When the Rule became the “Golden” Rule

“The Golden Rule” title itself seems to have come into general use in the early to middle 1800s in both England and the United States.

Since ancient times, the word “golden” has been used to signify what is highly valued. To investigate this idea further, see the article: Discovering the “gold” in the Golden Rule at http://www.scarboromissions.ca/golden-rule/discovering-the-gold-in-the-golden-rule

Aristotle used the idea of the “golden mean” to indicate that moral virtue is found between two extremes. As examples, he said courage was a virtue that lay between cowardice and rashness; appropriate pride in one’s accomplishment was the virtue between undue humility and vanity. (Nicomachean Ethics, Book Two)

However, apart from Aristotle’s “golden mean,” there seems to be no record of “golden” being used to refer to desired ways of behaving until the late 1600s. Then, in England in 1674, Robert Godfrey, an English physicist, wrote that, “Whilst forgetting that Golden Law, do as you would be done by, they make self the center of their actions.” (From Various injuries and abuses in chymical and galenical physick…detected as found in the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford, England: Clartendon Press, Second Edition, 1989, Vol. 6, p. 656 and VOA. 20, p. 50)

A couple of generations later, Isaac Watts spoke of “that golden principle of morality which the blessed Lord has given us.” (The Improvement of the mind [written in 1771], Chapter 14, Sec. 8 as found in Oxford English Dictionary, vol. 6, p. 856)


In the early 1800s, the morality of “treating others as you would want to be treated if you were in their situation” was clearly reflected in the values of those working for the abolition of slavery and for the civil rights of African-Americans in the United States. The great American abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass gave a speech in 1842 saying, “…Remember George Latimer in bonds as bound with him; keep in view the golden rule- ‘All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.'” (Mieder, Wolfgang, “No Struggle, No Progress”: Frederick Douglass and His Proverbial Rhetoric for Civil Rights, 2001, Peter Lang Publishers, p. 185)

Another early example of the title being used is “A Lesson From the Golden Rule” that appeared in the October 1853 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine. Godey’s Lady’s Book was rather typical of a number of women’s publications of the time. Personal ethics and teaching children to be moral were two of the concerns of the magazine.

In 1859, Charles Dickens used the term in a story called “The Battle of Life,” that follows “A Christmas Carol” in hisChristmas Books: Tales and Sketches. (Nelson Doubleday, p. 228) Dickens uses the term in a satirical way. After a cleaning woman tells an upper class man that she tries to “Do as you-would-be-done-by,” he almost ridicules her by saying that she will find the opposite idea “to be the golden rule of half her clients.”

A straightforward, non-fictional reference to the Golden Rule in England comes from John Stuart Mill’s book,Utilitarianism, published in 1863. Mill says, “In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” (The English Philosophers, 1939, Random House, p. 908) Utilitarianism was a widely discussed philosophy of the 1800s.

From this period onward, “golden rule” (uncapitalized) appears with increasing frequency. Charles Darwin used it inThe Descent of Man published in 1871 (Chapter IV).


By the end of the 1870s, the Golden Rule had become a children’s textbook lesson in the United States. The 1879Revised Edition of McGuffey’s Fourth Eclectic Reader had a story titled “The Golden Rule” (Lesson 51) that had been written years earlier by Emma Embury. These school texts were used by millions of children through to the end of the century and beyond. Harlow Unger, writing in the Encyclopedia of American Education, claims that these school texts helped establish America’s central ethical ideals. And these texts are still in print. Some home-schooled students and others in private schools continue to study from them (1996, Facts On File, Inc., Vol. 11, p. 588).

As the McGuffey Reader’s Golden Rule lesson was being distributed, notable American authors were also referring to the Golden Rule. William Dean Howells’ 1885 novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham, is an example. Howells was a leading American writer and editor in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In his story, a man named Rogers tries to influence Silas, a business associate, in this manner:

“Well, then, I want you to give me this chance to get on my feet again. You’ve no right to deprive me of it; it’s unchristian. In our dealings with each other we should be guided by the Golden Rule, as I was saying to Mrs. Lapham before you came in. I told her that if I knew myself, I should in your place consider the circumstances of a man in mine…” (Harpers’ Modern Classics Series, 1958. New York: Harper and Brothers, p. 342)

A final note: During this general time period–the early and middle 1800s–the exact wording, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, also became popular, apparently evolving out of folk tradition. Although many people assume that this way of stating the Golden Rule is ancient, even biblical, the phrase is not found in any classical reference or standard translation of the Bible.


As noted above, the “Golden Rule” title seems to have come into use during the two decades before the Civil War. One early reference we found was from a ladies’ magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, October 1853, pp. 323-326.Godey’s was a widely circulated monthly magazine of the time, which, like others of that period, focused on literature, fashion, songs, recipes and household hints. Its “Lesson From the Golden Rule” was written by Louis Godey and Sarah Hale (using Alice B. Neal as a pen name).

Godey had purchased Hale’s ladies’ magazine in 1837 and persuaded her to become editor of his magazine. The title of Godey and Hale’s story seems to indicate that there had been previous Golden Rule stories. One of these apparently was “The Golden Rule,” a story written by Emma Embury. Students may be interested to know that Sarah Hale wrote the ever-popular children’s poem, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and she also convinced Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Before the Civil War, the Golden Rule was clearly relevant to the issue of slavery and the treatment of African-Americans in the United States. For example, in 1791, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon on slavery and Matthew 7:12 from the New Testament (in which Jesus expresses a variation of the Golden Rule). However, Edwards did not refer to that verse as the “Golden Rule.” Rather, he spoke of “the general rule given us in the [Bible] text” and this “divine maxim.” (African American Odyssey online). The authors of this lesson found Frederick Douglass’s use of the term “Golden Rule” because his 1842 speech was published. Most abolitionist speeches were not recorded.

After the Civil War, the Golden Rule phrase had become so well known that the short story entitled “The Golden Rule” was added to the 1879 edition of McGuffey’s Fourth Eclectic Reader, as pointed out above. At that time William McGuffey had nothing to do with its insertion since he was no longer living but the publisher owned the right to use his name. The story itself had been written years previously by Emma Embury, a well-known writer and on the editorial staff of major women’s periodicals of her time, including Godey’s, Graham’s and The Ladies’ Companion.

Embury’s Golden Rule story dates from before 1850 since by that time “a serious illness [had] ended her writing career.” (American Women Writers: A Critical Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, 1979, Lina Mainiero, Ed., Frederick Ungard Publishing Co., NY, Vol. 1, pp. 594-96) The publication in which her story originally appeared is not known to us.

Pages ( 5 of 14 ): « Previous1 ... 34 5 67 ... 14Next »