I was curious about the provenance of Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address proclamation regarding government "of the people, by the people, for the people", so I looked it up on Wikipedia (please don't skewer me for this- I'm well aware that Wikipedia in and of itself is a poor source, and was only searching preliminarily). Here I got drawn into a massive and bizarre web of inconsistencies in plausible-looking claims and citations as follows:

  1. The page for the Gettysburg Address itself claims that

Despite many claims, there is no evidence that a similar phrase appears in the Prologue to John Wycliffe's 1384 English translation of the Bible.

with a broken citation to a 1944 article from the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. It then states a claim by minister John White Chadwick that

[Lincoln's law partner William Herndon] had brought to Lincoln some of the sermons of abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, of Massachusetts, and that Lincoln was moved by Parker's use of this idea[.]

making use of a pair of citations to a 1901 article from The American Monthly Review of Reviews and Herndon's 1892 book Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of A Great Life.

  1. The page for Theodore Parker claims parenthetically that

Parker himself might have developed his phrase from John Wycliffe's prologue to the first English translation of the Bible.

with a citation to John Wycliffe’s Wikiquote (not Wikipedia) page.

  1. The Wikiquote page for John Wycliffe claims the following as a quote from Wycliffe's Bible's prologue:

This Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.

with a confusing citation as follows: "General Prologue to the Bible translation of 1384, as paraphrased in Lincoln at Gettysburg : An Address (1906) by Clark Ezra Carr, p. 75".

  1. The page for John Wycliffe discusses that Wycliffe translated the Bible (although it quibbles over his degree of personal involvement), but mentions nothing of the prologue despite its apparent historic import.

  2. The page for Wycliffe's Bible mentions that there is a “General Prologue”, but the link to a page about the general prologue is broken and here it appears to instead have been written by a later translator and disciple of Wycliffe's named John Purvey, explaining the methodology of translation rather than making grand statements about the nature of government.

  3. The page for John Purvey spends the greater part of three paragraphs discussing his and Wycliffe's translation(s) of the Bible, even directly mentioning the prologue:

In the infamous prologue to his version of the Bible, he unravels the method of "a poor catiff lettid fro prehying" and discusses the meaning and renders it "myche travile, with diverse felawis and helperis." He also delves in the ideas how a labourer at Scripture hath "nede to live a clene life, and with good livyng and great traviel" meaning to come to "trewe understanding of holi writ."

with a possible citation to a 1995 article from The English Historical Review. However, this is all that is claimed of Purvey's prologue, with (again) no indication made of the grandiose statements regarding government otherwise attributed to it. The use of the term "infamous" also renders increasingly odd the lack of mention of the prologue to Wycliffe's Bible in Wycliffe's Wikipedia page.

I first texted a friend plus my father about my confusion regarding this inconsistency on January 6, 2022 (and then proceeded to forget about it for over a year, apparently), so I know this is an issue Wikipedia has had for over a year at this point. I'm utterly perplexed- uncovering the ultimate provenance of the phrase isn't even my primary interest at this point (although it would of course be nice). What am I to make of this bizarre mess? Even if the answer is easily encountered elsewhere (which my Wikipedia investigation has increasingly led me to doubt), why is Wikipedia/Wikiquote apparently so thoroughly confused by what seems to me a relatively standard provenance question? It seems Lincoln most likely got it from a review of Theodore Parker's sermons, but did Parker get it from the prologue to Wycliffe's Bible? If not, why do other sources claim that Wycliffe's Bible contains the phrase? If so, why do other sources claim that Wycliffe's Bible does not contain the phrase? Additionally, did Wycliffe even write the phrase otherwise ascribed to him or did John Purvey do it? In short, what the heck is going on?

1 Answer 1


This question is answered in the American Philosophical Society article which you refer to. A man named Ward Hill Lamon made a false citation to a nonexistent edition of Wycliffe's Bible in 1895. Another man, Hall Caine, claimed that he found the citation in an actual Bible, but no one else has ever been able to locate it.

It seems that many people have repeated the false claim from 1895 without checking it, including dictionaries of quotations, etc. But the updated narrative on the Gettysburg Address Wikipedia page is the correct one.

There is a more recent exploration of the phrase in an academic journal. A Christian blogger also recently affirmed that the phrase has never been seen in a Wycliffe Bible edition.

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    The claim with regard to the Wycliffe Bible is easily falsified. Interpolating between English, French, Dutch, and Low German about 95% of the original are readily comprehensible. E.g. (my bolding): "But God, of His grete merci, geve to us grace to lyve wel and to seie the truthe in covenable manere, and acceptable to God and His puple, and to spille not oure tyme, be it short be it long at Goddis ordynaunce." A full translation of the General Prologue is available at Wikisource. Nothing close to the Lincoln quote in it.
    – njuffa
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 23:59
  • Huh. So Parker's Wikipedia and Wycliffe's Wikiquote are misinformed. Fascinating! Commented May 3, 2023 at 0:39
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    @MCW I restated the title as a question. Is it better now? Commented May 3, 2023 at 0:39

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