William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

Cases Of Conscience, and Directions Against Backbiting, Slandering, and Evil

by Richard Baxter

Question I. May I not speak evil of that which is evil? And call every one truly
as he is?

Answer. You must not speak a known falsehood of any man under pretense of
charity or speaking well. But you are not to speak all the evil of every man
which is true: as opening the faults of the king or your parents, though never
so truly, is a sin against the fifth commandment, "Honour thy father and
mother:" so if you do it without a call, you sin against your neighbor's honour,
and many other ways offend.

Quest. II. Is it not sinful silence, and a consenting to or countenancing of the
sins of others, to say nothing against them, as tender of their honour?

Answer. It is sinful to be silent when you have a call to speak: if you forbear
to admonish the offender in love between him and you, when you have opportunity
and just cause, it is sinful to be silent then, but to silence backbiting is no
sin. If you must be guilty of every man's sin that you talk not against behind
his back, your whole discourse must be nothing but backbiting.

Quest. III. May I not speak that which honest, religious, credible persons do

Answer. Not without both sufficient evidence and a sufficient call. You must not
judge of the action by the person, but of the person by the action. Nor must you
imitate any man in evil-doing. If a good man abuse you, are you willing that all
men follow him and abuse you more?

Quest. IV. May I believe the bad report of an honest, credible person?

Answer. You must first consider whether you may hear it, or meddle with it: for
if it be a case that you have nothing to do with, you may not set your judgment
to it, either to believe it, or to disbelieve it. And if it be a thing that you
are called to judge of, yet every honest man's word is not presently to be
believed: you must first know whether it be a thing that he saw, or is certain
of himself, or a thing which he only taketh upon report; and what his evidence
and proof is; and whether he be not engaged by interest, passion, or any
difference of opinion; or be not engaged in some contrary faction, where the
interest of a party or cause is his temptation; or whether he be not used to
rash reports and uncharitable speeches; and what concurrence of testimonies
there is, and what is said on the other side; especially what the person accused
saith in his own defense. If it be so heinous a crime in public judgment, to
pass sentence before both parties are heard, and to condemn a man before he
speak for himself; it cannot be justifiable in private judgment. Would you be
willing yourselves that all should be believed of you, which is spoken by any
honest man? And how uncertain are we of other men's honesty, that we should on
that account think ill of others.

Quest. V. May I not speak evil of them that are enemies to God, to religion and
godliness, and are open persecutors of it; or are enemies to the king or church?

Answer. You may on all meet occasions speak evil of the sin; and of the persons
when you have a just call; but not at your own pleasure.

Quest. VI. What if it be one whose honour and credit countenanceth an ill cause,
and his dishonour would disable him to do hurt?

Answer. You may not belie the devil, nor wrong the worst man that is, though
under pretense of doing good; God needeth not malice, nor calumnies, nor
injustice to his glory: it is an ill cause that cannot be maintained without
such means as these. And when the matter is true, you must have a call to speak
it, and you must speak it justly, without unrighteous aggravations, or hiding
the better part, which should make the case and person better understood. There
is a time and due manner, in which that man's crimes and just dishonour may be
published, whose false reputation injureth the truth. But yet I must say, that a
great deal of villainy and slander is committed upon this plausible pretense;
and that there is scarce a more common cloak for the most inhuman lies and

Quest. VII. May I not lawfully make a true narration of such matters of fact, as
are criminal and dishonorable to offenders? Else no man may write a true history
to posterity of men's crimes.

Answer. When you have a just call to do it, you may; but not at your own
pleasure. Historians may take much more liberty to speak the truth of the dead,
than you may of the living: though no untruth must be spoken of either: yet the
honour of princes and magistrates while they are alive is needful to their
government, and therefore must be maintained, ofttimes by the concealment of
their faults: and so proportionably the honour of other men is needful to a life
of love, and peace, and just society; but when they are dead, they are not
subjects capable of a right to any such honour as must be maintained by such
silencing of the truth, to the injury of posterity: and posterity hath usually a
right to historical truth, that good examples may draw them to imitation, and
bad examples may warn them to take heed of sin. God will have the name of the
wicked to rot; and the faults of a Noah, Lot, David, Solomon, Peter, &c. shall
be recorded. Yet nothing unprofitable to posterity may be recorded of the dead,
though it be true; nor the faults of men unnecessarily divulged; much less may
the dead be slandered or abused.

Quest. VIII. What if it be one that hath been oft admonished in vain? May not
the faults of such a one be mentioned behind his back?

Answer. I confess such a one (the case being proved, and he being notoriously
impenitent) hath made a much greater forfeiture of his honour than other men;
and no man can save that man's honour who will cast it away himself. But yet it
is not every one that committeth a sin after admonition, who is here to be
understood; but such as are impenitent in some mortal or ruling sin: for some
may sin oft in a small and controverted point, for want of ability to discern
the truth; and some may live in daily infirmities, (as the best men do,) which
they condemn themselves for, and desire to be delivered from. And even the most
impenitent man's sins must not be meddled with by every one at his pleasure, but
only when you have just cause.

Quest. IX. What if it be one whom I cannot speak to face to face?

Answer. You must let him alone, till you have just cause to speak of him.

Quest. X. When hath a man a just cause and call to open another's faults?

Answer. Negatively: 1. Not to fill up the time with other idle chat, or table
talk. 2. Not to second any man, how good soever, who backbiteth others; no,
though he pretend to do it to make the sin more odious, or to exercise godly
sorrow for other men's sin. 3. Not whenever interest, passion, faction, or
company seemeth to require it. But, affirmatively, 1. When we may speak it to
his face in love and privacy, in due manner and circumstances, as is most
hopeful to conduce to his amendment. 2. When, after due admonition, we take two
or three, and after that tell the church (in a case that requireth it). 3. When
we have a sufficient cause to accuse him to the magistrate. 4. When the
magistrate or the pastors of the church, reprove or punish him. 5. When it is
necessary to the preservation of another: as if I see my friend in danger of
marrying with a wicked person, or taking a false servant, or trading and
bargaining with one that is like to overreach him, or going among cheaters, or
going to hear or converse with a dangerous heretic or seducer; I must open the
faults of those that they are in danger of, so far as their safety and my
charity require. 6. When it is any treason or conspiracy against the king or
commonwealth; where my concealment may be an injury to the king, or damage or
danger to the kingdom. 7. When the person himself doth, by his
self-justification, force me to it. 8. When his reputation is so built upon the
injury of others, and slanders of the just, that the justifying of him is the
condemning of the innocent, we may then indirectly condemn him, by vindicating
the just; as if it be in a case of contention between two, if we cannot justify
the right without dishonour to the injurious, there is no remedy but he must
bear his blame. 9. When a man's notorious wickedness hath set him up as a
spectacle of warning and lamentation, so that his crimes cannot be hid, and he
hath forfeited his reputation, we must give others warning by his fall as an
excommunicate person, or malefactor at the gallows, &c. 10. When we have just
occasion to make a bare narrative of some public matters of fact; as of the
sentence of a judge, or punishment of offenders, &c. 11. When the crime is so
heinous, as that all good persons are obliged to join to make it odious, as
Phinehas was to execute judgment. As in cases of open rebellion, treason,
blasphemy, atheism, idolatry, murders, perjury, cruelty; such as the French
massacre, the Irish far greater massacre, the murdering of kings, the
powder-plot, the burning of London, &c. [Note: The reader will recognise that
Baxter's imperfect knowledge of history does not detract from his argument.]
Crimes notorious should not go about in the mouths or ears of men, but with just
detestation. 12. When any person's false reputation is a seducement to men's
souls, and made by himself or others the instruments of God's dishonour, and the
injury of church or state, or others, though we may do no unjust thing to blast
his reputation, we may tell the truth so far as justice, or mercy, or piety requireth it.

Quest. XI. What if I hear flatterers applauding wicked men, and speaking well of
them, and extenuating their crimes, and praising them for evil doing?

Answer. You must on all just occasions speak evil of sin; but when that is
enough, you need not meddle with the sinner; no, not though other men applaud
him, and you know it be false; for you are not bound to contradict every
falsehood which you hear. But if in any of the twelve forementioned cases you
have a call to do it, (as for the preservation of the hearers from a snare
thereby; as if men commend a traitor or a wicked man to draw another to like his
way,) in such cases you may contradict the false report.

Quest. XII. Are we bound to reprove every back-biter, in this age when honest
people are grown to make little conscience of it, but think it their duty to
divulge men's faults?

Answer. Most of all, that you may stop the stream of this common sin, ordinarily
whenever we can do it without doing greater hurt, we should rebuke the tongue
that reporteth evil of other men causelessly behind their backs; for our silence
is their encouragement in sin.

Tit. 2 Directions against Backbiting, Slandering, and Evil Speaking.

Direct. I. Maintain the life of brotherly love. Love your neighbour as yourself.

Direct. II. Watch narrowly lest interest or passion should prevail upon you. For
where these prevail, the tongue is set on fire of hell, and will set on fire the
course of nature, James 2. Selfishness and passion will not only prompt you to
speak evil, but also to justify it, and think you do well; yea, and to be angry
with those that will not hearken to you and believe you.

Direct. III. Especially involve not yourselves in any faction, religious or
secular. I do not mean that you should not imitate the best, and hold most
intimate communion with them; but that you abhor unlawful divisions and sidings;
and when error, or uncharitableness, or carnal interest hath broken the church
into pieces where you live, and one is of Paul, and another of Apollos, and
another of Cephas, one of this party, and another of that, take heed of
espousing the interest of any party, as it stands cross to the interest of the
whole. It would have been hardly credible, if sad experience had not proved it,
how commonly and heinously almost every sect of Christians do sin in this point
against each other and how far the interest of their sect, which they account
the interest of Christ, will prevail with multitudes even of zealous people, to
belie, speak evil, backbite, and reproach those that are against their opinion
and their party! Yea, how easily will they proceed beyond reproaches, to bloody

He that thinketh he doth God service by killing Christ or his disciples, will
think that he doth him service by calling him a deceiver, and one that hath a
devil, a blasphemer, and an enemy to Caesar, and calling his disciples pestilent
fellows and movers of sedition among the people, and accounting them as the
filth and offscouring of the world. That zeal which murdered and destroyed many
hundred thousand of the Waldenses and Albigenses, and thirty thousand or forty
thousand in one French massacre, and two hundred thousand in one Irish massacre,
[See note above.] and which kindled the Marian bonfires in England, made the
powder mine, and burnt the city of London, and keepeth up the Inquisition, I
say, that zeal will certainly think it a service to the church, (that is, their
sect,) to write the most odious lies and slanders of Luther, Zuinglius, Calvin,
Beza, and any such excellent servants of the Lord. So full of horrid, impudent
lies are the writings of (not one but) many sects against those that were their
chief opposers, that I still admonish all posterity, to see good evidence for
it, before they believe the hard sayings of any factious historian or divine,
against those that are against his party. It is only men of eminent conscience,
and candor, and veracity, and impartiality, who are to be believed in their bad
report of others, except where notoriety or very good evidence doth command
belief above their own authority and veracity. A siding factious zeal, which is
hotter for any sect or party, than for the common Christianity and catholic
church, is always a railing, a lying, and a slandering zeal, and is notably
described, James 3, as "earthly, sensual, and devilish," causing "envy, strife,
and confusion, and every evil work."

Direct. IV. Observe well the commonness of this sin of backbiting, that it may
make you the more afraid of falling into that which so few do escape. I will not
say, among high and low, rich and poor, court and country, how common is this
sin; but among men professing the greatest zeal and strictness in religion, how
few make conscience of it! Mark in all companies that you come into, how common
it is to take liberty to say what they think of all men; yea, to report what
they hear, though they dare not say that they believe it! And how commonly the
relating of other men's faults, and telling what this man or that man is, or
did, or said, is part of the chat to waste the hour in! And if it be but true,
they think they sin not: nay, nor if they did but hear that it is true. For my
part I must profess, that my conscience having brought me to a custom of
rebuking such backbiters, I am ordinarily censured for it, either as one that
loveth contradiction, or one that dependeth sin and wickedness, by taking part
with wicked men; all because I would stop the course of this common vice of evil
speaking and backbiting where men have no call. And I must thankfully profess,
that among all other sins in the world, the sins of selfishness, pride, and
back-biting, I have been most brought to hate and fear, by the observation of
the commonness of them, even in persons seeming godly: nothing hath fixed an
apprehension of their odiousness so deeply in me, nor engaged my heart against
them above all other sins so much, as this lamentable experience of their
prevalence in the world, among the more religious, and not only in the profane.

Direct. V. Take not the honesty of the person as a sufficient cause to hear or
believe a bad report of others. It is lamentable to hear how far men, otherwise
honest, do too often here offend. Suspect evil speakers, and be not
over-credulous of them. Charity thinketh not evil, nor easily and hastily
believeth it. Liars are more used to evil speaking, than men of truth and credit
are. It is no wrong to the best, that you believe him not when he backbiteth
without good evidence.

Direct. VI. Rebuke backbiters, and encourage them not by hearkening to their
tales. Prov. 25:23, "The north wind driveth away rain, so doth an angry
countenance a backbiting tongue." It may be they think themselves religious
persons, and will take it for an injury to be driven away with an angry
countenance: but God himself, who loveth his servants better than we, is more
offended at their sin; and that which offendeth him, must offend us. We must not
hurt their souls, and displease God, by drawing upon us the guilt of their sins,
for fear of displeasing them. Tell them how God doth hate backbiting, and advise
them if they know any hurt by others, to go to them privately, and tell them of
it in a way that tendeth to their repentance.

Direct. VII. Make mention often of the good which is in others; (except it be
unseasonable, and will seem to be a promoting of their sin): God's gifts in
every man deserve commendations; and we have allowance to mention men's virtues
oftener than to mention their vices. Indeed when a bad man is praised in order
to the disparagement of the good, or to honour some wicked cause or action
against truth and godliness, we must not concur in such malicious praises; but
otherwise we must commend that which is truly commendable in all. And this
custom will have a double benefit against backbiting: it will use your own
tongues to a contrary course, and it will rebuke the evil tongues of others, and
be an example to them of more charitable language.

Direct. VIII. Understand yourselves, and speak often to others, of the
sinfulness of evil-speaking and backbiting. Show them the scriptures which
condemn it, and the intrinsical malignity which is in it: as here followeth.

Direct. IX. Make conscience of just reproof and exhorting sinners to their
faces. Go tell them of it privately and lovingly, and it will have better
effects, and bring you more comfort, and cure the sin of backbiting.

Tit. 3 The Evil of Backbiting and Evil-speaking.

1. It is forbidden of God among the heinous, damning sins, and made the
character of a notorious wicked person, and the avoiding of it is made the mark
of such as are accepted of God and shall be saved: Rom. 1:29,30, it is made the
mark of a reprobate mind, and joined with murder, and hating God, viz. "full of
envy, debate, deceit, malignity, whisperers, backbiters." Psalm. 15:2, 3, "Lord,
who in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that backbiteth not
with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach
against his neighbour." And when Paul describeth those whom he must sharply
rebuke and censure, he just describeth the factious sort of Christians of our
times. 2 Cor. 12:20, "For I fear lest when I come, I shall not find you such as
I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be
debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings,
tumults." Eph. 4:31, "Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and
evil-speaking be put away from you, with all malice, and be in one to another,
and tender hearted."

2.It is a sin which gratifieth Satan, and serveth his malice against our
neighbour. He is malicious against all, and speaking evil, and doing hurt, are
the works which are suitable to his malignity! And should a Christian make his
tongue the instrument of the accuser of the brethren, to do his work against
each other?

3.It signifieth lack of Christian love. For love speaketh not evil, nor openeth
men's faults without a cause, but covereth infirmities; much less will it lie
and slander others, and carry about uncertain reports against them. It is not to
do as you would be alone by: and how essential love is to true Christianity,
Christ himself bath often told us.

4.It is a sin which directly serveth to destroy the hearers' love, and
consequently to destroy their souls. If the backbiter understood himself, he
would confess that it is his very end to cause you to hate (or abate your love
to) him whom he speaketh evil of. He that speaketh good of a man, representeth
him amiable; for amiableness and goodness are all one. And he that speaketh evil
of a man representeth him hateful or unlovely; for hatefulness, unloveliness,
and evil are all one. And as it is not the natural way of winning love, to
entreat and beg it, and say, I pray you love this person, or that thing; but to
open the goodness of the thing or person, which will command love: so is it not
the natural way to stir up hatred, by entreating men to hate this man or that;
but to tell how bad they are, which will command hatred in them that do believe
it. Therefore to speak evil of another, is more than to say to the hearers, I
pray you hate this man, or abate your love to him. And that the killing of love
is the killing or destroying of men's souls, the apostle John doth frequently

5 And it tendeth also to destroy the love, and consequently the soul of him that
you speak evil of. For when it cometh to his hearing, (as one way or other it
may do) what evil you have reported of him behind his back, it tendeth to make
him hate you, and so to make him worse.

6. It is a great contention-maker and peace-breaker wherever it is practiced. It
tendeth to set people together by the ears. When it is told that such a one
spake evil of you in such a place, there are then heart-burnings, and
rehearsals, and sidings, and such ensuing malice as the devil intended by this

7. They who often speak evil of others behind their backs, it is ten to one will
speak falsehoods of them when they do not know it. Fame is too ordinarily a
liar, and they shall be liars who will be its messengers. How know you whether
the thing that you report is true? Is it only because a credible person spake
it? But how did that person know it to be true? Might he not take it upon trust
as well as you? And might he not take a person to be credible that is not? And
how commonly doth faction, or interest, or passion, or credulity, mike that
person incredible in one tiling, who is credible in others, where he hath no
such temptation. If you know it not to be true, or have not sufficient evidence
to prove it, you are guilty of lying and slandering interpretatively, though it
should prove true; because it might have been a lie for aught you knew.

8. It is gross injustice to talk of a man's faults, before you have heard him
speak for himself. I know it is usual with such to say, O we have heard it from
such as we are certain will not lie. But he is a foolish and unrighteous judge
will be peremptory upon hearing one party only speak, and knoweth not how
ordinary it is for a man when speaketh for himself; to blow away the most
confident and plausible accusations, and make the case appear to be quite
another thing. You know not what another man hath to say till you have heard

9. Backbiting teacheth others to backbite. Your example inviteth them to do the
like: and sins which are common, are easily swallowed, and hardly repented of:
men think that the commonness justifieth or extenuateth the fault.

10. It encourageth ungodly men to the odious sin of backbiting and slandering
the most religious, righteous person. It is ordinary with the devil's family to
make Christ's faithfullest servants their table talk, and the objects of their
reproach and scorn, and the song of drunkards? What abundance of lies go current
among such malignant persons, against the most innocent, which would all be
ashamed, if they had first admitted them to speak for themselves. And such
slanders and lies are the devil's common means to keep ungodly men from the love
of godliness, and so from repentance and salvation. And backbiting professors of
religion encourage men to this; for with what measure they mete, it shall be
measured to them again. And they that are themselves evil spoken of, will think
that they are warranted to requite the backbiters with the like.

11. It is a sin which commonly excludeth true, profitable reproof and
exhortation. They that speak most behind men's backs, do usually say least to
the sinner's face, in any way which tendeth to his salvation. They will not go
lovingly to him in private, and set home his sin upon his conscience, and exhort
him to repentance; but any thing shall serve as a sufficient excuse against this
duty; that they may make the sin of backbiting serve instead of it: and all is
out of carnal self-saving; they fear men will be offended if they speak to their
faces, and therefore they will whisper against them behind their backs.

12. It is at the least, but idle talk and a misspending of your time: what the
better are the healers for hearing of other men's misdoings? And you know that
it no whit profiteth the person of whom you speak. A skillful, friendly
admonition might do him good! But to neglect this, and talk of his faults
unprofitably, behind his back, is but to aggravate the sin of your
uncharitableness, as being not contented to refuse your help to a man in sin,
but you must also injure him and do him hurt.


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