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Towards the beginning of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Mr. Lockwood has a dream where he is sitting at a sermon by a Jabes Branderham. At a certain point, in this dream, he decides to accuse Jabes of "the sin that no Christian need pardon":

I was condemned to hear all out: finally, he reached the "First of the Seventy-first." At that crisis, a sudden inspiration descended on me; I was moved to rise and denounce Jabes Branderham as the sinner of the sin that no Christian need pardon.
"Sir," I exclaimed, "sitting here within these four walls at one stretch, I have endured and forgiven the four hundred and ninety heads of your discourse. Seventy times seven times have I plucked up my hat and been about to depart—Seventy times seven times have you preposterously forced me to resume my seat. The four hundred and ninety-first is too much. Fellow-martyrs, have at him! Drag him down, and crush him to atoms that the place which knows him may know him no more!"
Wuthering Heights, chapter 3

In this speech by Mr. Lockwood, I can't quite tell what this "sin" is supposed to be. Mr. Lockwood doesn't seem to explicitly accuse Jabes of anything in particular, except perhaps of taking too long. Is being overly verbose what he's referring to here? If so, why is that particularly a sin that "no Christian need pardon"? As a non-Christian, am I missing something?

What is "the sin that no Christian need pardon"?

3 Answers 3

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This is an allusion to the book of Matthew:

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

Matthew 18:21–22. King James Version.

Of course “seventy times seven” is a poetical way of saying “an unlimited number”, not a precise claim that the first 490 sins are forgivable but the 491st is not. For Lockwood to call the 491st “the sin that no Christian need pardon” is an absurdly literal interpretation, but one that’s consistent with his other misunderstandings and faux pas. (There is a mention of an unforgivable sin in Matthew 12:31, but the sin is “blasphemy against the Holy Ghost” and no-one knows what this means.)

In the dream, Lockwood accuses Branderham of this unforgivable sin for sermonizing at such terrible length, but Branderham turns the accusation back upon Lockwood for yawning:

Thou art the Man!” cried Jabez,† after a solemn pause, leaning over his cushion. “Seventy times seven times didst thou gapingly contort thy visage—seventy times seven did I take counsel with my soul—Lo, this is human weakness: this also may be absolved! The First of the Seventy-First is come. Brethren, execute upon him the judgment written. Such honour have all His saints!”

Emily Brontë (1847). Wuthering Heights, chapter 3. Project Gutenberg.

† “Jabes” is the original (and usual) spelling. The earliest edition using “Jabez” that I found is an 1873 Smith, Elder edition. Somehow this editorial change made its way into the Project Gutenberg edition.

This dispute escalates into a pitched battle in the chapel, until Lockwood is woken by the branches of a fir-tree tapping on the window. It is this tapping that is transformed, when he falls asleep again, into his dream of the ghost of Catherine. So we should look for a relation between the two dreams.

The relation of the dream and its Biblical source to the tragedy that follows would seem obvious. It is the want of forgiveness—or phrased positively, it is vengeance—that disrupts the moral and social order of Wuthering Heights. Hindley cannot forgive Heathcliff for usurping the love of his father; so once he is master of the Heights, he sees that Heathcliff is methodically humiliated and degraded. Heathcliff’s degradation in turn enforces a physical and psychological separation from Catherine which preordains her marriage to Edgar Linton. When Heathcliff acquires his fortune, he uses the power it affords to avenge himself against Hindley, whom he easily corrupts and destroys; against Hareton and Catherine, the children, who of course are innocent; against Isabella, who is equally blameless; and through all of these, against Edgar Linton, whom he hates not just as a rival but as an embodiment of everything effete and conventional that erodes Catherine’s spirit and finally destroys her. Father is turned against son, brother against sister, servant against master, husband against wife, lover against lover—“Every man’s hand was against his neighbour.”

Vereen M. Bell (1962). ‘Wuthering Heights and the Unforgivable Sin’. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 17:2, p. 188.

Lockwood’s dream of the “First of the Seventy-First” is also a satire on the tendency of preachers to prolixity and dullness. Emily Brontë lived much of her life in the parsonage at Haworth, where her father Patrick was perpetual curate of St Michael and All Angels’ Church. She must have heard a thousand sermons, not all of them of equal interest.

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    "not all of them of equal interest." You have a hitherto unsuspected gift for comedy, Dr Rees.
    – verbose
    Commented May 8 at 7:55
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The general reference is to Matthew 18.21–22, wherein Jesus advises Peter that a Christian should forgive another's sins as many as four hundred and ninety times:

21Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? 22Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

The context makes the specific meaning clear. Just as Lockwood is falling asleep, he notices the title of a book: Seventy Times Seven, and the First of the Seventy-First: A Pious Discourse delivered by the Reverend Jabez Branderham, in the Chapel of Gimmerden Sough. His last thought before nodding off is to wonder "what Jabez Branderham would make of his subject"—i.e., what, according to Branderham, this unforgivable four hundred and ninety-first offence might be.

Naturally, the subject occupies Lockwood's dream. He imagines that he is struggling to stay awake while listening to Branderham preach this discourse at Gimmerden Sough; that Branderham has enumerated all the four hundred and ninety sins that a Christian must forgive; and that he is about to reveal the unpardonable four hundred and ninety-first. Bored beyond all endurance, Lockwood's dreaming self decides that Branderham's preaching is itself sinful, such that each time he enumerates a sin, he commits one. Therefore, when Branderham finally reaches the four hundred and ninety-first offence, Lockwood is not obligated to forgive him: Branderham has become "the sinner of the sin that no Christian need pardon."

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  • So does "a sin that no Christian need pardon" mean the same as "a sin that no Christian can pardon"? Commented May 8 at 10:40
  • @ClaraDiazSanchez Not necessarily. You can go beyond what's required of you.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 8 at 14:49
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    The passage is usually understood to mean, not that you should literally count up someone's sins and stop forgiving them when they reach 491, but that you should be prepared to go on forgiving for an uncountably long time. Commented May 8 at 15:36
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    @ClaraDiazSanchez those two phrases, to me, are diametrically opposed. "a sin that no Christian can pardon" is a sin that is unpardonable; so egregious that it imperils the soul and leads it to everlasting torment. "a sin that no Christian need pardon" is one that is, on the other hand, easily pardoned, or of such lightweight consequences that it is only the personal concern that needs assuaging. No other person, or clergy, need pardon. Perhaps akin to comparing murder with coveting your best friend's candy haul at Easter.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented May 9 at 12:04
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    @CGCampbell There's another meaning to "A sin than no Christian need pardon". If Jesus asked christians to forgive the first 490 sins (based on Gareth Rees' answer), then christians need to forgive those. But they don't need to forgive the 491th, because Jesus didn't count that far. I guess it's probably part of the joke, that the character feels forced to forgive the 490th first sins and is snapping once he counted to 491.
    – Jemox
    Commented May 10 at 8:52
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The sin of non belief. Credit to the asker of this question. It is the only truth that proves the actual strength, power, and love that goes into the manifestation of Christianity. It's literally built with a cheat code. A real one. One that unbinds everyone from the repetitive values and rituals of today. The kind of thing that would have freed Jesus from suffering the cross, or even NEEDING to be known. The Old Testament wasn't really understood until the New testament happened, so Jesus really did die for all of us. Just in a much different way, and more purposeful way than we perceived.

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  • Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. That unbelief is unforgivable may indeed be an article of the Christian faith, but the relevance of this answer to the question is unclear. The question isn't a general one, but asked in relation to a specific passage in a literary work. What about the passage in Wuthering Heights specifically supports the notion that the sin to which Lockwood is referring is non-belief? Please edit your answer to make the relevance clear. Thanks!
    – verbose
    Commented May 11 at 8:38

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