Unity, Liberty, and Charity – Who said it first?


I happened to be reading LP Cruz’s blog today, and noticed an article in which he ascribed to “a 17th century Lutheran pastor” the famous saying, “In the essentials, unity, in the non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, Charity,” or something to that effect.

It seems like sound-thinking and appeals to our softer side; but who said it first? LP Cruz’s post sparked my interest to dig deeper into the subject.


Ramage’s “Beautiful thoughts from Latin Authors,” ascribes the maxim to Melancthon, and notes that it has been carved in stone above his garden gate. (link) Cox too seems to maintain Melancthon as the originator, posting that quotation prominently on the title page of his biography of that reformer (link). Matthes likewise seems to be of the same view in his life and works of Melancthon (link), though my German and ability to read the older scripts is not good enough for me to be definitive. Hoefer also seems to be willing to attribute the saying to Melancthon (link).


Belton thinks that the origin of the phrase is “really unknown,” though he seems to have found it in a few 17th century writers (link). This is perhaps the most honest and direct conclusion we could give, but it is our part as scholars to dig, guess, and delve. To that end, we cannot be satisfied with Belton’s willing agnosticism on the matter.


Remarkably, the earliest I was able to find a reference (published 1719) to this famous maxim was in the works of the unworthy son of Francis Turretin, Jean Alphonse, who provides the saying with the addition of Prudence to the final line of the saying (link). J.A. Turretin appears to ascribe the phrase to Witsius. Cunningham (and others) agree that Witsius adopted this as his favorite motto (link).

Meldenius – not Augustine
Stanley ascribes the quotation to Rupertus Meldenius, and notes that it had for a time been falsely ascribed to Augustine (link). Jones notes the dubious ascription to Augustine here as well (link). Hamerton appears to have bought the Augustine line (link).

Narrowing it down Further

Hoyt lists both Meldenius (his preference) and Melancthon (link) (much the same thought here, as well).


Augustine was a rather obvious misattribution, his weighty name getting the credit for anything good in Latin among many Protestants. Ironically, the saying eventually came to be approved by a pope, as this thoughtful web page noted (link) and seems to have become taken essentially as dogma in other Catholic writings (e.g.). This may perhaps have been due to its misattribution to Augustine, though the pope seemed to have been aware of the dubious origin of the maxim.

Witsius probably did help popularize the expression, but does not seem to have taken credit for its origin. Furthermore, the 1626 date of Meldenius’ publication is slightly before Witsius’ birth, which naturally seals Witsius off from further consideration.

Melancthon (1497-1560) is old enough to antedate Meldenius’ publication, and would even be old enough to cast Meldenius’ originality into question, but it seems that the garden gate of Melancthon’s garden may simply not date to Melancthon’s time (which would hardly be surprising), and there appears to be no other record of Melancthon having heard of the saying.

At the end of the day, Meldenius has the edge on the others, given that his usage was the first to appear in print – that we have been able to recover (though I have not even been able to recover that). Here’s an interesting brief discussion of Meldenius for those who may be interested (link). In short, L.P. Cruz appears to be justified in attributing the famous phrase to “Peter Medeirlin, a Lutheran pastor of the 17th Century.” If you explore the final link above, you will find some reasonable speculation that Meldenius is a pseudonym (yes folks, people did publish pseudonymously before the Internet) for Medeirlin, based on a rearrangement of letters.

Regardless of who originated the saying let us follow the modified form published by J.A. Turretin, in which we maintain unity among Christians on the essentials (the gospel), liberty among Christians on the non-essentials (other doctrines), and both charity and prudence in all things.


P.S. Thanks to Albert for catching an error in the original version of this post.

3 Responses to “Unity, Liberty, and Charity – Who said it first?”

  1. natamllc Says:

    TF,great stuff. I offer a couple of maxim’s of my own and ask if you might know who came up with them?I will give you the author after my comments:GOD HAS TAKEN THE WORLD OUT OF US, [THE ELECT]HE HAS NOT TAKEN US OUT OF THE WORLDIF WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT WE WILL BE DOING AFTER WE PASSWE WILL NOT GET DOWN TO DOING IT BEFORE WE PASSMy comment about your article now and the attribution of the two maxims later.The God of Heaven can speak creatively through anyone He chooses at any time. I believe someone was given that creative maxim which is the basis of your article here and as others heard it, picked it up and began speaking it. In the case of your article, this is certainly true because of the powerful nature of those words, their effect on us has brought those words here and have been carried down to just today on your blog site by you! How amazing!Pro 18:21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits. An example of this in my personal life is this maxim:SIX MEN SERVE ME GOOD AND TRUEWHAT, WHEN, WHY, HOW, WHERE, WHOWhen I first heard that maxim I picked it up and made it my own and I thereafter always attribute who I heard it from first, not that they heard it from some journalism professor while attending his class and because he liked it so much kept speaking it and pointed to the powerful nature of it. I agreed. I use it too. Who came up with it, to me, well I just don’t know, but I certainly have heard it said in many other ways as this way I wrote hereon.This idea also can be likened to how the Apostle Paul makes reference to the Gospel as “my Gospel”:Rom 2:15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them Rom 2:16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. Hmmmmm, see there? Paul makes God’s Gospel his own and says those folks will be judged by his Gospel, [“my Gospel”, Rom. 2:16]When does His Gospel become “my Gospel” too?If I might build on my idea by quoting Einar Billing, a Swedish Theologian, here, who by the way gave great credit to the Reformers who he wrote the Lutherans could learn a lot from:P. 17, Our Calling, by Einar BillingINTO THESE MONOTONOUS DEEDS OF EVERY DAY I AM TO PUT IN FROM DAY TO DAY NOT ONLY MY MOST EAGER INTEREST, MY STRICTEST CONSCIENTIOUSNESS, BUT GOD’S POWER AND GOD’S LOVE. GOD IS TO CONTINUE TO CREATE, CHRIST TO CONTINUE TO REDEEM, THROUGH MY DAILY WORK.So, someone “God moved upon” continuing to create, hence the maxim: “in the essentials, unity,….”, and the attribution is one left to God seeing no one reading this here today were remotely old enough to have been alive there then when it was first spoken or wrote and as you say, the scholarly work is indeed to:[[…This is perhaps the most honest and direct conclusion we could give, but it is our part as scholars to dig, guess, and delve.]]

  2. Albert Says:

    Turretinfan,I have read elsewhere that the statement came from Augustine. Thanks for the research.Btw, you have a typo error in your last paragraph. :)

  3. Turretinfan Says:

    Thanks Albert! I have now fixed it.-Turretinfan

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