A Case for Church Expulsion: the Attempted Suicide of Sam Maisey

Image result for attempted suicide victorianSamuel Maisey was regular attender at a local Baptist Church in the early 19th century. He was working-class, like many other Baptist members of this era, and worked for a rich man living in the area. A tragic work mistake compelled Maisey to attempt to take his life, and when caught – he was expelled from his local church community. The minutes recount this tale, which I have expressed below – with some adjoining commentary.

One day Maisey’s master tasked him with taking some gold to the refiners. He was feeling rather unwell on this occasion, and decided to forego walking, as was his custom, and take a cab instead. After exiting the cab, he realised he had forgotten the gold inside, and was unlikely to ever recover it. In this dire situation, Maisey decided to take his own life; he prepared himself some poison. He didn’t use the poison immediately, but kept it at-the-ready to be used once his master discovered his negligence. Soon, this moment arrived. Maisey attempted to ingest his fatal concoction, but was discovered by his wife who obstructed him, by calling for a nearby officer. Upon hearing this, the church sent a couple of messengers to visit Maisey and speak to him. Two months later, at a church meeting, the messengers confirmed what had occurred, and the church agreed to withdraw from him.[1]

This was one of the sadder cases of excommunication in the church minutes. Suicide was a crime in England until the 1960s, and in the mid-19th century attempted suicide was also criminalised.[2] Interestingly, suicide in the 19th century was viewed by social activists in the early 19th century as a symptom of the wider poverty, as discussed in the first chapter. They generally believed that those suffering with suicidal tendencies ought to be treated with understanding and forgiveness, because of their plight. However, by the second half of the 19th century, this view changed and instead the poor were seen as degenerate parasites; suicide became a problem of the individual, not a social issue.[3]

In the Baptist community suicide was viewed as a heinous sin; indeed, some believed it was an unpardonable sin.[4] A contributor to the Baptist Magazine demonstrated a distasteful response to suicide as he remarked on passing by a funeral for a man who had just committed suicide. He found the procession to be ghastly, as though the friends and family of this individual were sanctioning the perpetrator’s horrid crime. He perceived this procession as an insult to God, as if the attendees were saying “We will do thee [the perpetrator] honour, whatever becomes of the honour of God!”[5]

Suicide, though a complex and tragic action, was considered abhorrent in the eyes of Baptists. Though it seems appalling to us that poor Maisey was expelled from the membership for his attempt, it should not be surprising that his action caused ostracisation. Particular Baptist such as this one were overwhelmingly concerned with obedience to scriptural precepts, and saw things as black or white. Both illegal and a heinous sin – suicide was viewed not through the perspective of the mentally disturbed individual, but instead through the civil, and – ultimately – biblical law. It robbed God of his glory, and therefore required consequences.

[1] Frequently, excommunications are described as “withdrawals.” Minutes record the ejection of church members from the fellowship as “we withdrew from him/her.”

[2] Laragy, G. (2013). “A Peculiar Species of Felony”: Suicide, Medicine, and the Law in Victorian Britain and Ireland. Journal of Social History, 46(3), pp.732-743; Suicide in Victorian England p. 269, 287

[3]Anderson, O. (2003). Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 201-206.

[4] On the guilt of suicide. (1834). The American Baptist Magazine, 2(14), p. 51.

[5] On suicide. (1818). Baptist Magazine and Literary Review, (10), p. 456

**Please note – photo presented above is not Samuel Maisey.

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