The best of Christian writers from across the centuries keep on directing our gaze to Christ and his work. The seventeenth-century Puritans wrote book after book about Christ, perhaps because it was the glory of Christ that sustained them through their hardships.
Let me tell you a story about a pandemic, lockdown and social distancing. Sound familiar? Yet this is a story not from 2020, but from 1665.
That year, the so-called “great plague” broke out in southern England – part of a global pandemic of bubonic plague. At some point a bundle of flea-infested cloth arrived in the village of Eyam in the Derbyshire Dales. The package was opened by a tailor’s assistant called George Viccars. Within days he was dead. Other members of the household fell ill, and the people of Eyam realised they had an outbreak on their hands.
What happened next is an amazing story of courage and self-sacrifice. Three years before, the Rector of Eyam, Thomas Stanley, had lost his ministry during the Great Ejection when around 2,000 Puritan leaders were forced out of the Church of England. The new rector, William Mompesson, remained within the established Church but shared Stanley’s living faith in Christ. Under their combined leadership, the village made the decision to self-isolate. It made sense for people to escape the plague by leaving the village. But that risked spreading the disease to other parts of the north of England. So instead they chose a self-imposed lockdown. No one came into the village and no one left.
To this day there’s a stone on a footpath out of the village with natural indents which, during the plague, were filled with vinegar so villagers could safely leave coins in exchange for supplies. No funerals were held; instead families had to bury their own dead. Church services were held outside so people could practice a seventeenth-century version of social distancing. The plague ran its course over fourteen months. How many people died is disputed, but it’s thought to have been over half the village. The dead included the rector’s own wife, whose grave is still in the churchyard.
Sustained by the truth
COVID-19 has certainly led to strange and challenging times. But, as the story of Eyam reminds us, they are not without precedent. In 1665, the great plague left around 100,000 people dead—a quarter of London’s population. Just as someone can think they’re the centre of the world, so we can think we’re the centre of the ages—as if our challenges are special. But the people of God have faced crises again and again across the centuries. This is one of the great values of church history: the gospel truths that sustained the saints of old are the same truths that will sustain us today.