| August 29, 2022

God's Terrible Voice in the City: New England Connections to the Bills of Mortality

By Dan Howlett in context tagged howlett, providence

God’s Terrible Voice in the City by Thomas Vincent describes the disastrous judgments of plague and fire that devastated London in 1665-1666. Today, two different editions of this work appear in the collections of Early English Books Online and Evans Early American Imprint Collection, the former published in London in 1667 and the latter published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1668. The American publication of a book on a London disaster shows how a religious culture of providentialism- the belief that God cast down supernatural favor and punishment on the world- stretched across the Atlantic in the early modern English world (See Kierner, Inventing Disaster for more).  Disaster in Europe mattered in North America.   The Bills of Mortality offered a way to calculate the scale of disaster, and this distinction is clear in Cambridge printer Marmaduke Johnson’s title page.  The American version of the text also advertised the addition of a General Bill to the printing, noting under the author’s credit: “To which is added, The Generall Bill of Mortality, Shewing the Number of Persons which died in every Parish of all Diseases, and of the Plague, in the Year abovesaid.”  Although neither the Evans nor EEBO transcriptions (or the America’s Historical Imprints scans of either version) show a copy, table, or even a list of Parishes like the title page touted, the 1665 General Bill clearly accompanied the printing in some form.  The Bills took on significance far beyond London.

Vincent’s text dove deep into the weekly Bill numbers and its impact on Londoners.  It even documents some weekly Bills and how the changing numbers impacted people’s religious expressions.  As soon as plague began to appear in the city, the quick uptake in the counts set off alarm bells in people’s minds. Holland’s experience with plague in 1664 offered some forewarning of the disease coming, but the real scare came from watching the weekly numbers.   “But when in the next Bill the number of the dead by the Plague is amounted from 3 to 14, and in the next to 17, and in the next to 43, and the disease begins so much to increase, and disperse. Now secure sinners begin to be startled, and those who would have slept at quiet still in their nests, are unwillingly awakened,”(Vincent, 6).  Londoners began to realize the essence of providential interpretation.  Sins of any sort, and/or the tolerance of them, exposed communities to divine judgment through any means of disaster.  In this worldview, the Bills provided concrete proof of escalating punishment.  As months brought the weekly numbers into the thousands, the weekly broadsides aided the heightened anxieties over the causes of the epidemic.  Vincent’s narrative depicts the terror afflicting the city: “The old Drunkards, and Swearers, and Unclean persons are brought into great straits… Now the Arrows begin to fly very thick about their ears, and they see many fellow-sinners fall before their faces, expecting every hour themselves to be smitten,” (Vincent, 7).  The signs of plague surrounded everyone through the Bills, coffins in the streets, and the deaths of neighbors.  The visual and numerical awareness forced people to reflect on their own lives to question what immorality in their lives, and the lives of their neighbors, might have earned such punishment. 

The horror continued as the number of deaths in the Bills ticked up, but the geography of the Bills also told readers that providence surrounded them.  As months went by, the careful watch showed that the plague refused to relent:

The September, when we hoped for a decrease, because of the season, because of the number gone, and the number already dead; yet it was not come to its height, but from 6102, which died by the Plague the last week of August, the number is augmented to 6988 the first week in September; and when we conceived some little hopes in the next weeks abatement to 6544, our hopes were quite dashed again, when the next week it did rise to 7165, which was the highest Bill; and a dreadful Bill it was! and of the 130 Parishes in and about the City, there were but four Parishes which were not infected; and in those, few people remaining that were not gone into the Country, (Vincent, 10).

In this paragraph, Vicent clearly shows how carefully people monitored the Bills, but even more so, it highlights the anxiety.  The “drunkards and swearers” could see the parishes where they lived become plague hotspots on the weekly broadsides, and in a world of providential disasters, individuals were expected to feel the guilt from their sins contributing to God’s wrath.  Every number of every parish represented a crack in efforts to combat sin. 

Vincent concludes the half of the book on plague by criticizing many inhabitants of the city for still failing to heed the warning.  He wrote that many who escaped London into the countryside took a vacation rather than correcting their “God-provoking sins” by the time they returned.  However, upon returning to London in 1666, those who “do still persevere in their sinful course…when the summer was come, and the Plague did not return: now they bring back all their Goods they had carried into the Country, because of the Plague; they did not imagine they should be forced to remove them again so soon” (Vincent, 19).  Except the fire followed shortly after, and Vincent not so subtlety connects the dots between these events. As he framed it, those that fled from plague and returned to London without repentance invited a second calamity to strike the city.  One catastrophe after another struck England, ultimately leading to Vincent’s lament: “A sad face there is now in the ruinous part of London, and terrible hath the Voice of the Lord been, which hath been crying, yea roaring in the City by these dreadful Judgements of the Plague and Fire” (Vincent, 31).

New England Puritans embraced the same culture of providential events, and the 1668 printing in Massachusetts demonstrates their interest in tracking God’s influence abroad.  Ministers like Rev. Increase Mather, one of the most renowned ministers of his generation, examined the world with this providential mentality.  In Mather’s autobiography, he wrote about “a sore disease” that “set me upon prayer to God; and caused me to reform many vain, wild courses,” (Mather, 279). In this instance, the disease occurred on the individual level to wake up Mather, and it, along with other failings in his health as reminders became necessary, led Mather on a track to write and preach on divine judgment.  One of his most popular works was An essay for the recording of Illustrious providences printed in 1684.  In it, Mather put forth a call for ministers across the world to document examples of God’s influence and to publish writings to scare people back into church pews.  Mather and many other religious leaders in his time perceived a declining religiosity in their congregations, but stories, or even encounters, of providence brought back the anxiety needed to keep an alert Puritan audience in Boston churches. 

Mather also took a scientific approach to understanding providence.  In 1683, his book Kometographia gave a history of comets, observations of their sightings, and discussed religious meanings behind them.  He detailed comets that appeared in the end of 1664, and after delving into their astronomical background, he continued into a section on “remarkable Events attending these Blazing Stars.”  Mather wrote “A terrible Plague in England the like never known there before this time, so that in London (besides what was in some other parts of the Nation) there died sometimes about seventeen thousand in one week, and more then an hundred thousand were swept away in a years time in that one City by the bosom of Destruction which the Lord sent amongst them,” (Mather, 118).   Although not directly cited, Mather is referencing the Bills of Mortality within his study of comets.  The weekly and annual numbers emphasized the scope of God’s judgment, and that scope mattered to those in New England who subscribed to similar fears of disasters. American Puritans feared disasters at home and abroad since evidence of divine providence proved where sects of Christianity failed to uphold rigorous standards, thereby affirming New England’s faithfulness, but it also proved (or gave a perception of proof) of Christianitiy’s shrinking influence, thereby affirming the call for New Englanders to recommit and uphold higher standards with elements of fear due to God’s threats upon the world.  The narrative of dual London disasters represented the closest God could strike without casting judgment on New England itself.  If his providence was not in Boston, the capital of the empire was close enough to spark concerns.

The astronomical and numerical depictions of divine providence reflected in Mather’s work came from an empirical culture in seventeenth-century New England.  Sarah Rivett’s The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England looks at how science and religion intersected: “Ministers learned to study the human soul through the same methods that seventeenth-century scientists used to study nature,” (Rivett, 5).  In order to become a full member of the Congregational Church, prospective members needed to orally testify to their personal conversion experience that confirmed their placement among God’s chosen elect.  Ministers, like Mather, wrote down conversion narratives and preached on conversion experiences that mimicked the ones they documented.  This created a cyclical, self-fulfilling, relationship to the type of conversion narrative spoken and witnessed and the expectations set by the minister.  It ensured a sort of uniformity to the methods of relaying an individual’s story of salvation.  An empirical study of the soul became possible as certain themes crossed narratives and granted a tangible understanding of a supernatural idea.  The same occurred with divine providence in the ways that the Bills tracked the spread and impact of plague and as Mather connected comet sightings with providential events.  The Bills of Mortality were a part of this religious and intellectual culture on both sides of the Atlantic, offering proof of providence to ministers and scientists. 

Primary Sources:

Vincent, Thomas. God’s Terrible Voice in the City of London. Cambridge, MA: Marmaduke Johnson, 1668. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N00083.0001.001.

Vincent, Thomas. God’s Terrible Voice in the City. London: 1667. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A64990.0001.001?view=toc

Mather, Increase. An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences. Boston: 1684. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N00296.0001.001?view=toc.

Mather, Increase. Kometographia. Boston: S.G., 1683. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N00277.0001.001?view=toc.

Mather, Increase and Michael G. Hall (ed.). The Autobiography of Increase Mather. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1962.

Secondary Sources:

Hall, David D. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgement: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Hall, Michael G. The Last American Puritan: The Life of Increase Mather. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

Kierner, Cynthia A. Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to

the Johnstown Flood. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

Rivett, Sarah. The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England. Chapel Hill: The University of

North Carolina Press, 2011.