The noun tin is used figuratively, in reference to tin as a base metal, in the senses petty, worthless, counterfeit.
It is used in particular in the phrase tin god. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, 1989), the variant tin Jesus occurs only in the following passage from What I really wrote about the War (Constable – London, 1930), by the Irish playwright and polemicist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950):
Woodrow Wilson1, instead of morally stonewalling the victorious Chauvinists, Imperialists, and simple plundering camp followers who derided him as “a tin Jesus,” suddenly went war mad and talked about war guilt and German criminality like any suburban Jingo.
But, in fact, not only has the phrase tin Jesus occurred since 1930, but it is also much older.
The earliest instance that I have found is in the extended form little tin Jesus on wheels, and occurs in one of the unconnected paragraphs making up the column About This and That, published in The Daily Graphic (New York City, N.Y., USA) of Friday 7th August 1874:
The question arises whether Sam Wilkeson2, in what he says about Beecher’s “Life of Christ,”3 is not getting to be rather profane. Apropos, we think it was Wilkeson who once said of H. W. B.3:
“—— He feels
Like a giant in strength,
A Brobdingnag4 in length,
A little tin Jesus on wheels.”
2 The American journalist and businessman Sam Wilkeson was a partner in the Christian publishing house of J. B. Ford and Company, New York City, N.Y., USA.
3 The American Congregationalist clergyman and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87) was the author of The Life of Jesus, the Christ, published in 1871 by J. B. Ford and Company.
4 In Travels into several Remote Nations of the World. In four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships (London, 1726), by the Irish satirist, poet and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Brobdingnag is the name of an imaginary country where everything is on a gigantic scale.
The second-earliest instances that I have found are in the extended form little tin Jesus, and refer to a newspaper editor named Craddock:
– in the following paragraph published in The Bourbon News (Paris, Kentucky, USA) of Tuesday 15th August 1882:
Craddock’s 2-times-a-week sheet resembles a well-worn tramp in a bob-tailed shirt with no collar on. Many of it’s [sic] oldest and best friends are passing it by unrecognized. The day for it’s [sic] editor being looked upon as a little tin Jesus is fast on the wane. Verily, time hath it’s [sic] changes, and people change with them.
– in the Semi-Weekly Interior Journal (Stanford, Kentucky, USA) of Tuesday 29th August 1882:
The Bourbon News says the day for Craddock to be looked on as a little tin Jesus is fast on the wane. We hope not. A little tin Jesus is not found every day.
On Thursday 24th January 1884, The Belmont Chronicle (St. Clairsville, Ohio, USA) published under the title How They Kick “a few choice samples from a large lot of a similar character, indicating the opinion of the Democratic press of the State, regarding the election of Mr. Payne to the Senate”. In 1884, Henry B. Payne (1810-96), an American politician from Ohio, was elected to the United States Senate. But it was alleged that his son, Oliver Hazard Payne (1839-1917), had, through Standard Oil (of which he was a trustee), bribed Democratic members of the Ohio Legislature into voting for his father. Among the “choice samples” quoted by The Belmont Chronicle was:
The curses of the Democracy over the nomination of Payne are not loud but deep. Now what will these mercenary old pappies say to their constituents and how will they brush the oil off their skirts. They forgot that they were servants of the people, but each considered himself a little tin Jesus on wheels. For shame! The Democratic Legislature of Ohio is so foul that a rotten egg shattered against the Speaker’s desk would smell like a bunch of mignonette. Now if this is treason to the Ohio Democracy, let the Ohio Democracy make the most of it. We are a Democrat and an honest one, and never will endorse a political thief or any other thief.—Fostoria Democrat.
The phrase tin Jesus occurs on several occasions later in the 19th century, as well as in the early 20th century. For example, in the Muncie Evening Press (Muncie, Indiana, USA) of Wednesday 9th May 1906:
PREACHER’S WIFE CALLED HIM AN OLD HYPOCRITE
And Applied Epithet of “Tin Jesus” to Him.
J. E. Haffner and Wife, Former Muncie People, In Divorce Court.
Alleging that she sat in the front row of seats when he occupied the pulpit of the First Universalist church at Anderson and made grimaces at him during his sermons in an effort to confuse him, Rev. James E. Haffner has brought suit at Anderson for a divorce from Bertha Haffner. The filing of the papers has caused considerable of a sensation at Anderson, as well as in Muncie, the Haffners being former residents of this city, where Mr. Haffner was engaged in business. While it was known that their domestic life was at times stormy, it was not believed that a separation was at hand.
The Haffners were married about six years ago and Rev. Mr. Haffner alleges that for the past three years his better half has led him a dog’s life, the secret of which has been kept studiously as possible from the public. It is charged in the complaint that his wife called him “a tin Jesus and an immaculately conceived old hypocrite.” For the past nine months the aged parents of Mr. Haffner have been living with him. It is alleged that Mrs. Haffner persistently referred to his father as “it,” and called his mother a “thieving old —.”
The American novelist, short story writer and essayist Flannery O’Connor (1925-64) used the phrase in The Lame Shall Enter First, published in the collection of short stories Everything That Rises Must Converge (Farrar, Straus and Giroux – New York, 1956). Sheppard, the City Recreational Director and psychologist-counsellor attempts to reform Rufus Florida Johnson, a juvenile delinquent. After Johnson has deliberately got himself arrested, a reporter shows up, along with the police, who have brought Johnson to Sheppard’s house:
“Why did you want to get caught?” the reporter asked, running around to get beside Johnson. “Why did you deliberately want to get caught?”
The question and the sight of Sheppard seemed to throw the boy into a fury. “To show up that big tin Jesus!” he hissed and kicked his leg out at Sheppard. “He thinks he’s God. I’d rather be in the reformatory than in his house, I’d rather be in the pen! The Devil has him in his power. He don’t know his left hand from his right, he don’t have as much sense as his crazy kid!”
The American rock band Wire Train released an eponymous album in 1990. In the Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California, USA) of Monday 26th November 1990, Mike Boehm said of one of its tracks, titled Tin Jesus, that it is
a dirge-like, nine-minute epic that bemoans how religion can be distorted into an oppressive force.