Bishop Joseph Hall’s Defense of the Unborn

A debate currently rages about when evangelicals took up their pro-life position on abortion. The ‘when’ matters in part for how it might answer ‘why’ they did so. Thus, a number of pro-choice advocates have accused evangelicals of only opposing abortion in the period after Roe v. Wade and as a backlash to women’s rights.

Christians of many stripes, not just evangelicals, have answered this accusation with example after example of longstanding moral opposition to abortion. This defense of the unborn stretches back to the Scriptures and the early Church, going up to the present day. Anglicans do not lack their own defenders of the unborn, Joseph Hall comprises one example. As Bishop of both Exeter and Norwich, Hall lived from 1574 to 1656.

Joseph Hall’s Cases of Conscience

Hall wrote on abortion in his work, Cases of Conscience. That book consisted of a series of difficult, practical ethical questions such as how to conduct business transactions, whether one ever could escape from prison, and the permissibility of dueling, among others. Hall applied both “enlightened reason and religion”[1] to them, parsing out proper principles and permissible actions in each context. Hall’s work took its place in a larger genre. “Cases of conscience” proved a popular subset of writing in this period. Anglicans William Perkins and Jeremy Taylor wrote versions. William Ames and Increase Mather both also made contributions.

One ethical conundrum Hall addressed concerned abortion. Hall confronted this issue within a broader section on matters of life and liberty. We will understand Hall’s particular discussion better if we start with some of the broader principles Hall wrote about life. Hall opened by declaring life’s preciousness. This position contrasted with the world’s view, “now long soaked in blood.”[2] One way he explained life’s preciousness was by stating that governments exist, in large part, “to judge of and protect the life of others.”[3] A government could end a life, but only “upon the weightiest of causes.”[4] Those causes, moreover, must be acted upon by someone deputed to do so by God and only, “according as it is regulated by just laws.”[5] Individuals might take life as well. However, Hall limited intentional killing by private parties to self-defense against perceived deadly force. Hall did admit other instances of self-defense, such as of property or against non-lethal violence, might lead to killing. But in such instances the death must not have been intended.

Against Nature and Grace

The importance of life and limits on its taking informed the abortion section. Hall’s hard case on this front concerned whether a woman could procure an abortion to save her own life. In discussing this matter, Hall minced no words about “the matter of willing abortion,”[6] by which he meant what we today would call “elective abortions.” Persons therein desire to end the pregnancy, and thus the unborn child’s life, for reasons besides a medical emergency. Those who would abort to avoid the physical discomfort or the financial burden, he gives as examples, show they “be not less well principled either in nature or grace.”[7] Thus, Hall appeals to two sources of knowledge regarding morality. Nature can display right and wrong to us. We can learn from what Hall elsewhere calls the “common law of nature”[8] to order our actions. Grace, too, tells us good from evil. Scripture displays good and evil, exhorting us to the former and condemning the latter. Both, he argued, condemn elective abortion. As no other moral referents exist, the condemnation is complete.

The basis for the condemnation starts with the category wherein he places this example. Lodged within the section on life and liberty, Hall does not have the woman’s freedom as the issue. Abortion concerns a matter of life; unborn life. He says that both men and women who seek out abortions stand condemned. They stand condemned of killing. A man who aids a woman in aborting, cannot “wash his hands from blood.”[9] A woman willingly participating, moreover, will face a righteous God’s judgment, “which he hath charged upon murderers.”[10] Hall minces no words about the act. It kills and does so unjustly.

Against the Majesty of God

Hall pinpoints another offense in abortion, this time against “the Majesty of God.”[11] The offense against God’s majesty comes in abortion, “destroying his potential creature.”[12] Again, Hall has abortion as unlawful killing of a human being in mind. But here he focuses on a human’s status before God. How does abortion sin against God’s “majesty”? Hall does not explain. However, we can figure out its likely link. God’s majesty first comes in the very act of creation. To create brings its own glory. That glory shines through when one beholds the creature. Think of how we praise persons for their great creations in art, music, and literature. That is, we can if the creature stays in existence. Moreover, this particular creature alone among those God made bears His image. He has imprinted His majesty in a special way on this creature. Again, its destruction causes special harm to that majesty. Finally, the creature exists to worship. Worship involves acknowledging, loving, and praising God’s majesty. Again, to destroy the creature means he or she cannot worship God on earth and extol His majesty in such deeds.

What about the underlying case, then? Hall admits it “supposes an extremity.”[13] Otherwise, he goes on to write, abortion presents no moral quandaries, just a heinous sin. Yet, Hall does spend some time considering the issue of the mother’s life in relation to her pregnancy.

The Life of the Mother

Here, Hall seeks some nuance that maintains the preciousness of the unborn child while respecting the woman’s life as well. For one, Hall absolves any doctors who give treatments to women “in difficult and hopeless childbirths.”[14] This point held true even when treatment might “hasten her delivery,” thereby potentially harming the child. Then, the doctor’s actions do not intend an abortion. They seek “to bring forward a natural birth.”[15] This intention, though, is penultimate. The natural birth they seek for the good of someone involved, be it the child’s sake, the mother’s, or both.

He also takes on two sets of distinctions regarding abortion to save a mother’s life. Bishop Hall did follow a distinction, made by others, between “conception” and “animation.” Conception, of course, began a pregnancy. Animation was a concept in English law, thought to date to the thirteenth century. Animation meant the moment a “soul” or “life” entered the baby. It did not occur at conception, so the thinking went. Nor did it take place for every pregnancy at one set time. Instead, English law stated it to take place at quickening, when the first movements of the child were detected in the womb.

Animation Follows Conception

Some argued this point made a difference regarding abortion. When the mother’s life faced a threat, the argument went, pre-animation abortions were acceptable, post-animation not. However, Hall disagrees. He finds no moral distinction to parallel the physical one. Here he seems to employ an Aristotelian argument. What is an acorn, Aristotle asks? In reality, it is an oak tree. You must define a being by its end, its final form. The acorn comprises the seed. It will turn into an oak tree if permitted the normal experience of water, nutrients, sun, and time. Again, then, it is an oak tree.

In similar fashion, Hall notes that “after conception we know that naturally follows animation.”[16] The distinction only consists of “time” between the two occurrences. Drawing then on Tertullian, Hall says of the unborn that “It is a man, that would be so” and therefore, “It is but a hastening of murder, to hinder that which would be born.”[17] Even inanimate fetuses only needed normal time and nourishment to fulfill their end, to realize their final form of a fully developed human being. To kill them, then, meant to kill a human being.

Next, Bishop Hall brings in questions of what he calls “receipts,” meaning the reception of treatments like medicine by the mother during pregnancy. Here, we must take account of “the nature of the receipt” as well as “the intention of the prescriber”[18] when making moral judgments.

Treatments That Tend Towards Cure

Regarding their nature, Hall says the treatment must “in and of themselves, tend towards cure.”[19] Regarding intent, the drug or other means “must be given with no other intention than the preservation of the mother’s life.” If the medicine had that purpose and was given with that intention, Hall said such actions might be permissible.

They might be because Hall does allow for the distinction between conception and animation to make some difference here. From conception until animation, Hall unabashedly approves of taking these measures to protect the mother’s life. He says post-animation, meaning post-quickening, “the question will be so much more difficult.”[20] Hall struggles here with how to respect both lives as the child nears the point where he or she could be born.

In the end, Hall does leave room for actions to save the mother throughout the pregnancy. He goes on to reject claims that mothers must submit to death in all of these instances. Those who make that argument do so on the premise that all must be done to birth the child, in order to baptize him, and thus save his soul. Hall objects both by saying the premise is false about the child’s soul. God can save him in extraordinary circumstances without baptism. Also, he adds that this rigid line seems “to be somewhat too hard-hearted to the body of the mother.”[21] The mother’s body, not just her soul, matters and deserves some respect. Moreover, he notes instances where, “the case be utterly desperate”[22] wherein it seems certain that unless action is taken, “both mother and child must undoubtedly perish”[23] without intervention. Then, a doctor can administer treatment aimed at saving the mother, even if problems may result for the unborn child. Hall does not say so overtly, but given the nature of the cases, it seems many if not most instances could fall within this realm. Given medical technology at the time, many instances of peril to the mother would also present peril to the child. In most instances, if not all, then, the doctor could act to try and save the woman’s life.

Here we see Bishop Hall take an unflinching stand for unborn life. His views on the status of the fetus certainly do not stand up to modern medical knowledge. We can affirm life’s actual start at conception. But that difference made no real distinction morally for Hall. He sought to protect the unborn child from conception on, in every way possible.

Moreover, we must account for changes in pregnancy prognosis when assessing Hall, too. He lived in a world where mortality for mother and baby occurred much more than today. For the remedies to thwart those awful outcomes were far from what we have today. Hall comes to this situation calling it a hard case. He wishes to acknowledge both lives involved. He wishes to find a way to protect both to the extent possible, however hard that is.

A Timeless Moral Purpose

Thus, we can find in Hall, not just a man of his times, but one whose moral purpose stands for all time. He is one Anglicans can take pride in for his defense of the unborn. And he forms another example in a long line of Christians who stood against the evil of abortion for the sake of the weakest among us.


  1. Hall, Joseph, The Works of Joseph Hall, edited by Josiah Pratt (London: C. Whittingham, 1808), 373.
  2. Ibid., 8: 395.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 400.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 396.
  9. Ibid., 402.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 400.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 403.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 401.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 402.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.


Adam M. Carrington

Adam M. Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. There, he teaches on matters of Constitutional law, American political institutions, and separation of powers. His writing has appeared in such popular forums as The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, and Washington Examiner. His book on the jurisprudence of Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington. Carrington received his B.A. from Ashland University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Baylor University. He lives in Hillsdale with his wife and their two daughters where they attend Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

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