A Lutheran Plague: Murdering to Die in the Eighteenth Century
October 11, 2019 11:04 PM   Subscribe

Suicide-murders, with suicidal people killing so that they themselves will be executed, fill the annals of early modern European history. So why didn’t the murdering misérables just kill themselves? At the time, a common religious belief held that “if you took your life, you had absolutely no chance of going to heaven,” says Jeffrey Watt, a history professor at the University of Mississippi. But if you killed someone else, you could repent before the execution and have your sins pardoned, he adds, shedding light on the murderous intent. Essentially, you’d have a better shot at getting past the pearly gates if you killed someone else rather than yourself. And children were the preferred victims because they were more easily dispatched, and because folks believed that their young, innocent souls were more likely to make it to heaven, Watt explains.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (33 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Goodhart’s Law for mortality.
posted by pompomtom at 11:11 PM on October 11, 2019 [4 favorites]


It is a logical approach, given particular beliefs... sort of the flip side of the Elizabethan quandary over children who committed suicide while younger than the age of reason.
posted by clew at 11:11 PM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


If you kill an adult to commit suicide but you don’t ensure that your victim died in a state of grace, are you more culpable in the afterlife? I guess not, or no one from these societies could have gone for soldier.
posted by clew at 11:54 PM on October 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


Now I'm thinking about the difference between killing yourself because you want to be dead vs. killing yourself because you want to go to heaven, and the only way to do that is to have someone else kill you.
posted by bleep at 12:37 AM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


Isn't suicide by cop still suicide? Does god not care about intent?
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:56 AM on October 12, 2019 [7 favorites]


I think the issue in the 18th century was temporal: you had time between the act and your death to repent. So even if your intent was sinful, you still had time to be cleansed of the sin, which would not be the case if you died while committing the sin. I’m not sure that modern suicide by cop is based on the same theological premises.

Mostly, I thought that woman who killed her baby was victim of a shitty misogynistic society that punished women (and their babies) for getting pregnant out of wedlock, and maybe she didn’t have a lot of better options. Which is a way less novel point than the suicide by murder thing, but in some ways this is just a slight twist on one of the oldest depressing stories in the book.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:05 AM on October 12, 2019 [15 favorites]


Does god not care about intent?

There was an article linked from here some time
Back with interviews with a bloke in Israel who made labour-saving devocea for the sabbath. IIRC there was a phone that was always dialling all the numbers, but you could make it actually call someone you’d stop it calling all the other numbers. When asked if he was rules-lawyering god, the response was “what, you think you’re smarter than god? These rules are God’s rules, you won’t trick him.”

So no. If god cared about intent, that would’ve been in the rules.
posted by pompomtom at 2:19 AM on October 12, 2019 [7 favorites]


s/devocea/devices/
posted by pompomtom at 2:34 AM on October 12, 2019


And no religion, too.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:59 AM on October 12, 2019 [10 favorites]


A variation on this idea sometimes pops up in murder ballads. In Jon Langford & Sally Timms' The Plans That We Made, for example, two star-crossed lovers each murder their spouse so they can both be executed and spend eternity together in the afterlife.

The final verse goes like this:

"The plans we made have brought us together,
As together we walk down the aisle to our graves,
Eternity-bound with a lethal injection,
That's the price of the plans that we made."

posted by Paul Slade at 3:18 AM on October 12, 2019 [6 favorites]


Here's a scholarly review of the book mentioned in the article. It hints at an aspect that is relevant to our times: the spectacle of execution; for desperate young people in the 18th century, the execution was their access to fame, there would be a crowd, a lot of religious ritual and there would be news articles and broadside ballads.
I met someone who had looked into the source material as part of a broader study of the rule of law in Denmark, and she believes the spectacle side of the religious ceremony was much more important that the religious beliefs. I don't think she has published specifically on this issue, unfortunately.
posted by mumimor at 5:11 AM on October 12, 2019 [12 favorites]


There was a preview-interview on This American Life about this phenomenon with Kathy Stuart of UC Davis. I remember reading other stuff on this phenomenon at the time, and I seem to recall -- though I can't find it -- a very quiet debate amongst some Lutheran theologians at the time as to whether suicide was actually "mortal sin" that irredeemably damned you to hell. After all, Lutheranism was trying to do away with the Catholic distinction between mortal and venial sins, but a lot of lay people still obviously believed it. And was it really Biblically proven? But since 17th and 18th-century Lutheranism was very invested in state power and keeping society well-ordered, they felt they couldn't publicly proclaim that suicide wasn't completely damned, so the phenomenon continued until the abolition of the death penalty.
posted by Hypatia at 5:24 AM on October 12, 2019 [4 favorites]


This attitude would have been a misunderstanding of Catholic theology and I suspect Lutheran as well, even back then. You cannot sin knowingly planning to repent to get yourself off the hook. It’s a specific sin: the sin of presumption.

This seems more like a combination of alternate explanations for very sad murders (like a parent murdering a child), fame seeking, and some desperate and suicidal people who misunderstood their theology.
posted by sallybrown at 5:45 AM on October 12, 2019 [6 favorites]


There was an early Christian sect called the Circumcellions who would assault people hoping to be killed in self-defense, or who would interrupt trials in hopes of being executed for contempt of court.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:46 AM on October 12, 2019


Sometimes when I read about the first centuries of Lutheranism, it reminds me of Islamic State. Think of the thousands of witches they burnt, and of the aggressive anti-semitism, and here it's extremely harsh penalties inspiring young people to suicide by murder. It's like a collective insanity.
posted by mumimor at 5:52 AM on October 12, 2019 [10 favorites]


It's like a collective insanity.

Religion's gonna nutbar. Virality relies on not killing the host.
posted by pompomtom at 6:15 AM on October 12, 2019 [5 favorites]


Thisse one wyrd tricke doth help ye winne eternal grace!
posted by PlusDistance at 7:02 AM on October 12, 2019 [38 favorites]


Religion's gonna nutbar.
I don't know, I see it as being more about power and terror, less about faith. But I worked through a whole theory on this...
posted by mumimor at 7:08 AM on October 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


and some desperate and suicidal people who misunderstood their theology.

How can one misunderstand one's own theology? They constructed it. It must be correct, per their construction.
posted by pompomtom at 7:11 AM on October 12, 2019


Young working class people, then and now, don't construct theologies.
posted by mumimor at 7:18 AM on October 12, 2019 [6 favorites]


PlusDistance I cannot stop laughing at the idea of olde tyme Taboola ads
posted by captain afab at 7:19 AM on October 12, 2019 [2 favorites]


The theology against suicide prevented slaves from killing themselves, and so anyone could endure total depravity.
posted by Brian B. at 7:19 AM on October 12, 2019 [5 favorites]


Young working class people, then and now, don't construct theologies

Everyone constructs their theology.
posted by pompomtom at 7:30 AM on October 12, 2019 [3 favorites]


It's not called the priesthood of believers with time on their hands...
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:37 AM on October 12, 2019


How can one misunderstand one's own theology?

Pardon me for the less than perfect word choice. Someone who subscribed to the Catholic or Lutheran faith and thought their faith’s rules would punish them with Hell for suicide but would permit them to concoct a plan whereby they murder another person, seek absolution, and get executed has misunderstood the rules of those faiths. Whether the rules of those faiths are correct or not (I side with “not”), or whether these desperate people should have constructed their own (hopefully kinder) ideas of God, is a separate question. The article posits people killed to be killed and avoid suicide as some loophole to sin in Lutheran teaching—all I was suggesting is that this was a misunderstanding of the teaching.
posted by sallybrown at 8:08 AM on October 12, 2019 [5 favorites]


I think the issue in the 18th century was temporal: you had time between the act and your death to repent.

So presumably you could jump off a cliff and repent on the way down?

I guess you'd be good with god but your friends and family would see right through that nonsense.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:51 AM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


I don't think repentance works like that.

I'll go ahead and murder and ask forgiveness later. Yeeeeeah. no.

That said (and only tangentially related) , as for kids in heaven, this is one thing that I don't get.

Fetuses (at least in non-Catholic tradition) should be going to heaven, no? In our church, it wasn't "original sin" but the idea of an that one is culpable insofar as they are capable of understanding - where you must hear the word and then have that choice presented to deny it and then are you culpable. Or something like that. IDK.

Either way, seems to me, aborting babies and guaranteeing heaven would be more merciful than subjecting them to a choice that may or may not get them there.
posted by symbioid at 9:53 AM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


So presumably you could jump off a cliff and repent on the way down?

No, you had to formally repent to a priest and do penitence and be absolved. Them's the rules.

It always seemed like a crazy loophole to me as a kid and may have been a sign I was never cut out for a life of Christianity.
posted by fshgrl at 11:52 AM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


Surely the sin of presumption, however grave it may be, is one that the sinner can plausibly repent, if they're genuinely penitent...
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 1:32 PM on October 12, 2019 [1 favorite]


So the priest has to jump off the cliff with you, you have to say a really sincere Hail Mary, and he absolves you before pulling the ripcord. Or if the parachute hasn't been invented yet, another priest has jump off to absolve the first one, and so on until the clergy is inductively eliminated, with one last guy who irredeemably dies for the sins of the others.
posted by XMLicious at 2:20 PM on October 12, 2019 [5 favorites]


Lutherans don't have priests, though, do they? Wasn't a big part of Luther's theology to remove the priest from the role of intermediary between a person and God?

(Or am I mixing that up with later developments in the Reformation?)
posted by clawsoon at 4:51 PM on October 12, 2019


One thing that doesn't seem to be mentioned in this article is the hagiography of early church martyrs. There's a bit of this in the tongs-and-wagon-wheel paragraph, but a lot of this could have been reinforced by an upbringing in a religion where all the holiest people made it to heaven by being executed for their faith.

Dan Carlin did a really grisly episode of Hardcore History about executions as public spectacle. He was leading up to a description of the execution of some Anabaptist revolutionaries, but he talks about how a lot of the condemned are reported to have sung prayers even from their wagon wheels, participating in litanies and making requests for their preferred hymns. According to his take on things, execution was possibly a source of religious ecstasy despite (or perhaps induced by) the physical agonies.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:56 AM on October 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


I believe it was Oliver Thorn of Philosophytube who also noted in passing that modern laws against suicide were largely put on the books to give The State power to stop hunger strikes.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 3:58 AM on October 14, 2019


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