Religion & the Sickness Experience in Early Modern Britain.

Over the years, a number of studies have been made of the sickness experiences of clergymen and religious figures as recorded in their diaries. One of the most well known is that of the diarist Ralph Josselin, vicar of Earl’s Colne in Essex. Another, lesser known, diarist I studied in the course of researching my book was Phillip Henry of Broad Oak in Flintshire, a puritan minister whose mid seventeenth-century diary covers a time of great religious upheaval, but also goes into great detail about his sicknesses. I also uncovered the records of an eighteenth-century Welsh Methodist preacher, who recorded the behaviours of his sick parishioners, naturally viewed through the lens of his own religious beliefs.

In every case, it is clear not only how central religious beliefs were in interpreting and understanding sickness, but how individual experiences could be affected by denomination.

For Puritans like Phillip Henry, for example, sickness was a test from God and it was up to the individual to interpret the message being given to them. In many ways sickness was to the body what sin was to the soul – both needed firm and definite action. As Henry wrote in 1657 “They that are whole need not a Physician…sin is the sickness of the soule, and sin-sick soules stand in great need of a Physician, and that Physician is none other than Jesus Xt”.

(c) Mansfield College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Mansfield College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When ill, Henry constantly monitored his symptoms and looked for causes in his behaviour. If he had a cold, he might wonder whether this was a result of the sin of pride. In other cases he felt that illness had been brought on by his over-attachment to wordly goods, or laxity in prayer. In almost every case, he viewed his body as the instrument through which God was correcting him.

If anything impressed the Godly in the sickness behaviours of others it was fortitude and stoicism. If people were penitent, so much the better. The clergy were especially pleased when the sick attended church, despite their afflictions, even if they had to be carried in, and limped out!

In the 1730s, John Harries, Methodist rector of Mynydd Bach and Abergorlech in Carmarthenshire, kept a journal in which he recorded his visits to sick parishioners (National Library of Wales MS 371B, Register of Mynydd Bach Chapel). Harries paid careful attention to the behaviour and comportment of the sick. When Morgan Evan Morgan ‘departed this life 23rd December 1736/7’, Harries noted that he had ‘behaved himself very sivil and sober’ despite being in a ‘lingering distemper about eight years’. Catherine Richard likewise ‘behaved herself inoffensive’, while Joyce Evan ‘was very cheerful…expected but to live, but hoped to be saved’.

In other cases, however, it is clear that Harries was looking to the sick for signs he could interpret of his own destiny. When Mary John died in October 1737 he noted that she ‘relied wholly on Jesus X for her soul and behaved very patient’ but also noted that she was the first received to communion at the same time as him. As he noted, ‘I shuld take this into consideration’. Those who did not conform to expectation troubled him. When Mary Richard died in July 1742, Harries was keen to stress that ‘she was very wavering and inconstant in her profession [of faith], sometimes in and sometimes out’.

M0018191 Dying man in bed. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Left: a dying man in bed. Original Negative is a Vinegar Negative CAN NOT BE RESCANNED Woodcut circa 1531 By: Hans BurgkmaierOfficia M.T.C. Cicero, Marcus T. Published: 1531 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
M0018191 Dying man in bed.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
Left: a dying man in bed. Original Negative is a Vinegar Negative CAN NOT BE RESCANNED
Woodcut
circa 1531 By: Hans BurgkmaierOfficia M.T.C.
Cicero, Marcus T.
Published: 1531
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

He took comfort in those whom he felt offered a glimpse into his own fate. The last moments of Ann Rees showed a woman who ‘behaved herself very lovely [and] told me a few hours before she dyed that shee hoped for salvation for God’s mercy’. Reflecting on this Harries wrote that ‘the Lord prepare me for death and judgement. I see both young and old are carried away to another world unobserved’.

Constantly keeping company with the dying and dead could actually have an effect on the health of ministers. Welsh Methodists were apparently prone to depressive illness, due to their intensive introspection and concentration upon their own failings and weakness. Phillip Henry reported his unease at having attended three dying parishioners within a few days in January 1651, and worried that this was leaving him was a diminished sense of his own spirituality. Other ministers like the Manchester Presbyterian Henry Newcome, found the continual round of deathbed sittings and funerals overwhelming.

But it was not only ministers who applied their religious tenets to sickness. A lucky find in Cardiff University library’s collection was a transcription of the diary of Sarah Savage, Phillip Henry’s daughter. (J.B. Williams, Memoirs of the Life and Character of Mrs Sarah Savage, London: Holdsworth and Hall, 1829). Like her father, Sarah was quick to seek the hidden meanings in her symptoms. In 1691 she was “all day at home having got an ill cold in my head”. Clearly feeling ill she fretted that “My heart was a little let out in love and praise to my Redeemer”, but reassured herself that this was “but a fit [and] soon off again”.

An attack of the smallpox the following year placed her and her family in mortal danger. Her daughter Ann, also a diarist, wrote that ‘when I had received the sentence of death within myself, surely the Lord as ready to save me”. Ann also felt that the experience had taught her a valuable lesson: “the mercies, the sweet mercies which I experienced in the affliction, I shall never forget”.

Lawrence Stone’s (now much criticised) book on early modern family life suggested that people were reluctant to invest much love in their offspring since they stood a good chance of losing them. A wealth of evidence has been put forward to refute this. Puritans, often portrayed as the most stony-faced of all Christian denominations were as troubled as anyone by illness in children. In July 1663 Henry visited a local household where a child was ‘ill of the convulsion fitts. I went to see him & O what evil there is in sin that produces such effects upon poor Innocent little ones’. With a troubled conscience he reflected ‘if this bee done to ye green tree what shall be done to the dry?’.

L0043760 Memento Mori Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The head and shoulders of a 'memento mori' corpse. These statues were used to remind people of the transience of life and material luxury. 16th century Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
L0043760 Memento Mori
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
The head and shoulders of a ‘memento mori’ corpse. These statues were used to remind people of the transience of life and material luxury.
16th century Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

When family members, especially children, were ill, even the strongest of faith could be tested. After witnessing the sickness of other people’s children, he was forced to confront the death of his own young son from measles. It is one of the starkest and most moving diary entries I have ever encountered, and conveys the conflict between religious conviction and a parent’s desperation. Perhaps most strikingly, Henry looks to God to show him where he (Phillip) had strayed to be punished thus.

“At Sun-Sett this day hee dy’d, our first born and the beginning of our strength, a forward child, manly, loving, patient under correction. O that I could now be so under the correcting hand of my heavenly Father. Lord, wherefore is it that thou contendest, show mee, show mee? Have I over boasted, over loved, over prized? My heart bleeds. Lord have Mercy”.

Religion was a central part of the sickness experience, and coloured not only hopes and expectations of recovery, but also the actual, physical experience of illness. Ministers and lay individuals alike, albeit perhaps to different extents, looked to God to explain how they were feeling and what this might suggest about their own conduct.

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