William Stroud

Dr William Stroud was one of very few men to receive adult baptism in Charlotte Episcopal Chapel, as a medical student at Edinburgh University. His faith in 'inductive reasoning' as a tool which 'like a sounding-line let down into the ocean of time ... from the depth of 1800 years, [could bring] ... up to the surface a pearl of great price' places him clearly in the intellectual school of Daniel Sandford, theologians of Scotland's 'Age of Improvement'. His Treatise on the Physical Cause of the Death of Christ (1847) is written within this context. In it, Stroud argued that Christ died of 'agony of the mind, producing rupture of the heart', and concluded that this medical knowledge helped the believer's understanding of the atonement, awakening 'the homage of the understanding, and the adoration of the heart'.

1789 - 29 June 1858
William Stroud of Bath
He studied medicine in Edinburgh, taking his MD in 1819 with a thesis de Arthritide regulari (on Rhumatoid Arthritis) (5) commended by James Gregory. He remained in Edinburgh for some time as clinical clerk to Professor Andrew Duncan, then travelled to Paris and Italy. In 1828 he had settled in London and became Physician to the Northern Dispensary, preferring hospital work to private practice (4). In 1834 he published a paper on a 'Case of Empyema, with remarks' in the Medical Quarterly Review which he had given to the Harveian Society, of which he was a President (10). This still existing society had only been founded three years before so Stroud was an early, although apparently not a founder, member (11). He was a Medical Officer for the National Provident Institution and Brittania Life Assurance Company (12). Although his biblical studies were an amateur interest, he pursued them with a similar dedication and perspicuity to that which he brought to the study of medicine. Twenty years after he published his master work on the death of Christ, James Young Simpson wrote of his Treatise on the Physical Causes of the Death of Christ,
I have been strongly impressed with the belief that the views which he adopted and maintained on this subject are fundamentally correct. Nor has this opinion been any way altered by a perusal of some later observations published on the same question, both here and on the Continent. (13)
While Stroud's theory of death by heart rupture has been challenged following developments in medical knowledge, he is important as the first scholar to apply modern science to understanding the precise historical events of the crucifixion, an issue which has retained its importance (14).
Religious views
He was apparently inspired to piety at a young age by his grandmother's present of Fox's Book of Martyrs (4). His adult baptism as a student in Bishop Sandford's Episcopal Chapel in Edinburgh is interesting since in later life he was a member of the Countess of Huntingdon's Connexion (6) and one of the trustees of the theological seminary she had founded, Cheshunt College (7). He was a champion of Christian unity: the final conclusion of his Treatise was a hope that it would,
suggest to Christians of different denominations additional motives to unity and brotherly kindness; by reminding them that, in spite of their lamentable dissentions on religious subjects, the points wherein they agree are far moere numerous and important than those on which they differ.
      His Treatise on the Physical Cause of the Death of Christ (available online) was published on 1 January 1847. This stood firmly in the Evangelical Enlightenment tradition that all developments in knowledge could contribute to development in faith:
'With the inspired narratives and doctrines concerning this solemn event the student of Scripture may well be content; but, by penetrating a little beneath the surface, he finds himself in contact with awful realities, more impressive than the most authentic reports, and which may be as distinctly recognised at all times as at the moment of their original occurrence. The entire system of evangelical religion hence acquires new evidence and attraction, tenting to produce a deeper conviction of its truth, and a more cordial compliance with its invitations.
Stroud provided an elegant simile to sum up what he was doing. Should his attempt to use modern medical knowledge to explain how Christ died be successful,
it will furnish a fresh proof of the value of inductive reasoning; which, like a sounding-line let down into the ocean of time, has thus, from the depth of 1800 years, brought up to the surface a pearl of great price.
Stroud's detailed examination of the text of the gospels in the light of his medical knowledge brought him to the conclusion that,
Neither the ordinary sufferings of crucifixion, nor the wound inflicted by the soldier's spear, nor an unusual degree of weakness, nor the interposition of supernatural influence, was the immediate cause of the Saviour's death. The first of these conditions was inadequate, the second followed instead of preceding the event, the third and fourth had no existence. What then, it will be asked, was the real cause? ... It must have been a known power in nature, possessing the requisite efficacy, agreeing with all the circumstances of the case, and by suitable tests proved to be present without counteraction. It will be the object of the ensuing observations to show that the power in which these characters perfectly and exclusively concurred, was AGONY OF THE MIND, PRODUCING RUPTURE OF THE HEART.'
Stroud goes on to demonstrate this conclusion in the light of the evidence. He might have ended his treatise here, having used the light of his scientific knowledge to illuminate the events of the gospels. Yet for Stroud, this would have been idle curiosity, leaving his readers asking, 'So what?' He therefore proceeds to address the theological implications of his conclusion:
The sudden occurrence, the peculiar manner, and all the affecting circumstances of Christ's death ... admit of no other explanation, than that it was the death of an atoning victim vicariously enduring the divine malediction, for which purpose no other mode of death would have been adapted. An incompetent or sinful being would have perished by some of the remote consequences of this malediction; but an adequate and innocent victim must have been destroyed by the malediction itself, and in the manner here represented... The demonstration of the immediate or physical cause of the death of Christ which has now been given serves, therefore, to illustrate and confirm the scriptural doctrine of atonemnent; which, when rightly understood, is worthy of universal acceptance, demanding alike the homage of the understanding, and the adoration of the heart.
For Stroud, a proper understanding of Christ's death from a medical point of view led to a deeper faith, and it received praise from reviewers optimistic about the future it presaged for the joint progress of science and religion. The British Quarterly Review wrote,
It may be described as a contribution of science to theology; and may be taken as an illustration of the manner in which the ever brightening light of modern science may be made tributary to the greater force and completeness of Christian evidence. The theological portion of the work is highly creditable to Dr Stroud's learning and judgement. (8)
The journal of the Evangelical Alliance was also impressed by the ease with which this scientific author handled the spiritual aspects of his subject:
The inquiry might have been prosecuted, even unintentionally, in a manner to wound our moral sensibilities; the understanding might have been convinced, at the expense of a serious injury done to our devotional feelings. Not only, however, is this evil altogether avoided, but the entire work evinces a profound spiritual sympathy with the most hallowed and sacred emotions of the believer, when contemplating the solemn transactions of Gethsemane and the cross. (9)
Stroud launched a tradition of scientific enquiry into the crucifixion which has persisted to the present day, although purpose of the enquiry has shifted. Whereas for Stroud the 'pearl of great price' was an increased comprehension of the grace of the atonement, recent evangelical scholars have been more concerned to provide scientific proof that Jesus really did die on the cross, to defend the truth of the resurrection against sceptics (15).
      In 1853 Stroud published a New Greek Harmony of the Four Gospels, 'including an introductory treatise, and numerous tables, indexes, and diagrams' which is also available online.
He was remembered for his compassion, giving 'gratuitous medical attendance on the poor', and for his sense of humour, 'ever humanely genial, and brimming over with gayety and "pun"... never married, but truly "a family man"... amid the children of relatives, who had been bereaved of their own parents. (4)
Chapel connection
1817, baptised aged 28. Sandford noted in the register, 'from peculiar circumstances not having been baptised in infancy'.
He never married.
While it isn't known whether the Episcopalian Dr James Gregory attended Charlotte Chapel (he was on the committee which built the Cowgate Chapel in 1774 (3)), he was a friend of the Rector Daniel Sandford. Both had attended Christ Church Oxford, although not simultaneously, and Sandford's son wrote that their shared taste for Latin composition acquired there 'was the ground of much delightful intercourse in Edinburgh with that accomplished scholar, and amiable man, Dr Gregory'. Throughout the period of this study (from 1790 until his death in 1821), Gregory was head of the School of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. As well as being a pious student of his friend, Sandford had reason to be interested in Stroud as a native of his own home town of Bath. It seems likely that Sandford and Gregory were together important influences on Stroud: his interest in Christian unity, forensic analysis of the details of the biblical text, and application of modern scholarship to a devotional task, are priorities which strongly echo Sandford's own.


  1. Registers of Charlotte Chapel (NAS CH12/3)
  2. Edinburgh Post Office Directory 1818
  3. Thomas Veitch, The story of St Paul's and St George's Church, York Place, Edinburgh (Edinburgh 1958) p.15
  4. James Morison, D.D. Sketch of the Author's Life, introduction to William Stroud, Treatise on the Physical Cause of the Death of Christ (New York, Appleton and Co. 1871)
  5. Caledonian Mercury 5 August 1819
  6. English Presbyterian Messenger, vol.1 1847. p.378
  7. Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle vol.18, 1830, p.312; and vol.12, 1834, p.234.
  8. British Quarterly Review vol.5 (1847) p.553
  9. Evangelical Christendom, vol.4 (1850) p.96.
  10. Medical Quarterly Review, Vol 1. London 1834. p.174.
  11. 'History' in The Harveian Society of London (website, accessed 9 January 2012
  12. Advertisements in, for example, The Times, 4 Dec 1835; Essex Standard 26 October 1838, and other newspapers until about 1843.
  13. A letter from Sir James Young Simpson, Edinburgh 1862, reprinted from Dr Hanna's 'Last days of our Lord's Passion', in William Stroud, Treatise on the Physical Cause of the Death of Christ (New York, Appleton and Co. 1871)
  14. 'Medical aspects of the crucifixion' in Crucifixion of Jesus (Wikipedia, accessed 9 January 2012)
  15. For example Arthur C. Custance, who adopts Stroud's theory in his article 'How did Jesus die?' online, accessed 9 January 2012

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