May God have mercy upon your soul

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Images:Seddon being sentenced to death.jpg
In 1912, the poisoner Frederick Seddon (left) was sentenced to death by Mr Justice Bucknill wearing a black cap (right)

"May God have mercy upon your soul" or "may God have mercy on your soul" is a phrase used within courts in various legal systems by judges pronouncing a sentence of death upon a person found guilty of a crime that requires a death sentence. The phrase originated in beth din courts in the Kingdom of Israel as a way to attribute God as the highest authority in law.[1] The usage of the phrase later spread to England and Wales' legal system and from there to usage throughout the colonies of the British Empire whenever a death sentence was passed.



The phrase is usually said by the judge pronouncing the sentence of death after putting on a black cap and black gloves.[2] In England, the black gloves were a deliberate contrast with the white gloves normally worn at the end of an Assize sitting, which indicated there had been no death sentence passed during the Assize.[2] The wording of the traditional phrase has changed over time. In England, the wording in the 18th century was "and the Lord have mercy upon thy soul". This later developed into "may God have mercy upon your soul", which was used as the traditional closing sentence by judges passing the death sentence in England and Wales, Canada and Australia.[2] The phrase is treated as a prayer and would often be followed by "amen".[3] It was often cited in newspaper reports as "the usual words had been said".[2]

In the 18th century, the common wording of the phrase in England was "the law is that thou shalt return to the place whence thou camest and from thence to a place of execution where thou shalt hang by the neck 'til the body be dead. Dead. Dead. And the Lord have mercy upon thy soul".[2] This phrase later developed over time until the 1940s when the phrase in Dominions of the British Empire was:[2]

The sentence of this court is that you will be taken from here to the place from whence you came and there be kept in close confinement until [date of execution], and upon that day that you be taken to the place of execution and there hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy upon your soul.


The phrase is likely to have originated in the Kingdom of Israel following the Law of Moses as a way of giving credit for authority to God as the author of all law.[4][1] It is likely to have come from Deuteronomy 16:18 where it stated: "Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the Lord thy God giveth thee, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment".[5] This gave rise to the theory that judges had been given authority from God to exercise judgment on matters of the law and would use the phrase to attribute this fact to God.[4][6] The phrase continued to be used during history, passing from Jewish to Christian context as a way to continue to affirm God as the highest authority in law.[4] Clarence Darrow, amongst others, claimed that the phrase's continual usage may have come about as a result of judges feeling that while they could pass a sentence of death upon a person, they personally did not have the authority to destroy souls and that only God had the authority to do that.[7][8][9] As a result, some judges would often cross their fingers whenever they said the phrase as a result of concern for the criminal's soul.[7][10] While the phrase is often said by judges with conviction, some said it because of legal tradition but did not believe in its meaning fully. During the 17th century in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritan majority of judges at the time did not believe that stating "may God have mercy on your soul" had any meaning unless the accused had made a confession of the crime in open court. They, and other Puritan office holders, would also regularly press the condemned up until the point of execution to make a confession of the crime they had been convicted of to ensure that the phrase satisfactorily had meaning according to their views.[11]

In the United States, following independence from Great Britain, the phrase was not commonly used; however, when the first death sentence was passed in Taos County, New Mexico, the judge used the phrase but immediately followed it with a statement that the court would not be responsible for asking "an all wise providence" to do something the jury could not do due to the American principle of separation of church and state.[12] In the 19th century, due to American law moving away from moral judgments based on Christian principles towards the principle of a judgment that was "beyond reasonable doubt", the phrases "not having the fear of God before your eyes" and "may God have mercy upon your soul" were the very few remainders within the American court system of the British colonial morality-based trials.[13] Despite this, "may God have mercy on your soul" has been used as a closing statement in modern times by American judges when passing a sentence of death. For example, in 2011, it was used when a judge sentenced a murderer to death in South Dakota.[14] A version of the phrase was used by a Florida judge when Aileen Wuornos was sentenced to death, the judge in this case stated "and may God have mercy on your corpse".[15]

In popular culture

The phrase has been used in a number of books and films. The phrase was used in the film Let Him Have It by the character of Lord Goddard, however "may The Lord have mercy upon your soul" was used instead of the regular phrase.[16] It was also written in Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.[17] The phrase "may God have mercy on your soul" was also used in the 1995 film, Billy Madison as part of an insult.[18]


  1. 1.0 1.1 The Ethical Outlook, Volumes 46-47. American Ethical Union. 1960. p. 56.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Leyton-Brown, Ken (2010). The Practice of Execution in Canada. UBC Press. p. 161. ISBN 0774859326.
  3. "Full text of "Trial Of William Palmer"". Retrieved 2015-04-02.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Hunsuck, John (2014). "2: Covenant to Covenant, Moses to Jesus". Hinge Points of History. Certa Publishing. ISBN 193974878X.
  5. "Deuteronomy 16 / Hebrew–English Bible". Mechon Mamre. Retrieved 2015-04-02.
  6. J.C. (1705). A Justification of the Dissenters Against Mr. Bennet's, Charge of Damnable Schisme by a Divine of the Church of England. With a Short Preface by Another Hand. G. Royden and W. Smith. p. 56.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Darrow, Clarence (2005). Closing Arguments: Clarence Darrow on Religion, Law, and Society (reprint ed.). Ohio University Press. p. 156. ISBN 0821416324.
  8. Calvin, Jean (1816). Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 3 (H. Howe reprint ed.). Harvard University. p. 195.
  9. "Capital Punishment?". The Rotarian (Rotary International): p. 61. November 1933. ISSN 0035-838X.
  10. Calvin, Jean (1816). Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 3 (H. Howe reprint ed.). Harvard University. p. 195.
  11. Chapin, Bradley (2010). Criminal Justice in Colonial America, 1606-1660 (reprint ed.). University of Georgia Press. p. 38. ISBN 0820336912.
  12. Lacy, Ann (2010). Frontier Stories: A New Mexico Federal Writers' Project Book. Sunstone Press. pp. 87-88. ISBN 0865347336.
  13. Alan, Rogers (2008). Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts. University of Massachusetts Press. p. 78. ISBN 1558496335.
  14. "Judge to Eric Robert: 'May God have mercy on your soul'". The Argus Leader. Retrieved 2015-04-02.
  15. Berry-Dee, Christopher (2003). Talking with Serial Killers: The Most Evil People in the World Tell Their Own Stories. John Blake Publishing. ISBN 1843586177.
  16. {{#invoke:Citation/CS1 | citation |CitationClass=audio-visual }}
  17. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo: Chapter III. End of the Crown Which was Turned into a Dry Leaf". Retrieved 2015-04-02.
  18. "15 Classic Quotes From Billy Madison". Listology. Retrieved 2015-04-02.
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