‘Other pursuits become insignificant in their objects when placed in contrast with ours ...what are any, or what are all these objects when contrasted with the most precious and valued gift of God - human life’
James Young Simpson
According to many of the self appointed experts of the internet, throughout human history Christianity has been a force of backwardness and oppression, holding back scientific and intellectual advance and resisting the march of progress inch by bloody inch. Take this example from the site ‘religioustolerance.org’:
‘In 1846 James Simpson, a Scottish physician promoted the use of chloroform to relieve pain during childbirth. This was opposed by the Church, citing Genesis 3:16 "...I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children". The avoidance of pain was seen as thwarting God's will. Fortunately, Simpson found a competing passage (Genesis 2:21) which describes the first surgical operation; it seems to support the use of anesthetic: "...God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam.....he took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh.." In time, the Church's opposition dissipated; pain killers have since lost their religious significance.’
Another site expresses outrage at the churches effrontery:
Astonishingly, far from crediting him for having saved countless women from avoidable pain, he (James Simposon) was severely castigated by the Scottish Church for interfering in the Divine Plan. That many other doctors from the previous centuries had used hypnotism and narcotics to relieve pain without censure was irrelevant to the Church. They wanted Simpson to stop – putting people to sleep artificially, they claimed, was making it easier for the Dark Powers to overwhelm them. In the case of women, it was particularly heinous and insensitive to try to save them from feeling pain. After all, wasn't it said in the Genesis - "In Sorrow thou shalt bring forth children"?
The central problem with this anecdote is that it is almost completely false. A. D. Farr, a medical historian has methodically searched through a vast body of literature from the 1840s and 1850s, where modern anesthesia during childbirth was first introduced, and found that the idea there was religious opposition to the introduction of childbirth anesthesia was a figment of later propaganda.
Straight after his famous experiment was performed at his house in the old town of Edinburgh, Simpson did indeed prepare a theological defense entitled ‘In Answer to the Religious Arguments advanced Against the Employment of Anaesthetic Agents in Midwifery and Surgery (1847). But the attack never materialized; not even the slightest hint of opposition occurred. On page one of the tract Simpson mentions that he had heard of patients and some doctors criticising what he was doing, but he does not name any religious organisation, theologian or religious leader as being responsible for spreading opposition to his work. Further on in the pamphlet he mentions that the leading obstetrician in Dublin had publicly denounced his work for religious reasons. Having read this, the man involved, Dr. Montgomery, in a letter of 27th December 1848 to Simpson, expressed his “astonishment” that Simpson had accepted “hearsay” and had, “taken the trouble of writing a formal reply to arguments which never were made use of by me. I never advocated or locum tenanced either in public or in private the so called ‘religious objection’ to anaesthesia in labour, ...” .In a later article he wrote, “I attach no value to what are called the ‘religious objections’ to the use of this remedy”
In a letter to Dr. Protheroe Smith, Simpson reported that following the publication of his pamphlet, he had received communications from some of the best theologians ‘...of all churches, ... Presbyterian, Independent, Episcopalian, and Protheroe’s own Anglican Church, approving of the view I had taken’. As A.D Farr’s analysis has shown, prominent leaders from across the established religious spectrum – including Rev. Thomas Chalmers (Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland),and Rabbi Abraham De Sola (Canada's first Rabbi) - were in written agreement with anesthesia. Most clergy, theologians, and religious physicians approved the whiff of painkiller. A few clergy feared that Satan was behind pain relief, but Chalmers described these dissenters as ‘small theologians’ and advised that they should be ignored.
Why did Simpson take it upon himself to write the tract in the first place?. The reason was probably that he was deeply religious and, acting on hearsay, decided to ally the fears of his peers. At home Simpson led morning and evening prayers. He frequently preached to Edinburgh congregations as well as preaching in the mining districts. He even wrote religious addresses, tracts and hymns. He also, being a man of conscience, broke from the Church of Scotland when the Free Church was formed in 1842. Given this background it seems logical that, having made a scientific breakthrough, he would expound upon the Christian teaching on the subject.
In a letter to a colleague in 1848, only a year after his theological defence was written, Simpson commented:
‘all religious opposition to chloroform has entirely ceased among us, if we except an occasional remark on the point from some caustic old maid whose prospects of using chloroform are for ever passed, or a sneer from some antiquated lady who grieves and grudges that her daughters should not suffer as their mother was obliged to suffer before them.’
These objections from lay women ceased when Queen Victoria accepted anesthesia for the birth of Prince Leopold in 1853 and described it as a pleasant experience.
So where did this myth of widespread religious opposition come from?. Professor Colin Russell throws some light upon the matter.
I had a research student who looked at this as part of a bigger task and, to cut a long story short, he found that all the stories to this effect, which are in all the modern textbooks on the history of medicine, are actually almost baseless; but not quite, because he traced them down in a sort of family tree to just one source, and that one source was A.D. White. There is a statement in A.D. White’s book that this clerical opposition was in fact the case and he doesn’t even give a footnote reference to it.
Sure enough, in 1896, Andrew Dickinson White claimed in his History of the Warfare of Science with Theology and Christendom that:
'In 1847, James Young Simpson, a Scotch physician, who afterward rose to the highest eminence in his profession, having advocated the use of anæ sthetics in obstetrical cases, was immediately met by a storm of opposition. This hostility flowed from an ancient and time-honoured belief in Scotland. As far back as the year 1591, Eufame Macalyane, a lady of rank, being charged with seeking the aid of Agnes Sampson for the relief of pain at the time of the birth of her two sons, was burned alive on the Castle Hill of Edinburgh; and this old theological view persisted even to the middle of the nineteenth century. From pulpit after pulpit Simpson's use of chloroform was denounced as impious and contrary to Holy Writ; texts were cited abundantly, the ordinary declaration being that to use chloroform was ``to avoid one part of the primeval curse on woman.'' Simpson wrote pamphlet after pamphlet to defend the blessing which he brought into use; but he seemed about to be overcome, when he seized a new weapon, probably the most absurd by which a great cause was ever won: ``My opponents forget,'' he said, ``the twenty-first verse of the second chapter of Genesis; it is the record of the first surgical operation ever performed, and that text proves that the Maker of the universe, before he took the rib from Adam's side for the creation of Eve, caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam.''
This was a stunning blow, but it did not entirely kill the opposition; they had strength left to maintain that the ``deep sleep of Adam took place before the introduction of pain into the world---in a state of innocence.;; But now a new champion intervened---Thomas Chalmers: with a few pungent arguments from his pulpit he scattered the enemy forever, and the greatest battle of science against suffering was won. This victory was won not less for religion.'
He didn’t give a source because, as we now know, he made most of it up.
Postscript: What about Eufame Macalyane?
In the reference from Andrew Dickinson White I quoted, he also mentioned the story of Eufame Macalyane /Euphame McCalzane. The claim was that Calvinists, at the instigation of King James, burnt her to death at the stake in Edinburgh in 1591. This sentence was passed because she had accepted help to ease the pains of childbirth, thereby transgressing the orders of God given in Genesis 3:16.
When the story was traced it was found that this was actually a witchcraft trial which had been spun later as an anti-Calvinist myth. In 1591 a large group were found guilty of attempted murder by attempting to cast a spell. Their objective was to use witchcraft to cause a storm at sea so in order to sink the ship transporting king James VI of Scotland, and his new wife to Edinburgh from Denmark. Having been caught they were sentenced to be strangled and their bodies to be burnt.
Fifty two accusations were issued during the trial to show that one of the leaders, Agnes Simpson / Sampsoune was a witch. One of the charges was that ten days before Euphame McCalzane expected her baby, Agnes placed ‘Mwildis’ powder under her bed and used the summoning of evil spirits to ease the pains of childbirth. The powder was supposed to consist of the finger, toe and knee joints of disinterred male corpses. Euphame herself was not accused of using this spell, but of adding to the strength of the spell aimed at causing the storm. The judges were primarily interested in whether the defendants were witches attempting to assassinate the king and the childbirth element was somewhat irrelevant, as can be seen from the entry in the register.
the execution, on the Castle-hill of Edinburgh, of Euphame M'Calyeane, one of the most famous of the reputed witches of the time. Her trial had lasted from the 9th to the 13trh of June, and had been on various charges, from witchcraft for private purposes, eighteen years ago, to recent sorcery for drowning the King and Queen on their way from Denmark. Before she was strangled and burnt, the poor woman "tooke it on her conscience that she was innocent of all the crymes layed to her charge." (Register of the Privy Council of Scotland iv, 645n)
Have a go and see how many myths you can spot in this address.
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