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Sunday, June 3, 2012

London Plagued (Final instalment of 6)

The official figure for the deaths by plague in August, 1665 was 20,000; men knew that in reality the numbers were higher. The new month with its cooler weather brought new hopes, but they were soon turned to black dismay. The mortality figures were still rising; 8,252 dead the first week, then a slight drop to 7,690, only to mount in the week, September 12th to 19th, to the dreadful total of 8,297! One London doctor declared that in one night he believed four thousand plague victims perished. The disease had now reached a violence which numbed and appalled the paralysed city. Out of the 130 parishes in and about London only four were not attacked by the plague and in these four there were few people who had not earlier joined in the flight to the country. Death had at first swept the narrow alleys now it dominated the open streets. 'The spectre of imminent death stared each man nakedly in the face. Never before throughout the visitation had the Plague been so fierce. Hardly a person attacked now escaped with life .... The doctors were amazed.' 'Fears there are amongst us,' wrote Vincent, 'that within a while there will not be enough alive to bury the dead; and that the city of London will now be quite depopulated.'

From such fears God was to deliver London. Gradually through October the numbers fell, and though 1,414 persons died in the first week of November the situation was at last coming under control. By January 1666, though the Court was still absent and the well-to-do western of London - from Covent Garden to Westminster - still empty of people, conditions were fast returning to normal. Yet normal is hardly the right word. The City to which the more prosperous classes who had opportunity to escape returned, amidst the snow and frost of winter, was not just the city which they had known six months before. Though no plague pits were marked, and few gravestones raised to commemorate the loss of relatives and friends, it needed no such memorials to remind them that some 110,000 persons in the small city had gone for ever - almost one out of every three of those who had remained. Such an event was not soon effaced from men's memories. In 1721, when there was fear of the plague returning to England, there were many who knew, from memory or from the lips of parents, what that would mean; even in 1854, when C. H. Spurgeon commenced preaching in London, he could refer to the days when grass grew in the city's streets and assume that his hearers understood the event to which he referred.

Today the Great Plague of 1665 is just another episode in 17th Century history which can be explained on naturalistic grounds: it was the chance combination of historical circumstances - insanitary conditions, rat infestation and medical ignorance - these factors and nothing more, it is said, are necessary to explain what occurred. Similarly, with regard to the Fire of 1666 which destroyed ninety per cent of the City and left it like the crater of a volcano, we are told to look no further than the bakers' ovens and merchants' furnaces, burning amidst crowded timber-framed houses, and close to such combustible goods as tallow, hemp, oil and hay, for the ultimate explanation of the cause. Our generation no longer believes in "acts of God" nor in sermons with titles like one of John Owen's, 'The Goodness and Severity of God in His Dealing With Sinful Churches and Nations', or 'The Only Way To Deliver A Sinful Nation From Utter Ruin By Impending Judgments'. Yet the modem attitude is not new; it is the old blindness of the natural man to the moral providence of a righteous God - the blindness over which Isaiah mourned when he cried. 'Lord, when thy hand is lifted up, they will not see' (Isa. 26.11), and to which the men of Judah bore testimony against themselves when they said regarding threatening calamities, 'It is not he; neither shall evil come upon us; neither shall we see sword nor famine' (Jer. 5,12).

Such has been the spreading unbelief of the 20th Century that the whole concept of God dealing with countries at the present time in the manner which we find related in the historical accounts of Scripture is strangely foreign to us. Men do not even consider the possibility that the principles of Divine government enunciated in texts like, 'He increaseth the nations and destroyeth them' (Job 12.23), and 'The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God' (Psa. 9.17), are still in force. Faith in these warnings seems almost to have disappeared from the professing Church and the popular theology today is in line with the religion of Charles II who, we read, 'had large notions of God's mercy, and could never believe that He would damn one of His creatures for taking a little irregular pleasure by the way .... somehow, he trusted, he would climb up to Heaven's gate.'¹

The New Testament bids us, 'Remember Lot's wife'; it tells us that the guilt of Christ-rejecting people exceeds the guilt of Sodom; it shows us God smiting Herod with disease (Acts 12.23) and inflicting death at Corinth (1 Cor. 11.30, 31); it speaks of a wrath revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men; and it pronounces wrath to the uttermost upon a degenerate ecclesiasticism (1 Thess. 2.16). The story of 1665, read in the light of such Scriptures, speaks loudly to us. We may conclude with the words of John Owen :

'I told you I would do no more than speak a word or two for the present occasion: and I shall speak that which I do believe; and if you do so too, it may be your mercy. But it is a hard thing to believe London is ruined and England fallen, when we have peace and enjoy all things; but if we speak it in pride, it will be harder how to avoid it.

First, Is there not a confluence of all sorts of sins among us whereof mankind can contract guilt, especially of those sins upon the commission of which God pronounces a nation ruined - atheism and profaneness, blood and murder, adultery and uncleanness, and pride? When these sins are predominant in a nation that makes profession of the knowledge of God, God himself saith, and we may say, that nation is ruined. Those things have prevailed among us.

Then let us mourn over those sins as we ought to do. Have we done so in this congregation? Hath it been done in any congregation in England as it ought? Hath it been done in private, in our retirement, to mourn over that confluence of sins that hath prevailed and spread itself over the nation till it hath reached to the very neck? We have not done it to this very day. There is not the least attempt for any reformation. Do we think in such a day as this is a little prayer is enough to save a dying nation? There is nothing seriously done to work that reformation without which London will be undone and England will fall, and there will be no deliverance ....

It is time for us to consider the causes of this displeasure of God, testified so openly against us, to be humbled for them, and return unto the Lord. It is high time so to do. Oh, blessed is he that contributes any thing hereunto in this particular! The Lord raise up some, and pour his Spirit upon them, to be useful unto this end; that we may help to save ourselves, the city, and the nation wherein we live, and the residue of the churches in this land!

So ends a helpful view into the Plague of London of the 17th Century. The article appeared in the March 1965 edition of the Banner of Truth Journal, written, I suspect, by the then Editor, Iain Murray.

May it be the subject of sober reflection and prayer to God for the need of this present day.

Sam Drucker


1. King Charles II, Arthur Bryant, p.287

2. John Owen's Works, (Goold edit.), Vol 8, p.622

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