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.
from A DEFENSE AGAINST THE TEMPTATION TO SELF-MURTHER
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.