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Ketcham didn’t say it

By October 9, 2006June 6th, 2014No Comments

October 9, 2007Robert Ketcham didn’t really say it. Well, okay, he said it, but he wasn’t the first.

Not only was Ketcham known for frequently saying, “Your Heavenly Father is too good to be unkind and too wise to make mistakes,” but also the quote was reproduced by the thousands and could frequently be found framed in the foyer of our Regular Baptist churches. Recently a reader asked whatever happened to those placards, which were dropped from our catalog a while back. So I devoted a couple of lunch hours to tracking down a bit more of the story.

No, the statement wasn’t original with Robert Ketcham. Murray Murdoch suggested this Your Heavenly Father is too good to be unkind and too wise to make mistakesin the footnotes to his biography of Ketcham, noting, “It is often said there is nothing new under the sun. Thus it is with this saying. It did not originate with Dr. Ketcham, although he probably did not know where or when he had heard or read anything similar” (Portrait of Obedience, 211, 212).

As Murray Murdoch suspected, Charles H. Spurgeon said something similar in a sermon delivered on October 28, 1855, at New Park Street Chapel, Southwark: “What! doth thine ignorance affect to say that God is unwise? I thought it was written that he was too wise to err; and I did think that thou wast a believer, that he was too good to be unkind.” (See “Chastisement (No. 48)” in Spurgeon’s Sermons. vol. 1.)

Spurgeon apparently returned to this idea several times. See also “Fear Not (No. 156)” (quoted in Spurgeon’s Sermons. vol. 3, 1857) “His Name—The Counsellor (No. 215)” (quoted in Spurgeon’s Sermons. vol. 4, 1858), and “The Call of Abraham (No. 261)” (quoted in Spurgeon’s Sermons. vol. 5, 1859).

Now that I have cited four Spurgeon sermons, let’s confuse the issue by adding that the phrase was not original with Spurgeon, either. Adam Clarke said essentially the same thing in his Commentary on the Sacred Writings, first published in 1810: “All God‘s conduct, both in the dispensation of justice and mercy, is right: all as it should be, all as it must be; because he is too wise to err, too good to be unkind.” (See the notes to Hosea 14:9 in Adam Clarke’s Commentary). And for the record, Clarke mentioned this divine characteristic in several other commentaries and sermons.

But wait—we’re not done yet. Before we declare Adam Clarke the winner, we should check out our hymnals. As it turns out, this phrase appeared in a Baptist hymn by Samuel Medley (1739–1799), “GOD Shall Alone the Refuge Be.” It was probably written around 1790 and published as a broadside in any number of missionary newspapers of the day. Later it was published as No. 7 in Gadsby’s Hymns: A Selection of Hymns for Public Worship (1814). This hymnal was a favorite of the Particular Baptists in England; Spurgeon was undoubtedly familiar with it. A later edition of Gadsby’s hymnal was released with a companion tunebook which suggests singing these words to the tune “Rest,” #212, by Frederic C. Maker. This is the same tune we often use today for “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”

“GOD Shall Alone the Refuge Be”

GOD shall alone the refuge be,
And comfort of my mind;
Too wise to be mistaken, He
Too good to be unkind.

2. In all his holy, sovereign will,
He is, I daily find,
Too wise to be mistaken, still
Too good to be unkind.

3. When I the tempter’s rage endure
’Tis God supports my mind;
Too wise to be mistaken, sure,
Too good to be unkind.

4. When sore afflictions on me lie,
He is (though I am blind)
Too wise to be mistaken, yea,
Too good to be unkind.

5. What though I can’t his goings see,
Nor all his footsteps find?
Too wise to be mistaken, He,
Too good to be unkind.

6. Hereafter he will make me know,
And I shall surely find,
He was too wise to err, and O,
Too good to be unkind.

One can hardly blame Ketcham for not knowing the original source for his saying, for the question was a puzzle even in nineteenth-century England. Authors of the era often consulted the literary journal Notes and Queries when trying to track down the source of obscure quotes. But in this case, the authoritative source got it wrong, attributing the quote to the Rev. John East and claiming it originated in 1843. As we have seen here, the quote was already in circulation much earlier than this.

And, for the record, I’m not yet willing to promise “GOD Shall Alone the Refuge Be” is the original source! I suspect this might have been one of those Christian sayings that became a catchphrase of eighteenth-century Baptists in England. It might be impossible to track down the original speaker.