When famous deists and atheists died in the past, the vultures would circle in the hope of seeing an undignified death. This would prove to their satisfaction that the prospect of death could not be countenanced with the consolation of Christianity.
Jesuits claimed that Voltaire died fearfully; Dr Johnson went to visit the atheist David Hume with the incorrect belief that an atheist could not die without falling apart at the prospect of his imminent extinction. When Thomas Paine, a radical and deist who rejected formal religion and its constructs, was regaled by Christians during his last days. When, a few days before he died, a member of the New Jerusalemites knocked on his door and told Paine that the sect has rediscovered the keys to the true faith that had been lost for 4000 years, Paine replied that “they must be very rusty”.
Regency Obituary pages are formulaic, but the choice of formula tells you a great deal. When people died in great pain and suffering, there is a real hierarchy of phrase. In nearly every case, there is ” resignation” and on occasions there is “perfect resignation”. There difference is unclear; it may just be the ability to pay for an extra word. “Composure” is much more common than “calmness”-perhaps the former contains more acceptance, and implies preparing for death. These words were very powerful- even Thomas Paine uses them. His own last will and testament says that he dies “in perfect and resignation to the will of my creator God”
There are few references to heaven or immortality in Regency obituaries-perhaps this was too obvious or a little presumptuous? Many people declared their obedience to the will of the Creator- especially if they had suffered before their death. It was not death that they resigned themselves to, but suffering as God’s will. Mrs Pascoe (wife of Mr Pascoe, Surgeon) died in Tregoney, Cornwall aged 59 of a “protracted and severe affliction”. She was happy to attribute this to divine will without bitterness. “Throughout the whole time she evinced perfect composure and resignation. It was also made clear that during this time she maintained “benevolence”.
Six other people’s deaths are recorded in the Royal Cornwall Gazette on the same day. Thomas Parry was 102 and rose early until the day of his death. He was a poor labourer who would not have made it into the paper if he had died at 51. Eleanor Litcher was 76- a devoted servant. James Pinney and Thomas Hornblower’s death was regretted by the friends. There were trophies for all in this case.
Sometimes you needed a lot of patient resignation. Mrs Amos of Deal has been suffering with an affliction- not named- for 7 years before her calm death aged 73. Perfect resignation seemed to be more about the quality of life rather than the age of death.
Sir William Rule died with perfect resignation in December 1815- as he was our first man, we have his full name. About 50% of women mentioned in Regency obituaries are given a first name. He was a former surveyor of the British Navy and there is no mention of the cause of death, or that it was long and lingering. That is the only one I can find
Elizabeth Carrick of Bristol died with resignation and fortitude, as “befitted her worth and unaffected piety”- she was modest in her acceptance of her painful illness. Although acceptance of the divine will was not mentioned in this case, it is clear that it was not considered appropriate to try to fight the illness- perhaps the exact opposite of our attitude today. Sarah Dew died in the same newspaper after a long illness also.
Not everybody died with perfect resignation if they died of something horrible. In Hull, December 1816, Mrs Nesfeld of Scarborough died aged 26 without resignation and William Tootal of Wakefield aged 28 died “with”
Sometimes illnesses are often described as “hopeless”, presumably to emphasize the degree of achievement in dying well. This is Mrs Bulwer of Norfolk had 21 lines in the Norfolk Chronicle in 1810. It is not clear at what point that she discovered Christian patience, but we can be charitable and assume it was at the beginning. Here are some of her virtues;
Most prolonged illnesses seemed to be measured in months or years. But Sarah Yeatman of Bristol had been ill for only six days before she died in July 1812, and she did it with perfect resignation. Most of those who died with perfect resignation were relatively old for their time; there are fewer young people who died with resignation, but are some, Mary Colmar of Hotwells was 15 and died a lingering death, and she managed resignation, but there was no suggestion that this was enhanced because of her age. Causes of death never seem to be mentioned
Dying vicars had a higher bar. They had to continue their role as examples to others even to the death-bed. Henry Crowe, Rector of Wolferton, Norfolk (and two other parishes; clearly he was less accomplished in the greed department) died “the death of the righteous”- this was clearly a set of things that he did, a process, not merely a righteous person dying. Another rector in Norfolk was said to have “taught his parishioners how to die”
Perfect resignation was not about death; it was about accepting fate, even when they involved immense suffering before death. The other group of people who were said to “evince perfect resignation” were criminals about to be executed. Indeed this was a more widespread use of the expression than in obituaries. Criminals had not suffered pain or illness, so it was not that experience they resigned themselves to; it was the will of God.
More about perfect resignation amongst those about to be hanged here
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