the glow of their fame. This is where dependable quotation books become essential. If you quote from somebody else’s “borrowing” of a quotation, you may not have an accurate statement of the original, so take time to chase the quotation down. Also, check They Never Said It, by Paul F. Boller, Jr., and John George (Oxford) to make sure the statement isn’t spurious. It’s remarkable the things writers and speakers quote from people who never said them! Also, it’s good to know the context in which the quotation is originally found. Where the context is important, most scholarly quotation books will include an explanatory note. Magill’s Quotations in Context, edited by Frank N. Magill (Harper and Row) is a helpful tool and so is the Cassell Companion to Quotations, edited by Nigel Rees (Cassell). The latter volume is especially helpful for identifying errors that have crept into other quotation books.
But a word of warning here: if your congregation doesn’t recognize the source of the quotation, some of the power may be lost. Most literate people would recognize writers like William Shakespeare, C. S. Lewis and Erma Bombeck, but what about Thomas Merton, Leigh Hunt, Samuel Johnson, Iris Murdoch, Dorothy Parker and Simone Weil? Television stars and athletic heroes are recognized faster and easier by today’s media-made populace than are famous writers and political leaders, and especially the classical writers. If you have to interrupt your sermon to spend five minutes identifying the writer, your listeners may forget why you’re even using the quotation.
A brief and well-thought-out introduction to the quotation can do the job adequately. “Dorothy Parker, who back in the thirties wrote poems and short stories for New Yorker magazine…” says what needs to be said. At least it tells people what she did and when she did it. “Just before Pearl Harbor, Thomas Merton abandoned a career as a college literature instructor to become a Trappist monk in Kentucky. He wrote an autobiography that was a best-seller for months, and in it he said….” “When some of us were in college, we had to read the books of Iris Murdoch, the Irish novelist, who was also an instructor in philosophy at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. I can never forget one thing she wrote…” Get the idea?
Anticipate the response
Be careful that the person you’re quoting doesn’t arouse feelings of discomfort or even antagonism in the hearts of your listeners. A congregation of devout Fundamentalists may not appreciate a quotation from Harry Emerson Fosdick or Fulton Sheen, so we must be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” to quote Jesus (Matt. 10:16). Try to anticipate the response of the average listener and act accordingly. If the quotation is acceptable and necessary to the sermon, but the author is dangerous, don’t document the quotation. “One of our leading television personalities has said – ” may be sufficient for a Fulton Sheen quotation (and there are some good ones!), and “One of America’s leading authors and radio preachers” may be all the identification you need for Fosdick.
However, sometimes we can use an “uncomfortable quotation” to get attention and arouse interest at the start of the message. “In My Fair Lady, Professor Henry Higgins asked, ‘Why can’t a woman be more like man?’ Men smile at that question and women frown at it, but nobody seems to want to answer it. Yet in the creation account in Genesis, God made the woman because something was lacking in the man which only the woman could complete.” If you want to increase the temperature, follow up with Nietzsche’s statement, “Woman was God’s second mistake.” If you’re preaching on prayer, you can begin with Oscar Wilde’s statement, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” Excellent quotations have a way of waking people up and grabbing their attention.
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (Little, Brown) was first published in the United States in 1855 and has been enlarged from the 258 pages of that first edition to over 1400 pages in the sixteenth edition. Originally compiled by John Bartlett (1820-1905), the sixteenth edition has Justin Kaplan as its senior editor, and it is a must for your library. The arrangement is chronological by author, starting with ancient Egyptian quotations and concluding with “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “Sesame Street” and that famous author “Anonymous.” The index of authors and the extensive topical index assist you in locating what you need very quickly. The documentation is excellent and there are occasional notes to explain quotations whose significance is in the historical context. It has a fine selection of contemporary quotations, including “Beam me up, Scotty!”
But don’t stop with Bartlett! Your next volume must be The Oxford Book of Quotations, edited by Angela Partington (Oxford). Like Bartlett’s, it’s arranged chronologically and it provides good indexes and helpful notes. The selection of contemporary quotations is good, but I think Bartlett’s is better. However, you ought to have both books.
The International Thesaurus of Quotations, compiled by Rhonda Thomas Tripp (Crowell) is very easy to use because it uses a number system like Roget’s Thesaurus and the material is arranged topically. The range of quotations is wide, it has an excellent topical index, and there is even an index of authors to help you get acquainted with them. Its handy size makes it the ideal desktop quotation book For a larger volume; see The Random House Webster’s Quotationary, edited by Leonard Roy Frank (Random House). It’s arranged topically but has a complete index of authors and sources. It’s especially rich in contemporary quotations.
The Macmillan Dictionary of Quotations (Chartwell Books) combines both the topical and biographical approach. You can look up a topic or the name of a person and find a wealth of material at your disposal. There are not only quotations from the persons listed but also about them, as well as brief biographies. There are special sections of “repartees” as well as “last words.” It’s a fun book just to browse through when you want to take a break from your work.
One of the best sources for contemporary quotations, not usually found in the standard volumes, is The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, edited by Robert Andrews (Columbia University Press). It’s arranged topically, but the index of sources lists Spiro Agnew and Woody Allen as well as Louisa May Alcott and Matthew Arnold. There are some excellent quotes from Daniel J. Boorstin, former Librarian of Congress, as well as Ernest Hemingway and Gloria Steinem. The editor must have liked Oscar Wilde because he included more of his quotations than those of Shakespeare!
George Seldes has given us two collections. The Great Quotations was published in 1960 by Lyle Stuart and reprinted in a handy Pocket Books edition in 1967. The Great Thoughts, published in 1985 by Ballantine Books, isn’t as large, but it continues the Seldes tradition of emphasizing freedom of thought and opposition against censorship and propaganda. The Great Thoughts promises to provide material from one hundred writers and speakers whose “ideas have determined the intellectual history of the world.” That’s quite a claim.
Finally, The Great Treasury of Western Thought, edited by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren (Bowker) is an anthology of great quotations (some of them quite long) on the “great topics” that concern us as human beings in this world. There are twenty major divisions (such as man, history, art, medicine, etc.) and 127 sub-topics (such as slavery, imagination, doubt, habit, and so on). If you have seen The Great Books of the Western World set, with it’s Syntopicon, then you have some idea of the nature of this book. This is not a fast-food quotation book; it’s more of a rich feast for the person who will take time to read and think. I find it helpful for “priming the pump” when I’m wrestling with a topic and want to see what the people in “the great conversation” have said about it.
There are quotation collections on many specific themes, from American history to writers and writing. Without going into detail, I’ll list some of them.
America The Quotable, edited by Mike Edelhart and James Tinen (Facts on File). Part 1 deals with the nation as a whole: symbols, landscapes, races and peoples, character, religion, business, politics and history. Part 2 takes you through the fifty states as well as key cities and regions. You can look up your state and perhaps your city (if it’s large enough) and find what’s been said about it!
The Bully Pulpit: Quotations from America’s Presidents, edited by Elizabeth Frost (Facts on File). This book tells you what the presidents said about many topics, from “accomplishment” to “women,” and even what they said about the presidency and about other presidents. “A terribly proud man, he detested weakness in other people,” Gerald Ford said about Richard Nixon. “He is the most dangerous man of the age,” Woodrow Wilson said of Theodore Roosevelt.
Nobody Said It Better, edited by Miriam Ringo (Rand McNally) is a unique collection of statements that hundreds of famous people in history said about themselves and each other. “The longer I am out of office,” said Henry Kissinger, “the more infallible I appear to myself.” The arrangement is according to vocation: artists and musicians, doctors, lawyers and business people, athletes, etc. But there are indexes of both persons and topics that make the book easy to consult. “I sometimes make mistakes but I am never wrong,” said James Hoffa; and Leon Trotsky called Joseph Stalin “a master of ignorance and disloyalty.”
A similar collection of statements from and about everybody who was anybody, including what they thought about themselves, is The Dictionary of Biographical Quotation, edited by Richard Kenin and Justin Wintle (Knopf). Billy Sunday called himself “a rube of the rubes,” and prolific writer Agatha Christie called herself “a sausage machine, a perfect sausage machine.” The book seems to favor British nobility and writers, but American authors and political leaders are represented, too.
Sports Quotes by Bob Abel and Michael Valenti (Facts on File) is a very well documented collection of quotations from and about professional athletes. Its only weakness is that the quotations are placed in a somewhat artificial seven-section arrangement that starts with “The Basic Game” and ends with “For the Record.” The titles of the sub-sections do help the user locate specific topics, but this isn’t an easy book to use. I suggest you read through it, mark the quotations that you like and make your own index in the back of the book. There is a name index that helps. Occasional notes on the context of the quotations help the reader better understand what’s being said. Even if you’re not a sports fan (and I’m not), you will find the book very entertaining.
The Morrow Book of Quotations in American History, edited by Joseph R. Conlin, contains over two thousand quotations from hundreds of writers about the people, places, ideas and events in American life and history. It’s arranged by author, but the topical index is helpful. For quotations by and about America and Americans, you can’t do much better than American Quotations, by Gorton Carruth Eugene Ehrlich (Wings Books). This massive collection is arranged topically and has both a biographical index and a superb subject index.
The New York Public Library Book of Twentieth-Century American Quotations, edited by Donadio, Smith, Mesner and Davison (Warner Books), is especially helpful because it focuses on the voices of Americans of recent times. Once you get accustomed to the topical arrangement, you will have no problem finding just the quotation you need. There are quotations about each of the fifty states as well as about many facets of American life and many people in American history. Even Charles Schulz and “Peanuts” are in these pages! This collection captures the thoughts and feelings of the last century in a remarkable way.
The Oxford Book of Literary Quotations, edited by Peter Kemp (Oxford), gives you material from hundreds of people who had something worthwhile to say about writers and writing. The first part of the book is arranged topically and is cross-indexed and well documented. The second part gives you statements about great writers from a variety of sources, also carefully documented. Alas, writers are often very critical of each other!
W. O. W. – Writers on Writing, by John Winokur, is just that. Starting with “Advice to Young Writers” and ending with “Writers and Writing,” the book surveys the writing and publishing scene and the people involved in it. Even people who don’t write books will enjoy this one, and if you read widely, you’ll find it a feast. By the way, John Winokur has also compiled The Portable Curmudgeon (New American Library) and Return of the Portable Curmudgeon (Penguin/Plume), two hilarious collections that give the grouches and Scrooges of the world their opportunity to speak. “And you shall know the truth,” said Aldous Huxley, “and the truth shall make you mad.”
The Quotable Woman, compiled by Elaine Partnow (Anchor/Doubleday) and The Last Word: A Treasury of Women’s Quotes, by Carolyn Warner (Prentice Hall) are excellent collections of quotes by and about women. Partnow’s volume is arranged by author, many of whom you may never have heard of, but the biographical index will help you get acquainted. There is also a topical index. Warner’s volume covers forty topics, from Action to Work, and also has a biographical index. These books aren’t only for women; they’re also for men who want to discover the excellent things women have said and written about many important topics.
Yes, there’s even a book of quotations about food! Since Eve Ate Apples, by March Egerton (Tsunami) contains quotations on everything gastronomical from “abundance” to “yeast,” some of them very funny, others very wise and practical.
“Abstract art? A product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.” Cartoonist Al Capp said that and it’s found on page 7 of Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, compiled by Nat Shapiro (Simon and Schuster). This is a great collection of humorous, sarcastic, insulting and irreverent statements that will amuse you and perhaps disturb you. They cover many topics and many famous people. A companion volume is The Cynic’s Lexicon by Jonathan Green (St. Martin’s Press). It’s arranged by author but contains a thematic index.
Are the experts always right? Not according to Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky who compiled The Experts Speak (Pantheon). In 1954, Dr. R. H. Rigdon of Texas said that “the data available today do not justify the conclusions that the increase in the frequency of cancer of the lung is the result of cigarette smoking.” Financier Barnard Baruch said on Nov. 15, 1929, “The financial storm has definitely passed.” In June 1975, Jimmy Hoffa said in a magazine interview, “I don’t need bodyguards.” He disappeared on July 30, 1975, and hasn’t been seen since. The famous British scientist Lord Kelvin said in 1895, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” “I have no political ambitions for myself or my children,” said Joseph P. Kennedy in 1936. Well, this book is crammed full of the things people said that were later proved false.
Two special collections must be mentioned: The Penguin Dictionary of Proverbs, by Rosalind Fergusson, and The Viking Book of Aphorisms, by W. H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger. In their pages you will find the kind of pithy wisdom that can bring sparkle to a sermon or fresh life to a church newspaper page. For readers of the works of Gilbert K. Chesterton, The Quotable Chesterton, edited by Marlin, Rabatin and Swan (Image) is a must. Chesterton had a way of turning everything upside down and making sense out of it. I especially like his statement that “the function of imagination is not to make the strange things settled, so much as to make the settled things strange….”
Too many of these useful books are no longer in print, and you may have to haunt the internet and the used-book stores to find them; but the prize is worth the pursuit. The older quotation books, helpful as they are, must be balanced with the new ones or we may find ourselves preaching in the past tense and losing touch with today’s rapidly changing world.
But keep in mind that when it comes to using a quotation, we must always ask: (1) Is it authentic? (2) Is it quoted correctly? (3) Is it significant? (4) Do I really know what it means? (5) Do I understand the context? (6) Is the author known to the people? (7) Is it tasteful or will somebody be embarrassed if I use it?
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Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).