In 1660 Charles the Second was restored to the throne of England, and the Puritan revolution in England came to a decisive end. Two years later in 1662 the act of uniformity was passed requiring that all the ministers of the realm accept Episcopacy, the headship of the King over the Church, the mandatory use of the Prayerbook and countless other changes or be ejected from their churches. As a result, over two thousand Puritan ministers, their consciences held captive to the Word of God, lost their positions and were ejected from their ministries. The King quickly set about replacing them with men whose convictions were more in keeping with his way of thinking.
In 1665 Bubonic Plague, the “Black Death” as it was called at the time, broke out in the city of London, and thousands died. Almost immediately, the royalty left the city, followed quickly by the rich, and then as one wag put it in his history of the time “Most of the clergy suddenly decided they could best minister to their flocks from far, far away.” The scenes of horror recounted in the various plague journals kept by those who stayed are piteous. Hospitals were crammed full of the dying and quickly overwhelmed whatever doctors and nurses had not either fled or died themselves.
But then in the midst of all that terrible sickness and sorrow, and death, who do you think it was who heard the cry of those suffering and returned in droves to minister to the sick and dying, to pastor congregations whose ministers had fled with the king to country estates, to go day by day into the hospitals and read the Word of God to those who were lost and dying without hope and without a Savior? It was the ejected ministers. When the king and his hirelings had all fled, it was the men they despised most who heard the call of Christ and returned. Thomas Vincent, ejected from the living of St. Mary Magdalen, Milk Street, in 1662 was but one of many ministers long remembered by the inhabitants of London for his fearless preaching amidst the dying multitudes in the Great Plague.
Now why did those men do that? They didn’t have the power to lay hands on the people and heal them, in fact, many of those ministers themselves became sick and died. The answer is that they knew Jesus Christ, and they knew his Compassion, because He had worked it in their hearts by His Holy Spirit.
Matthew 9:35-36 tells us “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.”
Those ministers saw the multitudes in London, weary and scattered, sheep without shepherds, and as faithful servants of the master who saved them and called them, they took up the call and they went amongst them preaching the good news of the Kingdom, bringing light were there was only darkness and hope were there had only been despair. Although they could not cure their bodily ills, yet they could and MUST point them to Jesus, the great physician of the soul. Death could do no harm to the souls who trusted in Him. Its sting was gone, and the grave was forever robbed of its victory.
When the plague was over, the King’s hirelings returned to the city and the congregations they had fled from, and the ministers who had labored tirelessly in their absence were once again cast out. Instead of receiving thanks for all their labors, they found themselves without incomes and forbidden to preach under penalty of imprisonment or even death. The tares once again took over the field and the Church of England began a precipitous decline that was only interrupted by the evangelical revivals of the next century.
So what can we learn from this? Well brothers, a faithful Old School Presbyterian Minister or church planter can expect to find his labor to be difficult, often much more so than the ministers of large evangelical churches. He has little or no staff, no programs, no gimmicks, meager pay (which will often cause tension in his home), and his ministry as a physician of the soul will mean he is often dealing directly with the needs and problems of his sheep, and this will often be heart-wrenching work that will leave him weary and sometimes down-cast. He is also very unlikely to receive praise or even acknowledgment from evangelicals or the ecclesiastical authorities. Instead he can expect to be regarded at best with amusement as a relic the church has advanced well beyond, or worse with contempt as nothing more than an impediment to the further progress of the church.
But brothers, before we become dejected, let us look to the example of those faithful Puritan ministers who ministered to the victims of the plague and be reminded of several things:
1) Our burdens are much lighter than theirs: Unless you are currently ministering in a front-line church in the Sudan, your worst struggles in the ministry are nothing compared to the things that those Puritan ministers endured on a daily basis. Death and terrible misery and disease were a regular part of their daily ministry. They performed those ministries with only the most meager resources. They were enabled to do so because although they were weak, they served an almighty God and learned first-hand the truth of 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:
“And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Therefore let us remember that we serve the same God who equipped and strengthened them for the battle, and take heart especially given that the burdens we bear are much lighter.
2) Compassion for the Lord’s Sheep compels us to labor: If we love Christ’s sheep and truly desire to save men from an eternity in hell, how can we fail to minister to them with all our hearts no matter the difficult the task? Those Puritans ministered not only because they knew it was what their Lord would do, their changed hearts could not bear the thought of men going from misery to damnation without the benefit of being able to hear the gospel. Countless men and women in our own time are living miserable lives under the sentence of eternal death, and we hold the only key that will release them from their prison. Can we bear not to use it, especially when we know that doing so is so much easier for us?
3) Christ’s shepherds do not labor for the thanks and rewards of men: Christ promised his disciples that “In the world you will have tribulation” and it has ever been the case. In fact, with only a few exceptions, the more faithful the minister, the more he is hated by the world and the worldlings in the church. Remember that the world will only approve of you to the degree that you are “of the world” (John 15:19) and that the world only truly loves its own. Consider well that all the Apostles were imprisoned and all save one were eventually put to death, and that every faithful minister following them has had to walk a hard road in this world. Edwards was ejected by his own congregation, Calvin was forced out of Geneva, Knox had to row as a French galley slave and never owned his own house. But they were not laboring for the commendation of men, nor were they laying up their treasures here on earth, their hearts and treasures were in heaven and the only words of commendation they thought worth seeking were these: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.”
Brothers, take heart and follow their example! May you someday all hear those same words of commendation. The Lord bless you in your labors and be your strength when you are weak.