Eyam: When the Plague Closed Church

In the seventeenth century, a village in England did the unthinkable. They closed the doors to the church! There were no online service options back then and the church was the central point for all community activity. Even during some of the worst days of disease churches would remain open for people to pray and ask God to intervene. Closing the doors seemed like giving up at best and heresy at worst.

A New Minister

In 1664 the village received a new priest, William Mompesson. Their previous priest, Thomas Stanely had been kicked out of the church because he wouldn’t conform to all of the rules of the Church of England. Mompesson came to a torn community that was already filled with tension. It likely didn’t help matters that Stanely remained close to the village, living just outside of its boundaries.

Real Problems Hit

If the tensions in the community were not already bad enough, shortly after Mompesson’s arrival, the plague soon followed. In 1665, the tailor in town received a bundle of cloth from London to prepare for an upcoming festival. The cloth was infested with fleas that would normally have begun feeding on a family of rats. However, there were no rats nearby so the plague-infected fleas attacked the tailors’ assistant. Shortly after the assistant passed away, the tailor passed away. It wasn’t’ long before death began to spread.

Pastoral Care

It would have been easy for William Mompesson to take his wife and children and leave town. Many may have said that was a wise decision. He chose a different path. Mompesson knew that extreme measures had to be taken. He felt a sense of responsibility to care for the physical needs of this world as well as the spiritual.

Mompesson had no governmental authority to do anything and he had no way to enforce compliance. He was going to have to convince everyone in the village to do the right thing. He knew that he was not popular enough to convince them on his own.

Mompesson ventured out of town to enlist the help of the former priest of Eyam. Thomas Stanely had been kicked out of the church and out of town, but Mompesson needed his help. The two talked and together agreed on measures that the community needed to take.

Extreme Times

The two pastors together addressed the community and proposed that they impose a self-quarantine. They created a perimeter around the town and convinced people to not leave. They would have food and medicines delivered a large stone on the perimeter outside of town. That way, they would not take the plague to anyone else and they could stop the spread. Their goal was to hopefully save lives. The problem was, this could mean certain death for the citizens of Eyam.

The village would also have to bury their own dead. Mompesson believed that carting the diseased bodies through the village to the cemetery for a traditional burial service would increase the chance of spreading the plague. He proposed that when someone died, they should be buried immediately and as close to where they died as possible.

They set up “Mompesson’s Well,” a place where the citizens could pick up the food and medicines. They would leave their coins at the well. Mompesson added vinegar to the water of the well to wash the coins to disinfect them so they could be sent out to those delivering the goods.

The last measure that needed to be followed was closing the church. The two pastors agreed that the entire community gathering together in one enclosed space would mean death for everyone. When they did meet, they did so in a wide-open field where people could distance themselves and those who were infected could be completely separate.

Today

So what does this mean for us in the church today? A lot. Our current pandemic isn’t the same as the plague, but it is spreading. It’s making a lot of people sick and some are dying. There’s a lot of fear spreading as well. As pastors, we should take away a few lessons from William Momessons.

First, be willing to be bold. Some of the measures he proposed might seem reasonable in today’s world of science and medicine. In the seventeenth century, these ideas were way ahead of their time and in most cases unpopular. Infection control was still something that most people knew nothing about.

Second, be educated. The fact that Momessons thought of these measures shows his dedication to education outside the Bible. This also shows his dependence on the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Third, be willing to collaborate. William was willing to reach out to someone he could have viewed as a threat. He was willing to know his own limitations and lean on others for strength. We can’t know it all or do it all. Be willing to lean on those who can help in the areas you cannot. Don’t let your pride get in the way of taking care of God’s people.

Fourth, gather people to the vision. William didn’t stand in front of his congregation and say, “this is what we’re doing, deal with it.” He had to convince everyone this was the best way to go. If he wasn’t able to get everyone on board, this would never have worked. We can’t railroad our ideas through. We have to work together as a community and that means taking whatever steps necessary to get people on board.

What Now?

We live in uncertain times. However, they’re only uncertain to us. They aren’t uncertain to God. He has placed the right people in the right places to lead the church in the right direction. We need to be willing to be humble, educate ourselves, work with others as a community, and most of all listen to God’s guidance.