‘(the road to) hell is paved with good intentions’: meaning and origin

The proverb (the road to) hell is paved with good intentions means that promises and plans must be put into action, otherwise they are useless.

Versions of this proverb are found in several European languages.

In English, the early versions of this proverb did not refer to hell or the road to hell being paved, but to hell being full of good desires, intentions, meanings, etc.

Likewise, in French, while the later version of the proverb is l’enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions (i.e., hell is paved with good intentions), the French bishop and Doctor of the Church François de Sales (1567-1622) used l’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs (i.e., hell is full of good intentions or wishes) in a letter to Madame de Chantal, dated 21st November 1604—in this letter, François de Sales ascribed the proverb to the French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153):
—as published in Lettres de S. François de Sales (Paris: Claude Hérissant, 1758):

J’ajoûte ce matin, jour de sainte Cecile, que le proverbe tiré de notre saint Bernard, L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou desirs, ne vous doit nullement troubler.
     translation:
I add this morning, Saint Cécile’s day, that the proverb taken from our Saint Bernard, hell is full of good intentions or wishes, must by no means trouble you.

 

EARLIEST OCCURRENCES OF THE EARLY ENGLISH VERSIONS OF THE PROVERB

 

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the early English versions of the proverb that I have found:

1-: As a translation from Spanish, from a letter, dated 15th October 1523, “vnto the Duke of Alba, Sir Frederique of Toledo, in the whiche is entreated of infirmities, and the profites of the same”, published in The Familiar Epistles of Sir Anthony of Gueuara 1, Preacher, Chronicler, and Counceller to the Emperour Charles the fifth. Translated out of the Spanish toung, by Edward Hellowes 2, Groome of the Leashe [&c.] (London: Printed by Henry Bynneman, [1575?]:

I wold more reioyce to sée you performe, than to heare you promise: for hell is full of good desires, and heauen is full of good workes.

1 Antonio de Guevara (c.1481-1545) was a Spanish bishop and author.
2 Edward Hellowes (fl. 1574-1601) was an English courtier and translator.

2-: From Gods plentie, feeding true pietie. In a Sermon preached at Pauls Crosse, on the 18. day of Iune. 1615 (London: Printed by William Stansby, 1616):

We reade of an holy man, who saw in a vision heauen full of good workes; Hell, full of vaine desires.

3-: From The Honest Man: Or, The Art to please in Court. Written in French by Sieur Faret. Translated into English by E. G. (London: Printed by Thomas Harper, for Edward Blount, 1632):

A wise man may in the middest of vices and corruptions, preserue his virtue pure and without blemish. There is nothing required but good designes, and although the hell of the damned bee not full but of good intentions, yet that of the Court being accompanied with lawfull and resonable thoughts, it will haue no troubles but they will be easie to support.

This is the corresponding passage from the original book, L’honneste-homme ou, L’art de plaire à la court (Paris: Chez Toussaincts du Bray, 1630), by Nicolas Faret (1596?-1646):

Le Sage peut au milieu des vices & de la corruption conseruer sa vertu toute pure & sans tache. Il ne s’agit que d’auoir de iustes desseins, & quoy que l’Enfer des damnez ne soit plein que de bonnes intentions, si est-ce que celuy de la Cour estant accompagné de pensées legitimes & raisonnables, n’aura point de douleurs qui ne soient faciles à supporter.

4-: From A Myrrhine Posie of the Bitter Dolours of Christ His Passion, and of the Seauen Words He Spake on the Crosse, Composed by Ch. M. (Douai: Printed by L. Kellam, 1639), by the English Roman-Catholic theologian and controversialist Matthew Kellison (c.1560-1642):

O my soule, learne by this thy Sauiours example, to accomplish and fulfill all good purposes & intentions, to consummate and perfect all good workes begun. To begin well is a small thing vnlesse thou goe forward to the end. Hell is full of good beginners, Heauen onely admitteth those that perseuer to the end.

5-: From Jacula Prudentum. Or Outlandish Proverbs, Sentences, &c. selected by Mr George Herbert, late Orator of the Universitie of Cambridg. (London: Printed by T. Maxey for T. Garthwait, 1651), by the Welsh poet George Herbert (1593-1633):

Hell is full of good meanings and wishings.

6-: From Ζωοτομ́iα [= Zootomia], or, Observations of the Present Manners of the English: Briefly Anatomizing the Living by the Dead. With an usefull Detection of the Mounte Banks of both Sexes (London,: Printed by Thomas Roycroft, 1654), by Richard Whitlock (born circa 1616), physician and fellow of All Souls, Oxford:

While Profession of Religion, and Practise
of Charity are asunder, Confusion and
Mischiefe go hand in hand. It is a saying
among Divines, that Hell is full of good
Intentions, and Meanings; but I think it
may be inverted; good Meanings rather
pretended than intended, are ful of Hel, and
Mischiefe.

7-: From Proper means, to expel Gross Ignorance, published in A Christian Library, Or, A Pleasant and Plentiful Paradise of Practical Divinity, in ten Treatises of sundry and select Subjects, purposely composed to pluck Sinners out of Satans snares, and allure them into the glorious Liberty of the Gospel (London: Printed by R. and W. Leybourn, 1655), by the Calvinist author Richard Younge (fl. 1640-1670):

Heaven is full of good works, Hell of good wishes.

8-: From Παροιμιογραϕια [= Paroimiographia]: Proverbs, or, Old sayed sawes & adages, in English (or the Saxon toung) Italian, French and Spanish whereunto the British, for their great antiquity, and weight are added (London: Printed by J.G., 1659), by the Anglo-Welsh historian and political writer James Howell (circa 1594-1666)—James Howell:

– recorded the following Spanish proverb under Refranes, ò Proverbios Morales tendientes a las costumbres, y a la buena Vida, &c.:

De buenas intenciones esta lleno el infierno.

– recorded the corresponding English proverb under Moral Proverbs, or Adages conducing to Manners, and to good Life, &c.:

Hell is full of good intentions.

– explained the Spanish proverb under Explicacion de algunos Refranes Sennalados en Romance:

El Infierno es lleno de buenas intenciones. Quiere dezir, que no ay pecador por malo que sea, que no tenga intencion de meiorar la vida, mas la muerte le sobreprende.

– explained the Spanish proverb under The Explication of some Remarkable Proverbs in Spanish:

Hell is full of good intentions. This proverb signifies, that there’s no sinner how bad soever, but hath an intention to better his life, although death doth surprise him.

9-: From The Irish Colours displayed, in a Reply of an English Protestant to a late Letter of an Irish Roman Catholique. Both Address’d to his Grace the Duke of Ormond Lord Lieutenant of His Majesties Kingdome of Ireland (London, 1662):

For their bare intentions they may best judge themselves, for by their former actions we should be apt to judge ill, and besides I have heard an unlucky Proverb, that hell is full of good intentions.

10-: From The Stone Rolled Away, and Life More Abundant. An Apologie Urging Self-denyal, New-Obedience, Faith, and Thankfulnesse (London: Printed by Thomas Radcliffe, 1663), by the Anglican clergyman Giles Oldisworth (1619-1678):

Hell is full of good [15] intentions.—[15] Luk. 13. 24. 3

3 The gospel of Luke, 13:24, is as follows in the King James Bible (1611):

Striue to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say vnto you, will seeke to enter in, and shall not be able.

11-: From A Collection of English Proverbs Digested into a convenient Method for the speedy finding any one upon occasion; with Short Annotations. Whereunto are added Local Proverbs with their Explications, Old Proverbial Rhythmes, Less known or Exotick Proverbial Sentences, and Scottish Proverbs (Cambridge: Printed by John Hayes, Printer to the University, for W. Morden, 1670), by the English naturalist and theologian John Ray (1627-1705):

Hell is full of good meanings and wishes.

 

EARLIEST OCCURRENCES OF THE LATER ENGLISH VERSIONS OF THE PROVERB

 

The later English versions mentioning paving were perhaps influenced by the Ecclesiasticus, 21:10, which is as follows in the King James Bible (1611):

The way of sinners is made plaine with stones, but at the ende thereof is the pit of hell.

These are the earliest occurrences of the later English versions of the proverb that I have found:

1 & 2-: From two texts by the English clergyman, evangelist and co-founder of Methodism John Wesley (1703-1791):

1-: From the following, entered in his journal on 10th July 1736, as published in An Extract of the Rev. Mr. John Wesley’s Journal from his Embarking for Georgia, to his Return to London (Bristol: Printed by Felix Farley, 1743):

Almost the whole Town was the next Evening at the Funeral: Where many doubtless made a World of good Resolutions. O how little Trace of most of these will be left in the Morning! ’Tis a true Saying, “Hell is paved with good Intentions.”

2-: From The Almost Christian: A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Oxford, before the University, on July 25. 1741 (London: Printed by W. Strahan, 1741):

Do good Designs and good Desires make a Christian? By no Means, unless they are brought to good Effect. “Hell is paved, saith one, with good Intentions.”

3 & 4-: From two texts by the English clergyman and evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770), who was one of the founders of Methodism:

3-: From Christ the Physician of the Soul. A Sermon. By the Rev. Mr. G. Wh–f–d. Taken by a Master of Short-Hand, Word for Word as he preached it. N. B. This Sermon was preached in what is called Market-Language, which Mr. Wh—f—d (it seems) thinks most likely to be understood and remembered by the common People ([London?], [1750?]):

I believe there is a great many of you, ye have gotten desires to go to heaven, and who has not? Hell, says a good divine, is paved with good intentions. Perhaps there is not an adult person in hell but what desired to go to heaven once.

4-: From Repentance and Conversion, as published in Eighteen Sermons preached by the late Rev. George Whitefield, A.M. (London: Printed and sold by Joseph Guerney, 1771):

But say you, all in good time, I do not chuse to be converted yet […]. There was a poor woman, but two or three days ago, that was damning and cursing most shockingly, now she is a dead corpse, was taken suddenly, and died away. God grant, that may not be the case with any of you; the only way to prevent it is, to be enabled to think that now is an accepted time; that now is the day of salvation. Let me look round, and what do you suppose I was thinking? why, that it is a mercy we have not been in hell a thousand times. How many are there in hell that used to say, Lord convert me, but not now? One of the good old Puritans says, Hell is paved with good intentions.