meaning and origin of ‘to bow (down) in the house of Rimmon’

The phrase to bow (down) in the house of Rimmon and variants mean to pay lip service to some principle which one does not accept, to sacrifice one’s principles for the sake of conformity.

It is a reference to the Second Book of Kings, 5:18; Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram, believed in the God of Israel after being cured of leprosy by the prophet Elisha and begged forgiveness for his future participation in the worship of the Aramaean god Rimmon out of allegiance to the king:

(King James Version – 1611)
In this thing the Lord pardon thy seruant, that when my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and hee leaneth on my hand, and I bow my selfe in the house of Rimmon: when I bow downe my selfe in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon thy seruant in this thing.

The earliest recorded instance of the phrase is from a letter that the English novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) wrote on 26th April 1718 to Charles De La Fay, who occupied a highly confidential position in the Secretary of State’s office; Defoe, in the secret pay of the Whig ministry, masqueraded as a Tory journalist and entered the employment of the Jacobite printer Nathaniel Mist (died 1737), through which means he came to dominate the latter’s The Weekly Journal, or, Saturday’s Post, one of the most popular newspapers of its day and the leading organ for the radical Tories:

(from volume 1 of Daniel Defoe: his life, and recently discovered writings: extending from 1716 to 1729 (John Camden Hotten – London, 1869), by William Lee)
I am, Sir, for this Service, posted among Papists, Jacobites, and enraged High Tories—a Generation who, I profess, my very Soul Abhors; I am obliged to hear traitorous Expressions and outrageous Words against his Majesty’s Person and Government, and his most faithful Servants, and smile at it all, as if I approved it; I am obliged to take all the scandalous and, indeed, villainous Papers that come, and keep them by me as if I would gather Materials from them to put them into the News; nay, I often venture to let Things pass which are a little Shocking, that I may not render myself suspected.
Thus I bow in the House of Rimmon, and must humbly recommend myself to his Lordship’s Protection, or I may be undone the sooner, by how much the more faithfully I execute the Commands I am under.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from The Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, for Somerset, Wilts, Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall (Taunton, Somerset) of Thursday 10th May 1810:


When Judge Jenkyns was brought before the Rump Parliament, in 1646, he addressed the Speaker in the following manner:—“In your speech, Mr. Speaker, you said the House was offended with my behaviour, in not making any obeisance to you upon coming here; and this was the more wondered at, because I pretended to be knowing in the laws of the land (having made them my study for these five and forty years.) And because I am so, that was the reason of such my behaviour. For, as long as you had the King’s Arms engraved on your mace, and acted under his authority, had I come here, I would have bowed my body in obedience to his authority, by which you were first called. But, Mr. Speaker, since you and this house have renounced all your duty and allegiance to your Sovereign, and natural Liege Lord the King, and are become a den of thieves, should I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord would not pardon me in this thing.”

Variants with temple instead of house have occasionally been used, as in the following from The Standard (London) of Friday 18th September 1868, about “the treatment which Mr. Roebuck* is receiving at the hands of the Liberal press”:

What is Mr. Roebuck’s fault in the eyes of his party? It is simply that the member for Sheffield is of too independent a character to please the present Liberal leaders. He will not bow his head at the temple of Rimmon. Nay, he has dared to blaspheme the gods of the tribe.

* John Arthur Roebuck (1802-79)

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