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It is a supposedly witty paraprosdokian said by Churchill. But I (and possibly some other people whose first language is not English) don't get it. Can someone explain what it means? Do English native speakers get this without much thinking?

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7 Answers

No, I don't think all that many English speakers would "understand it without much thinking," as it requires knowing some history. At the same time, a fair number would, as its antecedent is a reasonably popular quotation. In any case, it is a reference to the famous phrase there but for the grace of God goes I, originally, there but for the grace of God goes John Bradford, uttered by John Bradford, a Protestant reformer, as he passed by a criminal on his way to the execution block while he himself was being held for execution in the Tower of London. What Bradford meant was, "only by the Grace of God am I not suffering the same fate"; his archaic syntactical form does it make it hard for a non-native speaker to digest.

Here, Churchill has cleverly changed the original to mean, "God can do whatever he wants"; i.e., paraphrasing, that only the Grace of God prevents God from doing X, where X is whatever terrible, mighty, judgmental thing God wants to do. (At least, I think that's what it means). The wittiness comes from paradprosdokian preparing us for the original phrase, which evokes a humble ideal, and then turning it about to make it self-important and arrogant, something that really only God can afford to be.

EDIT: Ok, partially scratch that last explanation. Apparently, Churchill originally said this in reference to a certain Stafford Cripps, a member of Parliament who he regard as pompous. So the utterance still touches on an arrogant theme, except this time it means, I guess, "only by the grace of God is that pompous individual ("God"/Cripps) allowed to walk this Earth." Meh, the fact that it's a reference to a specific individual makes not quite as a witty repartee by Churchill, IMO.

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I think if Churchill had meant it the way you interpreted it, i.e. that the second "God" was a sarcastic reference to Cripps himself, it would have to have been "There, only by the grace of God, goes God." In other words, the word "but" (meaning "except") is the opposite of what would fit your interpretation. But I agree, it's hard to parse. –  LarsH Apr 21 '11 at 21:23
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I had to think about this a while, and I'm still not sure, but my current hypothesis is that it means:

Cripps practically sets himself up as God... but by God's grace, he isn't!

(Either that, or Churchill was trying to toss off a quick witticism, and it didn't quite work out the way he'd hoped... he couldn't quite make the well-known saying fit the meaning he was trying to twist it into.)

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Yes: this is what Churchill meant. Cripps would have been God but for the grace of the [real] God. –  Andrew Leach Oct 19 '12 at 8:52
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It doesn't make much sense to me without looking it up, but here is what I found:

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/there-but-for-the-grace-of-god.html:

Meaning

I too, like someone seen to have suffered misfortune, might have suffered a similar fate, but for God's mercy.

Origin

In recent times, this proverbial saying is often used without the literal belief in the Christian God's control of all things and is used by believers and nonbelievers alike. It is frequently suggested to have been coined in a more pious and devout era. The story that is widely circulated is that the phrase was first spoken by the English evangelical preacher and martyr, John Bradford (circa 1510–1555). He is said to have uttered the variant of the expression - "There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford", when seeing criminals being led to the scaffold. He didn't enjoy that grace for long, however. He was burned at the stake in 1555, although, by all accounts he remained sanguine about his fate and is said to have suggested to a fellow victim that "We shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night".

Despite the Bradford source being claimed as fact, the research that I've done into the source of "there but for the grace of God, go I" leads me to the conclusion that the derivation is questionable. The case against Bradford being the source is this:

  • All of the sources that claim Bradford as the originator themselves ultimately derive from The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. These include an entry in the usually authoritative The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which cites the DNB. The biography of John Bradford in the DNB contains no claim that he uttered the words in question. If such a claim appeared there in earlier editions, the editors have now seen fit to remove it.

  • An extensive, 1000-page, collection of the writings of John Bradford was published by The Parker Society, in

    1. The 19th century editors do repeat the story, which they describe as "a universal tradition, which has overcome the lapse of time". Despite that, the book contains nothing in Bradford's own writings that could be seen as the source of the quotation.
  • The phrase "there but for the grace of God, go I" isn't to be found in print until centuries after Bradford's death. The earliest example of it that I have found is in A treatise on prayer, by Edward Bickersteth, 1822, in which the author repeats the Bradford story.

John Bradford was an exceedingly devout and compassionate Christian and the phrase is the kind of thing that he might well have said but, regrettably, there's no evidence at all that he actually did.

The expression is likely to be a 20th century coinage, as the lack of earlier printed examples makes an earlier coinage unlikely. The phrase was certainly well-known by the mid 20th century, when Winston Churchill is reported as paraphrasing it, at the expense of the pompous Sir Stafford Cripps, as "There but for the grace of God, goes God". In fact, although it is clear that Churchill disliked Cripps, the attribution is itself unverified. Whether or not Churchill said it isn't that important for dating purposes. The quotation was certainly current in Cripps' lifetime (he died in 1952) and if Churchill didn't say it, then another contemporary did.

If Bradford wasn't the source, then who was? Well, we don't know.

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Thanks for the link. I get "There but for the grace of God, goes X", but why "There but for the grace of God, goes God" can be used to ridicule Sir Stafford Cripps is stil not clear to me –  Louis Rhys Apr 21 '11 at 10:24
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@Louis: The Marxist evangelical Christian Stafford Cripps was often seen as puritan and sanctimonius, particularly by Churchill who was his opposite both in politics and lifestyle; Churchill was suggesting that Cripps thought of himself as being as good as God, or perhaps better. –  Henry Apr 21 '11 at 13:01
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@Louis. "There, but for the grace of God, goes God." = We might think that God might do that too, but God knows better, and God, by his own grace, constrains himself, so God does not do that. (Unfortunately there is nothing to stop Cripps, so Cripps is behaving in this bad way, as we now see.) OR: See what Cripps is doing? Even God himself does not do that. But Cripps doesn't care! He does it anyway.

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Andrew Dircks has the proper interpretation.

In this case, it seems clear that Churchill had upended the phrase's original meaning, substituting the original denotation of grace, being "mercy", for the more social meaning of "courtesy" or "good manners".

Thus, referencing to Cripps' impolitic behaviour, Churchill is saying something along the lines of "Cripps may think he is God, and he may act like God, and he may even have the parliamentary powers of something like a god...but he is certainly not possessed of God's graciousness!"

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Even if someone has roughly the right answer - if you don't have the rep. to edit theirs, then reiterate and provide a complete answer on your own. –  New Alexandria Oct 8 '12 at 3:05
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One of my favorite quotes, and I am glad to find it is of Churchill. Makes sense as a play on the earlier quote, and a sarcastic slap at someone's arrogance. Meaning: this person thinks he is God, but of course he isn't, thanks to the fact that God is God.

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It is not unusual that someone does not get this phrase. It is so rarely used these days as to be archaic. The usual use is as "there but by God's grace" (not something I did or deserved, but more or less luck). I could be the condemned and the condemned might be in my shoes, watching. Thought of properly, the phrase keeps us from attributing our great lives to our own awesomeness; maybe we had a little bit of luck and we didn't achieve everything because we are better than others. A butterfly beats his wings one less time... we change places? The hubris of a Pharisee is common today but this phrase helps use with humility and help alleviate the obnoxious certainty of one's own.

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protected by RegDwigнt Oct 19 '12 at 21:19

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