A source for the quotation “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd”

[Updated and expanded 2/3/21.]

My friend Beth sent us this bit of embroidery.

Attributed widely to Flannery O’Connor, who never wrote or said it.

As with all inquiries into the origins of a quotation, this one is limited to the resources I have available. I imagine there is a clearer story to be told by someone who has deeper access to and knowledge of the currents of 1980s Episcopal youth ministry.

I started with Lexis Uni, Newspaper Source Plus, ProQuest historical newspapers, and Google Books. I found the earliest dated references via the Internet Archive:

  • The first printed appearance of the actual quotation appears in 1986 in The Baptist Record. Anne Washburn McWilliams quotes Mike Elliott, pastor of the Jefferson Street Baptist Church in Louisville, speaking at the Mississippi Women’s Missionary Union Meeting: “Elliott, a young man dressed in jeans, tweed coat, and dark blue tie and wearing a beard, held the women’s attention. ‘When Jesus comes around you will embrace people you normally wouldn’t be caught dead with. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you” — odd.'” No reference to O’Connor, but that could have been missed by the reporter.
  • The first printed misattribution of the quotation to O’Connor comes in 1987 on the “short takes” page of The Witness, a “journal of opinion that reflected the liberal Church and later progressive social justice movement within the Episcopal Church.” The misspelling of O’Connor’s name suggests that the compiler of the short takes is not writing anything from firsthand knowledge.
The Witness, February 1987. Page 21.

Publications by protestant pastors, mainly those serving youths, carried this quotation through the 1990s. This sample shows a good mix of authors perpetuating the misattribution and acknowledging uncertainty about the source:

  • 1987, Messenger. Link. Chuck Boyer writes “I recently read this scriptural parody: ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.'”
  • 1991, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Link. “We have heard that attributed to G. K. Chesterton, but then, as with Churchill, so much is attributed to Chesterton. A learned friend says she is rather sure that Dorothy Sayers said it first. In any event, it has the ring of truth.” Full text here.
  • 1991, Finding Happiness in the Most Unlikely Places. Link. “‘You shall know the truth,’ Flannery O’Connor wrote, ‘and the truth shall make you odd.'”
  • 1994, Going Against the Flow. “Someone has said, ‘You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you odd.'”
  • 1995, Gospel Herald. “But we would do well to ponder the words of Flannery O’Conner [sic] when she quipped, ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.'”
  • 2000, A Passion for the Gospel. “‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd’—or so Flannery O’Connor is reputed to have” [end of snippet]

Those snippets show the written spread of the quotation, but we have no record of how often the quotation was trotted out at Christian retreats or in youth ministry.

Lexis Uni suggests that the next step in the written spread of the quotation were the Austrialian Bryan Patterson and the Canadian Kevin Little, who appear to have placed their sermons or reflections in the popular press in the first decade of the 2000s:

  • 2003, “Difference is better than indifference” in the Sunday Mail. Patterson heads his column with the misattributed quotation, and credits Mike Yaconelli with popularizing it.
  • 2005, “Our place is with the disadvantaged” in The Ottawa Citizen. (Little.)
  • 2006, “This April Fool’s Day, dare to be a fool for Jesus” in The Toronto Star. (Little.)
  • 2006, “Have we lost the Easter message?” in Herald Sun. (Patterson.)
  • 2007, “Simple living separates needs from wants” in The Halifax Daily News. (Little.)

(Kevin Little is currently pastor of a Nova Scotia church, and trotted out the same quotation in a 2019 remembrance of a parishioner.)

The last step is the shift from syndicated columns to Twitter. The earliest findable tweet is from November 2008:

The quotation appears regularly in 2009 and 2010, including another reference to Mike Yaconelli. In November 2010, Rosanne Cash tweets it, mainstreaming the quotation with its attached misattribution.

There is widespread acknowledgement from even semi-serious writers that O’Connor has nothing to do with the quotation. The 2011 book The Truth Shall Make You Odd: Speaking with Pastoral Integrity in Awkward Situations identifies the title quotation as “attributed to Flannery O’Connor,” and 2018’s A Catholic Spirituality for Business prefaces it with “As Flannery O’Connor is said to have quipped.”

If you ask me the source of the quotation, I would say that it’s likely an oral tradition of some standing, but the oldest published quotation is an Anne Washburn McWilliams article that attaches it to Mike Elliott, who said it at a Women’s Missionary Union meeting in Mississippi in 1986.