Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Agree To Disagree

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 1, 2013

We’ve heard more than a few people resort to that expression in the midst of spirited discussions or heated debates, and it’s straight forward. It means neither side is willing to relinquish their side of the argument, which leaves only one option: To agree to disagree.

In the Editorial section of the Worcester (MA) Telegram and Gazette published on October 22, 2009, the author spoke to the matter of the elections in Afghanistan. The Editorial Footnote included this commentary:

Mr. Karzai reportedly still disagrees with the methodology used to disqualify more than 1 million ballots allegedly cast in his name. Mr. Kerry deserves credit for helping the Afghan leader realize that it was time to agree to disagree, and move ahead with the only politically viable course available, a second vote under the watchful eyes of international observers.

This expression is oftentimes used successfully in matters of politics such as during the Cuban crisis in the early 60s. In fact, in a Special To The Times that ran in the New York Times on January 7, 1963, the headline was “They Will Agree To Disagree.” The article showed within the first two sentences that while there was considerable tension from both sides in the crisis, that cooler heads prevailed.

The Cuban crisis will come to a formal end this week when Soviet and American negotiators at the United Nations agree to disagree. The negotiators will submit to Security Council members separate statements saying that they cannot agree on how to close one of the tensest chapters of the cold war.

When Rudolph Valentino and his wife divorced, the difficulties prior to, and following,  the divorce were fodder for more than one columnist’s pen. The Youngstown Vindicator of November 15, 1925 contained another well-known expression and began with this paragraph:

“Never again” is Mrs. Winifred Hudnut Valentino’s attitude towards further matrimonial ventures. All artists should be unmarried, she said and added “children and domesticity are incompatible with a career, that’s all.”

Mrs. Valentino complained that it had taken Rudolph, who departed today for Paris, three years to develop his lack of appreciation for her ambition to become a motion picture star in her own right.

The article, which was carried by the Associated Press, was aptly entitled, “Valentino And Wife Agree To Disagree.”

When the Charleston Mercury of Mary 1, 1860 hit the streets, it carried news of the National Convention. It reported on the States of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, Florida, and a portion of Delaware, being denied in the platform, the recognition of Southern rights in the Territories and the protection of slave property by the General Government, seceded from the Charleston Convention. There was what the newspaper reporter called a “radical difference on a great principle.”

The U.S. Civil War raged from 1861 through to 1865 and began when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Fort Sumter, of course, was a key fort held by Union troops in South Carolina.

The article was lengthy and detailed, providing a historical background to readers and midway, the following comments made by Mr. Butler of Massachusetts were recorded:

Do you desire to send us home to be subjected to the sneers of the Black Republicans, telling us that we have gone and laid down our honor at the feet of the South, and point at us as they pass us in the streets? Is that to be done, for no good, to accomplish no advantage for you? Do you claim that of us? If you claim the relinquishment of personal honor, I tell you frankly you cannot have it. If you claim simply a compromise, we will see how far we can compromise; and if we cannot agree with you, gentlemen who have been with me will tell you that I know how to disagree with those with whom I cannot agree.

Anglican cleric and Christian theologian, John Wesley (1703-1791) who, along with his brother Charles Wesley founded the Methodist movement, held notable doctrinal and philosophical differences from those of his close friend, Anglican preacher George Whitefield (December 27, 1714 – September 30, 1770). In a letter to his brother dated August 19, 1785 he wrote:

I will tell you my thoughts with all simplicity, and wait for better information. If you agree with me, well: if not, we can, as Mr. Whitefield used to say, agree to disagree.

John Wesley spoke at the funeral services for George Whitefield in 1770 and among many things he said, was this:

And, first, let us keep close to the grand scriptural doctrines which he everywhere delivered. There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which even the sincere children of God (such is the present weakness of human understanding) are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may “agree to disagree.” But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials of “the faith which was once delivered to the saints;” and which this champion of God so strongly insisted on, at all times, and in all places!

And so, while many attribute John Wesley for this expression, John Wesley gives credit to his late friend, George Whitefield.  But surely, George Whitefield wasn’t the first to come up with the expression. As an Anglican preacher, isn’t it more likely than not that he found it in the Bible and began using it in conversationally?  The fact of the matter is that the expression agree to disagree is never found in the Christian Bible. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 1:10, the passage reads:

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.

In other words, there’s no place for agreeing to disagree if you are a Christian as the Bible is the final word on what is and is not expected of Christians.

So somewhere between the death of Jesus and the life of George Whitefield, someone brought forth the concept of agreeing to disagree, but it was George Whitefield who appears to be the inspiration for John Wesley’s use of the expression.

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