Not Emerson?

Recently, I have been trying to track down the origins of the following quotation attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“A person will worship something — have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts — but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

This quotation appears in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition, but there is no source listed for it in Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition. (This quotation does not appear in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the predecessor to Singing the Living Tradition.)

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson are available online at I searched the complete works for “tribute,” using both the online concordance, and a brute force search using Google, and did not find this quotation.

Emerson’s complete sermons are also available online at — these are the genetic texts (including manuscript variations) used in the definitive four-volume The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Albert J. von Frank et al. (University of Missouri Press, 1989-1991). Using a brute force Google search, I did not find this quote in the sermons. I was also able to search eight of the ten volumes of Emerson’s letters online using Google Books (vols. 1-5, and 8-10). This quotation was in none of those volumes. All my searches used the relatively uncommon word “tribute” as the key search word.

At this point, I have not searched vols. 6-7 of the Letters; The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph H. Orth et al.; and The Topical Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph H. Orth. Nevertheless, I’m assuming that Emerson probably did not write this passage, and the attribution should read “attributed to Emerson.” Can anyone prove me wrong by providing a definitive source for this quote?

(1/5/22: Click here for another Not Emerson hymn.)

39 thoughts on “Not Emerson?”

  1. And if he didn’t say it, who did? That’s harder to track down. Looking on the net I just find it attributed to RWE over and over–no doubt because they are all copying the same source, or each other.

  2. And on Google Books the earliest instance of the full sentence “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and character” is “Singing the Living Tradition.” I think it’s safe to say that this is a spurious quotation; it doesn’t really sound like Emerson in any case.

  3. I did a search on google books. The earliest reference so far prefaces it with “The Gods we worship write their names on our faces, be sure of that”. In Business ethics, Volumes 1-3, Mavis Publications, 1987. A search on that phrase yielded a variant from 1975 in “Gates of Prayer: The New Union of Prayer” by Chaim Stern. Quoted but not attributed to anyone. The quote is also now in the first person plural “And we will worship something…”

  4. Thanks, hive-mind!

    Erp @ 3 — Thanks for the reference to the Gates of Prayer passage. Just for completeness, here’s the passage in its entirety:

    “The Gods We Worship

    “Through prayer we struggle to experience the Presence of God. Let us be sure that the One we invoke is the Most High, not a god of battles, or state or status or “success” — but the Source of peace and mercy and goodness. For, truly: ‘The gods we worship write their names on our faces, be sure of that. And we will worship something — have no doubt of that either. We may think that our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of the heart — but it will out. That which dominates our imagination and our thoughts will determine our life and character. Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we are worshipping, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.'” [p. 240]

    Note that the passage in question is enclosed in quotation marks, thus implying it came from somewhere else. But where?….

  5. I only just got back to the thread.

    We presumably have an original text, actual wording unknown, origin unknown. The Reform Jewish tradition could have modified it in one way (man->we) and the UU tradition in another (man->person) or the UU could have gotten it from the Reform tradition and did more substantial modifications.

    I did find one page that has (Ralph Waldo Emerson quoted [and slightly adapted] by Chaim Stern in Gates of Understanding, vol. I [New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1977], p. 216) though one has to ask whether the writer was guessing knowing the UU and Reform versions or knew that Stern had adapted it from a supposed Emerson quote. Checking Gates of Understanding might help.

    I did a bit more poking on the Business Ethics (1987) version and that source states it is from “Yom Kippur service written by Hannah Rosenthal of Madison, Wisconsin” but this version is closer to the UU version than the Reform version. Some hunting shows that Hannah Rosenthal led a High Holy Day service in 1989 at Gates of Heaven synagogue in James Madison Park, Madison, WI (not an active synagogue but a former synagogue that can be rented) which influenced people to set up a proper reconstructionist synagogue in Madison. Some more info at (1994)

  6. Erp @ 6 — Thanks! So we still have to leave open the possibility that this was written by Emerson, although it seems a pretty slim possibility, and to prove it we’d still have to track down the source of the original Emerson quote.

  7. I did track down the Gates of Understanding and Chaim Stern did claim to have adapted it from Emerson (but did not give the original source). My guess is the quote was circling in Reform Jewish/UU circles for some time before 1975 (a bit like an urban legend).

    There are some overtones in “Worship” such as “We are born believing. A man bears beliefs, as a tree bears apples.” Or “The god of the cannibals will be a cannibal, of the crusaders a crusader, and of the merchants a merchant.”—conduct-of-life/vi-worship.html

  8. Jean @ 10 — We’re still in the middle of the Great Recession here in Silicon Valley, budgets of public libraries are being cut to the bone, and my public library does not have the staff to spend several hours on a research problem I bring to them. I would be very happy if you went to your librarian and posed this problem, but that is not something I can do here.

  9. I suspect a University (or theological school) librarian would be a better bet or an Emerson scholar. If you want, I could ask the Stanford Library information desk.

    I did check the online newspaper archives that Stanford folk have access to. No luck there.

    I did find an article (Lexis-Nexus search) in the Ottawa Citizen, December 22, 2006 by Robert Sibley “A crisis of faith” which quotes and says it comes from Emerson’s essay “On Nature”. However I think he is using a secondary source; I can’t find it in Emerson’s essay ‘Nature’ and I can’t find an essay called “On Nature”. Sibley does list his sources including

    Paul Brockelman, Cosmology and Creation: The Spiritual Significance of Contemporary Cosmology. Oxford University Press, 1999. (He almost certainly got it from this work, page 115).

    The quote isn’t in the wikiquotes article on Emerson though should probably be added as disputed.

  10. Okay, I’ll do that. But can’t you get access to a university library? And wouldn’t a public librarian really actually be thrilled to help with this research problem? You could at least ask.

  11. Dan, thanks for posting this puzzle. I’ve always liked that quote and was just trying to track down its source when I found your blog. I’ll keep looking.

  12. I did a google book search on just “will worship something”. An earlier riff is

    “Two facts, then, are philosophically and historically true: First—-Man is a religious animal, and will worship something, as a superior being. Second-—By worshipping he becomes assimilated to the moral character of the object which he worships.”

    Philosophy of the plan of salvation, by an American citizen. By James Barr Walker, 1799, page 8.

    Walker did draw a different conclusion (one needed Christ).

  13. Hi there,
    Did you happen to determine whether Emerson actually said this quote? I’m writing a book and need to cite it! Egads. Would you have a suggestion as to how best to cite it?

  14. Kristina, since no one has been able to find this quotation in Emerson’s published works, nor any certain evidence that it was actually written or said by him, in a popular work it would be safest to say “attributed to Emerson.” A more scholarly citation in a footnote or endnote might say something like, “attributed to Emerson in [give bibliographic info],” using one of the sources in the comments above. Good luck!

  15. I love that when I went to find an source for this quote (thinking it was Emerson but wanting to know from which of his works) Google sent me to you guys, and found that you had been having the same trouble. My kindred spirits.

  16. Here it is late 2014 and I can still find no further truth to credit this quote. In looking at works of James Barr Walker, I did find that he was a contemporary of Emerson. Walker’s book “Philosophy of the Plan of Salvation” was published in 1855. The quotes are close, but I can find no connection to Emerson that would lead to an assumption that they are related. Curious that Emerson is so widely credited with the quote but the original citation can’t be located. Urban Legends continue to rule.

  17. Google books keeps turning up a book called “God and the Constitution” by Paul Marshall. The Google preview shows the page where the line is quoted, and it has an indication of a footnote/endnote citation. But the online preview doesn’t show the page with the actual citation. Anyone have access to this book and want to check out the citation??

  18. “book called “God and the Constitution” by Paul Marshall.”

    This uses “a man will worship something” variant prefaced with “The Gods we worship write their names on our faces, be sure of that”

    I checked in the local library. The citation is

    16. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Book of Uncommon Prayer, (Dallas: Word, 1996), p. 61.

    I then tracked down the citation which is somewhat wrong. The book is not by Emerson instead the editors are Constance and Daniel Pollock, The Book of Uncommon Prayer, Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996. This is a collection of quotes by many famous writers put out by a religious press. I can only see snippets by straight googling but it doesn’t strike me as scholarly at all (the ‘bibliography’ seems to be short bios of the authors used not proper citations but that might be an artifact of snippet).

  19. Well, here it is June, 2016 and I found the quote attributed to Henry David Thoreau (online source – a sermon by Rev. Dr. Casey G. Baggott, Community Church of Vero Beach, FL). I like to confirm where quotes originate, which is what brought me here. So at least I’ll be able to get the “attributed to” right, even if I can’t contribute much to the conversation….thanks.

  20. Hi all. So glad to have found this thread. I was a participant in Hannah Rosenthal’s pop-up High Holiday services in Madison, WI you mentioned above with incredible music by the Jazz musician Ben Sidran and singing by Lynette. It is where I first hear this quote, which Hannah took from the Gates prayer book you cite above.

    You can see it on the back of the CD from these services called Life’s a Lesson. Sorry I am not good with making tiny urls, so best to Google “life’s a lesson ben sidran liner notes” in the Google Images option and you can see the CD. Or buy it if you are interested in listening to traditional Jewish High Holiday music done in an earthy modern jazz style.

    Ever since I heard the quote I have been trying to track it down. You all have been far more assiduous than I have been, and the fact that you cannot locate it either means that I just have to accept that it comes from the divine inspiration of some person or persons and leave it at that.

  21. Any final determination yet in the middle of 2017? So far, for my part I’m feeling comfortable attributing the quote to “Chaim Stern in Gates of Understanding (vol. I [New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1977], p. 216), who claimed inspiration from the writings of RWE, to whom it’s mis-attributed in STLT #563.”

  22. Hi Dan,
    I believe that this quote comes from Clarence Skinner. But my old computer ate a bunch of my readings. I will look through some books I have by Skinner specifically “Worship And a Well Ordered Life.”

  23. Hank, “Worship and the Well Ordered life” is available on Google Books in a “snippet view.” I searched for the key word “tribute,” and found only one instance of that word: “Our reluctance in dealing courageously with forms of worship may be a tribute to our sense of reverence….” — not the quote we’re looking for.

  24. Some gleanings from searches related to the quotations on this page:

    It’s interesting to note that “The gods we worship write their names on our faces” is attributed to Emerson by Orison Swett Marden in 1916, in his book “The Victorious Attitude” (see the epigraphs to Chapter XII, p. 268). Google Books does not find any 19th century versions of this quotation, though, so I think it may be another mistaken attribution .

    Then, in the May 1916 edition of the “Nautilus” magazine, Marden wrote “… How true it is that ‘the gods we worship write their names on our faces.’ We gradually come to resemble our ideals, the things which most occupy our minds. Hope or fear, joy or sorrow, success or failure eventually reproduces itself in our expression of countenance, in our manner, in our atmosphere, in our personality…”
    (I couldn’t find the May 1916 Nautilus, but the quotation is given with that citation in the August 1916 edition of “The Guide to Nature” (see p. 98).)

    Then, in the May 1924 edition of “The Gleaner” an unattributed author writes this on page 272:

    “Who is there who has lived and suffered who will deny that ‘the Gods we worship write their names on our faces?’ All the visible world is but the product of thought, and nothing is so plastic as the instrument that God has given man through which to express His glory. If man would appear well, it behooves him to think well, for that which he thinks will as surely appear upon the surface of his body as it dwells in the recesses of his mind.

    “The gods we worship secretly must be those which we are willing to salute publicly , else we shall soon be carrying about with us the monster that we kneel before in the sacred sanctuary of our minds.”

    Finally, I wonder how much the “names on our faces” idea is influenced by Rev 22:3–4, which says “…his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” (NRSV)

  25. I love how this is a decades long conversation.

    I found one earlier Marden quote the 1910 edition of “The Miracle of Right Thought. Orison Swett Marden puts in quotes the phrase “The Gods we worship write their names on our faces” (page ix). However, it is just that line; nothing about the lines after that and no Emerson reference.

    My hunch is that this started with New Thought as a fake Emerson quote that echoed the idea of manifesting and eventually got laundered into reformed Jewish and UU liturgical traditions.

    The only question is the jump between the Marden versions Everett Howe discovered and the 1975 Gates of Prayer version. I think there must be an earlier version with gendered language prior to Gates of Prayer. In “Journal of Jewish Communal Service”, Volume 56 (1979), the version quoted uses the gendered language found in the Book of Uncommon Prayer (1996) and not the gender neutral language of the Gates of Prayer Version. I believe there is a pre 1975 gendered version of the quote that Gates of Prayer adapted into gender neutral language that eventually made their way into UU circulation.

  26. Coming back to this discussion/investigation after a break of a few months…

    This essay, by Rabbi Howard I. Bogot, is from the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, v.56 no.1, Fall 1979:

    At the bottom of the first column on p. 108, Bogot writes: “For many years I have carried with me an Emerson-like quote which reads as follows: […]”, followed by a version of the quotation in question. In this case he begins with “The gods will write their names on our faces be sure of that and man will worship something have not doubt of that either.” (No punctuation to set off any phrases.) Then he continues on with the gendered version of the quotation (except with “dark recesses” replaced with “deep recesses”), and ends up with “Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

    This is somewhat tantalizing, because he mentions Emerson while not actually claiming the quotation to be from Emerson.

    I wonder whether the “many years” Bogot mentions leads back earlier than 1975…

  27. I too, a lifelong UU now in my 70’s, have been looking for the real source of this quote ever since I was first inspired by it decades ago. At this point, we should be sponsoring a UUA fund-raiser allowing all Members of UU congregations to vote every decade on who the attribution should shift too, sort of like having rotating poet laureates. Fictional as well as real people should be eligible for candidacy. We need a fun way to humbly admit it’s a mystery and likely to remain so.

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