Perhaps when you were a child, and not wanting to take a bath or brush your teeth, your parents said to you, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Or maybe now as an adult, you hear the same words from your roommate or spouse when your apartment or house needs some tidying up. Indeed, the phrase is a popular proverb. But what exactly does it mean? And from where and with whom did it originate? Let’s take a look.
What Does Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness Mean?
The expression cleanliness is next to godliness is used to encourage personal hygiene and neatness, likening cleanliness to spiritual devoutness and goodness. In other words, it’s used to say that it’s almost as important to be clean as it is to be virtuous and good—even that keeping your home and your body clean is the right thing to do morally, or that doing so brings you closer to God.
Here are some example sentences using the proverbial phrase cleanliness is next to godliness:
- When I was younger, my mom always told me to wash behind my ears because cleanliness is next to godliness.
- I firmly believe that cleanliness is next to godliness and would never have guests in my home unless it was absolutely spic-and-span.
- At the restaurant where I work, our motto is “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Before every service, we polish the silverware and ensure there are no watermarks on utensils, plates, and glasses. And, we bleach and iron our linens so they’re perfect and pristine.
- I make sure I am showered, that my hair is washed and brushed, and that I have on a clean outfit every day for work, even though I work from home. As they say, cleanliness is next to godliness!
- During this pandemic, it’s never been more true that cleanliness is next to godliness: It’s so important to wash and sanitize your hands regularly and keep surfaces clean and sanitized in order to stay safe.
Of course, the word clean can mean other things outside of physical cleanliness. In fact, it can mean “spiritually pure” or “free from moral corruptions.” Although when used today the saying is most often relating to personal hygiene or a neat and tidy home, it could be used to indicate that being good in the senses shared above is next to godliness; that those who are wholesome are closest to God. The phrase may have been used this way when it first entered the lexicon.
The Origin of the Expression
Cleanliness is next to godliness sounds like a quote directly from the Bible, and many people believe it’s biblical in origin. That’s not the case, though.
The saying as we know and use it today is most often attributed to John Wesley, a preacher and the leader of the Methodist movement and founder of Methodism. He used the expression in his sermon titled “On Dress” in the late 1700s:
“Let it be observed, that slovenliness is no part of religion; that neither this, nor any text of Scripture, condemns neatness of apparel. Certainly this is a duty, not a sin. ‘Cleanliness is, indeed, next to godliness.’”
As he points out here, a neat appearance isn’t dictated in the Bible, although certainly purity of heart, mind, and soul are. Written accounts of the sermon put the phrase in quotes, indicating it may have already been a well-known and circulated expression by the time John Wesley used it.
Although Wesley gets the credit for the phrase, it’s worth noting that Sir Francis Bacon—an English philosopher and statesman best known for his development and promotion of the scientific method; he’s seen as a founder of modern science—shared a similar sentiment more than a century earlier, in 1605. In his Advancement of Learning, he wrote: “For cleanness of body was ever esteemed to proceed from a due reverence to God, to society, and to ourselves.”
While the phrase itself doesn’t appear in the Bible, the idea of cleanliness being close to godliness or a way to get one closer to God certainly predates Wesley or Bacon, and was likely present in ancient Babylonian and Hebrew texts, specifically through the concept of ritual purification. All major religions emphasize ceremonial purification via ritual bathing and washing with clean water. Interestingly, during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, artists often painted the gods of Greek mythology bathing, just as they did biblical characters.
By the mid-19th century, the idea that cleanliness ranked next to piousness was widespread, particularly throughout the English middle classes. One’s personal physical and domestic cleanliness equated with their social standing. Not surprisingly, the large-scale production, marketing, and use of soap dates to this same time period. (The soap industry actually began earlier, however, in the late 1700s, but it really took off decades later.)
What Is a Proverb?
The expression cleanliness is next to godliness is a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:
Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Cleanliness is next to godliness isn’t the only popular proverb that sounds like a quote from the Bible but isn’t: Discover the meaning and origin of God helps those who help themselves.
The phrase cleanliness is next to godliness means that it’s important to keep yourself, as well as your personal space, clean; that doing so is almost as important as being “good.” It’s often used to admonish, or give friendly encouragement, to someone to clean or tidy up. The saying is commonly attributed to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who used it in a sermon given in the late 1700s. However, it may have been around before then. Certainly the idea that physical cleanliness—and moral purity, too—were equated with godliness existed before that time. Indeed, ritual purification is an ancient practice, discussed in Babylonian and Hebrew religious tracts. Yet, the phrase is not presented as the word of God in the Bible. The expression is considered a proverb, or a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth.