Category Archives: Protestantism


from The Courage to Be


Paul Tillich was a German-American theologian whose work helped to revolutionize Protestant theology in light of a philosophical analysis of existence. Born in a small Prussian town, the son of an authoritarian Lutheran minister, Tillich attended universities in Berlin, Tübingen, and Halle before receiving a doctorate from Breslau in 1911, as well as a licentiate of theology from Halle in 1912. As an ordained Lutheran minister and chaplain in the German army, Tillich joined forces with the religious social movement, which struggled to expand social opportunity and justice while opposing both the utopian delusions of Marxism, as well as the individualism and otherworldliness of the dominant forms of Christianity.

Tillich’s early work examined how tradition could coexist with autonomy and freedom. In The Religious Situation (1932), Tillich viewed religion as the ultimate concern of humanity that underlies 20th-century changes in art, politics, and philosophy. Because of his criticism of Hitler, in 1933, he was barred from teaching, and he emigrated to the United States to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Tillich continued to publish sermons and articles on theology and history. Systematic Theology (1951–63), his three-volume magnum opus, presents God not as a being—an anthropomorphic, personal God—but as Being-itself, or ultimate reality; this work attempted to integrate traditional Christianity with contemporary concerns including existential uncertainty, the scientific method, and psychoanalysis. Christian doctrines are seen as resolutions of practical human problems.

In this selection from Tillich’s popular The Courage to Be (1952), suicide is explored in relation to anxiety and despair. Suicide only partially liberates the soul from anxiety, Tillich says; the inescapable guilt and condemnation of despair frustrate the attempt to escape them through this finite act.

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 54-57.




The Meaning of Despair

Despair is an ultimate or “boundary-line” situation. One cannot go beyond it. Its nature is indicated in the etymology of the word despair: without hope.  No way out into the future appears. Nonbeing is felt as absolutely victorious. But there is a limit to its victory; nonbeing is felt as victorious, and feeling presupposes being. Enough being is left to feel the irresistible power of nonbeing, and this is the despair within the despair. The pain of despair is that a being is aware of itself as unable to affirm itself because of the power of nonbeing. Consequently it wants to surrender this awareness and its presupposition, the being which is aware. It wants to get rid of itself—and it cannot. Despair appears in the form of reduplication, as the desperate attempt to escape despair. If anxiety were only the anxiety of fate and death, voluntary death would be the way out of despair. The courage demanded would be the courage not to be. The final form of ontic self-affirmation would be the act of ontic self-negation.

But despair is also the despair about guilt and condemnation. And there is no way of escaping it, even by ontic self-negation. Suicide can liberate one from the anxiety of fate and death—as the Stoics knew. But it cannot liberate from the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, as the Christians know. This is a highly paradoxical statement, as paradoxical as the relation of the moral sphere to ontic existence generally. But it is a true statement, verified by those who have experienced fully the despair of condemnation. It is impossible to express the inescapable character of condemnation in ontic terms, that is in terms of imaginings about the “immortality of the soul.” For every ontic statement must use the categories of finitude, and “immortality of the soul” would be the endless prolongation of finitude and of the despair of condemnation (a self-contradictory concept, for “finis” means “end”). The experience, therefore, that suicide is no way of escaping guilt must be understood in terms of the qualitative character of the moral demand, and of the qualitative character of its rejection. Guilt and condemnation are qualitatively, not quantitatively, infinite. They have an infinite weight and cannot be removed by a finite act of ontic self-negation. This makes despair desperate, that is, inescapable. There is “No Exit” from it (Sartre). The anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness participates in both the ontic and moral element in despair. Insofar as it is an expression of finitude it can be removed by ontic self-negation: This drives radical skepticism to suicide. Insofar as it is a consequence of moral disintegration it produces the same paradox as the moral element in despair: there is no ontic exit from it. This frustrates the suicidal trends in emptiness and meaninglessness. One is aware of their futility.

In view of this character of despair it is understandable that all human life can be interpreted as a continuous attempt to avoid despair. And this attempt is mostly successful. Extreme situations are not reached frequently and perhaps they are never reached by some people. The purpose of an analysis of such a situation is not to record ordinary human experiences but to show extreme possibilities in the light of which the ordinary situations must be understood. We are not always aware of our having to die, but in the light of the experience of our having to die our whole life is experienced differently. In the same way the anxiety which is despair is not always present. But the rare occasions in which it is present determine the interpretation of existence as a whole.

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Filed under Americas, Europe, Existentialism, Protestantism, Selections, The Modern Era, Tillich, Paul


from Dissertation on Suicide


Born at Pudsey, near Leeds, Richard Hey was an English mathematician and essayist. In 1768, he received his B.A. from Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he was a tutor and fellow from 1782 to 1796 after completing M.A. and LL.D. degrees at Sidney Sussex College. Hey received a call to the bar in 1771 at the Middle Temple, but did not succeed in practice. He published Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty and the Principles of Government in 1776; his principal work was the Dissertation on the Pernicious Effects of Gaming (1783). This latter work won Hey a monetary writing prize from an anonymous donor, as did his following works, Dissertation on Duelling (1784) and Dissertation on Suicide (1785). In addition to a play and a novel, Hey composed pamphlets and contributed papers to magazines. He died in Hertingfordbury in his 91st year.

In the lengthy Dissertation on Suicide, Hey discusses the guilt of suicide, its status as murder, its pernicious effects, and its imprudence. In the section presented here, Hey outlines the “bad effects of the principle which permits Suicide,” arguing that the possibility of escape by suicide or the notion of suicide as a “resource” would induce “irregular and pernicious conduct.” He also believes that the social acceptance of suicide would undercut the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent. Hey’s point is more subtle than most writers who point to the negative consequences of suicide; for Hey, the problem lies not so much in the effects of the act itself as actually carried out, but in the social role of the principle under which it is performed—the background conception that suicide is an alternative to social responsibility and suffering, a way out. Hey’s example of the young man deciding whether to live within his means and his inheritance for the full term of his life as a “useful member of society”—say, 60 years—or, dissolute, spend it all in 20 years and then kill himself when his resources are gone, anticipates later “balance-sheet” conceptions of suicide as the subject of rational, prudential decision-making, where the problematic issue is how to weigh nonexistence versus the value of continuing life.

Richard Hey, Three Dissertations on the Pernicious Effects of Gaming, On Duelling, and On Suicide, revised and corrected in 1811 by the author. Cambridge, UK: J. Smith, Printer to Cambridge University, 1812, pp. 208-219.


Effects of the Principle which permits Suicide

The pernicious Effects of Suicide, actually committed, might have been drawn out to a much greater length.  But being for the most part, obvious to the observing eye, they would be liable to lose much of their force if delineated with a prolix minuteness.  They have likewise been repeatedly a subject of disquisition to the Moralist and Divine. It seems therefore better to pass over to an important consideration, which appears not to have been regarded with sufficient attention—the Effects produced in the actions of any person, by an habitual and prevailing idea in his mind, approving (in some sort) or Permitting suicide.  The meaning of this may be explained more at large.

Probably the commission of other crimes, as well as of Suicide, is frequently avoided less through Principle than from the absence of temptation.  But he who is thus prevented by mere circumstances from the commission of them, is not only deficient in the integrity of virtuous Sentiment, but may be led in Actions which are hurtful, though distinct from the Crimes, which, as we have supposed, he escapes by having no temptation to commit them.  A man, having no scruple of removing out of his way by treachery or open force those who may obstruct his pursuits, will be ready to engage in enterprises highly detrimental to society, though they may not happen to draw him into actual Murder.  He who would deceive, whensoever occasion should prompt, may perhaps never be reduced to perjure himself; nay, it is possible that he may never in fact utter a falsehood: but he will probably be guilty of many actions in which he would not have allowed himself, if he had been firmly attached to the Principle of veracity; if a real abhorrence of the arts of deceit had precluded the use of them as a security from detection.

In like manner, though a person have Suicide in his eye, as a Resource in case of extreme distress, it may happen that he shall never be reduced to what he calls a Necessity of removing himself out of the world: but he may nevertheless, by his confidence in such a resource, be incited to an irregular and pernicious conduct.  If we can make this to appear, the Guilt of Suicide will be not a little confirmed.  And the harm derived from this particular origin, may be called, the bad Effects of the Principle which permits Suicide.

It is not meant that every one, who acts upon the Principle thus expounded, has formed a full and determinate resolution to die when his affairs are brought to any certain crisis, or when life becomes an evil in his estimation.  Nor, of those who may keep an eye more or less distinctly directed to such a Refuge, is it probable that all have similar sentiments.  One has reasoned himself into a persuasion of its Rectitude: another has possibly fixed his resolution in opposition to a full conviction; or he has combated and suppressed a nascent belief of the Guilt, or forced away his attention from a latent Doubt.  And the degrees of doubt are infinitely variable.  But men, in their general conduct, give proof of little foresight or thoughtful predetermination.  Wherefore it is probable, that those who have made a formal (though only eventual) resolution to take refuge in suicide, are but few in comparison of those who, without a similar resolution, would actually put a period to their lives in similar cases; and who, by their habitual state of mind, being at the mercy of conspiring circumstances, which may impel them to Suicide, are to be conceived as acting from the Principle now under discussion.

But here again is an infinite variety of persons, of whom this habitual state of mind may be predicated.  Some would sooner be reduced to the commission of the crime; others with more difficulty.  Some, thinking it allowable in general to quit life at pleasure, would yet refuse to do it when they distinctly foresaw consequential injury to surviving friends.  Others, with the cruelty of cowards, would knowingly plunge the innocent survivors into the deepest calamities, rather than abstain from this unnatural outrage upon themselves first, may be mentioned an inferior Effect; more confined and less flagrant than some remaining to be noticed afterwards.  But the consideration will have its weight with a generous mind:—a mind capable of commiserating in others the pain of anxious suspense; the continued Fear of an event which yet may never happen.  If a person is known or suspected to have embraced the Principle here condemned, he becomes the cause of serious distress to those who are naturally interested in every thing that regards him.  Apprehensions for his fate cannot be entirely suppressed, even while his circumstances wear a face of prosperity.  But, when clouds obscure his prospects, when disappointment has given a shock to his sensibility, when heavy calamities threaten or oppress him, his friends then tremble with anxiety, endeavouring with painful attention to prevent the dreaded catastrophe, but sensible that prevention is not altogether in their power.

Although this were the only accusation which could be brought against Suicide, we are confident there are to be found persons of so generous and enlarged sentiments, that, to restore a peaceful serenity of mind to their anxious friends, they would disavow every idea which could give just cause of Apprehension.  But accusations of a higher nature claim to be heard.

If a person, who admits Suicide as a Resource, should analyze his inmost thoughts with impartiality, and utter them without reserve; we might hear him expressing himself to the following effect.

“I am told by solemn and supercilious preachers of morality, that the Being who placed me in this world intended me for purposes of a nature superiour (as they pretend) to the mere enjoyment of my life.  I shall not undertake a laborious investigation, to examine the ground and proof of their assertions.  Time presses on; and that short portion of life which alone affords enjoyment may easily be wasted in the speculation.  I feel within me an impulse to pursue my immediate Happiness; and I will not check that impulse.  Why may I not presume it to be the voice of my Creator, dictating the conduct which I should pursue?  Why should I perplex myself with the artificial and fallible deductions of Reason, whether my own, or of other men?  Here, then, I consign to oblivion those dull maxims; which, under the title of Virtue, would teach me to distract myself by an assiduous attention to the rights and interests of others, instead of giving myself freely to my own gratification; or, under the name of prudence, to lay in a stock of health and riches, before the approach of that season in which I must expect the vigour of all my powers and capacities to abate.  Be these the maxims of persons who conceive themselves to be imprisoned here by a tyrant!  I have no other dread of poverty, disease, or old age, than as putting an end to my enjoyments.  Against a continued suffering, under such evils, I am fully provided.  Secure of a retreat from every misfortune, I will exhaust my wealth upon such objects as it can procure for me, while my mind and body retain the vigour which alone can stamp a value upon those objects.  Why should I shackle myself with the fetters of frugality?  Why be my own tormentor, in reserving this pelf to a season when impotence and insensibility must render it useless to me?  Or, why should I lay the tax of an abstemious temperance upon my pleasures, under pretence of preserving my health and faculties?  Life is of doubtful duration.  Why should I, in hopes of future enjoyments still more uncertain, spare my bodily constitution; when, for this end, I must deny myself what is present and certain?  In what service can this mortal frame better be worn out, than in administering to my immediate Happiness?  When it is no longer able to answer this purpose, I can readily procure my own dismission; after having compressed into the space of a few years all the Good which others by intermixing it with the misery of labour, temperance, and discipline, expand into a much more tedious length of time.  When I have extracted from life all that makes it worth preserving, I will release myself; secretly exulting in triumph, over those who imagine themselves bound to drag on an old age of disease, pain, stupor, and infirmity.”

Who does not see that this is a language which leads to a general dissoluteness of manners, a contempt of all the obligations which arise in social life?  And who, that sees this, will afterwards maintain that the Principle, permitting Suicide, is a matter of small consequence, though it should not end in the Act itself?

Suppose then a person, at the age of twenty years, entering into life; who looks forward to his resources, and to the particular manner in which he should desire to pass through the world, with more accuracy than is perhaps very usual at that age.  He finds upon his survey, that, with a moderate degree of industry in some particular profession, joined to the annual produce of his patrimony, he shall be able, not only to procure all the advantages of life which his birth and early habits can demand, but also to provide an honourable and indulgent retreat for old age.  But he finds, on the other hand, that, if he will break through the limits of his annual income, and enter upon the substance of his paternal property, he shall then be able, without the aid of his own industry, to supply himself, during the space of twenty years to come, with a plentiful share of those luxuries in which he esteems Happiness to consist.  The question is, whether he shall take the former method, become a useful member of society, content himself with that moderate and mixed enjoyment which the natural course of things allows to men, and continue his life long as he is permitted to live; or shall take the latter method, banish from his thoughts the interests of society, give himself up to his own private enjoyments, and put an end to his life when he has thus exhausted the means of continuing it in riot and debauchery.

If he adopt the former method, it will be no unnatural supposition to conceive that he lives to the age of sixty years: in which case he will have been a useful member of society, for the space of forty years, from the time when he formed his resolutions and plan of life.  If the latter method be his choice, he perishes after having existed (from the same time) a noxious member of society during twenty years.

It is immaterial to the main conclusion, whether he completes the period of time which he had fixed upon, and carries his predetermined suicide into execution, or, after a considerable portion elapsed, is called away by an earlier death.  For, in either case, the continued injuries committed, the duties neglected, through a course of years, and the Guilt by these means contracted, have arisen from the Principle upon which a scheme of action, so inequitable and so ungenerous, was planned.

To see distinctly and fully the pernicious nature of such conduct, the way would be to conceive every person as embracing it: that is, every person who is unable to command, by the annual produce of his patrimonial property, so much of the industry of other men as is requisite for his wishes; but who can command it during some certain portion of time, if he be willing to exhaust that property.  The number of persons in this situation is great.  Should they all pursue a dissolute course of life so long as their finances would support them in it, depending upon Suicide as the means of escaping poverty and distress; the consequences would be extensively felt.  Society must be burdened with a number of useless Beings; whose industry is lost to the public, not merely for that portion of time by which their lives are shortened, but even while they remain in life.

But the Principle under consideration leads to actions more highly pernicious, than such as are usually comprised within the general description of a dissolute life.  The connexion between Murder and Suicide, both in theory and experience, we have already seen.  In other actions also to which the municipal laws have annexed capital punishments, men who are fearless of Death, though not insensible to the Ignominy of a public execution, are freed from restraint, when once they have determined to become their own executioners in case of immediate danger from the civil power.

That there are men perfectly fearless of death, may be doubted.  But what comes to the same thing, in the present argument, will readily be granted: which is, that there are men in whom the fear of death is not strong enough to restrain them from the commission of crimes.  And it will also be easily granted, that the fear of Ignominy is frequently found more powerful than the fear of Death; (howsoever inconsistent this may appear, where death is considered as the introduction to future Punishment.)  Upon the whole, then, it may sometimes happen, that a person, with whom the fear of Death has lost its effect, of restraining him from the commission of a capital crime, may yet be restrained from it by the fear of Ignominy; unless this latter fear has been removed by a confidence in voluntary death, to prevent the ignominy.

But, whensoever a person has, by this confidence, armed himself with a security against the Ignominy, which is all that he sees sufficiently terrible, in Death, to restrain him from crime; we may apprehend Effects of a most alarming nature.  With respect to him, capital punishments are annulled.  Mankind have the same reason to dread from him every violation of their rights, as if the laws which affix the punishment of death to certain actions had never been established.  Augment the Number of such persons; and the first purposes of society are destroyed.  Security is fled; life and property are precarious; perpetual consternation and alarm cast a damp upon private felicity, and check the happy progress of civilization.  But what presents this terrible aspect, when conceived as prevailing to a great extent, is equally reprehensible, in respect of mental depravity, howsoever small the Number of those who adopt it.  And the Principle which has a natural tendency towards crimes so flagitious, ought to meet with a peremptory exclusion, when, under the most specious pretences, it solicits admittance into the human breast.

It is evident that all these Effects are distinct from the consequences of Suicide itself, and may arise without the actual Commission of it.  But, since all moral evil has its existence in the mind rather than in external action, and since the Guilt of Suicide is therefore to be looked for in the Principle, Sentiment, or Passion, from which it proceeds; for this reason, all the Effects of the Principle (provided they appear to follow from the nature of it, and not to be merely incidental) are properly taken into the account, as well as the final act, in estimating the Guilt of Suicide.

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Thoughts on Suicide


An English preacher and writer, John Wesley and his brother Charles were the founders of Methodism. Born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England to Anglican rector Samuel Wesley, John was educated at the Charterhouse School and was elected fellow of Lincoln College in 1726. Wesley viewed the clergy of the 18th-century Anglican church as incompetent, corrupt, and unconcerned with the large class of non-churchgoing people, a group to whom he directed many of his efforts, often at outdoor sermons. In 1729, he became an important participant in a religious group founded by his brother Charles at Oxford. This “Holy Club” was the first to adopt the name “Methodists,” originally a pejorative descriptor given to the group by other students. After a disappointing attempt to introduce his religious views to the American colonies where his own outlook was deeply influenced by Moravian settlers, Wesley returned and began in 1739 to establish Methodist societies throughout England, traveling over 250,000 miles in his ministry. He spent most of his life traveling and preaching, and, in 1784, gave the Methodist societies a legal constitution. Before his death in 1791, he ordained Thomas Coke the principal Methodist Episcopal minister for the new church in the United States, marking the beginning of a Methodist separation from within the Church of England, although Wesley and his brother in particular would continue to urge their English followers to remain with the Church of England.

The impetus for Wesley’s fervent proselytizing came in 1738, when he experienced a significant spiritual conversion. During a small religious meeting in London, he reported that his “heart was strangely warmed.” He wrote, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation.” This message became the central tenet of Wesley’s lifelong missionary work.

In a very brief piece dated April 8, 1790, later published among his letters, Wesley discusses his thoughts on suicide. He is concerned that the then-existent laws of England, which held suicide to be a felony criminal offense (felo de se) and were designed to deter suicide, were ineffective, since the courts were able to avoid conviction (and its disastrous consequences for heirs) by declaring the person insane. In the case of such a verdict, no action, such as seizing the suicide’s estate for forfeiture to the crown or refusing a suicide Christian burial, could be taken. Recalling Plutarch’s [q.v.] account of the way further suicides among the young women of Miletus were prevented by public exposure of the dead bodies naked, Wesley offers as his solution that the body of the suicide be hung in chains and publicly displayed. Surely, he thinks, this would end the “English fury” of suicides.


John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. XIII: Letters. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958. From the authorized edition published by the Wesleyan Conference Office, London, 1872.


It is a melancholy consideration, that there is no country in Europe, or perhaps in the habitable world, where the horrid crime of self-murder is so common as it is in England!  One reason of this may be, that the English in general are more ungodly and more impatient than other nations.  Indeed we have laws against it, and officers with juries are appointed to inquire into every fact of the kind.  And these are to give in their verdict upon oath, whether the self-murderer was sane or insane.  If he is brought in insane, he is excused, and the law does not affect him.  By this means it is totally eluded; for the juries constantly bring him in insane.  So the law is not of the least effect, though the farce of a trial still continues.

This morning I asked a Coroner, “Sir, did you ever know a jury bring in the deceased felo de se?”  He answered, “No, Sir; and it is a pity they should.”  What then is the law good for?  If all self-murderers are mad, what need of any trial concerning them?

But it is plain our ancestors did not think so, or those laws had never been made.  It is true, every self-murderer is mad in some sense, but not in that sense which the law intends.  This fact does not prove him mad in the eye of the law: The question is, Was he mad in other respects?  If not, every juror is perjured who does not bring him in felo de se.

But how can this vile abuse of the law be prevented, and this execrable crime effectually discouraged?

By a very easy method.  We read in ancient history, that, at a certain period, many of the women in Sparta murdered themselves.  This fury increasing, a law was made, that the body of every woman that killed herself should be exposed naked in the streets.  The fury ceased at once.

Only let a law be made and rigorously executed, that the body of every self-murderer, Lord or peasant, shall be hanged in chains, and the English fury will cease at once.

Liverpool,  April 8, 1790.                                                                 JOHN WESLEY.

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from A Dissertation Upon the Unnatural Crime of Self-Murder


Caleb Fleming was born in Nottingham and brought up in a Calvinist home. Fleming’s early desire was to enter the ministry; as a boy he learned shorthand in order to write down sermons. However, when Presbyterian minister John Hardy opened a nonconformist academy in 1714, Fleming, while a student there, rejected his parents’ religion and decided to pursue a life in business. Fleming married and moved to London in 1727; apparently, he lived by writing but was often in financial straits. Under the entreaties of friends, Fleming entered the dissenting ministry. Through a series of sermons, he eventually secured the post of pastor (though he classed himself as an independent) for the Presbyterian congregation at Bartholomew Close where he ministered for 15 years before the congregation shrank to nonexistence and the meeting-house lease expired. When he died, he left the epigraph of a “dissenting teacher” on his gravestone.

Fleming was a prolific pamphleteer: he died with over a hundred combative theological and political works to his credit, although most were published anonymously. His principal work, “A Survey of the Search After Souls” (1758), contends that the soul possesses a “capacity of immortality” rather than an inherent immortality. His unique, anti-trinitarian confession of faith is seen in “True Deism, the Basis of Christianity” (1749). In one sermon, he classified Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Cicero, and Seneca among vehicles of divine revelation. Many of his writings and exhortations addressed the topic of moral corruption.

In the lengthy A Dissertation Upon the Unnatural Crime of Self-Murder (1773), excerpted here, Fleming uses a variety of theological and moral arguments to show the “unnaturalness” and “great depravity” of suicide. Among them, he argues that earthly life is a probationary period and so ought not to be interrupted, and that suicide is “so deformed” that the prohibition of it need not be explicitly mentioned in the Bible. There are no exceptions and no excuses, and the fact that a suicide victim was of unbalanced mind carries no weight. Unlike many other Christian apologists (including Augustine [q.v.]), Fleming does not find grounds for excusing the various Biblical suicides, and insists, for example, that Saul, Saul’s armor-bearer, and Ahitophel were all “extremely wicked.”


Caleb Fleming, A Dissertation Upon the Unnatural Crime of Self-Murder. London: Printed for Edward and Charles Dilly, 1773, excerpted from pp. 2-21, 24.


. . . I shall . . . presume first to lay down, and afterwards prove, the truth of this proposition, viz. “That not any thing can be more unnatural, and argue a greater depravity of mind, than self-murder.” Yet here I would be understood to except such, who, by the hand of God, are deprived of the use of their reason and understanding. …

To those who do believe there is a God, and that man is accountable, this will be one powerful reason against the act of suicism, viz. that the present mode of man’s existence is, and must be probationary. It should appear to be a self-evident truth, that during the term of human life, wherein man has the use of his intellectual faculties and powers continued to him, he is a probationer, and as such is appointed to conflict with temptation. Now every man is well informed, that the breath which is in his nostrils, is not under his own volition or command; and that what propriety he has in it, is only that of a loan, which affords him no manner of right to give it a dismission at his own pleasure. The life-principle, he knows, is not his own; because it operates wholly under another’s direction. In other words, he has no hand at all in that wonderful principle or power, which animates his bodily machine.

It certainly is a communicated bestowment for all the purposes of man’s present perceptions, pursuits, and also sensitive fruitions. Or, it is that measure of his probationary duration, which is subject only to the decisions of infinite unerring wisdom. It is therefore the unalienable prerogative of the universal Sovereign, and is thus represented by the oracle; I KILL, AND I MAKE ALIVE! I WOUND, AND I HEAL! This character the Almighty claims and appropriates. A truth to which the Son of God bears witness, when he makes this appeal, “Which of you can, by taking thought, add one cubit to his stature, shadow; or age?”

Since, therefore, life is a divine communication, it behoves us to reverence and hold sacred the important gift, nor ever once resign, or consent to sacrifice it, but upon the altar of truth and God. Of so great importance is life, that an incessant care to preserve it from any apprehended peril, is a first law of our make. And although in the book of Job, it was that figurative character, called Satan, who said, “Skin after skin, yea, all that a man hath, will he give for his life:” it is nevertheless an indisputable truth. Witness the many painful and desperate operations, to which great numbers of mankind submit, in order to preserve life. But then, even this principle, though universal, has its boundaries and exceptions: for at the same time, that, in its efficacy, it should extend to all afflictive or painful visitations, with which heaven is pleased to try the patience, submission and resignation of man; it nevertheless should, by no means, ever admit of a man’s hurting his virtue, or the morality of his own mind, in order to preserve his natural life. —I am persuaded, there truly is not one supposable circumstance, which can possibly enter into the compass of human trial, where man could be justified in taking away his own life. There cannot for this very reason, viz. his present mode of existence, is most certainly probationary: and the God, whose gift it is, has reserved to himself the sole right of disposal of human life.

Again, as this mode of man’s existence is probationary, so it is, that he is instructed both by reason and revelation, to conduct himself as becomes a candidate, who has in view a state of recompence. If, therefore, he is found to behave reasonably, or according to the truth, propriety, and fitness of things, he cannot but see it to be requisite, that he leave the matter wholly to the giver and Lord of life, to determine both when and how he shall finish his probation: forasmuch as it would be an expression of the most provoking insolence and arrogance, in any one creature, to assume the sole prerogative of heaven. Thus, at first view, it appears unpardonably criminal in the probationer for a world of recompence, to give himself a discharge from his duty, upon any disgust petulantly taken by him, at the circumstances of his trial. The guilty wretch instantly and impiously plunges himself into remediless misery…why the rankling chagrine in any professing Christian? Why so much fretfulness? Why such a furious agitation of mind, as to offer an open insult to the divinely animating spirit, merely because fallen under some calamities? – But, alas! among the horrible number of self-murderers, scarce any have been so presumptuous and daring, except minds conscious of some perpetrated villanies, that would not bear the canvassing eye of their fellow-men. More usually, they have been such who have brought on their distresses, either from luxury, gaming, or other extravagance, else from debauchery.

As to others of mankind who have fallen under very heavy afflictions, immediately and apparently from the hand of heaven, and are conscious that they have not brought on those their distresses by their own follies and vices; these seeing the visitation to be no other than a fatherly chastisement, are never so presumptuous or daring. In truth, all men who live as probationers, or who act in character, learn to say with Job, whenever evils fall heavily upon them, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? –The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” — On the contrary, peevish, fretful minds, full of discontent, are ready to arraign not only the goodness, but even the equity and justice of the adorable sovereign; and are deplorably inattentive to their own appointments; for they will not be persuaded to consider themselves as candidates for a world of recompence. But on the contrary, if heaven does not indulge them with all the present sensitive good they wish, or shall throw into their lot more evil than their pride and vanity can admit, they scruple not presently to spit in his face, and impudently quit the station he had assigned them.

We may further consider suicism, not only as a crime unbecoming a probationary state, and no way pardonable in a candidate for a world of recompence, but also as in itself so very shockingly deformed, as not to have been discriminately noticed in any of the divine prohibitions; just as if it was not supposable, that an intelligent rational creature, accountable to its Creator, could ever once admit the shocking idea, the unnatural, abhorrent image.… And, in fact, there does not appear to have been a record made of any suicides in the sacred history, but those of the most abandoned characters. Saul and his armour-bearer, we may conclude to have been extremely wicked. So was Ahitophel, who first set his house in order, and then hanged himself. A very deliberate self-murderer. So was that miscreant, Judas, the traitor. And may we not say of all such, “better they had never been born.” — For in the very last act they perform, they willfully and impiously withdraw themselves from the animating spirit of God, and leave themselves no space for repentance…But though it has not more effectually done this, yet the extreme deformity and malignity of suicism, is what should be inferred, from its not having had any distinct, discriminating idea given of it, in any of the written laws of God. Its diametrical opposition to the most powerful instinctive principles of self-preservation in the breast of every man, seems to have rendered needless any express prohibition.

Self-murder may be yet further considered, as an act of high-treason, not only against the sovereignty of the universal Lord, but against the laws of human society. It destroys the very foundation of social virtue, and of all moral obligation. For this is one of the two principles or axioms, on which all moral virtue and piety does support, viz. “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”…Now, if we can thus capitally abuse ourselves, as to become persuaded we may take away life at our pleasure, and so quit our appointed stations, then that fundamental principle or axiom is of little meaning, and has in it nothing useful. …

Assuredly, the man who is persuaded he may dismiss his own life, whenever he is out of humour with his circumstances, can furnish us with no good ground of dependance, either on his social virtue, or even on his humanity.

Nay, the argument against suicism has a yet larger scope and extent; since if one man may be justified in taking away his own life, then another may. — Now, do but let the idea once spread and become infectious, a depopulation or waste would anon render our villages, aye our very towns and cities desolate…

Should it now be asked, what are the apologies which have been made for self-murder? They have been such as follow.

There are some who have pleaded in excuse for the suicide, “that the act is in itself a proof of insanity; and that no man ever had the use of his reason when he destroyed himself.”

To such I would reply, that the same apology might be made for every wicked action which men commit; because it had place from reason being dethroned, and from appetite and passion having usurped the reins of government. But who will say, that the highway-robber and murderer, from having taken the qualifying draught of strong liquors which he found necessary for the daring enterprise, did thereby acquire less degree of demerit and guilt? Or, is it a greater apology for the self-murderer, that by a series of extravagance, or some previous act of great wickedness he qualified himself? Or even because he suffered his avarice, pride or ambition, to become outrageous? Suicism, on the contrary, has more aggravations in it, than many capital crimes for which men are cut off by the punishing hand of justice.

There are many instances of the suicide having given full proof that he was in the possession of his reason and understanding, when he perpetrated the unnatural crime, and that it was done with deliberation, and direct purpose to destroy himself: and that he was neither lunatic, nor distracted by distemper or disease. For our law makes this allowance, “ that if a person during the time that he is not compos mentis, gives himself a mortal wound though he dies thereof when he recovers his memory; he is not felo de se, because at the time of the stroke he was not compos mentis.” i.e. As I understand the law, the man himself then knew he was not. — But if man was not capable of perpetrating the suicism, except in a state of insanity, it would be no crime; and the law would be extremely iniquitous, that supposed it criminal.

Should it in the next place be asked. “What is most usually the exciting MOTIVE to an act of suicism?”

It might be answered, that in the female it is more commonly a dread of shame, from having suffered herself to be dishonored; also from the love-passion having been ungovernable; or from the infidelity and ill-usage of a husband. – Whereas in the males, it is ordinarily some cross event, which has deeply affected the man’s worldly circumstances: or, perhaps, he has had a bad run of chances in his gaming: else, by some other criminal indulgences, he has reduced his finances to a very low condition: else he has suffered the chagrin to rise so fatally high, because of very sudden provocation. I own, I am apprehensive, there is some conscious guilt ever attends the loss or disappointment, or whatever the external evil is, that excites to suicism.

But let imagination have full play, and vary, as much as you possibly can, the motives to self-murder, their total amount can have no proportional weight; even though the rack of the stone or gout should have all its excruciating tortures: since the measure is full of guilt and crime; and has nothing in it that can promise to relieve, but must greatly aggravate the wretchedness! — Whereas the language of approved piety and exalted virtue, is recorded to have run thus, in the deepest distress, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” And the supplicatory address, this — “Shew me wherefore thou contendest with me.” Even the highest, the most amiable, and perfect of all human characters, said, “NOT MY WILL; BUT THINE BE DONE.”

Far otherwise the exciting motive in the suicide, which is a rankling, unreasonable dissatisfaction with his present situation; proceeding either from a disbelief of a wife, powerful, and good superintending mind, that intuitively and incessantly surveys the whole system of beings! Else from an impious disgust at his own allotments. And it may be safely presumed, that the operating motive is always worldly. The heart had nothing better than an earthly treasure, else it would never have committed the unnatural action of a felo de se.

If the above reasoning be good, there is nothing more clear and convincing than the proposition at first laid down, namely, “That there can be nothing more unnatural and cruel; or that argues a greater depravity of mind than self-murder.”…

There may now be sundry instructive corollaries, or conclusions drawn from the above reasoning upon the suicide; which may well deserve the notice of my fellow-citizens. Such as follow.

Corol. I. The increased number of self- murders about this great city, and in other parts, is an irrefragable proof of the deep depravity of the morals of our country. The insidious and restless enemies of Britain’s welfare, have at last so far succeeded in disseminating skepticism and infidelity; i.e. a disbelief of a providence, of a revelation, and a future state; which is what qualifies men for these enormities. And they have compassed their end in thus depraving the people, by inventing every measure that could lead to dissipation, and dissoluteness of manners. It was never known since the reformation, that Britain wore so detestable a complexion as that she now does, in whatever department you make the survey: for when you put to the account, the great advantages she has had above the former times of palpable darkness, under a popish system of government both in church and state, you must fall under conviction; and be constrained to own, her condition appears to be incurable and desperate. In fact, her impieties, immoralities, and vices, are matchless. — I question whether there be a nation upon the face of this globe, which in its annals could produce so great a run of suicides, since Christianity made its spread in the world. — It has been already observed, that when pagan Rome was in the decline of her glory, having lost all public virtue, suicism then became common: and those of that depraved people were reckoned brave, who had rather chosen to destroy themselves, than become the slaves of tyrants. But our self-murderers pretend to no such specious motive. They have lived viciously, and they will die impiously. The life which God only lent them, they presume to sacrifice to their own pride and passion. And although our laws would set a brand of infamy upon them, yet the horrid impiety is concealed or covered, either through a mistaken tenderness, else by a shameful venality and bribery.

I have said, a mistaken tenderness — Yet would observe, that the inequity of our laws does seem to apologize much for that tenderness; since it appears to be a very severe “forfeiture in felo de se, of all his goods and chattels, real and personal, which he hath in his own right; and all such chattels, real and personal, which he hath jointly with his wife, or in her right, when found upon the oath of twelve men before the coroner, super visum corporis, that he felo de se hath. He forfeits also bonds, or things in action, belonging solely to himself, and all entire chattels in possession; except in the case of merchants, where a moiety only of such joint- chattels, as may be saved, is forfeited.”

This forfeiture has a manifest severity in it; and which makes the heart of humanity to revolt at the punishment falling so heavily upon the criminal’s wife and children, who are innocent; and have already by the act of suicism suffered the loss of an husband and father, and are deprived of all further assistance and comfort from and in him.

To pretend, in justification of this forfeiture, that “God himself is said to visit the iniquity of fathers upon their children unto the third and fourth generation of them who hate him;” must be impertinent; for in such visitation, man is not of competent ability to copy his unerring measures of inflicting punishment. And if I have not mistaken the divine visitation, it intends only such children as copy their fathers iniquity; such as continue to resemble him in wickedness. And so I am persuaded it must be understood, when I read the 18th chapter of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Other measures should be taken to deter men from the unnatural, shocking crime of self murder, — And I am humbly apprehensive, that a stop might be put to the spread of suicism, by having the naked body exposed in some public place: over which the coroner should deliver an oration on the foul impiety; and then the body, like that of the homicide, be given to the surgeons.

Corol. II. If this be the only probationary state of man, in which he can be a candidate for a world of recompence, then life must be his most inestimable property, as an improveable talent… “As though it were never to have a beginning.”…

The idea of our being probationers for a world of recompence, has had the assent of the most wise and judicious of mankind; that it is manifestly a document of reason and nature; and what will bear the most accurate and critical examination. The reasoning and argument, which has been built upon this foundation, is therefore irrefragable and conclusive. And since this is the truth of the case, suicide is capitally criminal.

Corol. III. Every man who gratifies an appetite or passion, which has a manifest tendency to hurt his health, or shorten his life, is [though by a less sudden assault upon the life-principle] a real self-murderer. I mean, the man who luxuriates at his table, is too free with his bottle, and thereby brings on disease or distemper; or whether his lusts leads him into an illicit and empoisoned bodily commerce. This last species of debauchery is, among us, risen shamefully high, and disgracefully become as epidemical as the plaque….

Corol. IV. The shameful crime of DUELLING is another prevailing vicious practice; which reflects disgrace on the understanding of the man, and proves him deplorably unacquainted with self-government. The duellist is an atrocious violator of the law of his make. He tramples upon and subdues the first instinctive principle, with which his Maker has endowed him, viz. that of self-preservation. The proud, passionate man, will rather risk his own life, in his attempt to take away the life of another, than pass by an affront. And this he most stupidly fancies to be, and is not ashamed to call it, A PATH OF HONOUR! For, contrary to a fundamental law of civil society, he presumes upon being his own avenger. And though the matter of offence may have been nothing more than a breach of politeness, some little sally of the passion, or some mark of contempt; yet the blood-thirsty wretch will not be reconciled till he has fired his pistol, or with his sword lunged at the life of his fellow-man. Not any crime evinces more absurdity and stupidity than dueling does: for whoever he is that hazards his own life with a man who gave him offence, is a fool; and the very challenge he sent, proves that he is…

These several corollaries seem to have a free and unforced derivation from the fundamental proposition, namely, “That not any thing can be more unnatural, and argue a greater depravity of the human mind, than self-murder.”

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from A Defense Against the Temptation to Self-Murder


Isaac Watts, regarded as the father of English hymnody, was born in Southampton, England, and studied at the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington, now inside London, until 1694. He then became a family tutor to Sir John Hartopp; Watts’ rise to prominence as a preacher began with his sermons at Hartopp’s family chapel in Freeby, Leicestershire, and cumulated in his appointment as a full pastor at the Mark Lane Independent (i.e., Congregational) Chapel, London, in 1702. Here he wrote many now-famous Protestant hymns, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and “There is a Land of Pure Delight.” His hymns and psalms are published in the collections Horae Lyricae (1706), Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707) and Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719). Due to a breakdown in health, in 1712 he went to spend a week in Hertfordshire with Sir Thomas Abney, with whose family he would live for the rest of his life. Toward the end of his life Watts dedicated more time to writing, eventually publishing his influential work Logic, or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth (1724).

In A Defense Against the Temptation to Self-Murther (1726), Watts discusses the “folly and danger” of suicide. The piece is a vehement exhortation in the form of a direct address to anyone who might be tempted to suicide, and it attempts to dissuade the suicidal person with both religious and social arguments. It would mean permanent damnation, Watts insists, from which there could be no repentance; it would mean shame, as evidenced by the disgrace of burial at the crossroads; and it would mean shame for one’s family as well. Among the “dissuasions” Watts employs is an appeal to concern for others: “If it be so hard to you to bear a little poverty, shame, sorrow, reproach, etc. that you will die rather than bear it, why will you entail these on your kindred and on those who love you best?”


Isaac Watts, A Defense Against the Temptation to Self-Murther, London: Printed for J. Clark, R. Hett, E. Matthews, and R. Ford, 1726.


Some General Dissuasions from Self-Murther, by shewing the Folly and Danger of it.

WHEN this bloody practice has been proved to be highly criminal in the sight of God, we can hardly suppose that any other considerations should be more effectual to deter a man who professes Christianity from the guilt of so aggravated a sin: yet it may be possible to set the dangerous and dreadful consequences of this practice in a fuller view, a more diffusive and affecting light: for if you turn it on all sides it has still some new appearances of terror, and furnishes out new dissuasives from the execution of it.

I.  Consider that ‘tis too dangerous an attempt to venture upon it unless you had a full assurance of its lawfulness. Now suppose the power of your own iniquities, the artifices of the Tempter, and the prevailing ill humours of animal nature should join together so fatally as to blind your eyes against the full conviction of its sinfulness, yet you can never prove that self-murther is certainly a lawful thing. The furthest you can go is to suppose that possibly it may be lawful; but on the other hand, if you should be under a mistake, ‘tis a dreadful, ‘tis a fatal, ‘tis an eternal one. You put your self beyond all possibility of rectifying this error through all the long ages of futurity.

Whatsoever vain fancies some of the heathens have indulg’d who knew not God, and had very little and dark apprehensions of a future state, yet in the Christian world the utmost that the most sanguine or most melancholy among this tribe can well pretend is, that perhaps it may be Lawful, or at least that it is a little and a very pardonable crime, (and they have been forced to wink their eyes against the light to arrive at this perhaps). But if it be not pardonable, then nothing remains for the criminal but everlasting punishment. That terrible word eternal, eternal, eternal misery, carries such a long doleful accent with it, and includes such an immense train of agonies without hope, that it is infinitely better to bear the sorrows, the trials and uneasiness of this life for a few short and uncertain years, than rashly to venture upon such a practice, whose pretended and doubtful advantages bear no proportion at all to the infinite and extreme hazard of an endless state of torment.

II.  Suppose you could by any false reasonings persuade your consciences that the act of self-destruction was no sin, yet are you so sure of the present goodness of your state towards God, and that all your other sins are pardoned, that you could plunge your self this moment into eternity?  ‘Tis generally under a fit of impatience that persons are tempted to destroy themselves; now is the present frame and temper of your soul such as is fit to appear in before the great tribunal of heaven?  You well know that as the tree falls so it must lie, to the north or to the south, Eccl. xi. 3.  After death judgment immediately succeeds, Heb. ix. 27.  There is no faith and repentance in the grave, nor pardoning grace to be implored when the state of trial is past, Eccl. ix. 10.  Isa. xxxviii. 18.  They that go down to the pit cannot hope for thy truth.  Are you now so sure of your creator’s love, and of your perfect conformity to his laws of judgment?  Are you so holy, so innocent, so righteous in your self, or so certain of your interest in the merits of a mediator, that you dare rush this moment before the bar of a great and terrible God, and tell him that you are come to have your state determined for all everlasting? If not, be wise and bethink yourself a little: use and improve the delay and opportunity which his grace and providence offer you in this life, for a more effectual securing a better life hereafter.

But if we go a little farther and suppose the action in it self to be criminal, then remember that you send your self out of this world with the guilt of a wilful criminal action on your conscience; you preclude your own repentance of this sin in this world, and the other world knows no repentance that is available to any good purpose. You shoot your self headlong into an eternal state; and are you sure that you shall never repent of it in the long future ages of your existence? But, alas! all that repentance comes too late to relieve you from the dismal effects of your rashness. All the repentance of that invisible world is but the sting of conscience which will add exquisite pain to your appointed punishment. Surely you should have the most evident and undeniable proofs of the goodness of that action which can never be revers’d, and which puts you for ever beyond the possibility of useful repentance.

Give me leave to add in this place what is the constant doctrine of the Bible and the sense of Christians, (viz.) that a wilful sinner dying impenitent cannot be sav’d.  Now if there be no space given for serious reflection and penitence in the case of a self-murtherer, what room is there for hope hereafter? except only where the persons really distracted, and the Great God our Judge knows how to distinguish exactly how far every action is influenced by bodily distempers.  This is the only hope of surviving friends.

III.  Think yet again, what an odium, what scandal and everlasting shame you bring upon your name and character by such a fact.  ‘Tis a reproach that spreads wide among the kindred of the self-murtherer; it descends to his posterity and follows him thro’ many generations.

It may be observed also that in the Rubrick of the Church of England before the burial service, self-murtherers are ranked with excommunicated persons: The church has no hope of them as true Christians: And as the church denies them Christian burial, so the civil government did heretofore appoint that they should be put into the earth with the utmost contempt; and this was generally done in some publick cross-way, that the shame and infamy might be made known to every passenger; and that this infamy might be lasting, they were ordained to have a stake driven through their dead bodies which was not to be removed. ‘Tis pity this practice has been omitted of late years by the too favourable sentence of their neighbors on the jury, who generally pronounce them distracted: And thus they are excused from this publick mark of abhorrence. Perhaps ‘twere much better if this practice were revived again; for since the laws of men cannot punish their persons, therefore their dead bodies should be expos’d to just and deserved shame, that so this iniquity might be laid under all the odium that human power and law can cast upon it, to testify a just abhorrence of the fact, and to deter survivors from the like practice.

IV.  Can any man of a generous or kind disposition think of all the mischief done to his friends and kindred by the destruction of himself, and yet practice it? Think of the publick scandal and disgrace that it spreads over the whole family; think of the shame and inward anguish of spirit that it necessarily gives to surviving friends and relatives; what sorrow of heart for the loss of a father, or mother or brother, a sister, a daughter, or a son in such a sudden, such a dreadful, and such a shameful manner of death? What terrible perplexity of spirit what inconsolable vexation of mind, what fears of eternal misery for the soul of the deceas’d? This gives them a wound beyond what they are able to bear, and sometimes wears out their life in sorrow, and brings them down to the grave. One would think that the injury done to friends and dear relations would be a sufficient bar against it, to souls who have any sense of justice, or any pretence to goodness and love. If it be so hard for you to bear a little poverty, shame, sorrow, reproach, &c. that you will die rather than bear it, why will you entail these on your kindred and on those who love you best?

In order to work upon persons that have any compassion for their surviving kindred, ‘tis fit they should know also that the English Law calls a Self-Murtherer, felo de se, or a felon to himself, and upon this account the estate and effects of the deceased are forfeited by law and cannot descend to the relatives, unless it appear that the person who laid violent hand upon himself was distracted. Now in this case Bishop Fleetwood finds fault severely with juries who now a days bring in almost all self-murtherers distracted, and he desires them to consider “Whether the constant mitigation of the rigours of the law against self-murtherers mayn’t give some encouragement to that practice and whether the favourable verdict they bring in, be always so righteous and so seasonable as they imagine? And since the wisdom of the law intends that the confiscation of estates, the undoing a family, and the shameful burial shall deter them from these horrible attempts, whether the mercy that defeats all these intentions be not more likely to continue than to repress these cruel violences? Were a person sure that his estate would be forfeited, and his effects carried away from his wife, children and family, were he sure that his dead body should be publickly expos’d, bury’d in the high-way, and with a stake driven through it as a mark of huge infamy, perhaps he would give way to calmer counsels, and be content to bear a little shame, or pain, or loss, till God saw fit to put an end to all his sufferings by natural means: And therefore an instance or two of such severity as is legal, well and wisely chosen, might prove a greater preservative against these violences, than such a constant and expected mercy, as we always find on these occasions: For men have now no fear of laws; and when they have laid aside the fear of God, they go about this business with great readiness, they are sure of favour in this world, and they will venture the other.”

V.  Think in the last place how fatal an influence your example may have to bring death and ruin on others, and that on their immortal souls as well as their mortal life. Remember what an effect the self-murther of Saul had, when his armour bearer followed him, and dy’d also by his own sword. And oftentimes where self-murther is practiced, it fills the heads of other melancholy and uneasy persons with the same bloody thoughts, and teaches them to enter into the same temptation. Think then with yourself, “What if I should not only destroy my own soul forever, but become the dreadful occasion of others destroying their souls, and flinging themselves into the same place of torture? What sharp accents will this add to my anguish of conscience, in hell, that I have led others into the same wretchedness without remedy, without hope, and without end?” Think and enquire whether every self-murtherer who may be influenced hereafter by your example to this impious fact, may not be sent particularly to visit your ghost in those invisible regions, and become a new tormentor. Whether all such future events may not be turn’d by the just judgment of God to encrease your agonies and horrors of soul in that world of despair and misery.

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from Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions


Cotton Mather, son of Increase Mather [q.v.], was born in Boston, graduated from Harvard in 1678, and was ordained in 1685 in the Congregational Church. He assisted and then succeeded his father in the Second Church pastorate, Boston. Although he countenanced the Salem witchcraft trials and executions (1692-93), he did not directly participate in them; he did however have a hand in choosing some of the Salem judges and wrote to them during the trial, urging the rejection of spectral evidence (testimony of attacks by the specters of people otherwise known to the victim) and the merciful treatment of those who confessed (his counsel in each case was rejected). Then, having tried to be a moderating influence on the trials, he damaged his own reputation by writing Wonders of the Invisible World (1693), condemning the excesses of the trials but defending several of the trials’ resulting convictions. Cotton’s book was published at the same time as Increase’s attack on the use of spectral evidence in the Salem trials, Cases of Conscience. Even though Increase was different in his assessment of the witch trials, Increase is said to have publicly burned Robert Calef’s More Wonders of the Invisible World in Harvard Yard, a book attacking Cotton’s book.

Cotton Mather’s discussion of suicide is distinctive in its quasi-medical character. He is particularly concerned with the etiology of suicidal acts; once suicidal ideation begins, it is intensified and taken advantage of by the intervention of devils (hence the title, “A Discourse on the Power and Malice of the Devils”). Nevertheless, it is possible to take steps to avoid this. In what may seem to modern readers to anticipate the role of psychiatric intervention, Mather emphasizes the importance for the potential victim of suicide of not keeping silent and of speaking with friends, physicians, and neighbors about feelings of guilt, sin, and what would now be identified as depression.


Cotton Mather, Memorable providences, relating to witchcrafts and possessions. : A faithful account of many wonderful and surprising things, that have befallen several bewitched and possessed persons in New-England. Particularly, a narrative of the marvellous trouble and releef experienced by a pious family in Boston, very lately and sadly molested with evil spirits. : Whereunto is added, a discourse delivered unto a congregation in Boston, on the occasion of that illustrious providence. : As also a discourse delivered unto the same congregation; on the occasion of an horrible self-murder committed in that town. : With an appendix, in vindication of a chapter in a late book of remarkable providences, from the calumnies of a Quaker at Pen-silvania. Boston: Richard Pierce, 1689. Material in introductory passage from Stephen Latham.

Facsimile available online from the Yale University Library.


Temptations to Self-Murder, may likewise be fierce upon some unhappy people here. Tis almost unaccountable, that at some times in some places here, melancholy distempered Ragings toward Self-Murder, have been in a manner Epidemical. And it would make ones hair stand, to see or hear what manifest Assistence the Devils have given to these unnatural Self-executions when once they have been begun. Tis too evident, that persons are commonly bewitch’t or possess’t into these unreasonable Phrensies. But What shall these hurried people do?

My Advice is,

Don’t Conceal, much less Obey the motions of your Adversary. Failing in this, made a poor man, after a faithful Sermon in a Neighbouring Town, presently to drown himself in a pit that had not two foot of Water in it.  If you will not Keep, that is the way not to Take the Devil’s Counsel. Let not him Tie your Tongues, and it is likely he will not gain your Souls. Complain to a good God of the Dangers in which you find your selves; cry to Him, Lord, I am oppressed, undertake for me. Complain also to a wise Friend. Let some prudent and faithful Neighbour understand your Circumstances: Tis possible you may thereby escape the Snares with which the cruel Fowlers of Hell hope to trapan you into their dismal Clutches for evermore. Your Neighbours may do much for you; and may prove your Keepers if God shall please. It may be the unkindness of some Friend, may have thrown you into your present Madness. Now the Kindness of some Friend may prove the Antidote. Many times, a Natural Distemper, is that by which the Devil takes advantage to get the souls of Self-Destroyers into his bloody hands. In this case, for the tempted persons to disclose their Griefs, will be the way to obtain their cures. Their Neighbours ought now to consult a skilful Physician for them; and oblige, yea, constrain them to follow his Directions. When the Humours on and by which the Devil works, are taken away, perhaps he may be starved out of doors. Many times, again, The sin of Slothfulness gives the Devil opportunity to procure the Self-Destruction of the sluggard. In this case too, the Tempted person may be succoured by the standers-by becoming sensible of their Circumstances. Their Neighbours may now compel them to follow their business. A Calling, the Business of a Calling, is an Ordinance of God, sanctified by Him to deliver us from the evil spirits that enter into the empty house,

But most times, There may be some old and great Sin unrepented of, where Temptations to Self-Murder have a violence hardly to be withstood,  There was once a man among us, who in the horrours of Despair, uttered many dreadful speeches against himself, and would often particularly say, I am all on a light Fire under the wrath of God!  This man yet never confessed any unusual sin, but this; that having gotten about Forty pounds by his Labour, he had spent it in wicked Company:  But in his Anguish of spirit he hanged himself.  There was once a woman among us, who under Sickness had made vowes of a New Life; but apprehending some defects in her conversation afterward, she fell into the distraction wherein she also hanged herself.  And the Sin of Adultery and Drunkenness has more than once issued in such a destructive Desperation.  In case of this or any such Guilt, Confession with Repentance affords a present Remedy.  To fly from Soul-Terrour by Self-Murder, is to leap out of the Frying-pan into the Fire.  Poor tempted People, I must like Paul in prison, cry with a loud voice unto you, Do your selves no harm; all may be well yet, if you will hearken to the Counsels of the Lord.

Now, Do thou, O God of peace, bruise Satan under our Feet. World without end, Amen.

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from An Essay Concerning Self-Murther

Born in London, the son of a Lisbon merchant, John Adams was educated at Eton and at King’s College, Cambridge, earning bachelor’s, master’s, and divinity degrees. He traveled to France, Italy, Spain, and Ireland. In 1687, he was appointed to the parish of Higham in Leicestershire. In London, he was lecturer of St. Clement’s, rector of St. Alban, on Wood Street, and rector of St. Bartholomew. He was also made prebendary of Canterbury, and in 1708, became canon of Windsor. He served as chaplain to William III and also to Queen Anne. In 1712, he was elected provost of King’s College, a post that he held until his death.

Adams was recognized as an eloquent preacher and accomplished linguist, and he often spoke on public occasions. At least 15 of his sermons were published during his life. The selection here is taken from An Essay Concerning Self-Murther (1700). Here, Adams bases his argument against self-murder, or suicide, on obligations and duties persons have as members of civil society. For if suicide were condoned and the proper authority given to those who would take their own lives, it must be universally so; and that, to Adams, would cause a severe weakening of civil society. Further, Adams also considers the difference between putting oneself at great risk and self-murder, concluding that only the former is justified because, if death results, it was not the intent of the act, but only a foreseen consequence. Reminiscent of Aquinas’s argument that murder in self-defense is justifiable as long as it is not intended, Adams’s consideration of double effect applies specifically to actions that may result in one’s own death.


John Adams, An Essay Concerning Self-Murther wherein is endeavour’d to prove that it is unlawful according to natural principles: with some considerations upon what is pretended from the said principles, by the author of a treatise intituled, Biathanatos, and others. London: Printed for Tho. Bennet, at the Half-Moon, in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1700, pp. 23-30, 94-130, spelling modernized.


CHAP. III. Man Considered as a Member of Civil Society. Self-Murther proved by several Argument’s to be Destructive to Civil Society; from which, and what was said before, concluded to be an Act of the greatest Injustice and therefore unlawful.

Hitherto we have considered Man as Single and Independent from Humane Laws, and showed that as he is so, Self-Murther is an Act of Injustice towards God, by destroying that which is his alone; and also both towards God and towards a Mans own self, by the positive and willful refusal of performing that end for which he received Life, and in which his happiness truly consists. Let us in the next place, for a further confirmation of the unlawfulness of this Act, consider Man as a Member of Civil Society.

And this we ought to do with the greater attention, because, though it may be convenient in some respects to consider him in the individual, and in the state of Nature, yet this is only Notional; he cannot be so as to any part of the World which we have to do withal, nor can he be so at any time but to his great Misfortune, for as ’tis necessary for his Security, that he should be under some Government, so is it likewise necessary, for the Perfection of his Nature: for his having a larger and a nobler compass for his Reason and his Virtue; there being several Virtues which cannot be exercised by Man when alone, but which owe their being to Society.

If then we consider Man in this manner, his Obligations to preserve Life are still more; both as the end of Life is enlarged, (the good of others, as well as his own being concerned in it) and as he has then less to do with his Life, (the use of it being more at others disposal) than when he was considered in the state of Nature: Because he has not then the same Authority to defend himself which he had before, but is bound in most Cases to have recourse to the Magistrate for this purpose. Besides, by enjoying the benefit of Protection in any Government, he must be supposed either tacitly or expressly to have consented in a mutual Agreement of Offence and Defense for the maintaining of the same Protection; which being chiefly for the preservation of Life, as Self-Murther must be unlawful, so it must be absurd. But that which is most considerable and sufficient of it self to prove Self-Murther to be unlawful, is, that this may prove destructive to the very Being of Society, as will appear if we consider the Reasons following.

1. Because this wholly destroys the best Measure of mutual Kindness and Justice, that which is generally confessed to be one of the chiefest and plainest Laws of Nature; namely the doing to others as we would be done to our selves: The greatest injury that can be done to another is the Murthering of him; now if a Man has the liberty to Murther himself, the measure of Justice in the most important Concerns towards others is broken; nor can it signify any thing to say, that this is done out of love to ones self, because it may be pretended that it may be done out of love to another too, yet no one sure will ever allow this as a reasonable pretence for the Murther of his Neighbor.

2. This would utterly destroy the force of Humane Laws; Man’s having a right or power to kill himself, when he thinks fitting, would make void all Obligation to Humane Laws, as to the threats of Punishment, without a dread of which no Law would signify any thing: The greatest Punishment that Humane Laws can threaten is Death; now if Men have Authority to kill themselves, and be taught and persuaded that they have so, and be encouraged by the Examples of others, which will not be wanting, when Men are so persuaded; the threats of Death will be despised as to the disgrace or torment of it when public, because they may bring it upon themselves with ease and privacy at home, and therefore they will not be obliged to any Duty, by the fear of this, much less by the fear of any thing else; but would Rob, Ravish, Murther, &c.

3. Whatever the Reasons are, in relation to Civil Society, for which the Murther of another is forbidden; the same hold and perhaps with greater force, as to the Murthering of ones self; those Reasons are chiefly the having no Authority, the depriving the Public of a Subject, the impossibility of making any Equivalent Satisfaction. The two first of these are of the same force as to the Murthering of ones self, the third seems to be of much greater; for he that Murthers another may make some satisfaction as to public Justice, by the forfeiture of his own Life, and he that forfeits his Life publicly upon this Account makes some amends to the State, under which he lives, by deterring others from committing the same Crime by the Example of his Punishment; whereas on the contrary, he that Murthers himself, not only evades all satisfaction to the Public as to the paying Personal and Sensible Punishment; but in so doing gives encouragement to others to commit the same: Wherefore Self-Murther may be a greater Crime in regard of the Public, especially if it be a public Person, than the Murthering of another Man; and if so is undoubtedly forbidden by that Law of Nature, Thou shalt not kill: otherwise that Law would be very imperfect, and reach only to the lesser Crime, and permit the greater.

Lastly, For a Man to have a right to kill himself when ever he pleases, must be destructive to Civil Government; because this Right must be Universal: One Man may exercise it as well as another; and since no public rule can be given to show when, in what circumstances of Adversity, (which are more or less felt by different Men, according to their different Portions of Reason or Virtue, their Courage or Constitution) since, I say, no public rule can be given to all Men to prescribe the Case exactly wherein it shall be reasonable and lawful to put this Right in Execution; every Man must be left to judge for himself, that is, to be led as his own Passions or Appetites guide him. After this rate great numbers may make themselves away, which by Example and Custom may grow still greater and greater, till the Public is weakened not only by the loss of several of its Members, but also by the check and stop which there must be upon all Business, and Trade, Trust in one another; since the strictest Obligations to this purpose may be thus evaded.

Add to this the misery of the Family particularly concerned, the horrid sense which such an Act imprints upon the best Men’s Minds, the general Aversion which it causes, and consequently the shame of the Relations and Acquaintance of the Self-Murtherer, and very often too the Confusion and Desolation of the forsaken Widow or Orphans; all which must be of ill Consequence to any State, especially if the Fact is frequently committed.

But lest this should give any color for the plausible pretence of Compassion which is commonly made use of by those who are concerned in the Coroner’s Inquest upon such Occasions, I cannot but observe by the way, that all Kindness or Generosity towards particular Persons, though they be nearest Relations, is unwarrantable, which is prejudicial to that Love and Duty which is owing to the Public, especially when People are actually entrusted by the Public, and sworn to report impartially, without being moved by any Passion whatsoever, what their judgment is concerning a matter of Fact. It may be as injurious to our Country to elude the Design of a Law out of Pity as out of Revenge; and as to Perjury, if we consider it in it self, ’tis as absurd to be guilty of it through Generosity as Bribery, though it may too justly be suspected, that in these Cases the latter generally has a greater Influence than the former. But of this more hereafter.

These are the Reasons which make me conclude that Self-Murther is unlawful, if Man be considered as a Member of any Civil State; which are all of them of greater force, if it be also positively forbidden by the Laws of the State, which I take to be of great Consideration in this part of the Argument. As for the Exceptions or Objections, that are made to this third Division, they also shall be considered in their turn.

CHAP. VIII. Examination of such Objections as are brought to invalidate what was said above concerning Man’s being a Member of Civil Society, and the unlawfulness of Self-murther in this regard also: Application of what has been said to the Coroners Inquest in this Case.

Hitherto I have endeavored to Answer those Objections, which might seem to oppose what I had said to prove Self-murther Unlawful; as Man was considered in the State of Nature: I come now to examine some others which are brought against what has been said to confirm the same, as he is a Member of Civil Society.

First, I must say something to that which was above mentioned, as an Instance of deserting ones self Lawfully.

Self-preservation doth not so rigorously, and urgently, and illimitedly bind, but that by the Law of Nature it self, things may, yea must, neglect themselves for others, of which the Pelican is an Instance. Another Instance he gives of Bees too, from whence he infers, That as this natural Instinct in Beasts, so rectified Reason belonging only to us, instructs us often to prefer public and necessary Persons, by exposing our selves to inevitable Destruction.

We may Lawfully dispossess our selves of that, without which we can have no hopes to sustain our Lives; as in a Shipwreck a private Man may give his Plank to a Magistrate, and the Examples of Codrus, Curtius and the Decij, and the Approbation of the greatest and the wisest Nations, in the Honors which they paid to their Memory, are usually brought in upon this occasion; this is to prove that the Law of Self-preservation may be dispensed withal in regard of serving the Public; and therefore that it may be so as reasonably in any Man’s private Concern, even to the degree of Killing himself: Or thus, there is no difference (as to Self-preservation) between a Man’s Killing himself upon account of the Public, or his own account; now he that dispossesses himself upon the public Account, to save a public Person: Of that, without which he can have no hopes of saving his own Life, Kills himself.

To this may be Answered,

1. That the use of Instinct in Beasts is to Preserve them. It was given them to this End alone, instead of Reason; therefore it is a Contradiction to affirm, that any Beast, Bird, or Insect destroys it self by Instinct, and the Instances here brought to prove this are Fabulous.

2. That the more Reason is rectify in Man, the more he will understand to what End he received Life, and how little Authority he has to dispose of it; and therefore the more carefully will he obey the Law of Self-preservation, and this particularly upon the Consideration of what he owes the Public.

3. That the Law of Self-preservation may not be willfully broken, even upon the Account of the Public. No Man has naturally any Authority to destroy himself for his Country, designedly and positively; but to hazard his Life only.

As to the Instances of Codrus, Curtius, and the Decij, what they did was grounded upon a Religious or Superstitious Persuasion; which they obeyed as Supernatural, and therefore cannot be used to prove what is Naturally Lawful.

The Instance of giving a Magistrate a Plank in a Shipwreck, implies only great hazard of Life, not positive Destruction of it; because there is a possibility of escaping left; and because the intention is not to die, to abandon all care of ones self, but to take care of another first: To make this more plain I will show,

1. What Authority the Public Power, where-ever ’tis placed, has to require any Person to hazard his Life, and what Warrant that Person has to hazard it accordingly.

2. The difference between extreme Hazard and Self-murther.

3. What Authority, &c. In this Consideration I shall have no regard to any one particular State, but only enquire into the End of Government or Civil Society in General, and this with all Submission imaginable. The end of Civil Government is, I suppose, the promoting the same things for many Men together, upon which their true Happiness depended, as considered singly in the State of Nature: this is usually called the Public Good, that is, each Man’s Private Good as he is Man, considered collectively, and with regard to the General Welfare. Private Good being twofold, as hath been shown, Moral and Sensitive; the object of humane Laws must be twofold also, Virtue and Propriety, and the promoting and securing these in Peace from all Enemies, either from without or within any Political Body seems to be the true natural end of Civil Society.

Now as there is Public Good to be secured, so in order to this, there must be Public Power over every particular Subject, lodged in one or more Persons, according as the Form of the Government is; and lest this Power should be either Dangerous or to no Purpose, there must be also Public Judgment, the Result of the Debates of Wise and Upright Men, to limit it and direct it.

Furthermore, whereas every particular State must be considered as one Political Person; in which respect the being of any State is to be looked upon as the Public Life, and the Well-being of the same State, the Public Health: So it must be supposed that the Public Power must be such, as is proper and requisite to defend these, and consequently that it must extend to Particular Life, whenever the Public Life is any ways in danger.

Now this may be endangered two ways, either 1st. By Enemies within the State, Corrupt and Vicious Men, who obstruct and break the Laws, and infect others; in which Case the Public Power extends to the actual Destruction of such particular Mens Lives, as being necessary for the Preservation of all the rest. Or 2dly. It may be endangered from outward Enemies; other Governments that would Enslave or Destroy it: In which Case the Public Power extends to the obliging such as it thinks fitting to hazard their Lives, when ’tis necessary for the Public Preservation: To hazard, I say, not positively destroy themselves, (as when a blow is made at a Man’s Head, he may lift up his Arm to defend it, venture the breaking of it, not positively break it, which he has no right to do) and necessary it may be supposed, sufficiently to warrant any Man’s Obedience, when the Public Judgment declares that it is so.

But the chief Question is, from whence this Power is derived to the Public, by whom it was granted.

Some suppose it to be granted by Man himself, upon a kind of compact for Protection; but though protection may be one great End of this Power; yet it is generally agreed, that this Power cannot be conferred on the Public by every particular Man; because God alone has the absolute Propriety of humane Life: Man has no such Power himself, and what he has not, he cannot make over to another. Mr. Hobbs will have it to come from Man, but then to decline this Objection, and secure his darling Principle of Self-preservation, he says, This is not done by Man’s transferring any right of his own, but by laying down the right which he has to hurt others. His own Words are these, The Subjects did not give their Sovereign that Right; but only in laying down theirs, strengthened him to use his own as he should think fit for the Preservation of them all; so that it was not given but left to him: If I take this right, this is a very odd distinction; for if a Man has any right to hurt others for his own Preservation; then as he is bound to Preserve himself, so he is bound to retain that Right; and yet if he lays it down, he parts with it as much as if he actually gave it away.

He told us just before, That in the making of a Commonwealth every Man gives away the Right of defending another, but not of defending himself. In several Places he repeats and inculcates this, that no Man can ever part with the right of defending himself; no, not after Lawful Trial and Condemnation: If this be so, How can he lay down the right which he has to hurt others, since by so doing he must be left in a great measure defenseless, and liable, by his own Consent, not only to be hurt, but to be actually destroyed, as in all Capital Punishments.

Wherefore, not withstanding Men choose to struggle thus, rather than have any thing to do with God, while they frame their Political Systems: Yet it seems plain that such a Power as we are speaking of can be derived from no other but God, who alone having the absolute Propriety of all humane Life, can alone have the right to give some Men Power over the Lives of others; and who having framed Man in such a manner, that Civil Society is necessary for his Security and Improvement, and yet such Society not to be preserved without such a Power, must upon these Considerations, and also as he is a wife and just Being; and as he who wills the End must will the Means necessary to that End; must, I say, be supposed to grant to the Magistrate such a Power; a Power to hazard Life himself, and to oblige others to do so, in defense of the Public.

From what has been said may appear, that the Power or Authority which any Government has to require Men to hazard their Lives for the Public Good is derived from God himself, that the time and manner of doing this depends upon the Public Judgment; and that Man is thus warranted for hazarding his Life accordingly.

To return then to the Instance above-mentioned, of a Man’s giving a Magistrate his Plank in a Shipwreck: If a Man may hazard his Life for the Public Good, then if there be some particular Person, in whom the Public Power and Public Judgment is lodged, from whom all the Springs of Action derive their Motion, who is in effect the Life, the Soul of the whole Body, and in whom the Liberty and Property (as we love to speak) of many Millions centers and may be lost; and among the rest his Life also, who shall be concerned for this Public Persons safety; then we may conclude, that any Man may hazard his Life even to the utmost danger to preserve such a Person; yet in these Cases we are to remember Life is only hazarded not abandoned, much less positively destroyed; and that for such extreme hazard Men may justly suppose that they have Authority from God himself, as they are Members of any Civil Government.

And though the danger be great, yet ’tis very seldom that Men fall into certain Death upon these Accounts, as might be shown easily.

But suppose it should be so, yet in this Case an honest good Man does not mind any thing but to do his Duty, to pursue faithfully the End for which Life was given; and if Life should be lost in this pursuit, this is not his desire, nor his fault; ’twas not his aim to die, but to do as he ought; nay gladly would he have lived had Life been consistent with his Virtue; but when this came in Question, both Death and Life became indifferent, and though he Chooses neither, he accepts readily of either, as they offer themselves in his way to his Duty.

This I find confirmed by the Schoolmen in a harder Case than any above-mentioned. Suppose a powerful Tyrant should bring the last City of any State to the greatest Extremity, by all the sad Consequences of a long and prosperous Siege; as loss and weariness of Men, Famine, Contention, Corruption; and no hopes of Succor should be left; suppose that after this, he should refuse all Articles of Submission, and should threaten Destruction by Fire and Sword, unless they delivered up to him some one particular innocent Person. This City (say they) may not only deliver him up, though they know him to be Innocent; but that very Person may deliver up himself, and yet without being guilty of destroying himself, because, as above said, his chief end is the doing so much Good, not the Dying; his particular intention, his design that he had in view continually was to save his Country; and this being the only means which was left, he resolves to incur the greatest danger to this purpose; and yet in all this is positive only as to the doing of his Duty, and far from being positive as to the destroying of his Life. To complete this Argument let us now see,

1. How great the difference is between this and Self-murther, and consequently how unreasonably the one is made a plea for the other.

He that hazards Life for the Public does this in obedience to the Laws both of God and Man; he that destroys his own Life does this in disobedience to the Laws of both; the first by observing the true End of Life, does what God and Nature primarily designed as most proper to preserve Life, and if he loses it ’tis by the violence of others; the latter neglecting the true End of Life destroys it willfully by the most positive act of injustice to God, his Country and himself; the first only hazards Life, the latter chooses Death; if the first happens to die ’tis against his will, if the latter lives ’tis against his; and as to the Public, the one dies for it, the other dies against it; not only by deserting it, but by breaking its Laws, and encouraging others to do so, and also by enervating the strictness ties of Kindness, Trust and Justice, which may end at last in the total dissolution of any Government; the Comparison might be carried further, but this may be sufficient to show the unreasonableness of this Conclusion, That because a Man may give a Magistrate his Plank in a Shipwreck therefore he may Murther himself.

The next Objection is to this purpose, That if Self-murther is unjust in regard of the Public, ’tis because it loses a Member; but this may as well be said of all those who retiring themselves from Functions in the Commonwealth, defraud the State of their Assistance, and attend only their own Ends. If the Person be of necessary use to the State, there are in it some degrees of Injustice, but yet no more than if a General of much use should retire into a Monastery. To this may be Answered.

1. That one of the Reasons why Self-murther is unjust to the Public, but not the only one; is its losing a Member.

2. The Instance here given does not come up to the point; for a General may not lay down his Commission without leave, when he is necessary for his Countries Service; but he may justly be punished if he refuses to Act. Yet suppose a Man may retire from Public Affairs to attend his own Ends; Is this as much damage to the Public as Selfmurther? He that attends his own Ends, (if by this be meant his particular Interest as to his Family) contributes to the Public Good, and may do so very considerably, though never so much retired: However the causes of his Retirement may alter, and then he may serve the Public again upon Necessity; or should he not, he may serve and assist his particular Friends and Relations, improve his Knowledge and his Fortune, be an Example of Virtue, and in many other respects observe the end for which Life was given; and this sure cannot be the same with the putting a Man’s self into an unalterable incapacity of doing any good at all, by the willful and positive destruction of Life.

To this it may perhaps be replied, That here Strength and Vigor is required, Health of Body and Activity of Mind; but suppose a Man by extreme Age or Infirmity, by loss some Sense or some Limb, should be made incapable of serving the Public, had not he as good be gone as stay to no purpose, may not he leave the World if he pleases when he is become good for nothing.

This Supposition seems to be grounded upon a very gross sense of serving the Public; as if States-men were to be chosen by the breadth of their Shoulders, and strong and sizeable Men were as necessary for the Council Table as the Guard Room; for if Men be past Reason the Dispute is at an end, but if they are capable of using it, why should old Age be objected, unless Maturity and Experience should be disadvantages? When Reason is lost, no Man can be accountable for Self-murther, or any other Action, yet even then we preserve Life carefully in Idiots and Madmen at the Public Expense; either in hopes of their recovery, or to learn to value Reason as we ought, or to praise the giver of it, so that there is scarce any Wretch but may be some way or other beneficial to the Public, even by his being alive alone; how much more may he be so when Reason remains, and that too so highly valued and well understood, that Men will choose sooner to part with Life than remain deprived of the glorious advantage of it? Or if this should not be allowed, what Rule can be given? What degree of Age or Infirmity can be fixed, when Men shall be judged to be good for nothing, and permitted to Murther themselves accordingly? Such a thing (if possible) might prevent it indeed, since Men would be apt to live in despite of all their Miseries, rather than buy the privilege of Self-murther at so dear a rate, as to be judged by others, and be obliged to acknowledge themselves, that they are good for nothing.

But while Reason remains, as I said before, this is impossible, and many Instances may be given of Persons who have done their Country the most considerable Service under all these Calamities above-mentioned, nay at the very time of Death it self. The whole Senate of Rome had once so basely degenerated as to surrender up tamely their Liberty and their Glory, in that dishonorable Peace which they had unanimously resolved to conclude with Pyrrhus: When Appius Claudius who had been absent from Public Affairs, through extreme Age, Blindness and Lameness, for many Years, as soon as he heard of it, caused himself to be carried to the House, and bravely upbraided them with their Cowardice and Perfidiousness to their Country: What Man had ever such appearances of being past serving the Public, or being good for nothing; and yet how vigorous was his Soul in so decrepit a Body? One would think the Genius of Rome, chased out from the degenerate Senate, had retired for shelter under the Ruins of this great old Man. ‘Tis certain that if he had not had so many Infirmities he would have been less regarded, but the fight of these made his Zeal surprising; raised their Attention with their Admiration, and gave every Word a peculiar force to restore them to their Courage and their Reason as unanimously as they had rebelled against both before: This made his Infirmities numbered in after Ages among his Trophies, and Coecus a more glorious distinction than Asiaticus, Africanus, &c. for they who had those Titles, only added Vast and Luxurious Provinces to their Country, which proved the Destruction of it at last; but Appius conquered its most dreadful Enemy, and saved it, for that time, from it self. The great Father Paul a few Minutes before his Death, after he had been long weakened by Age and Sickness, had three Cases of very great Importance sent to him, by the Senate of Venice, to each of which he gave his Opinions, and that wise Assembly followed them accordingly. In these Instances there was not only a complication of Calamities, but Death it self, had almost taken Possession, and yet neither, made them past serving of the Public.

What shall be pretended then for the loss of any one Sense? as the Stoics do; Shall this be taken for a certain Sign of being past doing good? And consequently a reasonable Plea for Self-murther; and shall that be acted accordingly? Had it been so always, how much Instruction and Delight would Mankind have been deprived of, had Homer —-Nay had Milton done so, the World had lost that admirable Poem? Oh, had he made but as good use of his Eyes!

‘Tis true few Persons are qualified for such great Performances, but these Instances may show that such Calamities, as above-mentioned, do not make all Men past serving of their Country, or good for nothing; and that if such Pretences were allowed for Self-murther in one Person, they must be so in another; and if so, that this may prove very hurtful to any State, nay possibly to the whole World.

But after all, it may be further Objected, If a Man has leave from the Public to Murther himself, he does it no Injury; this leave has frequently been granted by the Roman Senate, and at Marseilles a Vessel of Poison was kept ready at the Public Charge, for those to whom they gave Permission to Murther themselves. This Custom may be of use to us so far in this Argument as to prove that these People thought that no Man who lived in a Civil State had right over his own Life, but the Public had a claim to it, which is very true in its proper Limitation; but then this was not such a claim as is grounded upon absolute Propriety; such as gives a Power to dispose of any thing when and how it pleases; because the right which the Public has over particular Life is only for security of Public Life, grounded upon Self-defense, and never to be made use of but in extreme Necessity; as for the cutting off a corrupted part, or for the opposing open Violence: Wherefore this Right being grounded only upon this Foundation, for any Political Body to pretend to give leave to any Innocent Person to kill himself, is as absurd as for any Man to give his right Hand leave to cut off his left when it ails nothing, or to wound himself in any other sound part. In a Word; this would be both Folly and Usurpation, for had the Public this absolute Right, all Complaints of Tyranny and Oppression would be very unreasonable?

But after all what do such Instances as these signify to Us, or to any Nation which does not grant the same Permission: If the Matter were to be determined by Humane Laws; we of this Nation (not to mention others) are forbid it under the strictest Penalties.

But here our Author tells us again, If our Law be severe in punishing of it, and that this Argument has the more strength, because more Nations concur in such Laws: It may well from hence be retorted, that every where Men are inclinable to it, which establishes much our Opinion, says he, considering that none of those Laws, which prescribe Civil restraints from doing it, can make it Sin; and that Act is not much discredited if it be therefore Evil, because it is so forbidden, and binds the Conscience no further but under the general Precept of obedience to the Law or the Forfeiture.—Here are three things advanced;

1. That the General Concurrence of Nations in any Law proves a General Inclination in Mankind to the committing of the thing forbidden; and therefore that that thing is Natural. This I think is very strange! All Nations concur in severe Laws against Murthering of Princes, Husbands, Fathers, against betraying Forts, Ships, &c. Now does this prove a General Inclination of People to these Crimes? No certainly; but it proves a general abhorrence and detestation of them, and the ill Consequences of them to Mankind; and therefore is an undeniable Argument of such things being unnatural.

2. We are told that none of those Laws which prescribe Civil Restraints from doing it (i.e. Self-Murther) can make it Sin, and the Act is not much discredited if it be therefore Evil because it is so forbidden.

The Law of any Land does not make Self-murther to be a Sin or Evil, but found it so, ’tis really so by the Law of Nature, as I hope has been shown; ’tis declared to be so by positive Laws, to put Men in mind of it, to save them the trouble of reasoning it out, and to deter them from committing it, by the threats of immediate Punishment; and that which was thus founded in Nature, and afterwards commanded by Man’s Law brings a new obligation upon the Conscience, for if humane Laws concerning things indifferent in their own Nature (which forbid an Action which a Man might be otherwise free to do, or command one which he might be otherwise free to omit) do oblige us, as every one allows, then how much more must they do so when they forbid a thing which is not indifferent but naturally unlawful, and which a Man was obliged to forbear before; and so on the contrary: If this be so, that must also be a mistake which is affirmed.

3. That humane Laws which forbid Self-murther bind the Conscience no further, but under the General Precept of Obedience to the Law, or else to the Forfeiture.

When a Civil Punishment is affix to that which is a Natural Evil, a Man is not left at liberty to choose to suffer the one for acting the other; particularly in the Case of Self-murther; because a Man was obliged in Conscience before the humane Law was made, and because the Punishment (in this Case especially, of all others) is by no means adequate to the Crime; besides if a Man may choose the Punishment, then the Law of Man instead of enforcing the Law of Nature, would only be the convenience of evading it. Wherefore as this distinction is unjust, so is it most pernicious to all Civil Governments.

Yet after all; supposing that it should be lawful to choose the Civil Punishment, for the committing that which is Naturally Evil: How shall this reach the Offender, as to Self-murther? This can affect him no otherwise, than as to his Dead Body, or his Posterity; and therefore how false is this Pretence at the Bottom? And how base is this detestable Action? whereby a Wretch breaks the Laws of God and his Country, and exposes his best and dearest Friends, his next Relations, nay his Children often, to suffer the Punishment due to his Crime. If in excuse for this it should be said, That such People may be supposed to satisfy themselves with hopes of the Punishments being escaped by their Heirs, either through Friendship, Compassion, Bribery, &c. If, I say, this should be alleged, then certainly it is very well worthy of Consideration, whether the putting of those Laws duly and constantly in Execution, which are provided in this Case, would not be of very great force to put a stop to this Evil? The Consideration of shame alone did this heretofore in the Case of the Milesians, and the Romans also under Tarquinius Priscus: Our Laws then may do this more effectually; which allowing but the same Burial which other Felons have, and requiring the Forfeiture of the Personal Estate, have not only the Natural tye of shame, but a much stronger, that of tenderness to their Posterity, to restrain such Rash and Melancholy Creatures by.

And this leads me to apply my self particularly to the Coroner and his Inquest upon these sad Occasions. For although somewhat of this kind has been done lately by an ingenious Author; yet the Nature of his Design (I suppose) not suffering him to enlarge upon it, there seems to be room left for something to be added.

I will first then give some Account of the Duty of the Coroner and his Jury, and what the Law directs, and upon what Grounds, (as I have been informed) in this Case: And afterwards show the unreasonable of those Prejudices or Pretences which Men are apt to be swayed by, notwithstanding these great Obligations.

As to the first, When the Coroner has notice, that any one is come to a violent and untimely Death; he is to Summon and Impanel a Jury out of the Neighborhood, and administer this Oath to them.

You shall Swear, that you shall well and truly inquire, and true Presentment make of all such matters and things as shall be given you in Charge, on the behalf of our Sovereign Lord the King, touching the Death of A. B. So Help you God.

As to the Matters and Things here mentioned, these are Explained farther to them by the Coroner in his Charge; Then they are to find out the manner of the Persons Death, whether by Drowning, Strangling, Wounds received, or otherwise; whether by another or himself, if by himself, whether he was Felo de se, or non Compos mentis.

And to this End they are to be directed and assisted by the Depositions of those whom the Coroner Summons to give Evidence, or by the hearing of the Council, which is sometimes brought upon these Occasions. What is meant by being non Compos; the Law informs them, that it is the deprivation of Reason or Understanding: Such a state of the Mind wherein there is a Cessation from Exercising the Discursive Faculty. That there are four sorts of Persons which the Law looks upon to be non Compos. 1. An Idiot or Natural Fool. 2. One that has been of Good and Sound Memory, but by the Visitation of God has lost it. 3. A Lunatic who has Intervals. 4. One who becomes Mad, by his own Act, through Excessive Drinking. Upon the Verdict of non Compos the Goods and Chattels of the Deceased are to be enquired after, valued immediately, as if they were to be sold and delivered to the Kings use; and the Body refused Christian Burial. The reason of which Punishment is said to be, because Self-murther is an Offence against Nature, it being the Property of every thing to preserve it self; against God, for that it offends his Commandment; against the King, for that he loses a Subject, and an ill Example is given to the rest. All which have been explained and enforced in the former part of this Treatise.

We may see here the Authority, by which the Coroner and his Jury Act, the Nature of their Duty, and the great Trust reposed in them, as also the Laws Interpretation of non Compos, the Punishment that is threatened, and the Ground and Intent of the Law: All Which every one of the Jury is obliged to observe by the sacred Bond of a Solemn Oath; and this one would suppose might be sufficient to cause any honest Man to make true Presentment, deliver in his Verdict in such a Case Impartially; yet it is found to be otherwise by Experience. Wherefore.

1. I come to show the unreasonableness of those Prejudices and Pretences by which Men are usually swayed in this Matter; and in so doing I shall not look upon my self (being to talk with another sort of People now) to be confined to Natural Principles only.

2. Is a General Supposition that every one who kills himself is non Compos, and that no body would do such an Action unless he were Distracted; this will be found unreasonable if we consider,

3. That if this were really so, then it would be to no purpose for the Law to appoint any enquiry to be made in such Cases: If a Man may not be supposed to be in his Wits when he lays violent Hands upon himself, to what intent is the Summoning in of so many Men, the giving them a Solemn Oath, examining Witnesses, hearing Council; all this supposes the Case doubtful; but according to that Opinion all this is vain and impertinent, because they have nothing left to judge of.

4. If this were so, then our Laws are not only Impertinent but Unjust, by affixing a Punishment to such an Act, as the Person that commits it cannot help: He that is Distracted knows not what he does, and therefore is not Accountable for this or any other Deed; since then the Laws of this Nation, and of many others of great Reputation for Wisdom and Justice (as shall be shown immediately) have ordained a Punishment for this Action, it is plain that they thought it might possibly be committed Willfully, and Advisedly; and if so, ’tis Confidence and Presumption for any private Person to suppose the contrary.

5. This will appear farther if we consider the several Explications of the Words Non Compos above-mentioned, particularly the third concerning Lunatics: If a Person known to be Lunatic several Years, be also known to have had several Intervals, he shall be liable to the Law, unless it be plainly proved that he was distempered at the very time of killing himself: How much more if a Man has never been known to have been Lunatic at all. As to the 4th sort of Madness above-mentioned, the Law does not look upon this as an Excuse for any Crime committed in that Condition; because it was the Parties own voluntary Act to bring himself into it. However this may be of Use to judge of other kinds of Madness by: Which People may be supposed to be affected withal in this Case; it very seldom appears that they who destroy themselves have had the same or as great signs of Distraction, as are frequently caused by excessive Drinking, or supposing they may have had so, yet let the Juror consider whether this may not be caused as much through the Parties own fault as the other; whether he did not bring upon himself, or give way to the beginning of his Discontent; whether he did not willfully foment and increase it, and at last stubbornly persist in it. Let him also consider whether he would have excused the same Person for killing another Man, upon those very signs of Madness which move him now to excuse him for killing himself: I believe this may be one good Rule for an honest Juror to walk by, especially since the killing of ones self has been shown above, to be rather worse in regard of the Public, than the killing of another Man.

Yet after all, how oft does it appear in these Cases, that the Person concerned did give plain and certain Signs of a good Understanding (I mean Naturally, not Morally so) by some Circumstances of his Death or other: Some have enquired what was the easiest way of Dying, or where to place the Weapon best; others have used much cunning and contrivance to procure the Instrument, have kept it long by them, and warily chosen a proper Time and Place to make use of it; others again have made their Wills, or settled their Affairs otherways; taken leave of their Friendssolemnly, sent those out of the way that might have hindered them; these and such like Circumstances are Arguments of Deliberation and Advisedness, and prove sufficiently that such a Person was Compos Mentis.

If it be Moral and not Natural Madness that is here meant, not only he that commits any other great Crime, but he that subverts a Lawful Government, by a long train of well laid Designs, though he cannot be suspected of any Natural defect of Understanding, yet is as much Mad in this sense as any one that kills himself can be supposed to be; and yet sure this would not be allowed as an Excuse for so doing. But this sort of Madness does not fall under the Coroners Inquest in the present Case: Moral Madness is the misapplication of the Understanding, not the total Deprivation of it, and the Question here is not whether the Understanding was misapplied, but whether there was any Understanding left at all: This brings me to some other kind of Pretences, which are caused chiefly,

1. By mistaking the Subject of their enquiry, and making themselves Judges of that which does not belong to them; their Duty consists in enquiring well and truly how the Person came by his Death, if by himself, whether he was felo de se, or non Compos, and in making true Presentment accordingly. This is what they are Sworn to do; but instead of this they are apt to run out beyond their Bounds, and consider what the Event of their Verdict will be, either as to the Forfeiture, or the Person Deceased.

2. As to the Forfeiture, they are sometimes mightily concerned about this; What will become of it? Upon whom shall it be bestowed? Upon such perhaps as do not want it, or among so many that it will do them little or no Good; whereas in the lump it might be of great advantage to the next Heirs: Why is not Charity due to them as much as mere Strangers, &c. To this may be replied,

3. That which is thus forfeited devolves to the Lord Almoner, the distributor of His Majesties Alms, according to his Direction; and therefore they ought to be satisfied that it will be disposed of Judiciously and Faithfully.

4. Supposing the worst, what is this to the Coroner or any of his Jury; the Law has not made them Judges in this matter, or given them Authority to consider what will be most convenient and proper to be done with that which is Forfeited, or who are the best Objects of Charity: They are called to Judge of matter of Fact by what they see and hear. Let them remember their Oaths, they are not Sworn to be Charitable but to be Just, to enquire well and truly, diligently and impartially concerning the Fact, and to give their Judgment according to their Conscience; and therefore a good Man ought to be upon his Guard against such Insinuations as these, and to take care lest his Charity should absurdly corrupt his Justice; absurdly I say, for he that is Just, (in Criminal Causes especially,) is Charitable in the Noblest way; for whilst his Impartial Sentence deters others from committing the same Crime, his Charity extends not only to all the Innocent and Virtuous of the Present Age, but to late Posterity.

Again some run out beyond their Limits and fall into Mistakes, by considering the Event of their Judgment as to the Parties Reputation, and their being Guilty of Uncharitableness in this regard; they think that to bring him in Felo de se, would be to pronounce him damned, therefore that they ought to Judge Charitably, especially, since they could not see into his Heart, or discover his last thoughts.

This would not need an Answer, but that Ignorant, though well meaning People are often concerned upon these Occasions, and apt to receive such Scruples from Cunning Solicitors, that are always busy about them, if the Chattels are worth the saving: Therefore something must be said to it.

1. Then the Jurors bringing in the Deceased Felo de se, does not pronounce him damned at all, this he leaves to God alone; whatever his Judgment of the Fact is, it can be neither the better nor the worse for him in the next World; his Impartial Verdict does not alter the Nature of the Fact: If he thinks him Guilty, yet he does not contribute to his being so, and what he thinks; he is obliged to declare by Lawful Authority; and if he does not so, is Guilty himself of Breach of Trust towards his Country, and of Perjury towards his God.

2. As to the seeing into his Thoughts, the difficulty of doing so, and the Judging Charitably upon this Account: This seems very little to the purpose: In indifferent Actions, or such as will bear a double Interpretation; we ought to beware how we Judge to the disadvantage of our Neighbor, especially when not called by Lawful Authority; but where a Man is so called; where there is a Notorious Transgression of the Law, as in the present Case, the Fact is so evidently Evil, that there needs no weighing of the thoughts, or searching of what kind they were; especially since, when a Person is found to have killed himself, the Question is not what his Thoughts were, but whether he had any Thought at all, that is whether he was Mad or no?

Yet after all, though I have hitherto applied my self to the Jury, ’tis certain that their Verdict depends much upon the Coroner, and ’tis his fault chiefly if the Laws which provide against Self-murther, are eluded; ’tis he that Summons whom he pleases to be of the Jury, and to these he gives what Charge he pleases; the Examination of the Witnesses, the Summing up the Evidence is done by him: So that unless there happen to be upon the Jury Men of Conscience, Courage and Understanding (which may easily be avoided if the Coroner thinks fitting) they will be apt to be led by him implicitly. And there being no Fee allowed upon Felo de se, the Verdicts being for the King; and a Gratuity seldom wanting when it is for the Heirs; ’tis no wonder that the Return is generally Non Compos.

But if these Papers should ever fall into the Hands of any of these Gentlemen; I entreat them to Consider seriously the trust that is reposed in them, they being Chosen by the Freeholders of their several Counties, as Parliament Men are; and what the Consequence will be (even to after Ages) of the breach of such Trust: And to themselves especially, if they believe any thing of another World: For to omit the Suspicions of Corruption which I am very loath to improve; whatever the Motive is, through which the Design of any Law is Eluded; the Consequence will be much the same: If a Law be made to restrain a dreadful Sin, which is withal very pernicious to the State, and such or such a Punishment is appointed to this End; if this Law becomes of no force by that very Persons Preventing the Punishment, who is entrusted by his Country to see the Law Executed: Let this be done out of Compassion, Generosity, or what you please; all the increase of the Sin forbidden, so heinous in its own Nature, and so pernicious to the Public, he will have a share in; and if he be guilty of Perjury, if he betray his Country, not only in the Present Age, but is false to Posterity also: What will it signify that this was done out of Charity or Generosity to one or two Persons, who perhaps did not need it: Or if they did never so much, how preposterous must that Charity be, which to assist a few, as to Temporal Conveniences, shall contribute to the Damnation of many Souls, and make a Man venture through Treachery and Perjury to hazard his own.

If these Considerations, and others of the like kind, should not prevail with these Persons so much as immediate Punishment: The Lord Chief Justice of the Kings Bench, for the time being, is, as I am told, the chief Coroner of England, enquiries into Failures of this kind, may be made in that Court, and this Consideration ought to terrify every one who shall be thus concerned, especially at this time, since that Important Trust was never discharged with more profound Knowledge of our Laws, and with greater Integrity than at Present.

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Filed under Adams, John, Europe, Protestantism, Selections, The Early Modern Period


Sermons on Job:
  13th Sermon on the 3rd Chapter of Job
  17th Sermon on the 5th Chapter of Job
  22nd Sermon on the 5th Chapter of       Job
  24th Sermon on the 6th Chapter of Job


The French theologian and reformer John Calvin (originally Jean Calvin or Cauvin), was born in Noyon, Picardy, to a staunch Roman Catholic family; his father hoped that he would become a priest. He went to Paris to study Latin and theology (and to flee the plague at Noyon) at the age of 14, but after his father was dismissed from the Roman Church by his employers at Noyon Cathedral, the young Calvin, at his father’s urging, shifted his course of study from theology to law. Even as a young man, Calvin was said to be extremely religious. He converted to the Protestant doctrines of the Reformation and was banished from Paris in 1533 with his friend, the rector Nicolas Cop, when the humanist reformers were renounced as heretical by the conservative faculty of the Collège Royal. Having been driven out of Geneva once, in 1538, Calvin succeeded in a second try at establishing the Consistory, an ecclesiastical court, and in 1541, he established government reform in Geneva, which would serve as the focal point for the defense of Protestantism throughout Europe. However, though Calvin had asked for a more humane form of execution, the court also oversaw under Calvin’s direction the burning at the stake in 1553 of a competing reformist theologian, Servetus, on a pile of Servetus’s own books. Strongly committed to the importance of education, Calvin founded the Academy of Geneva (1559), the progenitor of the University of Geneva. In his later years, Calvin suffered from very poor health, including lung hemorrhages, gout, migraines, and kidney stones; he was sometimes carried to the pulpit to preach, and on occasion gave lectures from his bed.

Taking refuge in Basel, Switzerland, Calvin published the first edition of his Instituto Christianae Religionis (in Latin, 1536; in French, 1541; translated into English as Institutes of the Christian Religion), his most famous and extraordinarily influential work. Stressing the total sovereignty of God, especially in determining who is elect and who is granted salvation, the Institutes brought together the scattered and unsystematic opinions of reformist writers of the period into one body of doctrine. Calvin revised and expanded the work throughout his life, with the fifth and final Latin edition of 1559 reaching a total of four books of 80 chapters, five times the length of the first publication. The five central points of Calvinism, including the total depravity or centrality of sin, and what is often called predestination, were later upheld by the Synod of Dort in 1619 in a denunciation of the competing reform ideology of Armenianism.

The excerpts from two of Calvin’s several sermons on Job reprinted here scrutinize Job’s seeming despair and desire to die as he suffers the afflictions God has allowed Satan to impose on him. Calvin argues that afflictions sent by God, however painful, are “for our profit and welfare,” and distinguishes between two radically different sorts of desire to die. One is born of suffering and the fear of future sinning: This sort of desire to die is illegitimate, in Calvin’s eyes, and itself sinful. In contrast, the form of desire to die (exhibited, for example, by St. Paul [q.v., under New Testament]), the desire to employ oneself in God’s service, is legitimate and praiseworthy. Calvin’s text is particularly relevant in exploring negative occasions of suicide, that is, choices made by a person apparently considering suicide but who rejects it.

John Calvin, Sermons of Maister John Calvin, upon the Booke of Job: 13th Sermon on the 3rd Chapter of Job (57a7-60a62); 17th Sermon on the 5th Chapter of Job (75b57 to 76a37); 22nd Sermon on the 5th Chapter of Job (102b11 to 102b60); 24th Sermon on the 6th Chapter of Job (108a6 to 108b14),translated from the French by Arthur Golding, pp. 57-60, 75-76, 102, 108.  London: Impensis Georgij Bishop, 1574; facsimile reprint 1993, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh.



13th Sermon on the 3rd Chapter of Job

Job complaineth here; as though God did men wrong to put them into the world, and to exercise them with store of miseries. And so he maketh his reckoning, that if God will have us to live, he should maintain us at our ease, and not encumber us with many troubles. Thus we see briefly what is contained here. Verily Jobs intent was not to plead against God, as if he would go to law with him: but yet in the meanwhile, the grief that he sustained carried him so far forth, that these complaints passed out of his mouth. How now? Wherefore hath God set us in this world? Is it not to the end, that we should know him to be our Father, and that we should bless him, because we be sure that he hath a care of us? But contrariwise it is to be seen, that many men are afflicted and tormented with many miseries. To what purpose does God hold them at that point? It seemeth that he would have his name to be blasphemed. What can they do whom he handleth so rigorously? when they see death before their eyes, or rather have it between their teeth, they can not but fret and chafe at it. Thus we see an occasion of murmuring against God, and it seemeth that he himself is the cause of it. Here we have a very good and profitable lesson: which is that we should assure ourselves, that when God scourgeth us, yet he ceasseth not to give us some taste of his goodness, in such wise as even in the middest of our afflictions we may still praise him, and rejoice in him. Yet notwithstanding it is true that he restraineth our joys, and turneth them into bitterness. But there is a mean betwixt blessing of Gods name, and blaspheming of it: which mean is to call upon him when we be oppressed with adversity, and to resort unto him, desiring him to receive us unto mercy. But men can never keep this mean, except God have an eye to it of himself when he scourgeth us. Therefore let us mark first, that whensoever God sendeth us any troubles and sorrows, he ceaseth not to make us taste of his goodness therewithal, to assuage the anguish that might hold our hearts in distress. How is that? We have shewed heretofore, that if men had an eye to Gods former benefits towards them (yea though it were but in that he hath sustained them from their childhood, after he had brought théout of their mothers womb, and given them life : ) it were enough to comfort them, even when they be overloaded with despair, and to make them think: May not God punish us justly? for we be bound to bear patiently the adversity that he sendeth, and nature teacheth us so to do, forsomuch as he bestoweth so many benefits upon us, according as Job hath shewed heretofore. We see then how this only one consideration ought to assuage our sorrows, according as it is to be seen, that if men put sugar or honey into a medicine that is over bitter, it will alay it in such sort, as the patient may the better take it, whereas otherwise it would go near to choke him. But there is yet a further matter in this: namely, that God sheweth us the use of his chastisements which he sendeth us: which is not that he meeneth to destroy us so often as he scourges us: but that it is for our profit and welfare: and he promiseth us, that if we be faithful, he will not suffer [1 Cor 10 c 13] us to be racked out of measure, but will support us. So then, if we be afflicted, there is no reason why we should take pritch against God, as though we found nothing but rigor at his hand. For we be so comforted in our afflictions, as if our unthankfulness letted us not, we might rejoice and say, blessed be the name of God, although he send us not all our own desires. This much for the first point. And how herewithal we must mark also the second article, which I have touched already: which is, that although we have nothing but distress, although we be held as it were upon the rack, and that we have nothing at all to comfort us: yet must we not be hasty to take pritch against God, but we must rather call upon him, according as it is said: let him that is sorrowful pray. Saint James sheweth us the mean which we ought to hold. If we be merry (sayth he) let us sing: [Lar-s 5 t 33]not after the manner of the world (which ruffleth it and royetteth it, without acknowledging that his goods come of God) but in rendering praise to God for our gladness. And if we be in sorrow and heaviness, let us pray unto God, beseeching him to pity us, and to abate his rigor. Thus we see, that when the faithful are at the wits end, so as they can no further go, yet must they not rush against God, and find fault with him: neither must they outrage, as those do which are full of pride and rebelliousness: but rather let us think thus: Lord, I see myself to be a wretched creature. I know not where to become, I wote not what to do, except thou rescue me to mercy, and shewe thyself so pitiful towards me, as to relieve me of my misery, which I can no longer bear: Thus we see that the children of God must bear their adversities patiently, although God chastise them roughly for a time. And it is to be seen, that although Job had continually minded the same lesson: yet was he not sufficiently armed to withstand temptations: for he sayth here, Why doth God give light to such as are of troubled mind? He remembered not that God had just cause to keep men in the middes of many miseries, and that although their state be wretched here below, yet is God righteous still: and that albeit he punish us, and keeps us occupied many ways, yet it becometh not us to hold plea with him, under color that he holdeth us here against our will, and that we be shut up in prison while we be in this life: neither must we conceive any displeasure for all that. Job did not sufficiently consider this. Now is such a person as Job was, happened to overshoot himself, and to kick against God, for want of having the said regard that I have spoken of: much more must we set our minds upon the said two points: that is to wit, that we bear in remembrance, that God never forsaketh us, and therefore that we may not be oversorrowful when God sendeth us any adversities, because we be sure that his chastising of us is after such a sort, as therewithal he relieveth our grief, at leastwise if it be not long of ourselves, and of our own unthankfulness: And secondly, that when we be distressed that we can no more: God calleth and allureth us friendly unto him, yet I say he provoketh us to resort unto prayer as often as we be as it were utterly stripped out of all that we have. Lo hear the true remedy: which is to call upon our good God to have pity upon us, and not to suffer us to be so dismayed as to say, I wote not what to do, and it is to no purpose to go unto God. Let us keep ourselves from such encumbrance, and persuade ourselves that we shall always be sure to fare well, if we call upon God, who will be always merciful to us, even in the middest of our afflictions. When we have these two points well settled in our remembrance, we shall no more say: Wherefore is it that God holdeth those here which are in sorrow of mind? For we see wherefore he doth it. There is great reason why God should chastise men. For how great are our sins? the number of them is infinite. Again, if we look upon our lusts, there is also a very bottomless gulf, which hath need to be mended. God therefore must mortify us. Furthermore, if we consider how much we be given to the world: we shall find that our affections had need to be plucked from it by Gods chastisements. Moreover how great is our pride and presumptuousness? And therefore must God needs humble us. Besides all this, how cold are we to crave his help? and therefore he must be fayne to enforce us to it. Finally, ought not our faith to be tried and made known? Then see we not reasons inowe why God holdeth us here, and will have us to be miserable, so as there is nothing but pain, trouble, torment, and anguish in all our whole life? Is there not sufficient reason why God should do this? Mark here a special point. And sithe that he continually calleth us unto him, and maketh us free passage unto him, and that we have such a remedy in our miseries: may we not hold ourselves well appayed? We see how we ought to be armed and fenced against the said temptations, which reigned overmuch in Job, howebeit that he was not utterly overcome of it. For when Job speaketh here of such as desire the grave, and which willingly dig for it as for some hidden treasure, longing to die and can not: he putteth himself in the same rank, as we shall see by the sequel: wherein he confirmeth his own infirmity and vice. For it is not lawful for the faithful to mislike their own life, and to wish so for death. True it is that we may wish for death in one respect: which is, in consideration that we be hilde here in such bondage of sin, as we can not serve God so freely as were to be wished, because we are overfraught with vices. In respect hereof it is certain that we may sigh, and desire God to take us quickly out of the world. But (as is said afore) it may not be for that we hate our life, or for that we be weary to be hilde here because we be handled over rigorously: but we must bear our lot patiently, in waiting Gods leisure to deliver us. And we see that Paul holdeth the [Rom 7 d 24.25] self same measure when he sayth to the Romans, Alas, who shall deliver me from this mortal body? For I am unhappy. But yet therewithall he sayth, Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Lo here how Saint Paul on the one side calleth himself unhappy, and desireth to be taken out of the world: and on the other side is contented and at rest, because God prefereth him, and he knoweth that God will never forsake him, howbeit that he be subject to many miseries. We see here his contentation. And that we may the better understand the whole: let us mark how Job hath done amiss in two points. That is to witte, in not having the regard that he ought to have had in desiring death: and also in not keeping measure. Here we see two faults that are very gross. When I say that Job had not his eyes fastened upon the mark that he ought: I mean that his wishing for death, was not because he saw himself to be a miserable sinner, and could not attain to the perfection which all of us ought to labor for: but because he was weary of the nipping griefs, as well which he presently endured in his person, as which he had sustained before in his goods. And so he desired death, because it seemed to him that God pressed him overfore. Thus we see the first fault that I spake of. But if we apply the same to our own use, it will be yet better understood and apparent. If a man search and try himself thoroughly, and think thus with himself: I am given to such a vice, and I fight against it, but I can not come to my purpose: and the matter is not for one vice alone, but I have two or three that torment me. Surely yet I will not give myself the bridle, neither will I wound myself, I fear the vengeance of God, and will hold myself in such sort as I be not utterly vanquished: I see I must be much more earnest in serving God, and in fighting against the world and mine own flesh, as it is very requisite I should be, for I am hilde back and hindered by mine own lusts. I say, if a man acknowledge himself such a one: after he hath well examined his life, he sayth thereupon: yea my God, I see myself in miserable plight, and when shall I be delivered out of it? For needs must I bear sin in me, and although it reign not in me, yet doth it dwell in me. And what else is sin, but the devils scepter, whereby he reigneth over us? Then am I the bondslave of Satan and of death. O my God, must I tarry evermore in this wearisome plight? A Christian man may well have such sighs, and beseech God to set him free from such a bondage wherein he seeth himself to be. But if the matter concern adversity: we must regard neither cold nor heat, nor poverty, nor sickness: but we must have our eye only on our sins. And specially when God punisheth us, in what wise so ever it be, we must mount up higher, without any resting upon the bodily adversity, and think thus with ourselves: behold the fruits of our sins: forasmuch as we have done against Gods will, it is good reason that he should shew himself a judge towards us. When we have thus acknowledged our sins, the same worketh a remorse in us, and provoketh us to conceive the sorrows whereof S. Paul speaketh. And thus much as concerning the first point. But it is not inoughto think as afore is said [2 Cor 7 c 11]: that is to wit, to wish death is such wise as I have earst shewed: but it behoveth also to keep measure. I say, we must not only wish it upon good cause, but we must also bridle our desires, for as it be ruled by the good pleasure of God. And this will bring to pass, that the outrage which is shewed here in Job, shall be restrained as with a bridle. I have already touched this point in the text which I alleged out of S. Paul. For after he had made his moan, and wished to be delivered out of this prison of death: he addeth, I thank my God: and he ceasseth not to be quiet, even in the midst of those complaints and longings. And why so? for he seeth it is good reason that God should be the master, and govern us at his pleasure: and that we should patiently wait for such end as he listeth to give us. S. Paul perceiving this, concludeth immediately, that although he be a wretched sinner: yet notwithstanding he is sure that God will guide him in such wise, as his salvation can not miscarry. S. Paul then had an eye to those two things. And therefore he sayth that he yeldeth God thanks, not withstanding that he be in misery. Even so must we do. And is so doing, we shall not only be the readier to endure all the miseries of this world for the honor of God, that he may be glorified both in our persons, and in our humility: but also we shall be willing to suffer for our neighbors, as Saint Paul also sheweth us by his own example. He sayeth to the Philippians that as for himself, it should be far better for him to be taken out of the world: but for your sakes (sayth he) it is requisite that I live, because I know that you have as yet need of my labor, and that God employeth me about the edifying of your faith, and unto him do I submit myself. And afterward he sayeth: Although it were for my behoofe to go hence out of hand, yet am I willing to abide here still. Lo how faint (59a15) Paul exhorteth all men to submit themselves in such way unto Gods pleasure, as while they live in this world, they may not only bear their afflictions patiently, but also be ready to suffer for their neighbors, so as their labor may be profitable to the common weale, and they themselves do service to the church of God. Thus we see what we have to mark. But what? This lesson is not yet understood, forasmuch as there are very few that put it in use: for if God leave us in rest, ye shall see us so blended with vain and fond ioye and we be so oversotted, as we know neither death, nor our own frailty any more, neither have we any discretion at all. And if God visit us with any afflictions: it needs not to be asked whether we blasphemy or no, or whether any other pass out of our mouth or no: there will be store of misliking, of murmuring, and of impatience, which shall be full of sturdiness. And when the wind is in that door with us, how many be there that think upon their sins, and that groan under such a burden, and therewithall look unto the aide that God giveth them, how he suffereth them not to be utterly overcome by Satan, and thereupon do quiet themselves and take comfort in that he preferreth them? The number of them is very small: and yet is not this written in vain. But in general we have now to consider, that the faithful may well sigh and groan all their life long, till God have taken them out of the world, always wishing for their end, that is to say, for death: and yet not withstanding they must restrain themselves in such wyse, as they may wholly submit themselves to Gods good pleasure, knowing that they are not made for themselves. First I say, that the faithful may well sigh as folk that are weary of their long pinning in this prison of their flesh: namely for the cause that I have touched, which is, because they serve not God in such freedom as were requisite, but draw their lines amiss, so as they work awry, and oftentimes swerve aside. And (which more is) we must sigh but so farforth as is lawful for us: which is to be done so often as we enter into the consideration of our own overweariness when the matter standeth upon the serving of GOD. For, that must spur us to desire God to take us out of this world, and make us have an eye to the life that is prepared for us in heaven, which shall be fully shewed upon us at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And hereby we see how it is not only granted to Gods children to wish for death, but also that they ought to wish for it. For they shew not a good proof of their faith, except they seek to go out of this world, according as in deed all things hast and labor toward their mark. But our mark is aloft, and therefore must we never leave running till we come to our ways end which GOD hath set us: and we must desire that that may be quickly. Nevertheless let us always bear in mind the cause that I have spoken: namely, that we must not be provoked to wish for death, because we be subject some to sickness, some to poverty, some to one thing, and some to another: but because we be not fully reformed to the image of God, and because we have many imperfections in us. Mark well (I say) the cause that must spur and provoke us to desire death: namely, to the end that being rid of this mortal body (which is like a cabane full of stench and noisomeness) we may be fully reformed to the image of God, so as he may reign in us, and all the corruption of our nature be utterly done away.

And furthermore, let us keep us within the compass of desiring to live and die at Gods pleasure, so as we may not be given to our own will, but so as we may make as a sacrifice of it in that behalf, that our living may not be to ourselves but to God, so as we may say, Lord, I know mine own frailty. Nevertheless it is thy will to hold me in this world, and here I am, and good reason it is that I should tarry here: But whosoever it shall please thee to call me hence, I make no great accompt of my life, it is always at thy commandment, to dispose of it at thine own pleasure.

Behold (I say) how we ought to deal in this case. And herewithall, let us have our affections evermore quieted, yea even in such sort, as we may continually praise Gods name, assuring ourselves, that both in life and death, he will always shewe himself a Father and Savior towards us. But after that Job hath spoken so, he addeth: That such as are so distressed in their hearts, would be full glad and faine, if they might find their grave. Wherein he betrayed himself to speak through a brutish and unadvised affection, and that he keepeth neither measure nor modesty. For he confesseth that we come to naught there. So then we see how he is falne, howebeit not with a deadly fall, but with a half fall, and God raiseth him up again afterward as we shall see.   Yet nevertheless the case standeth so, as we must verily condemn this infirmity here in Job: that is to say, he was so dismayed with heaviness, as he could no more taste of Gods goodness, thereby to gather never so little comfort to sustain himself by.

But forasmuch as we see that this befell unto him: so much the more must we be earnest in praying unto God, that sorrow may not overmate us so, as we should be utterly overwhelmed by it. Therefore let us always be so underdropped and stayed up, as we may fight against sorrowfulness, and feel that it is good for us to live here according to Gods will, and that although we have great griefs and troubles here, yet must we stand fully resolved upon this point, that is it good for us to continue here still in this world. And wherefore? To the end that God may be glorified in us, to the end that our faith may be tried, to the end we should call upon him, and profess him to be always our father, notwithstanding that he scourge us, and to the end that by means thereof we may be prepared to the heavenly life. This taste of the said fatherly goodness, must always make us desirous to go unto God, & not suffer us to give bridle to any one outrageous and beastly affection, as we see that Job hath done here. And by the way he sheweth, whence this heaviness came upon him, that had so wholly swallowed him up, and from whence also it proceedeth in those that are so dismayed as they can not admit any comfort to assuage their miseries. He sayth, To the man whose way is hidden and which God hath shut in, as if he had made hedges round about it, that no man should enter into it.

This is well worth to be noted. For Job sheweth wherein he failed: namely in not yielding himself inough to Gods providence. Yet notwithstanding, herewithall he discovereth a disease whereunto all of us are subject. That is to wit, that we be desirous to know all that must befall us, and what our state shall be: and all this we would have declared to us: in so much that when we are in perplexity, so as we know not what shall become of us, and that the inconvenience pincheth us, and we see no end of it: then are we at the point of utter despair.

Lo here a mischief that is overcommon and ordinary. And we must mark it well, to the end we may seek the remedy on the contrary part. What then is the inclination of men? It is, that they could well find in their hearts to leap up to the clouds, to know what shall be the course of their whole life. And we see how they determine with themselves, I will do this and that. [Prov 16 a 1] Salomon mocking at the overweening that is in men, sayeth that they determine upon their whole life: and whereas they can not move the tip of their tongue without God do guide it: yet determine they upon this and that. And what a mockery is it? They are not able to move the tip of their tongue, and yet they presume to say, Behold I will do this a ten years hence: according also as [Lam 4 d 13]Saint James agreeth with Salomon, in scorning of the said presumptuousness which is in men. For so long as God letteth us alone at our ease, every man believeth what he lifteth himself, and we take ourselves to be petigoddes. But as soon as God turneth his hand, and beateth us with his rods: ye shall see us so amazed, as we wote not where to become: we think it not possible for us ever to scape out of our miseries, we look on the one side and on the other, and we see no end at all of them: we be as it were so shut up in them, that we cannot take hold of the goodness and mighty power of God to succor us. And this is the very affection that Job sheweth us here, which is an overcommon disease as we find well enough by experience. For there is not anything that troubleth and tormenteth us so much, as when we see ourselves shut up, and know not what what will be the end of our miseries, nor what shall become of us, in so much as being assailed on all sides, we conclude with ourselves, that we can never get away without utter oppression and overthrow. Have we this sayd disease? Then let us resort to the remedy. For if the disease be not cured, we must needs fall into the sayd excessive passion, whereof mention is made here: namely that we shall wish for death, as men in despair, and shall have no assuagement of our miseries, but only to desire God to overwhelm us out of hand. But the convenient remedy of this disease is, to refer ourselves to Gods providence, that he may see brightly for us, and that sith we be blind, and in darkness, our God may guide us as he knoweth is good for us, and lead us forth in all our enterprises. Behold also whereunto the holy scripture bringeth us back. Jeremy sayeth [Jer 10 d 23], O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in his own power, neither is it in man to walk and direct his own steps. This is as much to say, as a man taketh too much upon him, when he purposeth to dispose of his own life.



17th Sermon on the 5th Chapter of Job 

Afterward Eliphas addeth: That men perish and are consumed from morning unto the evening. Some expound this, as though it were meant that men perish in small time: and that is very true. But herewithall there is yet more: that is to witte, that we pass not a minute of our life, but it is as it were in approaching unto death. If we consider it well, when a man riseth in the Morning, he is sure he shall not step forth one pace, he is sure he shall not take his repast, he is sure he shall not turn about his hand, but he shall still wex elder and elder, and his life ever shortneth. Then must we consider even by eye sight, that our life fleeteth and slideth away from us. Thus we see what is meant by being consumed from Morning to Evening. And it is said afterward, that men perish for ever, because no man thinks upon it. We must treat of these two points, that we may profit ourselves by this doctrine. The one point is, that whatsoever we do, we should always have death before our eyes, and be provoked to think upon it. This (as I have said) is well known among men: the very Heathen had skill to say so. But what for that? Every man can play the Doctor in teaching other men that, which is contained here, and yet in the mean while there is never a good scholar of us all in this behalf. For there is not any man which showeth by this doings, that ever he knew what it is to be consumed from Morning to Evening: that is to wit, that all his lustiness is but feebleness, and that there is no steadfastness in us, to hold ourselves in one continual state: but that we always haste toward death, and death towards us, so as we must needs come thither at length. Verily if we had no more but this single doctrine alone: It would stand us in no stead, but to make us storm and torment ourselves. Like as when the Paynims knew that our life was so flightful, they concluded thereupon, that it was best never to be born, and that the sooner we died the better it was for us. Lo how the Paynims rejected the grace of God, because they knew not the honor that he doth us when he sendeth us into this world, even to shewe (show) himself a father towards us. For in as much as we be reasonable creatures, and have the Image of God printed in our nature: we have a record, that he holdeth us here as his children. And to despise such a grace, and to say, it had been better for us never to have been created: is it not apparent blasphemy? So then it is not enough for us to know, that so long as we be in this world, we be consumed every minute of an hour.



22nd Sermon on the 5th Chapter of Job 

When God suffereth his children to be taken out of the world betimes: it is for their profit. For God provideth better for the faithful man when he calleth him to him at the age of twenty or thirty years, than when he letteth him live till threescore. And specially when we see the world flowing out into such corruption, that all is confounded now a days: I pray you ought we not to esteem them more happy in that God hath drawn them away to himself, than if they had longer time to languish here? It were a miracle if men could continue here and come all too old age. For we see what snares Satan layeth for us, and how it is right hard to walk through so many outrages. Therefore if God pull away his children quickly: let us be sure that he dooth it for their greater benefit. And specially we have hereupon to understand, that although they be bereft of this blissing which is small in respect of that which God will give them: yet doth he not cease to love and favor them by suffering them to fall so into speedy death, like as those that are persecuted by tyrants, have a most precious death. For they offer up a sacrifice which is most acceptable to God: and it is an offering of sweet savour when he seeth his world sealed up with the blood of Martyrs. So then, when we compare the less with the greater, we shall find that this promise of feeling continually the sayde blissing of God in sending them to their grave as come that is gathered in his due time, is not in vain towards the faithful. For how soever the world go, he repenteth them continually. If a faithful man die at the age of thirty years, what doth he? It seemeth not that he is greatly sorry for it, he maketh no great struggling against it as we see the unbelievers do, yea when they be even as stale as earth, as the Proverb sayeth. Behold a despiser of God and a worlding, which never thought upon death: and when it commeth to the point that God will pinch him in good earnest, it will make him grind his teeth and fret with himself, weening too withstand death, and saying: Can I not prolong my life one year longer? He takes himself to be a piece of green wood that crackleth on all sides. Contrariwise when a faithful person dieth, although he endure much, yet he betaketh himself unto God, and comforteth himself in him: and although there be stryuing seen in his body, yet hath he his mind quiet, and he desireth nothing but to frame himself to Gods good will, choosing rather to die when God calleth him, than to live here. To be short he desireth nothing but to obey his good heavenly father.

24th Sermon on the 6th Chapter of Job 

We have to go forward with the matter that I began already: which is, that Job tormenteth himself here, not for the misery which he endureth in his body, but because God hilde him as a poor condemned person, and because he dealeth as a judge with him, and is altogether against him. Ye see then wherefore Job is more grieved that for all the rest that he could suffer. That is to wit, because he feeleth Gods hand heavy upon him, as David speaketh in the two and thirty Psalm. [Psal 32 a 4] And let us mark this well always. For otherwise we shall not know to what purpose he sayth, I would I were dead, I would God would kill me, I would I were cut off from the world, for then should I have some ease, and I should be no more so sore pressed. And could there befall him any worse thing than death, specially than a death of Gods sending, wherein he should know that God would utterly overwhelm him? And were not that the extremist of all miseries? and yet for all that he sayth, that if God would dispatch him at one blow, he could well bear it: but to linger pyning death as he doth, and to be preseed so long a while, he sayth it is impossible for him to keep measure, for it is all one as if he were hilde in a burning fire. Then let us mark well this diversity which is between a man that is overwhelmed at the first stroke, and another whom God holdeth (as it were) upon the Rack, whom he scourgeth a long while without giving him any respite, and which is not relieved in his misery, but must be fayne to abide it out continually. Let us now come to the ripping up of the case that Job pleadeth here. First he sheweth that his chief desire should be to die and to be cut off. True it is (as I have touched heretofore) that Gods children may well wish death: howbeit to an other end, and for another respect [than he doth here,] like as all of us must with S. Paul [Ro 8 d 24, Phil 1 c 23]desire to be let loose from the bondage of sin wherein we be held prisoners. Saint Paul is not moved there with any temptations of his flesh: but rather, the desire that he hath to employ himself in Gods service without let, driveth him to with that he might pass out of the prison of his body. Why so? For so long as we be in this world, we must always be wrapped in many miseries, and we cease not to offend God, being so weak as we be. Saint Paul then is sorry that he must live so long in offending God, and this kind of desire is good and holy, and proceedeth of the holy Ghost. But there are very few that desire to go out of the world in this respect. For so long as we be at our ease, we care not a whit what vices and imperfections we have, nor to be so foreward in serving God as were requisite: this geere toucheth us not a whit. What then? If there betide us any trouble, if we fall into any disease, if matters fall not out as we would have them: then we wish our selves out of the world, and there is none other talk but of our weariness in despising of our life. Ye see then what Jobs wishing was. It was not chiefly because he knew what his state was: but because the misery that he felt did nippe him, therefore he was desirous to have his request at Gods hand. For he not only desireth it [in his heart,] but also addresseth himself to God to make sute for it. And this is yet another mischief, that a man wishing death, as Job doth here, shall be as ye would say, shut up and shrunk into himself, so as he shall not dare present himself unto God to pray for it, though it so be that he have committed a great offence before. For we must not presume to hide ourselves, nor to have any back nookes wherein to make wishes that are wicked and rejected of God. But yet when a man shall come so far forth as to make such request unto God: no doubt but he sinneth double.

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from Table Talk


The German religious reformer, Martin Luther, was born in Saxony, the son of a prosperous but strict entrepreneur and local politician. In 1505, Luther received a master’s degree from the University of Erfurt, one of Germany’s finest schools. According to his father’s wishes, he began to study law, but that same year, after being thrown to the ground from his horse during a violent thunderstorm, he vowed that he would become a monk if he survived. He was ordained to the priesthood in an Augustinian monastery in 1507, and in 1512, received his doctorate in theology from the University of Wittenberg. During this time, Luther, who suffered from depression, underwent an internal, spiritual crisis. He felt that no matter how well he lived his life, he was unable to please God. Out of this crisis was, he fashioned the essential theology of Protestantism: Faith, not good works, is the key to salvation.

In 1517, outraged by the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences, or pardons that seemed to Luther to permit those who had sinned to buy their way out of punishment, he posted his famous “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. The Theses were widely distributed and aroused strong public reaction. He also published other works attacking the papal system as a whole, including his famous “Address to the Christian Nobles of Germany” (1520) and his treatise On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). Luther was called upon to recant his views, including his denial of the supremacy of the pope, but he refused, burning the papal bull in public. He was excommunicated in January of 1521. That spring, he was summoned to the Imperial Diet at Worms; again he refused to recant, holding that his position was supported by Scripture; the Edict of Worms declared him an outlaw and banned his writings. In the next years, under the protection of Frederick of Saxony, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, a project that would prove to be of central importance to both the standardization of the German language and the consolidation of the Protestant Reformation.

Following the German Peasants’ War, the Augustinian friars abandoned the Black Cloister in Wittenberg. In 1524, it was opened to Luther, his wife Katherine von Bora, a former nun whom he married in 1525, and their six children. For the rest of his life, Luther continued to teach and write, and in 1534, 12 years after his New Testament translation, he published a translation of the entire Bible, including the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. His works also include many letters, sermons, lectures, scriptural commentaries, catechisms, and hymns. On February 17, 1546, he suffered a heart attack and died the next day.

Luther’s theology, based largely on his studies of the New Testament and St. Augustine, changed the course of Western religious history. His turn from canon law to scripture as the center of faith, the justification of man by faith, and the belief in the priesthood of all Christians tried to move the Church away from the bureaucracy of the established clergy; it established not only Protestantism as a result of the Reformation, but found further effect in the Counterreformation within the Catholic Church.

The selection presented here is a group of three short notes drawn from different parts of the so-called Table Talk (1566). Luther frequently entertained visitors at dinner, and the opinions he articulated on these occasions were often noted by his visitors. The Table Talk was later assembled from different note-takers; over the years, more than a score of men had taken notes at Luther’s dinner table. In the short notes presented here, Luther comments on the etiology and consequences of suicide, and although he attributes suicide to the power of the devil, he insists that this does not entail that the victim is damned.


Luther, Martin, Table Talk entries DLXXXIX, DCCXXXVIII, in The Table Talk or Familiar Discourse of Martin Luther, tr. William Hazlitt, London: David Bogue, 1848, pp. 254, 303;  entry 222 (April 7, 1532),  in Luther’s Works, American Edition, vol. 54.  Ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967, p. 29.


It is very certain that, as to all persons who have hanged themselves, or killed themselves in any other way, ‘tis the devil who has put the cord round their necks, or the knife to their throats.

Mention was made of a young girl who, to avoid violence offered her by a nobleman, threw herself from the window, and was killed.  It was asked, was she responsible for her death?  Doctor Luther said: No: she felt that this step formed her only chance of safety, it being not her life she sought to save, but her chastity.

I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned.  My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil. They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber. However, this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter, and I recommend that the popular custom be strictly adhered to according to which it [the suicide’s corpse] is not carried over the threshold, etc. Such persons do not die by free choice or by law, but our Lord God will dispatch them as he executes a person through a robber. Magistrates should treat them quite strictly, although it is not plain that their souls are damned. However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.

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Filed under Devil, Europe, Luther, Martin, Middle Ages, Protestantism, Selections, Sin