Religion Unplugged

Pastors and plagiarism: Why an old story is making timely new headlines

By Bobby Ross Jr. | Religion Unplugged

Editor’s note: Every Friday, “Weekend Plug-in” features analysis, fact checking and top headlines from the world of faith. Subscribe now to get this newsletter delivered straight to your inbox. Got feedback or ideas? Email Bobby Ross Jr. at

Two decades ago, while serving as religion editor for The Oklahoman, I investigated allegations of plagiarism and faked endorsements by a prominent Baptist pastor who had written a book.

I still remember how angry the 2002 story made some church members — at me for reporting it.

“One thing great preachers enjoy about traveling is that they can hear other people preach,” Terry Mattingly wrote in a 2003 column on plagiarism and the pulpit. “But the American orator A.J. Gordon received a shock during an 1876 visit to England. Sitting anonymously in a church, he realized that the sermon sounded extremely familiar – because he wrote it.”

While plagiarism by pastors falls under the category of “nothing new under the sun” (see Ecclesiastes 1:9), the subject is making timely new headlines.

Prominent among them: a front-page “Sermongate” story this week by New York Times religion writer Ruth Graham.

Credit questions over past sermons by Ed Litton, the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, for the fresh interest in the subject.

Last week’s Weekend Plug-in pointed to related coverage by Religion News Service’s Bob Smietana and the Washington Times’ Mark A. Kellner. Check out, too, Mattingly’s recent GetReligion podcast on the topic.

Even before the Litton controversy, Smietana produced an excellent story earlier this year headlined “‘If you have eyes, plagiarize’: When borrowing a sermon goes too far” with a related piece on “Why some preachers rely on holy ghostwriters and other pulpit helps.”

Also this week, Joshua Eaton reports for Sojourners that a “poem that has been a clarion call to honest and open conversations about injustice for many in progressive Christian circles was almost entirely plagiarized.”

Read the full column.

This column appears in the online magazine Religion Unplugged.

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