A Call to the Tempted: A Sermon on the Horrid Crime of Self-Murder


Increase Mather, commonly considered the most gifted member of the prominent Mather family and the first to be born in America, was a religious, educational, and political leader of early Puritan New England. A graduate of Harvard and Trinity College, Dublin, Mather was a skilled writer and orator who delivered sermons to congregations throughout England and New England. He was elected acting president of Harvard in 1685, later rector and president, but was forced to resign by political rivals in 1701 on a technicality. Mather wrote many religious treatises, political pamphlets, and sermons, as well as A Brief History of the Warr with the Indians (1676). A conflicted critic of the Salem witch trials like his son Cotton Mather [q.v.], Increase Mather’s Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits (1693) and its critique of spectral evidence is credited with stemming the tide of witchcraft executions.

Increase Mather’s sermon, A Call to the Tempted: A Sermon on the Horrid Crime of Self-Murder (1682, published 1723), is a passionate and reasoned attack on suicide, addressed directly to those who might be tempted—as Mather believed, by the devil—to commit it. The text was put into pamphlet form from his notes 40 years after its oral delivery, and its cover advertises the sermon’s objective: “for a Charitable Stop to Suicides.”

Although Mather had often thought of preaching on the subject, the final motivation for the sermon came as he walked alone in his garden: “This day my former thought about preaching on the evil of self-murder, returning upon me again. I looked up to GOD, and as I was lifting up my heart to Him . . . I was strangely moved and melted. Tears gushed from my eyes. And it seemed as if it were said unto me, ‘Preach on that subject, and thou shalt save bodies and souls from death.’ ” The following Sunday, Mather preached a sermon based on Acts 16:27–28 in which he outlined the reasons why such an act is unacceptable.

For Mather, suicide is often the act of trying to escape suffering through sin. The sin lies in hating one’s own flesh—the flesh that was created in God’s image—and in forfeiting the grace of life, as well as in murdering the one person to whom we are closest, that is, ourselves (murder perpetrated on one’s mother or brother, for Mather, is worse than one committed on a stranger). Mather’s view presupposes the doctrine of election, but even though a person might be tempted to suicide by despair over the belief that he or she is already damned—the sermon is particularly addressed to those who see themselves as sinners—Mather holds out some hope: “Thou are not sure that thou shalt not be saved.” Even though Mather hints that God is merciful and will not necessarily condemn all who commit suicide, on a practical level, one should never pardon any self-murderer, since a charitable view of suicide will only serve to encourage the practice: “Lest by being over-charitable to the dead, we become cruel to the living.”

Increase Mather, A Call to the Tempted: A Sermon on the Horrid Crime of Self-Murder [dated Boston, May 23, 1682], printed by B. Green, sold by Samuel Gerrish, 1723–24 (spelling and grammar modernized).


The Occasion of the Publication

Among the remarkables in the life of the memorable Dr. Increase Mather, there is this passage. “The doctor felt once upon his mind a strong impression to preach a sermon about the crime of self-murder, but he resisted, he declined, he laid it aside. He then wrote in his diary: This day my former thoughts about preaching on the evil of self-murder, returning upon me again; I looked up to God, and as I was lifting up my heart to Him, then walking in my garden, I was most strangely moved and melted. I could not speak a word for some time. Tears gushed from my eyes. And it seemed as if it were said unto me, Preach on that subject, and thou shalt save bodies and souls from death. The lion is among thy flock, refute him with the Sword of the Spirit, and the sheep committed unto thy charge shall be rescued out of his bloody hands! What the meaning of this is I know not; but wonder at it. There may be something of Heaven in it, more than I am aware of. The next Lords-day, he preached the sermon [on Acts 16: 27, 28.] And behold, soon after it, there came such to him, as informed him, that at that very time, the temptations to self-murder were impelling of them with an horrible violence, but God had blessed that happy sermon for their deliverance! They afterwards joined to his church.

A religious and honorable person, upon the reading of this passage, hoping that the sermon might be again blessed [more than forty years after the first preaching of it,] made enquiry, whether the Notes of the Sermon could be recovered: And here is all that could be recovered. The venerable author, who in the sixty-six years of his ministry did not use his notes in the public, did not so write his notes, as to have all the lively, instructing, affecting amplifications of the pulpit in them. The reader will perceive something of this, in the minutes of the sermon here exhibited. And the transcriber durst not make any unjustifiable interpolations. But his inserting sometimes the words of the texts that are quoted may be allowed him.

The design of the worthy gentleman who demanded this publication, is the same now that has been in many others to which he has generously contributed, that is, to do good. And if any one poor tempted soul, be rescued from the hands of the Destroyer, by what is here offered, I am sure he will count his expenses richly reimbursed. It may also comfort him to have such a token for good, that as Dr. Mather has his friend united with him in the services of the kingdom now, so they will be hereafter united in the glorious enjoyments of it.

Do Thyself No Harm

Acts 16: 27, 28

“He would have killed himself; — but Paul cried with a loud voice, Do thyself no harm.”

In the context, the Evangelist gives an account concerning the imprisonment of Paul and Silas for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and a most remarkable occurrence happening thereupon which proved the conversion of the jailer who had dealt very cruelly with them. We have, here withal, a relation of what proved the occasion of that strange conversion. It was brought to pass by means of a miraculous earthquake which happened at midnight. The jailer being, by this earthquake, frightfully waked out of sleep, was full of distress and consternation. While he was thus distressed in his mind, the devil took advantage to fall upon him with horrid temptations.

Two things are noted in the words before us. First, there is noted the evil which the jailer was tempted unto, to wit, self-murder. He drew his sword, and was just ready to heath it in his own wretched bowels. Secondly, there is noted that which was the happy means of diverting him from the evil; to wit, the apostles speaking to him. He cried with a loud voice, very earnestly. And it was time to be in earnest. It was a matter of life and death!

Indeed, he used the most effectual argument that could be, to dissuade him from persisting in his attempt of self-murder. He convinced him, that the temptation which hurried him on to the barbarous and bloody fact, by him defined, was a mere needless fear. He was afraid, the prisoners were gone, and therefore the magistrates who committed them to prison would put him to death for letting them escape. Therefore Paul says, We are all here. How the Apostle knew that this was his temptation, this is not expressly declared. Probably, the jailer might utter some words to that purpose. However, he was distressed with a causeless fear. And yet this distress did, through the instigation of Satan, prevail so far that he was just upon the point of making himself away. Such is the subtlety of Satan and his great power over the minds of men. When God shall see meet to let him loose, so that he can, from mere imaginary fears, put them upon no less an evil than self-destruction. It was with the jailer so, and the temptation had prevailed, if Paul had not earnestly cautioned him from hearkening to it.


People distressed with temptation had sometimes need to be earnestly cautioned against the sin of self-murder.

There are two things to be now spoken to: First, what the distresses and temptations are that put men upon the sin of self-murder. And then, the reasons why they that are so tempted should be earnestly cautioned against this evil.

Question 1. The distresses and temptations that often put men upon the sin of self-murder: What are they?

I. Sometimes men are tempted unto this evil, so that they may not fall into the hands of those that they think will put them to a miserable death. This was the temptation of the jailer now before us. According to the law among the Romans, if the jailer let his prisoner go he was to suffer the same punishment which the prisoner should have undergone. Hence, Acts 12: 18, 19. When Peter escaped, the soldiers that were set for his keepers, Herod ordered them to be put to death. Sinful creatures think with themselves that if they live a while longer, they shall be put to a more miserable death, and therefore it may be said of them, sin hast thou chose rather than affliction! They will destroy themselves, rather than stay for other men to do it. We have several instances of this in the sacred scriptures. Saul, bloody Saul, was one of them. He will die by his own hands rather than the Philistines. Achitophel was another of them. He might well conclude, when his counsel was not hearkened to, that David would prevail, and then he must needs die for his treasons. What is it that we read of Zimri? I King 16: 18. When he saw the city was taken, and he must fall into the hands of his enemies, he burnt the king’s house over him and he died. Human history gives us many other instances. Among the rest, Hannibal poisoned himself, that he might not fall into the hands of his enemies. Demosthenes did the like. The wicked Jews blasphemously imagined that the Holy Son of God, the blessed Jesus, would have killed himself for fear of falling into their hands. John 8: 22. Then said the Jews, ‘Will he kill himself?’

II. The fear of disgrace in the world puts men upon it. There was this also in the temptation of the jailer. He thought it a disgraceful thing to be put to death in a way of judicial proceeding and with a public execution. And therefore! —– Sometimes a proud Spirit had rather commit the greatest sin against God than undergo a little disgrace from men. This was the temptation of Abimeleck to murder himself, or (which is the same) to desire another to kill him. Judges 9:54. Slay me that men may say not of me, ‘a woman slew him. There have been some that, when they have committed foul and shameful sins, have, through fear of punishment and disgrace among men, destroyed themselves. To a proud spirit there is nothing so bitter as disgrace and infamy. When this temptation overcomes them, they will choose death rather than such a misery. And thus also it is when men, for fear of want, shall desperately destroy themselves. They think it will be a disgraceful thing to be beholden unto others for their subsistence, and it may be, to be brought unto a morsel of bread and live like a beggar! Such a temptation is too hard for them, and therefore they think to be eased of it by a self-destruction.

III. Distress of conscience is that from which the devil does many times, take occasion to tempt men unto the sin of self-murder. Saul was in distress of conscience as well as otherwise distressed, and therein he would have starved himself to death. See I Sam. 28: 15,22,23. ——— Judas is in distress of conscience, and then! —— He flies to the halter that he may let out his wretched soul. The burden of a guilty and a wounded conscience is intolerable. It is said, Prov. 18: 14. Who can bear it? Poor creatures having such a wounded spirit, and being under the strong delusions of Satan, often think to obtain some ease by ruining of themselves. Especially when inward & outward troubles meet together, (as oftentimes they do). Miserable creatures are in danger of becoming guilty of this crime. Satan takes this advantage to tempt them unto it. It seems as if Job were thus tempted, though he had the grace to resist and conquer the temptation. He was in affliction upon temporal accounts. At the same time he thought God was his enemy. He felt the terrors of God in his soul. God suffered Satan to terrify him with frightful dreams. He was tempted hereupon to choose the most ignominious death, rather than be in such misery. He says, John 7: 15 My soul chooseth strangling and death rather than life. But the mercy of God preserved him from laying violent hands upon himself! —-

Question 2. For what reasons are they that are so tempted, earnestly cautioned against complying with the temptation?

I. Temptations to self-murder, Satan is in them! Such temptations are not from the holy and blessed God. Let no man say, when he is thus tempted, I am tempted of God! —- Job’s wife tempted him to commit such a sin as would bring a quick death upon himself. Curse God and die! She was an instrument of Satan. It was the devil that put her upon giving that cursed and bloody counsel to her husband. The devil would persuade men to think of getting out of affliction by sin. Yea, and to die sinning, that the last act which they do before they go out of the world should be to commit some great sin against the glorious God. He knows this will render them unfit to die! Thus the devil says, murder and die!— Stab thyself,— shoot thyself,— choke thyself— and die! The devil is therefore said to be–John 8: 44. A murderer. Yea, Satan has a most peculiar hand in the perpetration of this crime. As is evident from the strange manner how sometimes it is accomplished:— by drowning, in a small puddle of water, — hanging upon a small twig, not enough to bear the weight of a man, —or with knees resting on the ground. Satan must needs have a great hand — the invisible world is most sensibly at work in such things as these!

II. Self-murder is a very great sin. Murder is the greatest sin against the second table of the Law. Tis a great provocation in the sight of God. Hence is that expression in the scripture, concerning a most abominable thing.—Isa. 66: 3. It is as if he killed a man. Tis a sin that cries to Heaven for vengeance! –See Acts 28: 4.— But self-murder is the worst kind of murder. — Tis the most unnatural! — For a man to murder a near relative tis worse than for him to murder another. And the nearer the relation is, the greater the sin.— Therefore, ——- tis a most complicated sin?

The self-murderer sins against the glorious God in defacing of his image, and in dishonoring of His name. —Especially, if he be a person that has made any pretences to religion. ———

He sins against himself, — against his own body, as if hating his own flesh. — And it may be said unto him, Thou hast sinned against thy own soul. His reputation also, is forever destroyed.

He sins against his relatives to whom he causes the greatest grief, and the greatest dishonor, that can be. ——

III. A willful and impenitent self-murderer cannot be saved! We are taught, 1 John 3: 15. Ye know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. Then, most certainly, no self-murderer — without repentance — which, in many cases, how can it be supposed!

Its true, the elect of God may be grievously tempted unto this sin. The jailer was one of those. — Yea, many of the elect have been so, in the pangs of the new-birth, at their first conversion unto God, and some have been so after their conversion. The best of saints upon earth may be so. Of Job I have told you. I may tell you of Luther, and of many more, when the devil has no hope of prevailing, yet he will tempt unto this crime. He will do it only to vex and molest the faithful servants of God! He therefore tempted our blessed Jesus Himself unto it. See Matt. 4: 6. —

But, except it be in case of destraction, it is a rare thing for Satan thus to prevail over any that belong unto God. If he do, yet the execution cannot be so dispatched as to leave no space of repentance. Therefore, it is very observable that though we read of some of the elect of God in the scripture that have been tempted unto this crime, yet none were left actually to commit it. But such as we have cause to look upon as reprobates; were a Saul, an Achitophel, a Zimri, & a Judas, any other?

As for secret things and extraordinary cases, we must leave them to God. Nevertheless, it is a clear scriptural principle, that an impenitent murderer cannot be saved. There are some sins, that an elect person shall be preserved from. Such particularly is the unpardonable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. And such is final impenitency. Therefore, it concerns them that have the use of reason and know what they do, to beware of this sin as they bear any respect unto the salvation of their precious and immortal souls.

IV. Life is a great mercy. Men should be cautioned against despising and willfully casting away the mercies of God. Life in this world, is an invaluable mercy: because whilst there is life there is hope: Eccl 9: 4. To him who is joined unto all the living there is hope. As long as persons are alive, there is an hopeful possibility that they may repent and turn and live unto God: — that they may obtain an assurance of an interest in Jesus Christ, — that the pardon of their sins may be secured. But when life is at an end, there is no hope of repentance or of getting a part of Christ, or of getting sin to be forgiven. We are told, Heb. 9: 27. After death the judgment. If those things are not made sure of before the soul of a man is out of his body, and his probation-time is over, it will be too late forever. So we read, Isa. 38: 18. —They that go down to the pit cannot hope for thy truth.

Use I. We may here take notice of the folly & unreasonableness of those temptations, whereby sinful creatures are sometimes put upon self-destruction. — As particularly, — that fear of disgrace in the world. — For any man to do himself harm for fear of that, is marvelous folly! A man cannot more disgrace himself than by committing such a sin. He leaves an everlasting blot upon his name, as long as he shall be spoken of in the world. And there is besides, an everlasting contempt which such persons, dying impenitently, must at the last day be exposed unto. When besides all their other sins, there shall be this alleged against them, that they were guilty of the most unnatural wickedness in the world. Is it not folly for men to bring upon themselves an eternal shame and confusion world without end, that they may escape a temporal!

Thus, when men shall do harm unto themselves for the fear of want, it is unspeakable folly and madness in the children of men to do so, because they do that act,[without repentance] throw themselves into that place where they shall want every good thing; and, Psal. 49: 19. They shall never see light. In hell there is the want of everything. No spiritual blessings are there, no Sabbaths, nor any means of Grace are there. No, nor any earthly comforts neither. Not so much as a drop of water, to relieve a tongue in torments there!

There is another poor creature thus tempted of the devil. I am a reprobate, and I am sure I shall not be saved and therefore, if I destroy myself, I shall have less punishment in Hell than if I lived longer in the world. I answer; thou canst not know thy reprobation. It is not God, but Satan, who tells thee, that thou art a reprobate. Thou art not sure that thou shalt not be saved. The Lord says no such thing unto thee, but says, Isa. 45: 22. Look unto me, all the ends of the earth and be ye saved. Be it how it will with thee, do thyself no harm: Thoumay for ought any one can say, yet be saved forever. Nor is this true, that thy damnation will be the less if thou destroy thyself. For damnation and punishment in hell will be the greater and the deeper according to the aggravations of the sins which have brought the sinner thither. Now self-murder is a sin so heinous and aggravated, that if thou die impenitently under the guilt of it, thy damnation will doubtless be the greater for it.

It may be said, I will repent and pray for the pardon of my sin before I do it. I answer, what a delusion of Satan! I have read indeed of a philosopher who called upon his Gods, and so threw himself into the fire to his own destruction. But canst thou think, that God will hear such prayers’? No, — Psal. 66: 18. If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me. If thou comest before God, with bloody resolutions in thy heart, God will not accept of thy prayers. He says, Isa. 1: 15. When you make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Nor can this be called repentance: For a man to confess a sin and be resolved still upon the commission of it! No, tis he who confesseth and forsaketh that shall find mercy.

Use 2. Hence it is an evil thing to speak favorably either of self-murder or of self-murderers. There have been those who have undertaken to justify self-murder in some cases. [See Voet. fol. 4, Desp. de lesione Jui-ipsius.] Pagan Philosophers taught, that it was lawful for persons to murder themselves, that they might save their reputation or prevent falling into the hands of their enemies — Famous the Story of Lucretia.——-

In what we call, the Second Book of the Maccabees, we find celebrated, an action of one Rasis, for which the Jews cry him up as a martyr, but Austin censures him for a criminal self-murderer with reasons that cannot be answered.

Yea, some Christians have cried up those, who to save their chastity, and so themselves, from disgrace, have destroyed their own lives. And the crying up of such a fact has given occasion unto many others to become guilty of that horrible thing, that unnatural sin. But must Saul’s self-murder be lawful too?

To extol the persons of self-murderers to Heaven is an evil and a dangerous practice. We should rather leave secret things unto God, and unto the discoveries of the Great Day! Indeed, if a mans life and conversation were as becomes the gospel, we are not positively and absolutely to say, that he is damned, though he killed himself. Because we know not but that he might be at that time under some distraction and it is not impossible but that God may suffer Satan to possess, and torment, and kill the bodies of some whose souls may yet be saved in the Day of the Lord. Yet on the other hand, if there were no sign of distraction appearing before they went to destroy themselves, nor any evidence of repentance after such attempts, we should not say such persons are gone to Heaven. Left by being over-charitable to the dead, we become cruel to the living. The saying, such persons are saved, may occasion and encourage others to do the like, and the everlasting destruction of bodies and souls follow upon it.

Use 3. Beware of this iniquity.

One would think there should be no great need of such an exhortation; To call upon men, to do themselves no harm! Since there is in every man, a principle of selfpreservation. Yet there is too much occasion for it. One self-murder makes way for another. Saul did for that of his amour bearer. ———–

It is a lamentable thing that in a place of so much light and profession as this, it should be said unto a self-murdering devil; —Thou shalt persuade and prevail also! —- That in such a place, there should be any need of insisting on such a subject! — Yet there has been so and there is! Above four years ago, I saw occasion to insist on a subject of this importance because within the space of but five weeks, there had been five self-murders! The Lord knows how many others may be tempted at this time, unto the like. I am not without apprehensions, that the bloody lion, who goes about seeking whom he may devour, may be let loose among the flock. And, therefore I thought it my duty to withstand him with the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Not knowing, but that I may, by such means, rescue poor creatures out of his hands!

My Advice on the Occasion is this:

First, be humbled in the sight of god. Be humbled for all thy sins. — And be humbled under temptations to this sin. — Be humbled as long as thou hast a day to live. Because they have not been humbled, Satan has been let loose upon some with greater violence. When a sin has been repented of, there will not now be so much danger of that sin as there was before.

Secondly, Beware of such sins as may provoke the holy and righteous God, to leave thee unto this most horrid evil.

Beware of pride. When men will rather not be at all, than be what God would have them to be. What cursed pride is that!

This produces murmuring at the providence of God; and causes people to say, 2 kings 6: 33. What should I wait for the Lord any longer?

Beware of selfconfidence. Be sensible of thy weakness, let him that stands take heed lest he fall. Be not confident of thy own strength to encounter the adversary. If God should let Satan loose upon thee, he’ll be too hard for thee.

Beware of an heart glued unto the world. When the world is a mans idol he will rather part with his very life, [with his own hands give it away!] than part with the world.

Beware of unbelief.— Distrust not the fatherly care of the heavenly Father.

Beware of despair. I Thes. 5: 8. Putting on for an helmet, the hope of salvation. Say not, The day of grace is over with me. — Say not, I have sinned unpardonably! — Vain Imaginations!

Beware of the more heinous crimes; which are in a special manner God-provoking evils. The sins against nature are so. Some that have been guilty of such sins, in secret, and have not repented of them. God has for such things left them to this, which is a sin against nature too! [Se Voetii Disp.. ubi supra.]

There are other atrocious crimes; Whereof this has been the consequence—Judas and Pilate, are two fearful examples of it! ——

Finally, beware of backsliding from God, and from good beginnings in religion. Remember that word, Hos. 8: 3. He hath cast off the thing that is good, the enemy shall pursue him. Some have left off prayer in their families; Left off their attendance on lectures; left off Godly exercises which they have been used unto. Therefore the enemy of their souls is let loose upon them and he pursues them even to self-destruction.

Thirdly, resist the tempter. Tis the counsel, Jam. 4: 7. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

—How, resist him? Do it by crying to God. —- If the avenger pursue thee, fly to a Christ, as the City of Refuge. Resist the devil! —- The next words are: Draw nigh to God.

But then, employ the word of God for the resisting of the temptation — It was Luthers method. — Yea, our Jesus has given us a pattern of it, — It is written!

Do one thing more, discover the temptations of the devil. Make a discovery, not unadvisedly unto all the world; but unto some faithful minister, or unto some other able Christian. One that cut his own throat a while ago, said before his expiration; O! That I had told, how I was tempted! If I had, I believe I should never have come to this!

Fourthly, above all a true faith is to be labored for. By faith embrace an offered Savior; this will keep thee from the destroyer. Being by faith, safe in the hands of thy Savior. The devil shall not pluck thee out of those hands. Tis directed, Eph. 6: 16. Above all, take the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. As by faith we obtain a victory over the world; [1 John 5: 4.] So we obtain a victory over Satan too. He has not such power over a true believer, as he has over others.

Act faith on the victory of thy Savior over Satan; Hoping and looking for a share in that!

And by faith, look up unto thy Savior, as unto one who knows how to succor the tempted. ——–

Boston, 23 May 1682



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