One of the most picturesque Christianese expressions, and one that comes directly from the pages of Scripture. Nobody questions that put out a fleece is a commonly used Christian phrase, though people do debate whether it’s really a good idea to set up “tests” like this and interpret them as God’s will. At least now we have an idea of when the term began to be used in this way… about 70 years ago, in the 1940s.
put out a fleece v. phr. Also lay out a fleece; place a fleece. To invoke God’s help in making a decision by calling for God to show a designated sign.
The expression comes from the Old Testament story of Gideon asking God to perform a miracle in order to confirm a prophecy that had been given earlier (Judges 6:11-40). The fleece that Gideon uses to confirm the prophecy is literally a fleece, but in the figure of speech the “fleece” refers to the sign that has been selected (see 1976 citation).
Note that the sign Gideon chose was a miraculous event, but the signs chosen by modern-day Christians are often merely circumstantial events (see citations for 1976, 1979a, and 1991) or unlikely events (see citations for 1953, 1975, 1979b, 1988, 1997, and 2004).
The phrase put out a fleece was coined by Wycliffe (1395) or his colleagues to translate a Hebrew phrase that appears only in Judges 6:37. The phrase was adopted by Tyndale (1537), the Geneva Bible (1557), and the kjv (1611). However the term did not acquire its present idiomatic meaning until the mid-20th century.
The figure of speech first appeared in print in the 1940s, and it has since attained widespread use in conversation and in Christian literature written for a popular audience.
See also *liver shivers; *open door.
• 1946 Coder God’s Will for Your Life 75 : Others are always “putting out a fleece,” yet there is no verse instructing us to do what Gideon did in his hour of weakness, during a terrible national crises when a greater responsibility rested upon him than most of us are called to bear. 1953 Houghton Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur 136 : And Amma put out a fleece. She asked for one hundred rupees from an unexpected source. In those days such large gifts—one hundred rupees exchanged for £7 8s.—were very rare. Ten days after … a letter came [with] a cheque for one hundred rupees. 1959 Wallis, Bennett Two Thousand Tongues to Go: The Story of the Wycliffe Bible Translators 111 : Where would Townsend turn for help? “I put out a fleece in three directions,” recounts Townsend. “One letter went to Pennsylvania, one to Illinois, and one to California.” 1963 Wilkerson, Sherrill The Cross and the Switchblade 9 : I made an experiment in a special kind of prayer which seeks to find God’s will through a sign. “Putting a fleece before the Lord,” it is called…. “Lord,” I said aloud, “I would like to put a fleece before You now…. If You want us to stay here in Philipsburg, we ask that You let us know by having the Committee vote for us unanimously.” 1966 Pollock Billy Graham: The Authorised Biography 85 : Billy Graham “put out a fleece”—watched for a sign. The sign came by a telephone call in the small hours. 1974 Wilkerson Beyond the Cross and the Switchblade 56,57 : How would any of us find the time necessary for this kind of deep, intensive research and writing? So we decided to put out a fleece. This was the first time John and Tib had ever heard of a fleece, and they were skeptical…. We decided to put out the fleece and to make it a difficult one. First, Bernard Geis, the publisher John had in mind, should grant us an immediate appointment even though it was already four o’clock. 1975 Humbard To Tell the World 89 : We decided to “put out a fleece to God” as Gideon did in the Bible. I told the Lord that if we received one thousand dollars in our Sunday evening collection, I would take that unusually generous offering as a sign that God wanted us to go ahead and get the new and larger tent. 1976 White The Fight: A Practical Handbook to Christian Living 165 : Gideon’s fleece has become the basis of a practice among some Christians which is called “putting out a fleece.” In essence, when you put out a fleece you say to God, “If you really want me to carry out plan A, then please make the telephone ring at 9:10 p.m., then I will know that plan A is what you want.” (You can make the “fleece” anything you wish, just so long as it can serve as a “sign” to you.) 1979 Wood Questions New Christians Ask 14 : A fleece has come to mean a type of divining rod for knowing God’s will. Suppose you want to know if God wants you to take a certain job tomorrow. All right, you give God a fleece. You say, “God, if it doesn’t rain tomorrow morning, I’ll take that as a sign that you want me to have that job.” 1979 Armstrong The Electric Church 95 : Recalling the scene as they knelt on the floor, Dienert describes Billy starting off, “Lord, You know I’m doing all that I can.” After offering to pledge his own belongings, he ended the prayer by asking, “I want You to give me a sign and I’m going to put out the fleece. The fleece is for $25,000 by midnight.” 1986 Buckingham Help! I’m a Pastor’s Wife 303 : “I’ve put out a ‘fleece’ to God,” he said. “If we’re supposed to stay in Virginia, you’ll get pregnant. If you don’t, we’ll know God has a different plan for us.” I was surprised to hear John’s words. Little did he know that I had prayed exactly the same prayer. It wasn’t long before I had an announcement of my own. I was pregnant! 1988 Cox Ministers Manual for 1989 192 : As he rode along the highway, he put out a fleece prayer. He said, “God, if I really am supposed to preach, let that S over there on Stonecutter go dark.” As he returned home from work that night indeed the S was dark except for a tip. 1990 Gribble, Friedman 200 Rooms in the Inn: The Story of Providence Mission Homes 9 : Our house at that time, in the Lower Hastings Ranch area of Pasadena, wasn’t large enough to house children, Jac and I agreed. We began to read “Houses for Sale” ads in the newspaper and drive around Pasadena looking for “For Sale” signs on lawns. We also decided to put out a “fleece.” … Our fleece was: if Jac’s practice in April of 1966 should net an income of $2000, we would feel we should look at houses priced at around $40,000. 1991 Koons, Anthony Single Adult Passages: Uncharted Territories 89 : An example of this approach is seen in Denny: “I had been dating Marcy for a few months but was planning to break up with her because I didn’t feel good about the direction our relationship was going. I decided to resolve the situation by putting out a fleece to God. One night I told God on the way to pick up Marcy for a date that if she came out wearing a red skirt, a white blouse, a pony tail, and her light blue sweater, I would take it from God that she was the right person for me.” 1997 Stehli The Sound of a Miracle 158 : Peter made an unusual statement which was greeted with some derision. “I have decided to put out a fleece,” he said. “I’m going to ask for a sign.” He went fearlessly on, even though the sign he was about to request was a most unlikely event, given the fact that Geneva is sacked in by cloud cover from October to May, with perhaps two hours of exception. “If we are meant to come over here with Georgie, I will be able to see Mt. Blanc tomorrow morning.” Then he rose, excused himself, and went off to bed. 2004 Eble Abundant Gifts: A Daybook of Grace-Filled Devotions 37 : Should I plan to major in biology or English? I prayed about it but didn’t get a clear answer. So, as young Christians often do, I put out a fleece, as Gideon did…. So I prayed, “Lord, if you want me to major in English, have me get an A+ on this paper.” I figured that it was impossible to achieve and could only be a result of God’s action. 2011 Griffin Googling God’s Will: Why Keep Searching for It When It’s Not Lost? 82 : Some followers of Jesus, at one time or another, have tried to determine God’s will for their lives by “putting out a fleece” (a Christianese statement if ever there was one) in which they were trying to determine a “yes” or a “no” answer from God.