There are some dates in British history that everyone remembers: 1966, when England won the football world cup; 1066, the Battle of Hastings; and 1666, the Great Fire of London.
Many people probably know what happened in 1665 also, the year before the Great Fire. That was when the Great Plague occurred in London and other parts of the land, resulting in an estimated 100,000 deaths.
Fewer people realise that outbreaks of plague were, in fact, endemic in early modern England and throughout Europe. The second most serious epidemic of the killer disease in England broke out in early summer 1625, and ultimately around 40,000 were to fall victim.
Charles I had just acceded to the English and Scottish crowns when a terrible sickness began to spread to all parts of the city of London. On 25 June, orders were given for parliament to be suspended and moved to Oxford. Restrictions were placed on trade with the capital, as fear grew that goods and fleeing refugees would spread the plague to other parts of the country.
In this climate of increasing panic, an official proclamation was issued from the royal palace of Whitehall announcing a ‘public, general and solemn fast’ to be held throughout the land on Wednesday, 20 July 1625, and every Wednesday following as long as the plague lasted.
To ensure that the fast was properly observed, a service book, entitled A Form of Common Prayer, together with an Order of Fasting, was also issued. In Elizabethan and Stuart England, it was almost a standard reaction to order a time of fasting and prayer during a time of national crisis. Elizabeth I, for example, had commanded a national fast during an outbreak of plague in 1563, and James I had done a similar thing in 1603.
The Elizabethan Book of Homilies, devised by Archbishop Cranmer, contained a sermon on fasting, which declared that ‘when God shall afflict a whole region or country with wars, with famine, with pestilence, with strange diseases, and unknown sicknesses’, then it was time for the whole population to humble themselves before God and ‘pray with one common voice’.
Society as a whole believed that natural disasters and wars were a sign of God’s judgments upon a sinful land. Preachers reinforced this belief from the pulpit, using Old Testament examples (such as Ahab in 1 Kings 21:27-29 and David in
2 Samuel 24:17) to show that such heavy providences could be averted, or at least ameliorated, by a corporate demonstration of repentance during a period of national fasting.
However, although there was general agreement that a fast was necessary to turn away God’s wrath, not everyone had the same ideas about what constituted true fasting. Many saw fasting as something which occurred on set days in the church calendar, notably in Lent. At these times, special rules had to be observed about what foods and activities should be shunned.
For those like the Puritans, true fasting was less about following outer rituals and more about a deep inner humbling of the soul through heartfelt prayer. Puritan fasts became times of mourning over sin, and seeking God’s face together.
The church authorities became increasingly suspicious of these Puritan fast days, especially when they became associated with exorcism in the 1590s. As a result, a bishop’s licence was required for public fasts after 1604. The godly had to be very careful how they conducted these gatherings from then on.
At the time that plague broke out in 1625, Puritans were becoming increasingly marginalised in England, as Arminians and ritualists began to find favour in both church and state. But the Puritans wholly approved of the calling of the national fast and were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the new king and the Church of England.
However, if they went too far and did not follow the prescribed format, they knew that they would be branded as radicals, out of step with the national consensus. Godly preachers, such as John Preston in Cambridge, seized the opportunity of the national fast to urge the necessity for genuine repentance before God (published posthumously as, The Golden Sceptre held forth to the Humble, 1638).
In Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire, Arthur Hildersham did the same. For the people of Ashby, this was the first time they had been able to hear their famous former minister preach for 12 years.
Hildersham, as a ceremonial nonconformist, had been heavily punished by the ecclesiastical authorities for his refusal to subscribe to certain worship rituals which he regarded as unscriptural. He had been suspended from the ministry, banned from preaching, and had suffered a period of imprisonment. Now, in 1625, he had been restored to the ministry and allowed to preach in Ashby again.
St Helen’s Church was full, on the morning of Wednesday, 3 August 1625, as Hildersham entered the pulpit in Ashby. Attendance at the fast was required by law, except for those who could not be excused from their necessary duties, but no doubt the people were eager to hear the great man preach again after so many years of silence.
For his text, Hildersham chose two psalms of David. The first was Psalm 31:13: ‘But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth: I humbled myself with fasting: and my prayer returned into mine own bosom’.
Hildersham preached eight lectures on this verse between 3 August 1625 and 2 August 1626. These were published posthumously in 1633, under the title, The Doctrine of Fasting and Prayer, and Humiliation for Sin.
For Hildersham, King David was a ‘type of Christ’ as he prayed and fasted on behalf of his enemies, whose sins had caused them to be struck down with sickness. The example of David was used by Hildersham as a means to try to engage his congregation with the national fast.
It is clear from his first sermon that many in Ashby felt that a plague raging in London had little to do with them. But, if David could pray for his enemies, surely the folk in Ashby should pray for their fellow-countrymen, Hildersham argued. Besides, they too could be struck down by plague.
There was no room for complacency, when this disease could spread so rapidly and strike so suddenly. Those suffering in London were not greater sinners than the people in Ashby and, Hildersham went on, God sometimes afflicted some to warn all of impending judgment.
Hildersham was aware that many unconverted people who did not normally attend church were in the congregation on the occasion of the fast, so he was determined to challenge them.
He declared that no one could think he could fly from God’s judgment if he had not removed the cause of it — namely, sin — from his life. ‘It behooves us’, urged Hildersham, ‘(without delay) by all means to make our peace with God, and to seek reconciliation with him’. This could only be done by a full confession of sin and striving by a living faith to lay hold on God’s mercy in Christ, and to get Christ’s blood sprinkled upon their hearts.
Some of the godly brethren who usually frequented Hildersham’s lectures evidently felt uncomfortable that these ‘lewd’ sinners were joining with them on the national fast days. ‘And’, agreed Hildersham, ‘we know that “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination unto the Lord”.’ However, he explained to these unhappy believers that, in times of ‘public and general calamities’, the prayers of God’s own people were furthered when others joined with them in this service.
For, although the fullest spiritual blessings were reserved for believers, in a limited and temporal way ‘God hath oft had respect to the cries even of such as have no truth or grace’.
Besides, Hildersham’s desire was that the ungodly and hypocritical people present would be converted. At times of divine ‘grievous visitation’, he explained, ‘we find by experience that … a faithful minister may much better work upon the hearts of men to bring them to repentance than at another time’.
Communal repentance was required if God’s wrath was to be turned away from England, and the possibility of an even greater judgment in the form of war was to be avoided. But this could only be achieved if every individual examined his own conscience before God and humbled himself in true repentance.
Hildersham moves on in the sermon series to a detailed analysis of what this true repentance entails. He shows that the bodily exercise of fasting, which he describes and defines, is merely a means to the end of genuine humiliation (or humbling) for sin. The motives and means to achieve this sincere mourning for sin are outlined.
In the last sermon, preached some months later, Hildersham supplies guidelines for each listener to evaluate how far he had progressed in being truly humbled before God in his own life.
After four sermons on Psalm 35:13, while the national fast was still in operation, Hildersham commenced his exposition of Psalm 51:1-7, on Wednesday 28 September 1625. The two series alternated until the end of the national fast in December 1625, but Hildersham went on to deliver a total of 152 sermons on Psalm 51.
The circumstances of that plague summer of 1625 of a nation under God’s judgment were sobering. Hildersham urgently and powerfully declared God’s truth to his generation. How much today do people need such an urgent reminder to heed the warnings given by such things as natural disasters, a warning that God will judge the human race for its sinfulness and rebellion.
The Doctrine of Fasting and Prayer and Humiliation for Sin (now in print for the first time in nearly 400 years) emphasises the seriousness of sin and its consequences in a way that still speaks to its readers.
The practice of fasting and humbling oneself before God, particularly in times of national or international disaster, is too often a neglected discipline today. Hildersham teaches us how to approach it and why it is still important.
Lesley A. Rowe is an associate fellow in the history department of Warwick University, and the author of The Life and Times of Arthur Hildersham (Reformation Heritage Books, 2013). She has also edited Hildersham’s The Doctrine of Fasting and Prayer and Humiliation for Sin, published in 2017 by Reformation Heritage Books.