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Meditation 1338
Theodore Roosevelt and the Bible

by: John Tyrrell

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This week, Patheos published a quotation on Facebook attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, which then got a fair bit of circulation around the various Christian communities.

“A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.”

It's a rather silly statement, coming from a graduate of Harvard - but it might indicate something about the quality of a Harvard education in 1880. Or it might point to the quality of the home schooling Roosevelt received before attending Harvard.

I tried to find the source of this quotation to put it into context. But, I could not find a primary source. The earliest attribution I could find was the 1941 book, Stepping Stones: The Complete Bible Narratives by John Thomas Clark.

This could lead one to suspect that it was an invented quotation. However, it is in character. Roosevelt was deeply religious and frequently used biblical quotations and allusions in his speeches and writings.

One astounding anecdote* I encountered while trying to source the quotation was as follows:

On June 2, 1902, during the height of an extremely tense diplomatic showdown with Britain and Germany over their forcible recovery of debt service in Venezuela, several key military advisors were summoned to the White House.

Upon entering Roosevelt’s office they found him pouring over a well worn Bible and an exhaustive concordance. After a long and uncomfortable silence during which the president failed to acknowledge their presence, one of the generals cleared his throat and addressed the great man: “You asked for us, sir?”

Without looking up from the books before him the president responded, “Well don’t just stand there, men. I need help. I can’t remember why I hold to the Monroe Doctrine. I know that it’s got to be in here somewhere.”

Still not quite comprehending what it was that he wanted them to do, the men moved toward his desk whereupon the president handed each of them a Bible of there own to peruse.

“Get to work, men,” he told them. “I can’t act without warrant. I can’t pronounce without precedence of precept.”

Looking in the Bible to understand why he supported the Monroe Doctrine???!!! Looking in the Bible for a precedent for applying the Monroe Doctrine???!!! He would have done better to have taken a course or two in American History in university.

If true, this anecdote illustrates just how wrong the idea is that a thorough knowledge** of the bible is superior to a college education.


*The Theodore Roosevelt Center website makes no mention of this tale in its discussion of the Venezuela Debt Crisis. Perhaps the anecdote is invented. Perhaps the Theodore Roosevelt Center chose not to include it. It should be noted, however, the closing quotation - “I can’t act without warrant. I can’t pronounce without precedence of precept” - is also widely attributed to Roosevelt.***

** I'd originally intended this article to suggest that a thorough knowledge of the bible would require an education, formal or informal, far greater than that provided by any college education. In that sense, the quotation may be true. However, there are very few people - even amongst those with doctorates in theology - who can legitimately claim such a thorough knowledge of the bible. In any event, that version of the article did not get written - it looked like just too much work to identify all the fields of study required so as to obtain a genuinely thorough knowledge of the bible.

*** Subsequent to all the above, I found the anecdote originally comes from Carry a Big Stick: The Uncommon Heroism Of Theodore Roosevelt by George Grant. George Grant is "an evangelical educator."

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