by google images

“To those who are shut up from our Society”: Symon Patrick’s Pastoral Ministry in London During the Great Plague of 1665

So widespread was the contagion, one observer reported, that the city’s population began “to fear whom they converse withal, and deal withal, lest they should have come out of infected places.”[1]

An eyewitness went on to describe how “many houses are shut up … and the inhabitants shut in, lest coming abroad they should spread infection.”[2] A once hustling and bustling metropolis, London was characterised by an eerie quiet: “Now shops are shut in, people rare and very few … walk about."[3] Another witness reflected on the traumatic economic toll of the epidemic: “It afflicts some to see such a decay of Trade, and others begin to have apprehensions of Poverty, and think it is possible they fall into want.”[4] Everyone anxiously watched the death toll and its rise or fall, waiting with bated breath for the publication of that week’s “Bill of Mortality”:

We see men startled very much to find the Burials swelled to such an height the Week that is passed; and again it affrights them to think of the sum that this Week current may mount them unto.[5]

From its initial appearance as a localised epidemic in the Chinese province of Wuhan, to its swift metastasising into a global pandemic, the spread of the COVID-19 virus has not only infected the world with a new shared reality that spans continents and languages, but also with a new shared vocabulary: one of “social distancing,” “flattening the curve,” “self-isolation” and exercising an “abundance of caution.” But while the quotations above could easily have been uttered in the early months of 2020, filled as they are with dread, dislocation, economic disruption, and a fearful prospect of an untimely demise, they instead describe the first-hand experience of those who lived through a much earlier disease-borne calamity: the so-called Great Plague that afflicted London in the summer of 1665.

Just as many ministers in 2020 have sought creative means of being pastorally present in the midst of physical distancing, so did those in seventeenth-century London. Those pastors who chose to remain in the midst of a burgeoning societal catastrophe were quick to recognise that shepherding their partially scattered flocks required inventive solutions. This article explores one such pastor’s ministry during the eventful year of 1665: Symon Patrick, the rector of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, and later Bishop of Ely. Our particular focus will be on two exhortations Patrick composed at the height of the Great Plague, published for the express purpose of confronting and edifying his own parish. Entitled, respectively, A Brief Exhortation To Those Who Are Shut Up From Our Society, and Deprived at Present of Public Instruction, and A Consolatory Discourse Persuading to a Cheerful Trust in God in These Times of Trouble and Danger, these early modern efforts at spiritual care in the context of social distancing offer a glimpse into the motivations and methods of a pastor engaged in front-line ministry in unprecedented times for those who lived through them.

“God’s Terrible Voice in the City”

Born in 1626, Symon Patrick was raised in Lincolnshire before completing his university education at Queens’ College, Cambridge. Following his ordination, and after a short stint as the domestic chaplain at Battersea House and then vicar of St. Mary’s Battersea, in 1662 he was appointed rector of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden.[6] At almost the same time the first instances of the bubonic plague began to appear in London in May 1665, Patrick briefly left his parish to visit his parents north of the city. With the Bill of Mortality having dramatically risen from forty-three deaths in the first week of June to 470 by the last, his decision to return in July found him travelling against the prevailing—and one senses, panicked—traffic. “The highways are thronged with passengers and goods” as “London doth empty itself into the country,” is how one eyewitness, the dissenting minister Thomas Vincent, described the exodus in his vivid account of the Great Plague (along with the fire that devoured much of the city the following year) entitled God’s Terrible Voice in the City.[7]

Conspicuous among those who sought relative safety in the surrounding hinterland were many of London’s pastors. The result of this clerical exodus was that “the greatest part of their flock” were left “without food or physic, in their time of greatest need.”[8] Their flight did not go unnoticed—nor uncommented upon. A Friendly Letter to the Flying Clergy Wherein is Humbly Requested and Modestly Challenged the Cause of their Flight appeared on 6 September 1665 when the numbers of deaths caused by the bubonic plague had almost reached their height. As it turns out, the content and tone of the letter was less than friendly! The author, who identified himself only as “J.W.” and a “priest,” declared, “What the sad effects of your flight have been is too, too evident” to believers and unbelievers alike. Among the former, “it hath afforded matter of Contempt, not only of your Persons, but also of your Office”; among the latter, or “true Sons of the Church, it hath been no small cause of fear and doubting.”[9]

While many pastors chose self-preservation over self-sacrifice, there were exceptions. In his A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe recollected how, “though it is true that a great many clergymen did shut up their churches, and fled as other people did, for the safety of their lives,” some nevertheless bravely

ventured to officiate, and to keep up the assemblies of the people by constant prayers, and sometimes sermons or brief exhortations to repentance and reformation, and this as long as any would come to hear them.[10]

If those who abandoned their congregations often received scathing criticism, the admiration for those clergy who remained in the city was inversely proportional. Vincent’s praise is typical: “those which did stay out of choice and duty, deserve true honour.”[11] Among those who remained in the city were not only some Established Church clergy such as Symon Patrick, but also nonconformists, who filled the homiletical void, preaching the gospel “even in the very churches, where the parish ministers were either dead or fled.”[12]

Come July 1665, and the parish of Covent Garden was one location where the minister was very much alive, present, and pastorally active. Patrick’s return to London coincided not just with an exponential increase in the weekly Bill of Mortality (from 470 deaths at the end of June to 2010 by the last week of July), but also with the rapid encroachment of the plague in his own parish. Fisher describes how,

Deaths from the plague in the parish of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, would comprise single figures each week until the last week in July and double figures (with the exception of the second week in August) from then until the end of the first week in October. Figures peaked during September with weekly totals of 26, 29, 18 and 24 deaths and then reduced to single numbers in the second week of October, leading generally to two deaths a week throughout November and up until the middle of December, after which no further deaths attributable to the plague were recorded.[13]

This trajectory mirrored London’s wider experience: the Bill of Mortality climbed steadily throughout the summer before peaking at 7165 deaths in mid-September, after which it began to fall. Public records listed the plague as being the cause of 68,596 deaths during 1665, a number that approached an astonishing twenty percent of London’s population. Behind the impersonal empirical data lay great personal tragedy. “In many houses,” observed Vincent,

… half of the family is swept away; in some the whole, from the eldest to the youngest; few escape with the death of but one or two; never did so many husbands and wives die together; never did so many parents carry their children with them to the grave, and go together into the same house under the earth, who had lived together in the same house upon it. Now the nights are too short to bury the dead: the long summer days are spent from morning unto the twilight in conveying the vast number of dead bodies unto the bed of their graves.[14]

The yersinia pestis bacteria might not have recognised class distinctions in claiming its victims, and yet its impact across English society from a socio-economic perspective was far from even. While some of the populace, especially the wealthy, had the luxury of achieving social distance at their country residences,[15] by contrast, “the poor,” recounted Vincent, were “forced (through poverty) to stay, and abide the storm.”[16]

“To those . . . deprived at present of Public Instruction”

That Patrick chose to “abide the storm” alongside those remaining in his parish—predominantly, it seems, the poorer members of his flock—was in itself a testament to his courage and pastoral EQ.[17] And yet he was not content with a merely physical solidarity. Aware that many in his congregation were “shut up from our Society” in self-isolation and therefore “deprived at present of Public Instruction,” on 19 August 1665, Patrick published the first in a short series of exhortations principally intended “for the use of those Souls that are committed to my Charge.”[18]

Entitled A Brief Exhortation To Those Who Are Shut Up From Our Society, and Deprived at Present of Public Instruction, he adopts the posture of prophetic judgement, drawing an arrestingly direct connection between this period of “such great Calamity, when the hand of God presses you so sore” and “those Sins which … have brought [his parishioners] into it.” Building upon the premise that self-wrought “affliction” is a divinely orchestrated “Season for Consideration,” Patrick urged his parishioners to pursue immediate spiritual introspection, repentance, and reformation.[19] If those under his spiritual care were terrified of the swift, sudden, and painful death caused by the plague itself, then in Patrick’s estimation, they really ought to be more fearful of God’s looming judgement upon their actions that had precipitated the “Rod of God.”[20] He warned,

Now that Death presents itself so near, and looks you in the very face, it is not possible but that you begin to consider how you have lived, and what preparation you have made for another state: Now sure ask yourselves these questions with some passion, What have we done? And What shall we do to be saved? … You have vowed to God (I persuade myself) that if he will spare your lives, you will forsake those sins which have made you so miserable; and live hereafter in a stricter observance of his holy commands.[21]

If the emphasis of Patrick’s mid-August exhortation was largely upon God’s severe judicial sovereignty, it was nevertheless not entirely devoid of comfort. His conclusion, in particular, emphasised God’s goodness in the midst of temporal trials: “Resign yourselves into the hands of his wise Love, that he may dispose of you as he pleases. Believe firmly that he is good, even when he smites.”[22] Though much of his congregation might be “now excluded from external communion with the people of God,” Patrick encouraged them to look forward all the more to the time when they “shall enter into a most happy Fellowship, from which there will be no separation.”[23]

In his second publication, published on 1 September, Patrick’s “errand” was less calling “the careless World to Repentance” (as had been primarily the case in A Brief Exhortation), and more “reviving and cheering” the “drooping Spirits” of genuine believers.[24] The escalating wave of death that had swept over his parish in the previous two weeks seems to have led him to the conclusion that words of comfort, not confrontation, were now desperately required. In A Consolatory Discourse Persuading to a Cheerful Trust in God in These Times of Trouble and Danger, Patrick reveals himself to be profoundly sensitive to the needs of his parishioners at this dire moment. Being immersed in his community as he was, he could write from first-hand observation how “the face of things is now so calamitous, and there is so much sadness discovers itself in the looks of all those who are serious and affected with our present miseries,” that the circumstances begged “for some Consolation.”[25]

Patrick’s spiritual “Universal Medicine”—“one remedy for all Diseases”—consisted in assuring his congregation of God’s faithfulness to his promises: his “promised forgiveness of sins if you heartily amend,” his “promised gift of the Holy Ghost to help … us” and “to comfort and cheer us,” and his promise of “eternal life”; “to reward our Piety, our fidelity, our Patience and Adherence to him.”[26] In offering pastoral assurance, his hope was that

all those who truly repent them of their sins, and apply their thoughts and endeavours to amend their lives, may not make their lives a burden to them by fears, or cares, or grief, or any other of those troublesome passions which we are apt to be haunted withal.[27]

“This Private Message”

Symon Patrick interpreted epidemics like the Great Plague of 1665 to be God-given opportunities; they were “the Mother of many wise Thoughts, and much Knowledge, especially of Men’s selves; to whom they are too great Strangers till that day comes.”[28] The forced isolation, loss of employment, and “a fear of Death, which now surrounds [individuals] on all sides” were surely conducive to self-examination, repentance, and confidence in God as a spiritual refuge.[29] And yet he was not the only pastor to publish words of challenge and comfort during this season. What distinguishes Patrick’s discourses published during the summer of 1665 was the specificity of his intended recipients and his proximity to his congregation as he wrote them. Fisher observes that, “In the context of their time,” these pamphlets “form a unique, remarkable achievement, and represent the only items printed during the plague year specifically for the benefit of members of an individual parish.”[30] Others, like Thomas Doolittle, left his home in London for the safety of Woodford Bridge in Essex, where he composed his prodigious Cordial for Believers In Dying Times for the “public good” of a general audience.[31] Likewise, Richard Baxter’s Short Instructions for the Sick: Especially who by Contagion, or otherwise, are deprived of the Presence of a Faithful Pastor was written to confront and edify a universal readership.[32]

By contrast, Patrick composed A Brief Exhortation first and foremost for the benefit of his own congregation in Covent Garden, addressing it to “those who are shut up from our Society.” Even—or perhaps especially in—unprecedented times, he refused to subcontract the spiritual care of his own people to others. His conclusion poignantly reflects the intimate pastoral relationship he shared with his flock, “Beseeching you, now that our public Instructions cannot reach you,” that “this private Message may be embraced with as much affection as it is sent to you.”[33] Patrick undoubtedly hoped that his work would also “be useful to others also who have any Feeling of God’s Judgments,” and yet it is not accidental that he casts this broader influence as an ancillary, not a primary, motivation for writing.


COVID-19 may have come as a surprise, but a cursory glance at epidemiological history reveals that our experience is far from unique. Global pandemics—or at the very least, devastating epidemics like the one that swept through London in 1665—have always been with us. Symon Patrick’s ministry to the beleaguered remnant of his parish who remained in Covent Garden throughout those fearful summer days when the impact of the Great Plague was most severe is both a sobering and comforting reminder that God’s people have been here before. In times of crisis such as our own, Patrick’s pastoral presence offers us a compelling example of the way the voice of a congregation’s own pastor cannot be readily substituted for another, even in a context where there is no shortage of helpful spiritual counsel circulating in the public sphere. While some might baulk at the precise contours of his doctrine of providence—especially the way he casts the experience of temporal suffering, even death, as the direct corollary of personal sin—Patrick’s example is nonetheless an encouragement for us to do all we can to serve those around us in ominous times in a way that is personal, authentic and sacrificial.

Dr Ian Maddock serves as Senior Lecturer in Christian Thought at Sydney Missionary and Bible College. He is author of Men of One Book: A Comparison of Two Methodist Preachers, John Wesley and George Whitefield and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

[1] Thomas Vincent, God’s Terrible Voice in the City (London: George Calvert, 1667), 32

[2] Ibid., 32.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Symon Patrick, The Heart’s Ease, or a Remedy Against All Troubles (London: Richard Chiswell, 1707), 292.

[5] Ibid., 292.

[6] Nicholas Fisher, Symon Patrick (1626–1707) and His Contribution to the Post–1660 Restored Church of England (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019), 2.

[7] Vincent, Terrible Voice 33.

[8] Vincent, Terrible Voice 33.

[9] J.W. A Friendly Letter to the Flying Clergy Wherein is Humbly Requested and Modestly Challenged the Cause of their Flight (London, 1665), 2.

[10] Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (London: SPCK, 1871), 121.

[11] Vincent, Terrible Voice, 33.

[12] Defoe, Plague Year, 121. In Richard Baxter’s assessment, Church of England clergy who stayed in London during the Great Plague were very much in the minority: “when the Plague grew hot, most of the Conformable Ministers fled, and left their Flocks, in the time of their Extremity,” Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696), iii: 2 §6. If so, it renders Patrick’s presence all the more noteworthy.

[13] Fisher, Symon Patrick, 114.

[14] Vincent, Terrible Voice, 37–38. Likewise, Defoe recounted, “It was indeed a lamentable thing to hear the miserable lamentations of poor dying creatures, calling out for ministers to comfort them and pray with them, to counsel them, and to direct them, calling out to God for pardon and mercy, and confessing aloud their past sins. It would make the stoutest heart bleed to hear how many warnings were given by dying penitents to others, not to put off and delay their repentance to the day of distress: that such a time of calamity as this was no time for repentance.” Defoe, Plague Year, 121–22. See also John Stoughton, Spiritual Heroes; or, Sketches of the Puritans, Their Character and Times (London: Jackson and Walford, 1848), especially Chapter 10.

[15] Vincent described how “the lords and gentry retire into their countries; their remote houses are prepared, goods removed, and London is quickly upon their backs.” Vincent, Terrible Voice, 31.

[16] Ibid., 34.

[17] Patrick addresses his exhortations to those who were left behind in Covent Garden, alluding to the way the wealthiest members of his flock had apparently left for safer pastures. In their absence, he pointedly wrote, “I heartily wish that all they who are now fled, had left a large Portion of their Charity behind them; for I verily believe it would have been a more effectual means to preserve them, than the change of place, or any other that they can use. But they are out of reach of this Paper …” The Heart’s Ease, 333.

[18] Symon Patrick, A Brief Exhortation To Those Who Are Shut Up From Our Society, and Deprived at Present of Public Instruction (London: J. Hayes, 1665), 14.

[19] Patrick, A Brief Exhortation, 1.

[20] Ibid., 2.

[21] Ibid., 1.

[22] Ibid., 13.

[23] Ibid., 13.

[24] Patrick, The Heart’s Ease, 291, 293.

[25] Ibid., 291, 293.

[26] Ibid., 295, 298.

[27] Ibid., 293.

[28] Patrick, A Brief Exhortation, 1.

[29] Patrick, The Heart’s Ease, 292.

[30] Fisher, Symon Patrick, 117.

[31] Thomas Doolittle, A Spiritual Antidote against Sinful Contagion in Dying times; a Cordial for Believers in Dying Times with a Corrosive for Wicked Men in Dying Times (London, 1665).

[32] Richard Baxter, Short Instructions for the Sick: Especially Who By Contagion, or Otherwise, are Deprived of the Presence of a Faithful Pastor (London: Robert White, 1665).

[33] Patrick, A Brief Exhortation, 14.