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Friday, June 1, 2012

London Plagued ( 5 of 6)

Henchman, the Bishop of London, tells us that the clergy who did remain in the City were the 'sober' sort, in other words they were men who were closest to the Puritans and it is not surprising to find examples of them working together during these terrible months. Richard Edwards, rector of St. Anne, Aldersgate, who also had a living at Chislehurst, contracted the plague (from which he recovered) and left the work in the parish of St. Anne to the popular Puritan preacher William Dyer, ejected from Cholsbury, Buckinghamshire, in 1662. A memorial of Dyer's temporary and fervent ministry in Aldersgate exists in the form of two sermons he preached during the plague and afterwards published for the benefit of the parishioners - 'Christ's Voice to London' and 'The Great Day of God's Wrath'. The pages of these old sermons carry us back across three hundred years and we may imagine what they meant to those who first heard them :

'O London, London! God speaks to thee by his Judgments; and because thou wouldest not hear the Voice of His Word, He hath made thee to feel the stroke of His rod. O London! how are thy streets thinned, thy widows increased, and thy Burying places filled, thy inhabitants fled, thy trade decayed! .... O what a sad and doleful place hath this City been for several weeks past! The greatest trade which hath been here amongst us was to bury the dead, and tend the sick.'

But such words were not the theme of Dyer's sermons; he and his brethren stood to their posts because they had a message of love, comfort and joy which they knew was more powerful than ever in the devouring plague. Dyer gloried in declaring 'the pity, the mercy and willingnes of God to do your souls good.' 'O sinners!' he pleaded, 'go to Christ, His Promises are open to you, his Arms are open to embrace you, His Spirit is ready to assist you, and His people are ready to receive you, and His Angels are ready to attend you, and Heaven itself is ready to receive you .... O therefore, let this prevail with you to go to Christ for Light, for Life, for Grace, for Strength, and for Comfort and Peace, that of His fulness you may receive grace for grace, John 1.16.'

Strange though it may seem to the natural man, even in the midst of the Great Plague the Christians of London were sweetly persuaded of the love of Christ. It was His love constraining them that made men like Vincent and Dyer gladly leave the countryside to live in the stricken parishes; it was His love which they preached and it was the consciousness of this same love which enabled believers to be unshaken at the dreadful form of death to which they were as equally exposed as their fellow citizens. A letter which John Allin, already mentioned. wrote to his friend Philip Fryth at Rye on September 7th gives us an example of the comfort the Puritans had in this knowledge of God's love: 'The increasing sickenes hath now drawne very nigh mee; and God knoweth whither I may write ony more or no: it is at the next doore on both hands of mee, and under the same roof .... but I have no place of retireing, neither in the city nor country; none in heaven nor earth to go unto but God onely; the Lord lodge mee in the bosom of his love, and then I shall be safe whatever betides.' But to non-Christians these were days of terror. The Diary of the worldly Londoner, Samuel Pepys, is full of fears and alarms in these weeks when the plague was at its height. Driving one day from Bloomsbury down Holborn into the City, Pepys tells us he noticed the coach getting slower and slower until it finally stopped and the coachman staggered to inform them that he felt very sick and almost blind. Pepys fled to another coach, 'with a sad heart for the poor man, and for myself also' - lest he also should be struck down. There were many in London like Pepys who were too frightened to offer any help to the sick and the dying. In marked contrast we read of Vincent that one day he came upon a man who had been suddenly seized with the plague and, having become helplessly dizzy, he had struck his head and lay bleeding and dying under a tree in Morefields: 'I went and spoke to him,' says Vincent, 'he could make me no answer, but rattled in the throat, and as I was informed, within half an hour died in the place.'

A man might thus die suddenly on the street, so also might a minister in the pulpit or a Christian in his home. Many Christian families were in fact visited by the plague,¹ but though they suffered the same disease, death was not to them, says Vincent, 'a storm that dashed them upon the rocks of terror'. In death they were, yet not in danger - 'the winds are hushed and still, the waves are smooth and silent, the storm is over'. The dying Puritan did not know the words but he knew well the faith of the hymn-writer :

Peace, perfect peace, death shadowing us and ours?
Jesus has vanquished death and all its powers.

'It was generally observed amongst us,' Vincent records, 'that God's people who died by the plague amongst the rest, died with such peace and comfort, as Christians do not ordinarily arrive unto except when they are called forth to suffer martyrdom for the testimony of Jesus Christ. Some who have been full of doubts and fears and complaints. whilst they have lived, and been well, have been filled with assurance, and comfort, and praise and joyful expectation of glory, when they have lain on their death-beds with this disease. And not only more grown Christians, who have been more ripe for glory, have had these comforts, but also some younger Christians, whose acquaintance with the Lord hath been of no long standing.'

Vincent documents his statement with cases of some of those who at this time had taken refuge in his own household. One Monday, late in September, he had been out as usual comforting the bereaved and the dying: "I had been abroad to see a friend in the city, whose husband was newly dead of the plague, and she herself visited with it; I came back to see another, whose wife was dead of the plague, and he himself under apprehensions that he should die within a few hours." Arriving home after this sad day, he found his maid dying and also one of the young people in a fainting fit and calling out for help. 'What was an interest in Christ worth then!' he exclaims, 'what a privilege to have a title to the kingdom of heaven!' The following Thursday the young woman died, followed the next Lord's Day by a youth in the household, and three days later a second youth also passed away. These two youths, says Vincent, 'were less troubled themselves than others were for them' for the Grace of God beautified their last hours. The latter, a boy of about seventeen years, had such quiet and serenity of spirit that, Vincent records, 'I confess I marvelled to see it ... he went away with great peace and sweetness in his looks, to his father's house: and I could not blame the mother's grief for the loss of such an only son.

Spelling as originally rendered. Final instalment in a couple of days.

Sam Drucker


1. In Thomas Brooks' 'The Privie Key of Heaven', which was first published when the plague was at its height, he says in his Epistle Dedicatory to several 'afflicted' Christian women: 'many and great have been the breaches that The Lord hath made upon your persons, upon your near and dear relations, and upon your sweetest comforts and contentments'. None bore a heavier grief than parents whose children suffered. Few infants born at this time survived. Vincent says that he saw no sight more heartbreaking than that of 'a woman with a little coffin under her arm, carrying it to the new church-yard.' It was no superficial message that could give consolation amidst such tragic scenes.

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