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Living and dying: An 18th century perspective

Exploring differences in attitude towards life and death between the 18th century and today.

During the lock down, I have been working from home on digital and published collections of 18th century Methodist and Anglican correspondence as part of the effort to make them more widely available. A common theme running through the material is death – both as a routine event and as an imminent prospect.

It has been fascinating to read how death (and life) was viewed 250 years ago against the backdrop of a modern global pandemic. As one might expect, the difference between attitudes exhibited during those two time periods is striking.

Sermon preached by an Anglican minister at his daughter’s funeral, 1696

“In the midst of life, we are in death” (Anglican Book of Common Prayer)

Death was part of everyday existence during the period referred to by historians as the “long Eighteenth Century” (1688-1832). Average life expectancy during the 1750s was 36 and nearly two-thirds of all children died before the age of 5. It was a very different society from today, where longevity in developed countries is viewed as a human right and death prior to old age is rare.

The probability of life suddenly coming to an end, even for the very young, concentrated the 18th century mind. The words “death” and “dying” permeate personal papers and published writings to a degree that surprise the modern reader. Before the COVID epidemic, death was not a subject that typically featured in our everyday conversation. The word itself has become unfashionable and replaced by sanitised terminology.

“I can remember many things, particularly the death of a brother which was twelve months old when he died. I was then four years of age. I was very inquisitive to know where he would go and what must become of him” (Mary Ramsay, 1740)

Death in the 18th century was not an embarrassing subject, but was discussed openly. People most frequently died in the home, cared for by the family and surrounded by the routines of everyday life. Friends, relatives and neighbours gathered around deathbeds.

The act of saying goodbye remains an important part of life’s final act. One of the cruellest aspects of the current pandemic has been the complete and enforced isolation of the dying person from loved ones. This breaks one of society’s longest traditions shared by cultures around the world.

John Wesley being carried to heaven by angels

“He spoke of death with pleasure as letting him into a better world; & bringing him into the arms of his Saviour.” (William Grimshaw 1763)

Evangelical Christians often expressed a desire for death as a portal to paradise. The reality of an event that could happen at any time and was no respecter of wealth or virtue defined the values and literature of early Methodism. Death is a favourite theme of the hymns that are among the greatest legacies of the Evangelical Revival. That mindset too has changed – Christians today would probably view a wish for death as a mark of depression rather than faith. The hymns that are written for the contemporary Church reflect that shift.

Poem on the death of Mr Blackwell by Charles Wesley

Acceptance of death was not the same as lack of feeling. The Methodist leader Charles Wesley and his wife Sally lost 5 of their 8 children before the age of 4. Forced to question his own faith in God, Charles regularly drew on the experience to comfort other grieving parents.

“Jesus wept to see his creatures weeping: therefore he does not disapprove your feeling your loss … My partner sympathises with yours. We lost our son by the smallpox” (Charles Wesley to Thomas Marriott, 1785)

Personal papers like the letters of Charles Wesley do not shy away from death in any of its aspects, but also exhibit the same uncompromising approach towards life. Another word that frequently appears is “birth” – the creation and celebration of life in both the physical and spiritual sense. Death gave meaning to life and how it should be lived.

Mourning dress, c.1820

Death is a particular theme of the personal papers of early Methodists, but was also a part of the general background of Georgian society. For most people, whether conventionally religious or not, dying was the gateway to a new existence – whether that was lived in heaven or hell depended on choices made in life. Atheism in its purest form was rare and that too represents a fundamental difference with today.

In the 18th century, the philosophical and spiritual implications of death formed part of everyday discourse – people tried to understand what could not be avoided. In 2020, we either push death into a corner of the mind or we make war upon it with all the scientific and economic resources at our disposal. This is a seismic shift in how we view existence itself and one that impacts on every aspect of living – and dying.

2 comments on “Living and dying: An 18th century perspective

  1. David Eastwood

    You may find interest in the diaries of Zachariah Yewdall, particularly the death of is wife in the 1820’s. He was my late wife’s 3 by great uncle. The Rylands have two original diaries, but I was loaned others, which I loaned to the Rylands to be photocopied. I have a full transcript.

  2. Excellent article thanks Gareth

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