John Bradford’s Grace of God

You have no doubt heard, indeed have very likely used, the expression “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  Tradition attributes this quote to the sixteenth-century English evangelical John Bradford, who is said to have uttered the words when he saw a condemned man led to the scaffold, and who with these words disavowed any grounds for personal pride in the fact that his own neck was not about to be snapped.  As there is no written testament, some naturally doubt the tradition, but a man such as Bradford might have expressed such a sentiment if he beheld such a scene.

It appears that the story of Bradford’s pious ejaculation was first published in Edward Bickersteth’s Treatise on Prayer (1822), a popular work that went through many editions in England and North America.  Bickersteth was a student of the early Reformation, and elsewhere published many of Bradford’s letters and sermons, so if he invented the anecdote, he did so as an honest paraphrase of the sentiment of personal unworthiness that runs through Bradford’s literary remains.

For instance, when he was imprisoned and awaiting execution by fire in 1553, Bradford wrote:

“For albeit my manifold sins, even since I came into prison, have deserved at the hand of God not only this temporal, but also eternal fire in Hell; much more then my former sinful life—which the Lord pardoned for Christ’s sake.”

Whether we take Bradford’s celebrated line as paraphrased or verbatim, we must assume that it did not express gratitude that John Bradford had not, by God’s grace, fallen into sin like the wretched rogue whose neck was about to be snapped.  John Bradford believed that he had fallen into sin, and that God therefore had ample reason to snap his neck, along with the necks of every other man on earth.  In other words, Bradford was not thanking God that he was innocent; he was thanking God that he was pardoned.

It is very difficult to sustain this high Calvinism, so we should not be surprised to find that subsequent generations palliated Bradford’s notion of gratitude for unmerited pardon into the more agreeable notion of gratitude for unmerited innocence.  Bradford saw himself as a sinner who had, by God’s mercy, been spared from punishment. The men who later quoted Bradford believed they had, by God’s mercy, been spared from sin.

Shortly after Bickersteth popularized the story of John Bradford in the early nineteenth century, evangelicals began to say that the story illustrated the lesson of 1 Corinthians 10:12.

“Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”

The context of this verse is Paul’s teaching that Christians should eschew extraordinary temptations and occasions of sin.  They should not, as Paul puts it, drink from “the cup of devils” or dine at “the table of devils” (10:21).

The evangelicals who quoted Bradford with this verse in mind were, unlike Bradford, expressing thanks that they had not, by the grace of God, sipped from that cup or supped at that table.  While this is, no doubt, a cause for thanksgiving, it is not what John Bradford was talking about when he said “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  Bradford did not believe that he remained upstanding by God’s grace.  He believed that he remained saved in spite of his not remaining upstanding.  He believed that he had drained the devils’ cup and known the pleasure of the devils’ table, but that he was saved for all that.

As the nineteenth century advanced, even Paul’s teaching was distorted by the new sociological doctrine that the lower classes were oversupplied with devils’ cups and devils’ tables, and that poor men and women were therefore far more liable to “fall,” no matter how “heedful” they might be.  If rich men and women were relatively upstanding, this was said to be an unmerited innocence that resulted from “fortunate circumstances.”  Thus, whereas Paul advised the Corinthians to avoid bad behavior by avoiding bad company, the sociological Christians saw bad company as an excuse for bad behavior.

The new doctrine is nicely summarized in a book titled Social Christianity, published by a Methodist preacher named Hugh Price in 1889.

“Let us not take too much credit to ourselves for the position we occupy.  We own a great deal more to our circumstances, to our social privileges and safeguards, than we sometimes imagine . . . . We—society at large—must take a big share of the blame for the sin and folly of those who break the law.”

Needless to say, Price quotes John Bradford in support of this doctrine, perhaps under the impression that the old Puritan theologian was a progressive sociologist in disguise.  The path Price blazed is now well-worn, since Bradford has ever since been quoted as if he were an advocate of relativism, tolerance and permissive empathy.  John Bradford would be appalled by the use to which his words have been put.

John Bradford’s ashes had been cold for nearly two centuries when the sociological doctrine of proportional peccancy first appeared.  Among its earliest advocates was the old castaway Robinson Crusoe, who gave this early testament of moral relativism in 1719

“Sometimes necessity makes an honest man a knave, and a rich man an honest man because he has no occasion to be a knave.”*

When a man quotes Bradford today, he has Crusoe’s meaning in mind.  The grace of God for which he give thanks is the grace of the “fortunate circumstances” that have spared him all temptation to knavery.  Or so he fondly supposes.  John Bradford would tell him things are otherwise than he supposes, and if he understood what Bradford meant by his line, he might hear what Bradford has to say.




*) The line varies slightly from one edition to the next, and appears in the excursus “Of Honesty” in the section entitled “Visions of the Angelic World.”  This section has been omitted from all editions since 1830.

12 thoughts on “John Bradford’s Grace of God

  1. Pingback: John Bradford’s Grace of God | @the_arv

  2. Thomas Sowell’s “The Vision of the Anointed” details the way in which 1960s judges and other liberals attempted to excuse the horrible behavior of criminals and those who peed in the elevators shared by all in public housing. Their poor circumstances were a metaphorical “violence” done unto them, it was said, justifying their actual violence against their fellow man and unsanitary actions.

    Some months ago I told a class that as a graduate student I made 7,500 dollars a year with no provision made for the summer whatsoever. As a non-citizen or green card holder, I could only work on campus. At one point I ate 3 pounds of peanut butter within the space of two weeks with a bag of flour and baking powder I made into scones (similar to biscuits) because that was all I could afford after I had paid my rent.

    However, at no point did I contemplate slitting anyone’s throat, mugging them, murdering them, because of my fiscally miserable circumstances. I have to admit that I accepted a few beers from friends who were not graduate students when they were mercifully skeptical of my desire to sit at a bar drink free.

    It is true that I hoped one day to be rid of my fiscally constrained circumstances. This wish was granted when I received scholarships, two years running, for 11,000 dollars. My wife and I actually flew to Europe to visit family with this unexpected bounty and bought a cheap and horrible car, for she too had been awarded this scholarship a year before me.

    I like to think that even if my financially constrained circumstances had persisted, that no thoughts of attacking anyone would have entered my head.

    • Like you, I lived below the poverty line quite a while. To give the liberals their due, I was not raise in poverty and was surrounded by other middle-class students who were also temporarily penurious. I didn’t think about robbing the convenience store when the rice bag ran low, but neither was I surrounded by people who were themselves robbing the convenience store and would have shaken my hand if I had successfully done so. But this doesn’t really negate your general point that hard times cannot be the root cause of criminality. One serious objection to John Bradford’s quote (modern meaning) is that it implies that you and I have no souls, and that we could actually become any other person you might mention, if only we were placed in their circumstances. Circumstances do shape a man, but the man who is shaped is also a durable substance.

  3. “The line varies slightly from one edition to the next, and appears in the excursus “Of Honesty” in the section entitled “Visions of the Angelic World.” This section has been omitted from all editions since 1830.”

    This is the type of Curiosity of Literature, for which I return again and again.

  4. Pingback: John Bradford’s Grace of God | Reaction Times

  5. “Sometimes necessity makes an honest man a knave, and a rich man an honest man because he has no occasion to be a knave.”

    A momentary consideration of this line shows its absolute boneheaded asininity, not to put too fine a point on it. In point of fact the material causes flow in the other direction: often a poor man, living in his poverty (by which we mean the kind of poverty capable of just barely scraping together enough for a day or two, and in community with others of like case) has no opportunity for vice and much opportunity for virtue, precisely because many of the vices take money and the virtues are open to all. Contrariwise, a rich man always has the opportunity of vice, due to the money he holds.

    This is why poverty, properly practiced, is in fact a Christian virtue. Which, incidentally, is why so many of the socialist wolves in Christ’s sheep’s clothing rail at length about doing away with poverty.

    • Yes, I think the proper Christian understanding is that all stations in life are supplied with Devils’ cups and Devils’ tables, and that the rich are perhaps more abundantly supplied than others. This is why I recently wrote that the rich and powerful should not be excluded from universal charity. I’m glad that you qualify the word poverty with the words “properly practiced,” since indiscriminate fawning on “the poor” is one of the great vices of modern Christianity.

      • I’m glad that you qualify the word poverty with the words “properly practiced,” since indiscriminate fawning on “the poor” is one of the great vices of modern Christianity.

        Absolutely. I’m thinking of Bishop Cardinal Sara’s poverty (he talks about growing up in his book God or Nothing) rather than modern degraded welfare-poverty or the grinding deathly penury that attends the normally-poor in wartime or during other such upheavals.

        Tangentially, Victor Hugo disproves his own major thesis in Les Miserables by writing the Thénardiers. Such people exist, and as Hugo showed despite himself are not wholly made nor excused by their circumstances.

  6. When I was flat broke, as in having no source of protein whatsoever and living on white bread and cabbage, I was sorely tempted in ways I’d never realized were possible to commit a variety of sins that had never tempted me before. However, I did not run right out and begin picking pockets. The reason I did not was that I had been “raised right.” That and the fact that I figured I’d be pretty bad at it. Without that, who knows what I might have done.

    On the other hand, and this is critically important, when I have been not flat broke, I have been sorely tempted to a different set of sins. All circumstances have their own temptations, many of which don’t even occur to people in other circumstances.

    But despite all this, the point that sin is sin and we’ve all sinned and are deserving of death still stands.

    • Every station in life has its peculiar vices. As you say, social mobility makes one aware of this, but also protects one with “prejudices” imported from one’s earlier class. I suppose what you call being “raised right” is middle-class morality that survived as a prejudice against low-class behavior when you underwent downward mobility. It works the other way as well. No one sees the rotten morals of the upper class so clearly as an arriviste who arrives in that lofty sphere saddled with middle-class morality. The hypocrisy of middle-class morality seems to be most obvious (and objectionable) to people who have arrived in that station from above and below.

  7. There is a real possibility that all men have souls and that “all” are not men (or women). In other words, “we” are correct with the metaphysics and dead wrong about the biological facts. The observable evidence is not just that we all sin at every level, but that “we” do so free willingly and “they” do so with a soulless determination. This is a psychological separation of man from not man resonating throughout the biological realm. In liberal “Christianity” is the very notion that man is not man such that “all” have souls. As such, white man’s belief that “all men have souls” practically memes that “all have souls” and thus his subconscious submission to “universal equality” be his death knell.

    Never forget that a single individual God-ordained free will is superior to all of universal sin. Re-interpreting “Who is Man” is in strict order or else “we” are bound to self-annihilate.


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