(Editor’s note: In light of recent news events, it seemed fitting to repost this article written in February 2012 by George Lawson.)
In the beginning of May, 1665 London had a divine appointment with what the Puritan Thomas Vincent described as “one of the most terrible plagues that was ever visited on this or perhaps any other kingdom.” We now know it as the bubonic plague.
The disease at first claimed the lives of only nine people, but after a pause it rapidly spread across the city and was soon taking no less than 470 people a week. The number of deaths collected from the bills of mortality amounted to 68,596 in that first year, though some have estimated that the number was much higher.
Vincent tells us that the progression of the disease “began with a pain and dizziness in their head, then trembling in their other members.” They felt “boils under their arm…and saw blains to come forth in other parts” and when spots appeared they were considered “the certain tokens of near approaching death.” (Vincent, God’s Terrible Voice, 14-15)
The introduction to The True Christian’s Love to the Unseen Christ contains a description of the outbreak:
“On every hand were to be heard the groans of the dying, the lamentations and the distress of the survivors. In vain did thousands look for consolation in their last moments from those who had ministered to them the Word of Life. Dismay and terror had alike seized the pastor and his flock and a place of safety from the plague was all that either the one or the other had time, or in general the inclination to seek.”
Vincent was pastoring a flock that was at the heart of the outbreak, and he was strongly urged by fellow ministers to flee the city. In one of the more remarkable cases of pastoral sacrifice, he refused. He said he would not allow any to “weaken his hands in this work.” He could not bring himself to leave his flock “in the time of their greatest need” and committed himself to the protection of his God.
“Without fear he rushed into the scenes of contagion and entered the dwellings of disease and death” and “though upwards of sixty-eight thousand died in London including seven persons in the house in which Mr. Vincent resided, yet did he continue in perfect health during the whole season of the visitation.”
It is worth noting that Vincent had no divine revelation that promised his safety through this plague. There was no guarantee that he would be immune to the disease as long as he was engaged in the Lord’s work. He understood that committing himself to the protection of God did not obligate the Lord to preserve him.
So why then would he risk his life to enter the jaws of death itself?
The 17th century Puritan gives us at least one answer to this question from his own hand. In his book The True Christian’s Love to the Unseen Christ he writes:
“If you have but little love to Christ, you will be apt to faint in the day of adversity, to shrink when you are called to take up His cross and suffer for His sake. Lesser sufferings will decompose you, greater sufferings will frighten you and amaze you, and you will be in danger of turning into fearful apostates in time of great trials. There is need of great love to Christ, as well as great faith, to carry you through sufferings with courage that you may persevere unto the end” (p. 33).
Thomas Vincent’s words, backed up by his example, strike a blow to my anemic love for Christ and His flock.
The next time you are tempted to complain in your ministry, remind yourself of the words of life spoken from the jaws of death. “May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thessalonians 3:5)