"Not Lost, But Gone Before"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: The concept of death as a journey is an ancient one, perhaps as old as man. As a literary expression it seems to have first appeared in the moral epistles of Lucius Annaeus Seneca. (c. 4 B.C.–A.D. 65). Seneca was a Latin philosopher and a Stoic; he was also a dramatist, and composed several rhetorical tragedies for which he is best known today. His Epistles to Lucilius are moral essays in the form of letters; in No. LXIII, 16, he speaks of death as follows: "Et fortasse, si modo vera sapientium fama est recipitque nos locus aliquis, quem putamus perisse, praemissus est (And perhaps, if only the tale told by the wise men is true and there is a bourne to welcome us, then he whom we think we have lost has only been sent on ahead)." The image of the mystic journey seems to have had a strong appeal for Seneca; in Epistle XCIX, 7, he uses an almost identical expression ("quem putas perisse, praemissus est"). This has been rendered, "He whom you say has passed away has only posted on ahead." It is not known who is responsible for a more important translation of this thought: the haunting and unforgettable "Not lost, but gone before." It seems to have first appeared in print in the writings of Matthew Henry, whose Biblical commentaries were used almost universally among his Protestant contemporaries and for more than a century after his death. Henry had a gift for the memorable and quotable phrase, and his writings abound with them. It may have originated in one of his sermons, or may have already been popular in the latter part of the seventeenth century; it is said to be inscribed on the tomb of Mary Angell, of Stepney, who died in 1693. Since her day it has been carved on countless other tombstones, featured in sentimental songs and poetry, and quoted in innumerable funeral sermons. Henry used it at least twice: in a biography of his father and in the following passage, wherein he comments upon Herod's massacre of the infants in Bethlehem:

There was a great cry in Egypt when the first-born were slain, and so there was here when the youngest was slain; for whom we naturally have a particular tenderness. Here was a representation of this world we live in. We hear in it lamentation, and weeping, and mourning, and see the tears of the oppressed, some upon one account, and some upon another. Our way lies through a vale of tears. This sorrow was so great, that they would not be comforted. They hardened themselves in it, and took a pleasure in their grief. Blessed be God, there is no occasion of grief in this world, no, not that which is supplied by sin itself, that will justify us in refusing to be comforted! They would not be comforted, because they are not, that is, they are not in the land of the living, are not as they were, in their mothers' embraces. If, indeed, they were not, there might be some excuse for sorrowing as though we had no hope; but we know they are not lost, but gone before; if we forget that they are, we lose the best ground of our comfort. . . . Some make this great grief of the Bethlehemites to be a judgment upon them for their contempt of Christ. They that would not rejoice for the birth of the Son of God, are justly made to weep for the death of their own sons; for they only wondered at the tidings the shepherds brought them, but did not welcome them.