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.”

Leave a Comment

Filed under Christianity, Europe, Fleming, Caleb, Protestantism, Selections, Sexual Issues, Sin, The Early Modern Period

Leave a Reply