Wednesday, April 7, 2021

RETRO Episode 43: Preaching to the Choir

 Click on "Read More" to view the full line up of notes. 

The original transcript can be found here.

Cold Open:

Welcome to Bunny Trails: A Word History podcast. I’m Dan Pugh and we have a cold open for you today as Shauna is out sick and unable to record this week. So we are bringing you a retro episode to fill your listening pleasures until next week when we expect to be back to our regularly scheduled show.

This episode, originally titled “Preaching to the Converted” aired April 17, 2019. Which means it’s just shy of two years old. You can tell the difference in our delivery styles and audio quality over the last two years. I’d also forgot we used to do the stingers into and out of the ad break. I liked them, but they always felt a bit jarring. And the audio leveling left something to be desired. The part coming out of the ad break was an ad-libbed piece I did one time where I said, “And now, back to the show” as the jingle ran out. I don’t remember how long we used that one, but I still think it in my head at the end of each episode as the outro music finishes up.

You’ll also notice I’ve retitled this episode to the more familiar “Preaching to the Choir”. I used to try and be cute or clever about the show titles, but the truth is most new-listeners find the show by searching the phrase and finding it in the title of the show. So for episodes that don’t have an actual phrase in the title, the download counts are considerably fewer than the ones that have a common idiom in the title. This speaks to the difference between our normal subscriber base and those who are listening to the show based on the title.

Before we move into the episode, I want to give a quick shout out to our Patrons. We couldn’t make this show without your support. Here’s a typical week in the life of our Patrons. On Tuesday, the new episode comes out, a full 24 hours before it’s available to everyone else. The show notes are also available at that time. On Wednesday’s, we post links to all the fun things we mentioned in the show, including links to songs, videos, works of art, and cool references we found along the way. On Thurday’s, we drop occasion things that are tangentially related to the show but not something we mentioned in the episode. Sometimes we post new things on Thursday’s, too. It’s kind of a free-for-all. And on Friday’s the behind the scenes video comes out, which features a nearly-raw cut of the episode from start to finish where you can see Shauna and I recording including all of our flaws, errors, and goofs that don’t make the final cut. We usually have about 5 minutes before the show and another 5 after the show, too, of us catching up with our Patrons on what’s been going on in the week. And of course, any day of the week our Patrons can have a direct way to reach out to us via Patreon. So special thanks to Pat Rowe, Mary Lopez, and all our Patrons for supporting the show every month. You can check it out at

Now that I’ve set a possible world record for the longest cold open on a word history podcast, I’ll turn you over to Shauna and Dan from two years ago. Judge us kindly and remember us fondly. We’ll see you again next week.

Original Episode Show Notes

Bunny Trails

Episode 43: Preaching to the Choir

Record Date: April 15, 2019

Air Date: April 17, 2019


Dan: Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh

Shauna: And I’m Shauna Harrison

Today, we are preaching to the converted  


Shauna: When we preach to the converted, we are trying to convince someone of something that they either already agree with or believe in. The phrase is also used with variants like preaching to the choir, preaching to the saved, and with “to preach to” as beginning . 

Origins and History

Many of our idioms start with a tale. Some fascinating epic, or common occurrence, that lead to the use of a specific combination of words. And in a way that is true here. But preaching to the converted is truly more about the individual words than their transition over time. Today, this phrase is truly an idiom. But the dependent word here is preach. So to track this phrase down, I had to track the word preach. 

Dan, when do you think we started using the word preach

It was about 1200. Oxford English Dictionary shares the definition for preach as: 

a. To deliver a sermon or religious address.

  • ?c1225 (▸?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. (1972) 58 Ne Preche ȝe to nan mon..Seint pawel for beot wimmon to prechi [a1250 Nero prechen; c1230 Corpus preachin].

A good example of early usage is found in Englische Studien, which is a c1250 compilation edited by Eugen Köbling in 1877

  • c1250 in Englische Studien (1935) 70 343 (MED)Sein gregori prechede wid þe guldene mouþe.”

  • a1300 Passion our Lord 258 in R. Morris Old Eng. Misc. (1872) 44 (MED) Ofte in þe temple ich wes iwuned to preche.

 ▸ a1393 Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.) ii. 3433 (MED)   With gret devocion he precheth Fro point to point and pleinly techeth.

  • A1400 (▸a1325) Cursor Mundi (Vesp.) 175 Iesu crist..openlik bigan to preche [a1400 Fairf. Preyche].

 ▸ a1438   Bk. Margery Kempe (1940) i.167 (MED) Aftirward in Lenton prechyd a good clerk, a Frer Austyn.

  • A1500 (▸?a1425) Antichrist (Peniarth) in R. M. Lumiansky & D. Mills Chester Myst. Cycle (1974) I. App. 503 (MED) Thrughe hym thowe preches and hast postye a whyle thrughe sufferaunce.

  • 1567 Compend. Bk. Godly Songs (1897) 45 Till all Creature for to preiche.

  • 1568 (▸?a1513) W. Dunbar in W. T. Ritchie Bannatyne MS (1928) II. 148 Sic pryd with prellattis, So few till preiche & pray.

  • 1610 Bible (Douay) II. Isa. lxi. 1 He hath sent me to preach to the meek.

Another example here from 1644 in John Milton’s Areopagitica,

  • 1644 Milton Areopagitica 28 Christ urg'd it as wherewith to justifie himself, that he preacht in publick.”

    • This speech by Milton was for the Liberty of Unlicenc'd Printing, to the Parlament of England. It was a prose polemic opposing licensing and censorship.

  • 1697 W. Bates Acct. Life P. Henry in Wks. (1853) II. 674/1   He preached over the former part of the Assembly's Catechism, from divers texts; he also preached over Psalm 116.

  • 1735 B. Franklin Dialogue between Two Presbyterians 10 Apr. in Papers (1960) II. 31 Did not Luther at first preach only against selling of Pardons.

  • 1762 J. Wesley Let. 26 Nov. (1931) IV. 356 The first time I preached at Swalwell (chiefly to colliers and workers in the ironwork) none seemed to be convinced.

  • 1794 W. Blake Little Vagabond in Songs Innoc. & Experience 14 Then the Parson might preach & drink & sing.

  • 1814 J. Austen Mansfield Park III. iii. 68 I could not preach, but to the educated.  

  • 1854 J. H. Newman Lect. Hist. Turks iii. ii. 168 The Greek clergy preached against them as heretics.

  • 1891 T. Hardy Tess III. xlvi. 121 I have arranged to preach, and I shall not be there.

  • 1915 L. M. Montgomery Anne of Island v. 52 He mostly takes a text and preaches about something else.

  • 1948 A. Paton Cry, Beloved Country i. xiii. 91 His friend Msimangu would preach this afternoon, in the chapel that he had seen.

  • 2004 N.Y. Times 31 July a3/1 He came back with even stronger religious convictions and began preaching in the ground-floor activity room of his apartment block.

So that pretty well establishes the origin of the word preach for us. Straightforward definition that continues to be used with that meaning today. In the late 1300s to early 1400s, preach began to take on a more figurative meaning or rather was used to refer to ideas beyond specific religious settings. Our second definition for preach is: 

b. To utter a serious or earnest exhortation, esp. a moral or religious one. Now usually derogatory: to give moral or religious advice in a self-righteous, condescending, or obtrusive way.

In Wife of Bath’s Tale, c1395, there is a fun line. The line in questions is #247, which is a part of the prologue. 

  • C1395 Chaucer Wife of Bath's Tale 247 “Thou comest hoom as dronken as a mous, And prechest on thy bench with yuel preef.”

Evil proof - many think this mean she was cursing him, essentially a statement that translates today to, “a curse on you” or “bad luck to you” but there are some historians who believe the intention was to highlight his accusation as a false statement. So evil perhaps meaning false. Evil proof = a lie. Nefarious prevaricator. 

I think perhaps what is significant about this example is that the use of preach occurs multiple times in this fashion. 

  • a1425 (▸?c1350) Ywain & Gawain (1964) 3489 (MED) If þou preche al day, Here sal þou nothing bere oway.

  • 1523 Ld. Berners tr. J. Froissart Cronycles I. lxxxvii. 110 They were brought to his tent, and there they were so preched to that they tourned to sir Charles parte.

  • 1604 Shakespeare Hamlet iii. iv. 117 His forme and cause conioynd, preaching to stones Would make them capable.  

  • 1722 D. Defoe Moll Flanders 74 It is none of my Talent to preach; these Men were too wicked, even for me.

  • 1753 S. Richardson Hist. Sir Charles Grandison V. xxv. 158 Let us..when we are called upon to act a great or manly part, preach by action.

  • 1806 T. C. Metcalfe in Marquess Wellesley Select. Despatches (1877) 807 To meet their ambition..with the language of peace, would be to preach to the roaring ocean to be still.

  • A1834 S. T. Coleridge in P. G. Patmore Friends & Acquaint. (1854) I. 89 ‘Pray, Mr. Lamb, did you ever hear me preach?’ ‘Damme,’ said Lamb, ‘I never heard you do anything else.’

  • 1875 W. S. Hayward Love against World 45 Why do you preach to me in that manner?

  • 1916 E. H. Porter Just David xix. 250 There! That's preaching, and I didn't mean to preach.

  • 1953 M. Kennedy Troy Chimneys 14 A wife should listen when her husband preaches, however tedious he may be.

  • 2004 Snoop Feb.–Mar. 27/2 We're not ones to preach, it could be just as difficult for them to find a good ‘siddhi saadhi’ lady.

This leads us to the time that the concept of preaching to the converted entered the lexicon. It is difficult to pin down and exact timeline, since the english, at this point in history, experienced a rather large discrepancy between the written and spoken language. I want to read this definition again. 

to preach to the converted and variants: to advocate something to people who already share one's convictions about its merits or importance. Also (orig. and chiefly U.S.) to preach to the choir.

The first time we see it in print, according to Oxford English Dictionary is 1857 in the Times out of London. 

  • 1857 Times 6 Nov. 7/4It is an old saying that to preach to the converted is a useless office, and I may add that to preach to the unconvertible is a thankless office.”

It’s great that we get to see this quote, but man it was hard to admit that I just wasn’t going to find anything older in a decent amount of time! 

  • 1867 J. S. Mill Exam. Hamilton's Philos. (ed. 3) xiv. 319 Dr. M'Cosh is preaching not only to a person already converted, but to an actual missionary of the same doctrine.

In 1916, in George Saintsbury’s The Peace of The Augustans is an excerpt that provides a nice visual. 

  • 1916 G. Saintsbury Peace of Augustans iii. 144 “One may be said to be preaching to the converted and kicking at open doors in praising..the four great novelists of the eighteenth century.”

Now, for this quote I’m not going to tell you when it took place and I want you to guess… You get a little bit here, this was in the Washington Post

  • 1970 Washington Post 24 Sept. a27/2  “Foster spoke yesterday before a packed Air Force Association seminar... Admitting that this was like ‘preaching to the choir’, he nevertheless went on to detail a rather gloomy view of declining U.S. defense capabilities.”

  • 1987 Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald Amer. 28 June e2/1 The people behind some ‘Say No to Drugs’ programs admit they often draw a clean-cut crowd and may be preaching to the choir.

  • 1996 Market Trader & Shopkeeper 11 Oct. 6/3 After the meeting I could not help thinking how easy it was to preach to the converted.

A Quick Thank You

DAN: Today’s show is sponsored by our patrons on Patreon. Special thanks to our Lagomorphology Interns, Charlie Moore, Pat Rowe, and Mary Halsig for sponsoring this episode. is a subscription service that allows you to support content creators you love. It’s free to sign up and follow along. If you are in a financial situation that allows for monetary support, you can get additional perks for as little as $1 a month. Features like early access to episodes, behind the scenes content, bonus episodes, and more are all available at

Pop Culture and Modern Examples


  • 2005 movie Preaching to the Choir sounds entertaining. The subtitle is, A Righteous Comedy with a Divinely Inspired beat. So maybe a musical? The synopsis reads: 

    • “A pair of estranged twins driven apart by the death of their parents find reconciliation and redemption after following radically different paths in life.”  which does slightly change where I thought it was going based on the very happy-looking poster! But you never know! 

  • In 2007, the book Preaching to the Converted: On Sundays and Feast Days Throughout the Year by Richard Leonard was published. The beginning of the sales pitch on Book Depository reads: 

    • “Preaching is getting harder and harder. Preachers are up against some tough opposition - churchgoers with shorter attention spans who are saturated with the razzle-dazzle media and lead a fast-paced life. Those who preach have a brief window of opportunity to reach the faithful - busy or not - at mass. What preachers need is a good story to tell and a dynamic way of presenting it. And this book fills the bill.”

    • Side note on the author, because I thought it was interesting and had a “well, duh” moment after being surprised by in the information and then realizing it should have been obvious this was a thing - 

    • Richard Leonard, SJ, is a Jesuit of the Australian Province. He is the director of the Australian Catholic Film Office, a consultant to the Australian Catholic Bishop's Media Committee, and a film critic for all the major Catholic newspapers of Australia. A holder of a doctorate in cinema studies, he has lectured all over the world.

  • Chris Guillebeau shared the article “Why Preaching to the Choir is a Good Thing” on Copyblogger in which he discusses the merits of a style of sales he refers to as recruitment.

    • “Instead of knocking on doors or begging for spare change, recruitment is all about opening your own doors to the people who are already naturally predisposed to your message.”

    • He wraps up this section a little later, stating, “these are the people you want in your group. You can think of them as your basic church choir. And preaching to the choir is a good thing.”

  • User Tourmaline on Word Reference Language Forums, posted the following question in 2012.

    • “Today, while I was reading English sentences, I saw this expression. 

‘Preach to the choir.’

I thought the meaning was similar with this expression ‘to teach a fish how to swim.’ But when I found some examples in google, I realized that the meaning is different.


1. Is the meaning of the expression 'to teach something to those who is well aware of it'? When I write 'well aware of', it means just a certain fact, not the depth of the knowledge - something like between an amateur and a professional.

2. If I am right about the meaning, in reality, is the expression somewhat rude/showing anger or you can just say it when you say something like "I already know it."?

“I hope I could make my question correctly;;

Thank you!”

Tourmaline is listed as a senior member from Seoul, South Korea. Those who responded to this thread were from England and the UK and the responses varied with mention of idioms like 'teaching your grandmother to suck eggs'. There did not seem to be a consensus on whether the phrase is positive, negative, or neutral… nor whether it used to say the “choir” or “converted” have prior knowledge of the information shared vs. sharing belief with the “preacher” 

  • On February 8, 2019, the article Why It's Important to "Preach to the Converted" by Ryan MacMaken was posted on the Mises Institute website. 

    • “In practice, most ideological groups do both internal idea development and education, and outward communication. Both activities are important, and many people understand this. Some observers, nevertheless have a tendency to excessively emphasize the importance of not "preaching to the converted" and this is often due to three incorrect assumptions:

      1. It is believed that people in the converted already have a sufficient understanding of the topic at hand.

      2. It is assumed that the converted will never leave the group in question.

      3. It is believed that the converted won't interact with people outside their group in other contexts.”

Follow-up and Final Thoughts

I enjoy this phrase for a few reasons. It isn’t an overly negative or positive phrase. It isn’t used to insult or categorize, for the most part. And generally, people use this as a way to simply acknowledge others. While there are exceptions to this and there has been some variance throughout its history, I still really like that it is a kind sort of idiom for many people. It’s also really neat that many people actually use this phrase to discuss the merits of and many facets of educating and communicating with individuals who exists in varying levels of involvement within a group. I think this idiom actually encourages deeper consideration on the topic and allows for people to assess their own understanding, belief, alignment, knowledge, opinions, etc. on a topic or group. 


Shauna: That about wraps us up for today. Thanks for joining us. I’d also like to say a big thank you to those who’ve posted reviews for the show. Leaving a review really is the easiest way to support the show. Best of all, it’s free!

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Thanks again for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember... words belong to their users.

Sources Used: 

Oxford English Dictionary

Chris Guillebeau 

Tourmaline on Word Reference Language Forums 

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