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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

London Plagued (4 of 6)

"Even as Mead was exhorting his brethren to resume their preaching there were several who were already openly ministering day and night, and in the weeks which followed they were joined by many others who were ready to defy both death and the authorities if they might by any means save some. For the last time the Puritans mounted the pulpits vacated by their successors and preached to the vast congregations who again gathered to hear their former spiritual leaders. Vincent's graphic narrative brings the scene to life :

'Now they are preaching and every sermon was unto them as if they were preaching their last. Old time seems now to stand at the head of the pulpit, with its great scythe, saying with a hoarse voice. Work while it is called today, at night I will mow down. Grim death seems to stand at the side of the pulpit with its sharp arrow, saying. Do thou shoot God's arrows, and I will shoot mine. The grave seems to lie open at the foot of the pulpit, with dust in her bosom, saying,

Louden, thy cry
To God,
To Men,
And now fulfil thy trust:
Here thou must lie,
Mouth stopt,
Breath gone.
And silent in the dust.

Now there is such a vast concourse of people in the churches, where these ministers are to be found, that they cannot many times come near the pulpit doors for the press, but are forced to climb over the pews to them; And such a face is now seen in the assemblies, as seldom was seen before in London; such open ears, such greedy attention, as if every word would be eaten, which dropt from the mouths of ministers. If you ever saw a drowning man catch at a rope, you may guess how eagerly many people did catch at the Word, when they were ready to be overwhelmed by this overflowing scourge, which was passing thro' the city; when death was knocking at so many doors, and God was crying aloud by His judgments; and ministers were now sent to knock, cry aloud, and lift up their voice like a trumpet: then, then the people began to open the ear and the heart, which were fast shut and barred before: How did they then hearken, as for their lives, as if every sermon was their last; as if death stood at the door of the church and would seize upon them so soon as they came forth .... When the Lord Jesus Christ is made known, O the longing desires and openings of heart unto Him! When the riches of the Gospel are displayed, and the promises of the Covenant of Grace are set forth and applied, O the inward burnings and sweet flames which were on the affections! Now the net is cast, and many fishes are taken; many were brought to the birth, and I hope not a few were born again, and brought forth; a strange moving there was upon the hearts of multitudes in the city, and I am persuaded that many were brought over effectually unto a closure with Jesus Christ; whereof some died by the plague with willingness and peace; others remained stedfast in God's ways unto this day.'¹

The record of the service the Puritans gave London in the terrible summer of 1665 has never been written and probably never will be, but Walter Bell has told us enough about what went on in one parish to give us some conception of what their total labours must have been. Bell wrote the standard history of the Great Plague in 1924, from the viewpoint of a secular historian, and his testimony to the work of the ejected ministers in the plague year is perhaps all the more impressive because he has no personal sympathy with their religious convictions.

The Plague first appeared on the western outskirts of the City in the old parish of Thomas Case, St. Giles-in-the-Fields. After working terrible havoc in that district it spread, despite all efforts to contain it, swiftly and silently in all directions, and by July had carried death right into the heart of the City. The parish of St. Giles Cripplegate immediately became a centre of infection and in the next three months this parish alone lost 6,640 dead by the Plague, how many more were unrecorded no one knows. In the month of August the lists in the Burial Register of St. Giles Cripplegate fill one hundred pages and on one dreadful day, August 18th, there is the record of the burial of 151 of its parishioners! As this parish was a centre of plague, the Puritans also chose to make it a centre of spiritual warfare and grim was the conflict they waged for the Gospel with death walking and thinning their ranks on every hand. If the true annals of England's glory were to be written the battle of St. Giles Cripplegate would find a higher place than the Charge of the Six Hundred at Balaclava. There were perhaps several reasons why the Puritans seem to have concentrated their witness in this parish. Bell conjectures that poverty had forced some of the poorer Nonconformist ministers to take lodgings in this poorer district.² But others came willingly into the parish and the fact that before 1662 Cripplegate had experienced some bright years of spiritual harvest under the ministry of Dr. Samuel Annesley points us to a further reason. Annesley was as true a soul-winner as his grandson, John Wesley, and a better theologian. The last thirty years of his life he walked in "uninterrupted assurance of God's covenant love". Clearly after such a ministry there were believers who in the parish now needed care in their last hours. But care was not to be found in Annesley's successor, John Pritchett. Pritchett, a notorious pluralist, had been among the first to flee and never return till the infection was over. He left behind him one solitary curate to report the progress of events and to do the best he could. 'It was impossible,' writes Bell, 'that one man, however willing, could in the fearful conditions of Cripplegate minister to the whole of that large parish, bring consolation to the sick and shrive the dying. The work was done, and it was done by Nonconformist ministers. They are the real heroes of the Plague, the men whose golden example ennobles their great profession, and condemns the political Churchmen who made them outcasts .... They knew the risk they ran. In St. Giles Cripplegate burial register you read these names, all entered at the height of the Plague :—

Aug. 27 Samuel Austin, minister, plague.
Sept. 6 John Askew, minister, plague.
" 15 Samuel Skelton, minister, plague.
" 16 Abraham Jennaway (Janeway), minister, plague.
" 23 Henry Marley, minister, plague.
" 30 John Wall, minister, plague.

Two Others, John Grimes, a well-known Nonconformist divine, and Benjamin Needham, also described as 'minister', were buried in Cripplegate during the Plague .... Nothing strikes the imagination so vividly as the death of these many dissenting ministers, following so closely one upon another. They were the victims of persecution within the Church, and martyrs to the duty they accepted without flinching, when the courage of others failed. Dr. Pritchett, the fugitive vicar, lived to take the Bishopric of Gloucester. So the world rewards men.'³

Only a few of the sermons preached during the visitation have survived but they make solemn reading. One is a funeral sermon at burial of Abraham Janeway, mentioned in the list above, preached in the old pulpit of Edmund Calamy in Aldermanbury Church by Thomas Vincent. Vincent's words give us a further glimpse of what had been going on in Cripplegate. 'He showed great pity and compassion to souls,' testified Vincent of Janeway, 'he spent himself, and hastened his own death to keep others from perishing everlastingly'.

More soon. Spelling is as originally given.

Sam Drucker


1. God's Terrible Voice in the City was published in 1667. Vincent who had been minister of St Mary Magdalen, Milk Street, before the Ejection, died in 1678.

2. "Often in the accounts of City parishes, when church wardens were giving their little charities or relief, I have come across entries such as 'To _____, a poor Minister, 1s.' and 'To a poor minister's widow, 1s. 6d.' - it is pathetic beyond words. For these were educated, spiritually-minded men, who had sacrificed all for conscience." Op.cit., p. 149

3. Op.cit., pp.149-152.

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