Ethics & Christian living

Faith and courage in response to a deadly virus

In 1665, the people in the remote Derbyshire village of Eyam realised that their village had become infected with the bubonic plague.

Fleas infected with the disease had been brought to the village in a bundle of damp cloth from London. The tailor who unpacked the cloth and hung it to dry in front of a fire was the first person in the village to catch the deadly plague. He died in agony a few days later in September 1665.

By Christmas a further 42 people died in the village. By 1666 many were preparing to leave the village to save themselves.


However, the vicar of Eyam, the Rev. William Mompesson, decided to act. He could see the disaster that would be caused if the infectious disease was carried by escaping villagers to the nearby towns or the city of Sheffield.

So Mompesson gathered the whole village together and made an appeal to everyone to quarantine themselves.  He told his parishioners that to avoid many more people dying the village must be enclosed, with no-one allowed in, or out.

Rev William Mompesson

The vicar promised the village that if they agreed to stay he would do everything he could to support  them in their suffering. He said he was willing to sacrifice his own life rather than see the whole county devastated.

Remarkably, Mompesson was successful. His appeal to the villagers worked. Despite understandable reluctance, everyone in Eyam agreed to stay within the confines of the village as the plague took hold of their community.

Peak plague

By summer 1666 the death toll in the village reached a peak of five or six deaths a day. The hot summer meant the fleas were more active and this quickened the spread of the plague. Despite the grim circumstances and the horrible deaths hardly anyone broke the agreement.

In August, one woman, Elizabeth Hancock, buried six of her children and her husband who all died within just eight days. People from the neighbouring village of Stoney Middleton stood on the hill and watched her burying them without being able to do anything to help.

In his letters, Mompesson described the smell of “sadness and death” in the air. His wife Catherine tended to many of the dying and in doing so contracted the plague while helping others.  On 22 August 1666, the vicar and his wife went for a walk together and she commented on the ‘sweet smell’ in the air. She died the following morning, aged 27.

Fear and hope

The current vicar of Eyam, Mike Gilbert, said

“When you read Mompesson’s letters, he writes ‘I am a dying man’…He was scared but he did it all the same. There was definitely that hope of heaven that kept them going, but it was phenomenally difficult.”

However, as Autumn came cases the plague reduced and by November the disease had gone. The quarantine had worked. But Eyam bore a heavy cost.

In just over a year, 260 of the village’s inhabitants, from 76 different families, had died. This was estimated to be between 40-50% of the village’s total population.  The mortality rate was far higher than anywhere else in the country – but vitally, the plague did not spread beyond the village.

Remarkably, Mompesson did survive. He left Eyam in 1669 to minister in another village in Nottinghamshire. But such was the reputation of the “plague village” where so many had died, that he struggled to be accepted.

Relevance today?

Today, the world is facing a virus which has already killed thousands of people and will kill many more.  We cannot make simplistic parallels between what happened in Eyam and what we face today. But we can learn from the example of William Mompesson and the villagers of Eyam:

Leadership. Mompesson’s clarity and bravery inspired others in a common cause. In today’s situation, we need national and local leaders who can remain calm and show courageous leadership in the challenges we will face.

Compassion. The root meaning of compassion is ‘to suffer with’. Mompesson, his wife Catherine and the whole village decided to suffer together. In today’s crisis, we will need to think of the common good rather than everyone just look to their own interests.

Sacrifice. Mompesson motivated people to sacrifice themselves for others who they did not know. Many paid the ultimate price in showing a love that went beyond boundaries.

Faith: All of the qualities they showed were rooted in a faith and hope more powerful than the threat of death. Together they embodied Jesus’ words:

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ (John 15:12)

The times we are living in are anxiety-inducing.  Such times can bring out the worst in people: selfishness, panic, ignoring the needs of others, spreading fear and misinformation.

But they can also bring out the best in people. Let’s hope that in the coming weeks we can see the kind of leadership, compassion, sacrifice and faith shown by the remarkable vicar and villagers of Eyam.

12 thoughts on “Faith and courage in response to a deadly virus”

  1. The Current “Coronacrap” is nothing more than Government Terrorism! Governments of the
    realize that they can no longer “control the people as “Subjects” as they wish, therefore all the “Chicken Little” “The Sky Is Falling” Cry, to try to make people “Tow the Government line” more tightly!


    1. Really Hal? So this is a global conspiracy, cooked up by an alliance of different governments? What are they benefiting from the ‘control’ they are seeking to exert? What ‘line’ are they seeking to get people to ‘tow’?


  2. This is so reminiscent of Cyprian’s example in Carthage during the plague of 250-251 AD, when he got all the Christians together, many of whom had come straight out of a persecution, and asked them to stay put, not to flee the city, and start tending the illnesses of the very people who had persecuted them, even though the Christians were blamed for the plague in the first place. Thanks, as ever, for this post.


  3. As ever, very profound and thoughtful, Jon. Also exactly what we need to hear. Less panic, more compassion. My parents live in Derbyshire and I’ve been on a bus through Eyam. It’s eerie even now. I didn’t know the full details of the story until now, though – inspiring stuff!

    Fyi, I distinctly remember being at the 09 prep weekend and Yatey leading us in prayer, talking about how the world seems to be consumed in panic over swine flu. Six months later everyone had forgotten about swine flu. Although he did manage to get a genius talk out of it, bringing in Jonah 4 and talking about Vine Flu (amazing!).


    1. Thanks Matt – I visited about 20 years ago and it had a big impact on me. I think there is a museum there.

      Yatesy’s talk sound typical Yatesy. I guess we need to be vigilant and careful without being panicked.


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