Religion in Plague Society

The trigger for this next blog came from reading Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year over the Jewish New Year. One of the passages in the day’s liturgy comes from a poem thought to have been written in the 11th century:

“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning…”

Religion and the Plague

The narrator suggests that many people understood the plague to be a Divine Judgment- “a Messenger of his Vengeance,” “…a loud call… to Humiliation and Repentance” (166) – and that at the height of the misery, “good people began to think, that God was resolved to make a full End of the People in this miserable City” (88). The narrator himself decides to remain in London, despite the opportunity to flee, because of a belief that he would receive divine protection (11).  Yet, the narrator often regrets his decision, not out of rejection of Divine providence, but out of a growing realization while God has caused the Plague- people are the ones through whom it spreads (166).

The book was written in the 18th century about events in the 17th century and along with all of its other purported goals:

a) “represent the Misery of these Times” to the Reader (152),

b) give all manner of suggestions in the event of a future Plague,

it seems to have as well,

c) a religious agenda.

Generally, religious thought pervaded the society conveyed in the narrative and was part of explaining all phenomena. Yet, the narrator addresses atheistic persons both anecdotally and in the body of his text; this points to the existence of atheistic tendencies. The Renaissance and Scientific thought have spread in England. The occurrence of a calamity of as great a magnitude as the Plague invites questions of God- Is there a God? If there was a God why didn’t he stop it? If there was a God, how could he be so cruel? Etc. Etc. It seems that the narrator has taken it upon himself to convey the role of religion and God in bringing about the Plague but also describing the role of religion in the Plague Society. This is to affirm his own faith and also to show how religion remained strong throughout the plague and that defiant atheists were struck down for their blasphemy (58-60), albeit amongst many believers.

Religion in Plague society

Religion plays an essential role in the Plague Society. It provides comfort to individuals- like the Narrator, who spent his time shut up in his house writing “meditations on Divine subjects” (67). Churches provide places of refuge where people come to pray and religious leaders provide comfort. Belief in God provides an explanation for the misery (Divine retribution, wake-up call etc.)

Yet, religion plays a negative role as well. The narrator laments that belief that “God is able to keep us in the midst of Danger” led many to stay in London whose lives would likely have been saved had they fled (170). In Muslim Turkey, where the Plague had earlier hit, predestination led many to forgo precautions that could have saved their lives (11,12). In addition, the narrator criticizes some of the religious leaders for heightening the fear of the people and not encouraging them to pray for mercy (23). Also, gathering in Churches, like any public gathering during that time, served to further spread the Plague.

Like any system of thought or way of ordering the world- Religion provided both Answers and Questions. In a world where Plague was a constant fear, belief and reliance on institutions like Religion and State (of which the narrator also speaks highly for its involvement in maintaining whatever order remained in London) served as constants that the people could rely on.

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Published in: on October 3, 2011 at 2:59 am Comments (0)

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