Thursday, September 23, 2010

Famous Last Words

Our favorites: "What bus?"

Also, "Had I served God as diligently as I have served the king," et cetera.

Okay, seriously now. A common, but ill-advised, sermon illustration is to quote somebody's last words. Preferably, these should be the last words of a prominent atheist, and ideally somebody who locked horns with Christian orthodoxy often and in public: Voltaire, Tom Paine, or eventually poor Christopher Hitches. And, of course, the last words quoted should reveal that in the end, the dying person turned to God.

If you open up some old-timey preachers' cheat-books, or any number of modern web pages (like this one), you will find a gazillion of these stories. The problem is that many, if not most of them, are bogus.

Paine is an especially good example. He was a famous skeptic, of course. So as his end drew near, he was visited by a seemingly endless stream of clergymen, all fishing for a deathbed conversion. And sure enough, one is widely reported, albeit in different versions. He is said to have told a servant girl:
"I would give worlds if I had them, that The Age of Reason had never been published. O Lord, help me! Christ, help me! . . No, don't leave; stay with me! Send even a child to stay with me; for I am on the edge of Hell here alone. If ever the Devil had an agent, I have been that one."
Wow. Powerful story, huh? Except that it never happened. Here's a page on Paine's religious views, which excerpts the radical pamphleteer William Cobbett's effort to track down the source of the story. Bottom line: it was invented by a couple of Quakers, who when challenged to substantiate it, referred Cobbett to a mendacious opium addict. (And one who still wouldn't stand by the story.) Illustration -- FAIL.

Looking into similar stories today, we stumbled over an old thread on something called SciForums, which is apparently devoted principally to discussions of science. This brief 2007 thread includes many purported last words, in which both doubters and believers seem to reverse their positions. The anecdotes are either false or irrelevant. Gibbon saying "My prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful" certainly doesn't qualify as a deathbed conversion.

Here's what interests us: a quotation attributed to Martin Luther. It goes like this:
Ich hatte an Gott, ich hatte geglaubt an meinen Lord Jesus, jetzt ich glaube geglaubt, daß es ein vergeudetes Leben gewesen wird.
Translated as:
I had believed in God, I had believed in my Lord Jesus, now I believe it's been a wasted life.
Now, a remark like this can be interpreted variously. Does he mean that his life has been wasted because of his faith? Or because, despite his faith, he did so many stupid and arrogant things? Or for some other reason? Or does it have some other meaning, of which we are unaware because of our bad German and the lack of context?

Luther's last written words are pretty well known. He talks about understanding the works of Virgil and Cicero, as well as Scripture and concludes, famously, "We are beggars, this is true." As for his last spoken words, various accounts on the web suggest either Ps. 68:20 ("God is the Lord, by whom we escape death") or 31:5 ("into thy hands I commend my spirit"). Perfectly reasonable prayers under the circumstances. Lacking as we do a decent library, we can't track down actual sources for any of them.

But is there another account in circulation, of these other words? We'd appreciate any respectable references.


Anonymous said...

A friend of mine says her father's last words to her were "Never take the Cross Bronx Expressway." web

- said...

Since you don't seem to have any vehicle on your blog through which one might send you an e-mail, I will try via a comment to one of your posts:

I've been wondering whether you have any comment to offer on Richard Dawkins; specifically, whether you have any idea why he seems such an angry fellow?


Father Anonymous said...

Zoinks. That *is* an angry bit of writing. And the comments that follow are positively sycophantic.

Let me think about Dawkins a bit before I say anything. Although that essay certainly does speak volumes for itself.

mim said...

My favorite example of an obviously bogus last-words story is the supposed last words of Elizabeth I: "All my possessions for a moment of time!"

If she had time to say that, she had a moment of time.