Mortalism 4: The Early Modern Era

Soul sleep[1] was a significant minority view from the eighth to the seventeenth centuries.[2] Soul death[3] became increasingly common from the Reformation onwards.[4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

Notable conditionalists of this era include:

l  16??: Sussex Baptists.[11]

l  d. 1612: Edward Wightman[12]

l  1627: Samuel Gardner[13]

l  1628: Samuel Przpkowski[14]

l  1636: George Wither[15]

l  1637: Joachim Stegman[16]

l  1624: Richard Overton[17]

l  1654: John Biddle[18]

l  1655: Matthew Caffyn[19]

l  1658: Samuel Richardson[20]

l  1608-1674: John Milton[21]

l  1588-1670: Thomas Hobbes[22]

l  1605-1682: Thomas Browne[23]

l  1622-1705: Henry Layton[24]

l  1702: William Coward[25]

l  1632-1704: John Locke[26]

l  1643-1727: Isaac Newton[27]

l  1676-1748: Pietro Giannone[28]

l  1751: William Kenrick[29]

l  1755: Edmund Law[30]

l  1759: Samuel Bourn[31]

l  1723-1791: Richard Price[32]

l  1718-1797: Peter Peckard[33]

l  1733-1804: Joseph Priestley[34]

l  1765: Francis Blackburne[35]


[1] The belief that people still exist in some non-physical form after death, but remain completely unconscious.

[2] ‘Harold Fisch calls it ‘a major current of seventeenth century protestant ideology‘.’, Thomson, ‘Bodies of thought: science, religion, and the soul in the early Enlightenment’, p. 42 (2008).

[3] The belief that people do not exist at all after death.

[4]Mortalism, in some form or other, had been around quite a while before the seventeenth century, but for our purposes we can begin to investigate mortalism as it appeared at the time of the Reformation.’, Brandon, ‘The coherence of Hobbes’s Leviathan: civil and religious authority combined’, p. 65 (2007).

[5] ‘we also know that such mortalist thought was fairly widespread prior to the seventeenth century.’, ibid., p. 66.

[6] ‘The status of the dead was among the most divisive issues of the early Reformation; it was also arguably the theological terrain over which in the reign of Henry VIII official reform travelled furthest and fastest.’, Marshall, ‘Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England’, p. 47 (2002).

[7] ‘In fact, during the Reformation both psycho- somnolence—the belief that the soul sleeps until the resurrection—and thnetopsychism—the belief that the body and soul both die and then both rise againwere quite common’, Conti, ‘Religio Medici’s Profession of Faith’, in Barbour & Preston (eds.), ‘Sir Thomas Browne: the world proposed’, p. 157 (2008).

[8] ‘All this suggests that mortalism, and the fear of it, was widespread in England in the century after the Reformation. But the English Revolution, in particular, was a crucible out of which radical new ideas boiled. Mortalist ideas multiplied rapidly in the 1640s‘, Almond, ‘Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England’, p. 43 (1994).

[9] ‘The most common form of seventeenth-century Christian mortalism claimed that the whole individual died and was insensible until the resurrection and judgement, when the whole individual would be resuscitated and enter on eternal life. There was no continuation of an immaterial part of the individual, no feeling, thought, or suffering before the final general resurrection.’, Thomson, ‘Bodies of thought: science, religion, and the soul in the early Enlightenment’, p. 42 (2008).

[10] ‘On the contrary, mortalist views – particularly of the sort which affirmed that the soul slept or died – were widespread in the Reformation period. George Williams has shown how prevalent mortalism was among the Reformation radicals.’, Almond, ‘Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England’, p. 38 (1994).

[11]The Baptists in Italy and France had at times adopted Soul Sleeping; such an association also existed in England, for we hear that in Kent and Sussex Baptists were linked to a sect known as the Soul Sleepers.’, Burrell, ‘The role of religion in modern European history’, p. 74 (1964).

[12] ‘he affirmed that the soul sleeps in the sleep of the first death as well as the body;’, Vedder, ‘A Short History of the Baptists’, p. 197 (1907).

[13] ‘The Norwich minister Samuel Gardiner envisaged the dead ‘sleep[ing] supinely in their lockers, careless and senseless of secular affaires”, Marshall, ‘Beliefs and the dead in Reformation England’, p. 213 (2002).

[14] ‘Przypkowski, like Sozzini, affirmed that those who had not been exposed to the Gospel through revelation would not receive eternal torments for their ignorance of the Gospel. Przypkowski remains consistent with Sozzini in stating that they simply would not be raised and would remain eternally dead.’, Snobelen, ‘Revelation and Reason: The Development, Rationalization and Influence of Socinianism’, honors thesis, p. 54 (1993).

[15] ‘Another convinced adherent of moderate Puritan opinion, the poet George Wither, gave mortalism even more substantial support‘, Ball, ‘The Soul Sleepers: Christian Mortalism from Wycliffe to Priestley’, p. 73 (2008).

[16]The mortalist position, on the other hand, was defended in the Brevis disquisitio published by the Socinian Joachim Stegmann in 1637.’, Méchoulan (ed.), ‘La formazione storica della alterità: studi di storia della tolleranza nell’età moderna offerti a Antonio Rotondò’, Secolo XVI, p. 1221 (2001).

[17] ‘In 1644 he published a notorious tract, Mans Mortalitie, wherein he sought to prove ‘both theologically and philosophically, that whole man (as a rational creature) is a compound wholly mortal, contrary to that common distinction of soul and body: and that the present going of the soul into heaven or hell is a mere fiction: and that at the resurrection is the beginning of our immortality, and then actual condemnation, and salvation, and not before.’, Watts, ‘The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution’, p. 119 (1985).

[18] ‘The seventeenth-century Socinians John Biddle and Samuel Richardson both disbelieved in eternal torment and were convinced that the wicked would be annihilated.’, Young, ‘F. D. Maurice and Unitarianism’, p. 249 (1992).

[19] ‘”Matthew Caffyn said, no man hath eternal life [immortality] now in him as possessing it, but a promise of it, I John ii. 25’, Froom, ‘The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers’, volume 2, p. 144 (1966).

[20] Richardson, ‘A discourse of the torments of hell: The foundation and pillars thereof discovered, searched, shaken and removed. With many infallible proofs, that there is not to be a punishment after this life for any to endure that shall never end’ (1658).

[21] ‘In discussing the death of the body (chapter 13), Milton espouses mortalism or Thnetopsychism, the logical concomitant of his monist ontology.’, Lewalski, ‘The life of John Milton: a critical biography’, p. 431 (2002).

[22] ‘Although he is not normally counted a Socinian, Hobbes shares their commitment to the mortalist thesis,’, Jolley, ‘The relation between theology and philosophy’, in Garber & Ayres (eds.), ‘The Cambridge history of seventeenth-century philosophy’, volume 1, p. 383 (2003).

[23] ‘ Burns presents this view as held not only by Hobbes, but also by John Milton, Sir Thomas Browne, and Richard Overton.’, Brandon, ‘The coherence of Hobbes’s Leviathan: civil and religious authority combined’, p. 66 (2007).

[24] ‘Between 1692 and 1706, Henry Layton had produced a series of pamphlets which, while endorsing the notion of a general resurrection on the last day, had asserted the mortality of the soul primarily on physiological grounds though with the aid of Scripture.’, Almond, ‘Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England’, p. 62 (1994).

[25] ‘Similarly, William Coward wrote a series of works from 1702 to 1706 in which he argued for the mortality of the soul and the resurrection of the dead on the last day.’, Almond, ‘Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England’, p. 62 (1994).

[26]Locke affirmed the doctrine of mortalism in the Reasonableness in his account of the consequences of Adam’s Fall.’, Nuvo (ed.), ‘John Locke: Writings on Religion’, p. xxxiii (2002).

[27]Newton’s mortalism is of a piece with that of several Civil War sectarians,’, Wood, ‘Science and dissent in England, 1688-1945’, p. 50 (2004).

[28] ‘In the Triregno Giannone implicitly aligns himself with a materialist position: the doctrine of the soul’s immortality is presented as one of many corrupting influences that the Jews absorbed from the Egyptians.’, Suttcliffe, ‘Judaism and Enlightenment’, p. 207 (2005).

[29]He seems to have been a materialist, a mortalist (that is, a believer that the soul expires at death), and an announced foe to priestcraft; the pages of the London Review resounded with his defenses of Joseph Priesley’s unorthodoxies.’, Johns, ‘Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates’, p. 141 (2010).

[30]Edmund Law, Archdeacon of Carlisle, who (in a D.D. exercise at Cambridge in 1754, published as an “Appendix” to the third edition of The Theory of Religion [1755]) had revived the Anabaptist theory of “soul sleep”’, Outler, ‘John Wesley: Folk-Theologian’, Theology Today (34.2.154), 1977.

[31] ‘Death, when applied to the end of wicked men in a future state, he says, properly denotes a total extinction of life and being,’, Buck, ‘A theological dictionary: containing definitions of all religious terms’, p. 115 (1823).

[32] ‘He does not believe, for he cannot find in Scripture, the ‘ultimate restoration of all mankind,’ but he holds that the future punishment will consist chiefly in the annihilation of being, not in the torture of living beings‘, Stephen, ‘History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century’, p. 429 (1901).

[33] ‘Peckard, on the other hand, adopted the anti-dogmatic mortalist line that between death and final judgment, the soul lay dormant, that at death the whole man died rather than just his physical being.’, Ingram, ‘Religion, reform and modernity in the eighteenth century: Thomas Secker and the Church of England’, Studies in Modern British Religious History, p. 101 (2007).

[34] ‘I suppose that the powers of thought are not merely suspended, but are extinct, or cease to be, at death.’, Priestley, ‘A free discussion of the doctrine of materialism, and philosophical necessity’, p. 82 (1778).

[35] Blackburne, ‘A short historical view of the controversy concerning an intermediate state and the separate existence of the soul between death and the general resurrection, deduced from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, to the present times’ (1765).

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