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John Asgill – the man who wouldn’t die. But did anyway

January 4, 2017



Racing to my twenty-third consecutive British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference, as though my life depended upon it.  Which of course it doesn’t.

I’m still tweaking my paper of course, which isn’t till the final day and which consists of a discussion of the possible influence of John Asgill on my favourite poet right now – Matthew Prior.

Asgill was a (formerly) respected lawyer and financier who achieved notoriety in 1700 by publishing a pamphlet which argued that real Christians didn’t have to die.  Not just in the sense of being resurrected to eternal life but in he sense of never having to die in the first place.  They could just be ‘translated’ without death, giving Asgill the nickname ‘Translation Asgill’. This engaging optimist was convinced that he himself would never die – not because he thought he was holier than anyone else but because he’d read the terms of the contract (Bible) more carefully.

Asgill became the punchline to many jokes.  People would say ‘Even John Asgill’s gotta go sometime’ in much the same way that we would say ‘Even Richard Dawkins crosses himself flying Ryanair.’  He was the David Icke of his generation, and soon enough, footnotes to 1990s comedy shows will need explanations of Icke akin to those of Asgill.

Daniel Defoe wrote a little book refuting Asgill.  I’m not a fan of Defoe but this rather gentle and careful response may count as one of my favourite Defoe works.  Asgill is not a loony says Defoe, but rather someone who has lived with his hypothesis for so long that it seems normal to him.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as late as 1831, expressed admiration for Asgill’s prose.  Ejected from two parliaments, Asgill wrote fluently on politics and economics, largely from debtors’ prison.

Rather disappointingly, Asgill did eventually die though, at the age of 79.  Otherwise he’d be the eighteenth-century conference exhibit to end all eighteenth-century conference exhibits.



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