The Grammarphobia Blog

Rhetorical deviltry

Q: Do you know who said this: “God gave us the word and the Devil gave us religion”?

A: This fill-in-the-blank formula—“God gave us X and the Devil gave us Y”—dates back in one form or another at least as far as the 16th century.

The old saying “God sends meat and the Devil sends cooks” has appeared, with slight variations, since about 1542, according to Robert William Dent, a scholar of colloquial and proverbial language in literature.

And it’s been much quoted ever since, especially in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Sometimes the verb is “give” instead of “send,” and the object is “food” instead of “meat.”

(Dent, a UCLA English professor who died in 2005, dated the expression in a footnote to Colloquial Language in Ulysses: A Reference Tool, a 1994 study of James Joyce’s Ulysses.)

Over the years, the expression has proved highly adaptable, inspiring other proverbs like “God sent the wheat and the Devil sent the bakers,” and “God sends corn and the Devil mars the sack.”

We found this passage, for example, in A Cordial for Low Spirits (1763), a collection of tracts by Thomas Gordon:

“It is a common saying, that God sends meat, but the Devil sends cooks; so I think one may say of the Dean that God gave him an understanding, but the Devil gave him a will.”

In 1796, an English pastor, the Rev. William Huntington, wrote this in a letter to his brother: “As soon as God sent me ten pounds, the devil sent one or other to rob me of twenty.”

The formula is a handy rhetorical device for any writer wishing to contrast something good with something not so good.

For instance, here’s a passage from the April 1869 issue of The Methodist Quarterly Review, published in New York:

“Mr. Froude tells us that God gave us the Gospel, but that the devil gave us theology.” (The italics are the author’s.)

The formula survived intact into the 20th century and beyond.

A classmate of Samuel Beckett’s wrote that the headmaster at their Dublin school used to say, “God sends me the boys but the Devil sends me their parents.”

And you can find dozens of variations on the Internet with “religion” in the final position:

“God gave us truth [the universe … spirituality … reason … the world … love] and the devil gave us religion.”

It’s sometimes embellished a bit: “God gave us truth; the devil organized it and called it religion.”

Deepak Chopra is often quoted at second hand as saying something similar. For a direct quote, here’s an excerpt from an interview with him published April 18, 1998, in the St. Petersburg Times:

 “I like to think of myself as seeking spirituality, which is the basis of religion. God gave humans the truth, and the devil came and he said, ‘Let’s give it a name and call it religion. ’ ”

The original was a highly flexible old proverb and we haven’t seen the last of it.

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