Academic Catchphrase — Help Sourcing a Calvin Quote on ‘Muzzling Dogs.’

UPDATE: See end of blog post.

At times find­ing quotes and ref­er­ences in stu­dent essays, and even in aca­d­e­m­ic works, can be a bit like the old gameshow Catchphrase. Although on the whole quo­ta­tions should be clear­ly ref­er­enced, and there­fore rel­a­tive­ly eas­i­ly found, there are occa­sion­al­ly those which send you deep down the rab­bit hole and turn up only loose ends. One of these quotes that keeps rais­ing its head is this quote attrib­uted to Calvin:

But we muz­zle dogs, and shall we leave men free to open their mouths as they please.’

Over the last cou­ple of decades it has been pop­u­larised in a wide vari­ety of sources, and gen­er­al­ly attrib­uted to Calvin’s works on Deuteronomy. It is under­stand­able why it has become pop­u­lar: it is polem­i­cal, express­es a cen­so­ri­ous sen­ti­ment that is abhor­rent to mod­ern ears, and does it with a degree of vit­ri­olic rhetoric that grabs the atten­tion. On that basis it gets trot­ted out reg­u­lar­ly to sup­port issues of reli­gious cen­sor­ship such as this piece from the ABC on the Zaky Mallah/QandA affair: 1 However, the major­i­ty of these sec­ondary works, if they cite any­thing at all, refer not to any work by Calvin, but to oth­er sec­ondary literature.

When these ref­er­ences are chased through the rab­bit war­ren even­tu­al­ly lead back to The Travail of Religious Liberty by Roland Bainton (1951). 2 The quote itself is found on page 70 of the book, but has no cita­tion for the quote itself (update: cita­tions were in an end-note that was miss­ing from my copy). For con­text, here is the two page spread extract­ed from the edi­tion with the per­ti­nent pieces highlighted:

Screen Shot 2015-09-03 at 10.25.50 am

The full quote reads:

But we muz­zle dogs, and shall we leave men free to open their mouths as they please? Those who object are like dogs and swine. They mur­mur that they will go to America where nobody will both­er them.’ 3

In the text this quote has no end­ing quotemark, although the next para­graph starts with a fur­ther quotemark, and so one may pre­sume that these words are intend­ed to be cit­ed as a quote from Calvin, espe­cial­ly as the open­ing quotemark on page 69 reads ‘“This law,” com­ments Calvin “at first sight…’ It is rel­a­tive­ly safe to take the under­stand­ing that Bainton is intend­ing to quote Calvin at this point.

Indeed in the open­ing sen­tence of this para­graph he writes:

What Calvin would do to such peo­ple nobody could doubt who had read his com­men­tary on the thir­teenth chap­ter of Deuteronomy’ 4

From this the nat­ur­al ref­er­ence for Bainton is that of Calvin’s words on Deuteronomy 13. However, here lies the mul­ti-faceted problem.

Firstly, in the ref­er­ence edi­tions of Calvin’s com­men­taries, there is no dis­tinct com­men­tary on Deuteronomy. Rather there is a com­men­tary on the Harmony of the Law, which con­tains many of his words on Deuteronomy. It would be a rea­son­able expec­ta­tion to find this quote in the Harmony of the Law when Calvin deals with Deuteronomy 13, and it was my first port of call, but there is noth­ing there. I can find no ref­er­ences to dogs, can­is, and muz­zling can be found in any of the ver­sions of the work I have looked at (the work from the Calvin Translation Society is the pri­ma­ry ref­er­ence here).

The sec­ond loca­tion to search was that of the Institutes, as Calvin occa­sion­al­ly draws upon var­i­ous pas­sages and pro­vides a mini-com­men­tary to sup­port his points. Again no ref­er­ences to muz­zling dogs may be found in any of the four edi­tions of the Institutes that I referred to.

The third place to search was Calvin’s ser­mons on Deuteronomy that he preached in October of 1555. At first this source seems to yield some par­al­lels, with Calvin preach­ing regard­ing ‘dogs’:

At a word, men would have either dogs or swine in the pul­pit. This is the thing that they seek for; and this is mens desires in most places; who instead of good and faith­ful ser­vants to God, do choose dogs and swine’ 5

In this ser­mon, and the ser­mon preached in the fol­low­ing week, Calvin does talk about dogs and swine (dogges and ſwine) in a few places. However, all but one are paired as ‘dogs and swine,’ while the final ref­er­ence is to the Papists and Cardinals as being dogs. Throughout his ser­mons on Deuteronomy I can find no ref­er­ence to muz­zling at all.

These three loca­tions form the core of the mate­r­i­al that Calvin wrote or preached on Deuteronomy. But in case I was miss­ing some­thing I also ran search­es for ‘muz­zling’ and ‘dogs’ through­out all of the resources I could find elec­tron­i­cal­ly (the Calvini Opera,, CCEL, StudyLight etc pro­vid­ed ample resourc­ing). Logos, DevonThink, were used for basic search­es and a cus­tom LSA 6 cor­pus was used to see if any infer­ences and alter­nate­ly trans­lat­ed words could be detect­ed. None of these search­es returned any sig­nif­i­cant results, with the major­i­ty of hits being those found in Calvin’s ser­mons on Deuteronomy 13. All in all I can­not find any ref­er­ence to the core of the orig­i­nal quote regard­ing muz­zling dogs any­where in Calvin’s works.

However, I have anoth­er reser­va­tion about the full quote from Bainton’s book. The quote con­tin­ues on to indi­cate that ‘they mur­mur that they will go to America where nobody will both­er them.’ Given that Bainton is talk­ing about Protestant reli­gious per­se­cu­tion in this chap­ter, this indi­ca­tion seems some­what anachro­nis­tic. Presuming the quote is gen­uine, at lat­est it would have been writ­ten in c.1559 when the last of the mate­r­i­al on Deuteronomy (Commentary on the Harmony of the Law) was writ­ten, as from this quote in Vie de Calvin

Towards the end of that year [1559] they began in the Friday meet­ings the expo­si­tion of the four last books of Moses in the form of a Harmony, just as Calvin assem­bled the mate­r­i­al in his com­men­tary which he had pub­lished after­wards. 7

At this time the prime set­tle­ments in America were Catholic in nature. The only ref­er­ence to a Protestant site that I can find is that of Charlesfort-Santa Elena in South Carolina, the site of a Hugenot set­tle­ment. However, apart from this failed set­tle­ment where may this American set­tle­ment refer to. Indeed if, as Bainton is argu­ing, this quote is refer­ring to Protestants flee­ing Europe over per­se­cu­tion (Bainton lat­er links the Michael Servetus inci­dent here), then it would make no sense to flee to a loca­tion that was expe­ri­enc­ing sig­nif­i­cant reli­gious per­se­cu­tion if they want to go some­where where ‘nobody will both­er them.’ This sen­ti­ment fits far bet­ter in the ear­ly-17th cen­tu­ry, rather than the mid-16th century.

This his­tor­i­cal tan­gent aside, what do we make of this quote? Certainly if one wants to con­vey the sen­ti­ment of reli­gious per­se­cu­tion and debate, a case may be mount­ed from Calvin’s works. But I would argue that this quote is not a reli­able source for it. I still can­not find any ref­er­ence to the quote, nor any sig­nif­i­cant mate­r­i­al on flee­ing to America, in any of Calvin’s works. I have enquired with some Calvin schol­ars to no avail—or with some no reply.

Therefore I am turn­ing to the broad­er inter­net, if any­one can sup­ply the loca­tion of the quote I would be very interested.


It appears that in my prej­u­dice for trust­ing the valid­i­ty of phys­i­cal books over scans I had missed that Travails has its sourc­ing in end notes after the final chap­ter. Unfortunately the copy that I had sourced from a local library was rebound and miss­ing the sources and index at the end of the book. Thanks to Richard Walker for high­light­ing this to me, see his Disqus com­ment for more details (unless Disqus isn’t load­ing again).

However, I’m still not con­vinced by the trans­la­tion that Bainton has sup­plied and will blog on that later.

About Chris


  1. Thanks to a friend for point­ing this one out
  2. The full text of this is out of copy­right and archived on here:
  3. Bainton, Roland H. The Travail of Religious Liberty — Nine Biographical Studies. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1951.,70.
  4. Roland H. Bainton, The Travail of Religious Liberty — Nine Biographical Studies (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1951)., 69
  5. Calvin, John. Sermons on Deuteronomy. Translated by Arthur Golding. Facsimile edi­tion edi­tion. Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1987., 538
  6. Latent Semantic Analysis is a nat­ur­al lan­guage com­pu­ta­tion­al lin­guis­tics tool
  7. CO 21:90. See DeBoer Origin And Originality Of John Calvin’s ‘Harmony Of The Law’, The Expository Project On Exodus-Deuteronomy (Acta Theologica Supplementum 10, 2008) for more details