Monday, April 27, 2020

Church In The Time Of The Virus (Episode 9): Spurgeon And The Plague Of London

When churches suspended their weekly brick and mortar meetings, I decided to take some time to address online what it looks like for the church to be the church in times like this. Thus, The Church In The Time Of The Virus. I began posting this on my church’s Facebook page several weeks ago; since then, I have had some thoughtful conversations sparked by some of the issues I addressed. Because of that – and because I like wrestling with important ideas – each post is going to follow this format:

  • Video
  • Transcript
  • Reflections

The beautiful thing about the reflections part is that I can constantly update it, so the conversation can continue! You are welcome to offer helpful comments in the comment section and be a part of this conversation/archival record (as local and modest as it is).

(Read and Watch Episode 1: Introduction)
(Read and Watch Episode 2:Fearless, Not Fearful)
(Read and Watch Episode 3: Bold, But Not Foolhardy)
(Read and Watch Episode 4: Sacrificial Of Self, Not Others)
(Read and Watch Episode 5: Faith-fullness Involves Trust)
(Read and Watch Episode 6: Faithfulness Requires Humble Obedience)
(Read and Watch Episode 7: The Church’s History During Plagues)
(Read and Watch Episode 8: Thinking With Both Hands)

Episode 9: Spurgeon And The Plague Of London


Welcome to Church In The Time Of the Virus, Episode 9. I mentioned Spurgeon before. I’d like to read a bit more from his account of his life during the Plague of London, then offer a few observations.
“In the year 1854, when I had scarcely been in London twelve months, the neighborhood in which I labored was visited by Asiatic cholera, and my congregation suffered from its inroads. Family after family summoned me to the bedside of the smitten, and almost every day I was called to visit the grave.”
“I went home, and was soon called away again; that time, to see a young woman. She also was in the last extremity, but it was a fair, fair sight. She was singing, — though she knew she was dying, — and talking to those round about her, telling her brothers and sisters to follow her to Heaven, bidding goodbye to her father, and all the while smiling as if it had been her marriage day. She was happy and blessed.”
“All day, and sometimes all night long, I went about from house to house, and saw men and women dying, and, oh, how glad they were to see my face! When many were afraid to enter their houses lest they should catch the deadly disease, we who had no fear about such things found ourselves most gladly listened to when we spoke of Christ and of things Divine.”
On one occasion, at three in the morning, Spurgeon was summoned to visit a dying man who was not a Christian, but actually opposed him:

“That man, in his lifetime, had been wont to jeer at me. In strong language, he had often denounced me as a hypocrite. Yet he was no sooner smitten by the darts of death than he sought my presence and counsel, no doubt feeling in his heart that I was a servant of God, though he did not care to own it with his lips… I stood by his side, and spoke to him, but he gave me no answer. I spoke again; but the only consciousness he had was a foreboding of terror, mingled with the stupor of approaching death. Soon, even that was gone, for sense had fled, and I stood there, a few minutes, sighing with the poor woman who had watched over him, and altogether hopeless about his soul.”

It was challenging for Spurgeon:
At first, I gave myself up with youthful ardor to the visitation of the sick, and was sent for from all corners of the district by persons of all ranks and religions; but, soon, I became weary in body, and sick at heart. My friends seemed falling one by one, and I felt or fancied that I was sickening like those around me. A little more work and weeping would have laid me low among the rest; I felt that my burden was heavier than I could bear, and I was ready to sink under it. 


I was returning mournfully home from a funeral, when, as God would have it, my curiosity led me to read a paper which was wafered up in a shoemaker’s window in the Great Dover Road. It did not look like a trade announcement, nor was it, for it bore, in a good bold handwriting, these words: — “Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.”  



The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as her own. I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying, in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil, and I suffered no harm. The Providence which moved the tradesman to place those verses in his window, I gratefully acknowledge; and in the remembrance of its marvelous power, I adore the Lord my God.”


* * * * *
A few things stand out.
First, Spurgeon did not sicken or die – but others did. This reminds me of Luther’s letter: God calls and even protects some in ways He does not others. The Apostle Paul got our of prison; John the Baptist was beheaded. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are spared the fire; read Fox’s Book of Martyrs to see how many other followers of God were not. Neither the Bible, Luther or Spurgeon give the impression that specially protected people earned it somehow. Like the children of Israel, God looked at a particular person and said, “I choose you to do my work in the world.”
Many others in Spurgeon’s and Luther’s congregations died. Throughout history, these stories are not unusual. God, through the gift of hearty genetics or the grace of divine providence or both, sets aside some to suffer no harm as they do his work. Others do suffer harm, sometimes death. Neither Spurgeon nor Luther suggested they lack faith. They saw it as an act of providence.
There is no template that tells us what the result will be for us individually during a pandemic. That is up to God. Our role is to be faithfully present in the situation into which we are placed.
Second, there is a burden for those who minister. There is no sense from Spurgeon or Luther that they went skipping about their business, or felt the need to present themselves with bravado or pomp or energetic positivity. They spent day after day sitting with those who were dying, and weeping with their families.
I’ll be honest: I don’t have much time for people on TV who claim such great faith that sickness cannot touch them when they remain isolated from those from whom they say they are protected, and whom they say they can heal, or from whom they can blow the virus away. Go to them. Sit with the sick and dying. God may heal them, and you can rejoice together. He may not, and you will weep together. If you cannot get sick, you have nothing to fear. If you can get sick, to die is gain.
If you are not ready to bear the pastoral burden of grief, don’t shout from the rooftops about your prophetic mantle of faith.
If you want to claim that sickness cannot touch you simply because you are a Christian, I disagree, but that’s fine.  Just…live like you mean it after you say it. Perhaps God has set you aside for such a time as this. I don’t know. Maybe He has. But if you believe this to be true, run to the front lines of the battle where you can both weep and rejoice.
Third, an unnamed and unknown shopkeeper at some point in history has no idea that his post from Psalm 91 would so inspire one of the greatest preachers in history to minister so well to the sick and dying. You matter. Your faithfulness matters. Look around you: what can you do today to encourage, strengthen or comfort others with the message of gospel truth, the actions of gospel love, or the presence of the hands and feet of Jesus? You may remain unnamed and unknown when we talk about the virus and the quarantine of 2020, but you have no idea what the ripple effect of your life is.
Your faithfulness matters. Love God. Love others. Be a faithful presence. God will do what God does with a life such as this.


  • May 3, 2020