There but for the grace of God, go I
I too, like someone seen to have suffered misfortune, might have suffered a similar fate, but for God's mercy.
In recent times, this proverbial saying is often used without the literal belief in the Christian God's control of all things and is used by believers and nonbelievers alike. It is frequently suggested to have been coined in a more pious and devout era. The story that is widely circulated is that the phrase was first spoken by the English evangelical preacher and martyr, John Bradford (circa 1510–1555). He is said to have uttered the variant of the expression - "There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford", when seeing criminals being led to the scaffold. He didn't enjoy that grace for long, however. He was burned at the stake in 1555, although, by all accounts he remained sanguine about his fate and is said to have suggested to a fellow victim that "We shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night".
Despite the Bradford source being claimed as fact, the research that I've done into the source of "there but for the grace of God, go I" leads me to the conclusion that the derivation is questionable. The case against Bradford being the source is this:
- All of the sources that claim Bradford as the originator themselves ultimately derive from The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. These include an entry in the usually authoritative The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which cites the DNB. The biography of John Bradford in the DNB contains no claim that he uttered the words in question. If such a claim appeared there in earlier editions, the editors have now seen fit to remove it.
- An extensive, 1000-page, collection of the writings of John Bradford was published by The Parker Society, in 1848. The 19th century editors do repeat the story, which they describe as "a universal tradition, which has overcome the lapse of time". Despite that, the book contains nothing in Bradford's own writings that could be seen as the source of the quotation.
- The phrase "there but for the grace of God, go I" isn't to be found in print until centuries after Bradford's death. The earliest example of it that I have found is in A treatise on prayer, by Edward Bickersteth, 1822, in which the author repeats the Bradford story.
John Bradford was an exceedingly devout and compassionate Christian and the phrase is the kind of thing that he might well have said but, regrettably, there's no evidence at all that he actually did.
The expression is likely to be a much more recent coinage - the lack of earlier printed examples makes an earlier coinage unlikely. The phrase was certainly well-known by the mid 20th century, when Winston Churchill is reported as paraphrasing it, at the expense of the pompous Sir Stafford Cripps, as "There but for the grace of God, goes God". In fact, although it is clear that Churchill disliked Cripps, the attribution is itself unverified. Whether or not Churchill said it isn't that important for dating purposes. The quotation was certainly current in Cripps' lifetime (he died in 1952) and if Churchill didn't say it, then another contemporary did.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used a variant of the phrase in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories - The Boscombe Valley Mystery, which was published in 1891"
“God help us!” said Holmes after a long silence. “Why does fate play such tricks with poor, helpless worms? I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.’”
Bradford almost certainly wasn't the source; but who was? Well, we don't know.
See also: the List of Proverbs.