An educational look at how Christians used to think about natural disasters and judgments from God. Here is Thomas Brooks writing about the Great Fire of London, September 2–5, 1666:
By Thomas Brooks, 1670
A serious discourse concerning “The Great Fire”
which recently turned our once renowned City
into a ruinous heap. Also the several lessons
that are incumbent upon those whose houses
have escaped the consuming flames.
Seven sins among professing Christians
The next thing we have to inquire after is those sins for which the Lord inflicts so heavy a judgment as this of fire upon men. Now for the opening of this, give me permission to propose this question—namely,
Question. What are those sins which bring the fiery dispensation, which bring the judgment of fire upon cities, nations, and countries? Now, that I may give a full and fair answer to this necessary and important question, will you please to PREMISE with me these four things—
[1.] First, We need not question but that some of all sorts, ranks, and degrees of men in and about that once great and glorious city, did eminently contribute to the bringing down of that dreadful judgment of fire, which has turned that renowned city into ashes. Doubtless superiors and inferiors, ministers and people, husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, rich and poor, honorable and base, bond and free—have all had a hand in the bringing down that judgment of fire that has turned London into a ruinous heap. But,
[2.] Secondly, Premise this with me—namely, That it is a greater argument of humility, integrity, and holy sincerity to fear ourselves, and to be jealous of ourselves—rather than others, as the disciples of Christ did: Mat. 26:21-22, “And as they did eat, he said, Truly I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began everyone of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I?” It is better for every man to do his best to ransack and search his own soul, Lam. 3:40, and to find out the Achan, Josh. 7, the accursed thing in his own bosom, which has brought that dreadful judgment of fire upon us; than for men, without any Scripture warrant, to fix it upon this party—or that party, this sort of men—or that sort of men. There is no Christian compared to him, who smites upon his own heart, his own bosom, his own thigh, saying, “What have I done?”
The neglect of this duty the prophet long since has complained of: “No one repents of his wickedness, saying—What have I done?” Jer. 8:6—that is, none comparatively. Just so, how rare is it to find a burnt citizen repenting of his wickedness, and saying, “What have I done?” Most men are ready to blame others—more than themselves; and to judge others—rather than themselves to be the people that have brought down this judgment of fire upon us, Mat. 7:1-4. It was a good saying of one of the ancients, [Augustine,] “God will judge those who judge others rashly—but not those that judge themselves piously.” But,
[3.] Thirdly, Premise this with me, In times of common judgments, common calamities, and miseries—other saints and servants of God have looked upon their own sins as the procuring causes of the common calamity. Thus David did in that 2 Sam. 24:15, “So the Lord sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died.” But mark the 17th verse, “When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the Lord—I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family.”
And thus did good Nehemiah, chapter 1:3, 6-7, “They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” Verses 6-7, “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.” Now certainly it is as much our glory as our duty—to write after these blessed copies that these worthies have set before us.
Alexander had somewhat a bent neck, and his soldiers thought it an honor to be like him. How much more should we count it an honor to be like to David and Nehemiah in such a practice as is honorable to the Lord, and advantageous to ourselves! But what Plutarch said of Demosthenes, that “he was excellent at praising the worthy acts of his ancestors—but not so at imitating them,” is applicable to the present case, and to many who have been burnt up in our day. But,
[4.] Fourthly and lastly, Premise this with me, There were many sins among those who did profess to fear God in that great city, which may and ought to work them to justify the Lord, and to say that he is righteous in his fiery dispensations. I may well say to the burnt citizens of London what the prophet Oded said to those in 2 Chron. 28:10, “But aren’t you also guilty of sins against the Lord your God?”
But you will say, What sins were there among the professing Christians in London that may and ought to work them to justify the Lord, and to say that he is just and righteous, and that he has done them no wrong, though he has burnt them up, and turned them out of all?
I answer, That there were these seven sins, among others, to be found among many of them, I say not among all of them, all which call aloud upon them to lie low at the foot of God, and to subscribe to the righteousness of God, though he has turned them out of house and home, and burnt up their substance on every hand.
[1.] First, There was among many professors of the gospel in London, a too great conformity to the fashions of the world. How many professing men in that great city were dressed up like vain worldly fellows, and women like the dolls sold at Bartholomew Fair—to the dishonor of God, the shame of religion, the hardening of the wicked, the grieving of the weak, and the provoking of divine justice! When Darius changed the fashion of his scabbard from the Persian manner into the mode of the Greeks, the Chaldean astrologers prognosticated that the Persian monarchy should be translated to them whose fashion he counterfeited. Certainly that nation may fear a scourge from that nation or nations whose fashion they follow: Zeph. 1:8, “On the day of the Lord’s sacrifice I will punish the princes and the king’s sons and all those clad in foreign clothes.” This is a stinging and a flaming check against all fashion-mongers, against all such as seem to have consulted with French, Italian, Persian, and all outlandish monsters—to advise them of all their several modes and fashions of vice, and who are so dexterous at following of them. Certainly, if ever such wantons are saved, it will be by fire.
Worldly apparel is part of the old man, which must be put off, if ever men or women intend to go to heaven. What dreadful things are thundered out against those proud, curious dames of Jerusalem, by the prophet Isaiah, who being himself a courtier, inveighs as punctually against the noble vanity of apparel, as if he had even then viewed the ladies’ wardrobes, Isaiah 38:16, seq. And those vanities of theirs brought desolating and destroying judgments upon them.
“The Lord says, “The women of Zion are haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, tripping along with mincing steps, with ornaments jingling on their ankles. Therefore the Lord will bring sores on the heads of the women of Zion; the Lord will make their scalps bald.” In that day the Lord will snatch away their finery: the bangles and headbands and crescent necklaces, the earrings and bracelets and veils, the headdresses and ankle chains and sashes, the perfume bottles and charms, the signet rings and nose rings, the fine robes and the capes and cloaks, the purses and mirrors, and the linen garments and tiaras and shawls. Instead of fragrance there will be a stench; instead of a sash, a rope; instead of well-dressed hair, baldness; instead of fine clothing, sackcloth; instead of beauty, branding. Your men will fall by the sword, your warriors in battle. The gates of Zion will lament and mourn; destitute, she will sit on the ground.” Isaiah 3:16-26
As light and slight as many make of vain apparel—yet Cypran and Augustine draw up this conclusion: “that superfluous apparel is worse than whoredom, because whoredom only corrupts chastity—but this corrupts nature.” Seneca complained, that many in his time “were more solicitous of their attire—than of their good behavior, and that they had rather that the commonwealth should be troubled, than their hair should be out of place.” I have read of the Grecians, that when they wished a curse upon their enemies, it was this—that they should please themselves in bad customs. There are many who lift their heads high, who seem to be under this curse this day.
God sent the pestilence in 1665, and the fiery judgment in 1666. And the Lord grant that the bloody sword, in the hands of cruel cut-throats, who are brutish and skillful to destroy, be not sent among us some other year to punish the same iniquity, Ezek. 21:31. O sirs! what was more common among many professors in London than to be clothed in worldly apparel, a la mode de France? Mark—those who imbibed the Babylonian habit were sent captives to Babylon, Ezek. 23:15. Those who borrowed the fashions of the Egyptians may get their boils and blotches. Certainly such as fear the Lord should go in no apparel—but,
first, such as they are willing to die in;
secondly, to appear before the Ancient of days in, when his judgments are abroad in the earth, Isaiah 26:8-10;
thirdly, to stand before a judgment-seat. But,
[2.] Secondly, There was among many professors of the gospel in London, much lukewarmness and coldness in the things of God. The city was full of lukewarm Laodiceans, Rev. 3:16-17. The love of many to God, to his people, to his ways, and to his instituted worship—was cold, very cold, stark cold, Mat. 24:12. God destroyed the old world by water for the heat of their lusts, and God has destroyed the city of London by fire for the coldness of their love to himself. I have read of Anastasius the emperor, how God shot him to death with a thunderbolt, because of his lukewarmness and formality. But,
[3.] Thirdly, There was a great deal of worldliness and earthly-mindedness, and covetousness among the professing people of London. O sirs! the world is all shadow and vanity. The world is like Jonah’s gourd. A man may sit under its shadow for a time—but it soon decays and dies. The main reason why many professors dote upon the world is, because they are not acquainted with a greater glory. Men ate acorns until they were acquainted with the use of wheat. The loadstone cannot draw the iron when the diamond is in presence; and shall earthly vanities draw the soul, when Christ, the pearl of price, is in presence? Many of the professors of London were great worshipers of the golden calf, and therefore God is just in turning their golden calf into ashes. The world may well be resembled to the fruit that undid us all, which was fair to the sight, smooth in handling, sweet in taste—but deadly in effect and operation. The world in all its bravery is no better than the cities which Solomon gave to Hiram, which he called Cabul, that is, displeasing or dirty, 1 Kings 9:13. The whole world is circular, the heart of man triangular, and we know a circle cannot fill a triangle. If the heart of man be not filled with the three persons in Trinity, it will be filled with the world, the flesh, and the devil, 1 John 5:7.
Riches, like bad servants, never stay long with one master. What certainty is there in that which one storm at sea, one treacherous friend, one false oath, one ball of fire, yes, one spark of fire may strip us of? O sirs! if you can gather grapes off thorns, and figs off thistles, then go on, and dote upon the world still. All the things of this world are vain things—they are vanity of vanities, Eccles. 1:2. All in heaven count them vain, and all in hell count them vain; pearls are but as pebbles in their eyes. I am sure, that Lazarus in heaven is now rich enough, and happy enough; and Dives in hell is now poor enough, and miserable enough. He who makes his world his god while he is in the world, what will he do for a god when he goes out of this world? Well, sirs, remember this—inordinate love to the world will expose a man to SEVEN GREAT LOSSES—
First, To the loss of many precious opportunities of grace. Rich Felix had no leisure to hear poor Paul; and Martha, busied about many things, had no time to hear Christ preach, though never man preached as he preached, Acts 24, Luke 10, John 7. Men inordinately in love with the world have so much to do on earth, that they have no time to look up to heaven.
Secondly, To the loss of all heavenly benefit and profit by the ministry of the word. Ezek. 33:31-33; Mat. 13:22. Nothing will grow where gold grows. Where the love of the world prevails, there the ministry of the word will not prevail. If the love of the world is too hard for our hearts, then the ministry of the word will work but little upon our hearts.
Thirdly, To the loss of the face and favor of God. God does not smile upon those who are still smiling upon the world, and still running after the world, Psalm 30:6, and Isaiah 57:17. The face and favor of God are pearls of great price, which God bestows upon none but such whose heart is in heaven, Phil. 3:20, and who have the moon—namely, all things which are changeable as the moon—under their feet, Rev. 12:1-2. God never lifts up the light of his countenance upon a dunghill-spirited man. God hides his face from none so much and so long, as from those who are still longing after more and more of the world.
Fourthly, To the loss of religion, and the true worship and service of God; as you may see by comparing of these scriptures together. [2 Tim. 4:10; 1 Tim. 6:10; Jer. 5:7; Deut. 32:15; Hosea 4:7, and 13:6.] Many worldlings deal with religion as masons deal with their ladders when they have work to do, and to climb, etc. Oh then how they hug and embrace the ladder, and carry it on their arms and on their shoulders! but then, when they have done climbing, they hang the ladder on the wall, or throw it into a corner. O sirs, there is no loss, compare to the loss of true religion. A man were better to lose his name, his estate, his limbs, his liberty, his life, his all, than lose his religion.
Fifthly, To the loss of communion with God, and acquaintance with God. Deut. 8:10-11; Jer. 2:31, and 22:21; Psalm 144:15. A man whose soul is conversant with God shall find more pleasure, delight, and contentment in a desert, in a den, in a dungeon, and in death—than in the palace of a prince. Man’s summum bonum—his highest good—stands in his communion with God, as Scripture and experience evidences. “God and I are good company,” said Richard Sibbes. Macedonius the hermit, retiring into the wilderness that he might with more freedom enjoy God and have his heart in heaven, upon a time there came a young gentleman into the wilderness to hunt wild beasts, and seeing the hermit, he rode to him, asking him why he came into that solitary place? he desired that he might ask him the same question—why he came there? “I came hither to hunt,” said the young gallant. “And so do I,” says the hermit, “I hunt after my God!” They hunt best, who hunt most after communion with God. Urbanus Regius, having one day’s converse with Luther, said, it was one of the sweetest days that ever he had in all his life. But what was one day’s, yes, one year’s converse with Luther, compared to one hour’s converse with God? Now an inordinate love of the world will eat out all a man’s communion with God. A man cannot look up to heaven and, look down upon the earth at the same time. But,
Sixthly, To the loss of his precious and immortal soul. Shimei, by seeking his servant, lost his life; and many by an eager seeking after this world, Mat. 16:26, and 1 Tim. 6:9, lose their precious and immortal souls. Many have so much to do on earth, that they have no time to look up to heaven, to honor their God, to secure their interest in Christ, or to make sure work for their souls. But,
Seventhly, To the loss of the world; for by their inordinate love of the world, they highly provoke God to strip them of the world. Ah, how rich might many a man have been, had he minded heaven more, and the world less! When men set their hearts so greedily upon the world, it is just with God to blast, and curse, and burn up all their worldly comforts round about them!
[4.] Fourthly, Many in London were fallen under spiritual decays, witherings, and languishings, in their graces, in their comforts, in their communions, and in their spiritual strength. They are fallen from their first love, Rev. 2:4. [The nutmeg-tree makes barren all the ground about it. Just so, does the spice of worldly love make the heart barren of grace. Ursinus observes that the sins and barrenness under the gospel in the Protestants in King Edward’s days, brought in the persecution in Queen Mary’s days.] The flame of divine love being blown out, God sends a flaming fire in the midst of them. Many Londoners were fallen into a spiritual consumption, and to recover them out of it, God sent a fire among them. Many in London were withered in their very profession. Where was that visible zeal, that diligence in waiting upon the Lord in his ordinances, which once was to be found among the citizens of London?
And many were withered in their spiritual converse one with another. There was not that graciousness, that holiness, that spiritualness, that heavenliness, that fruitfulness, that exemplariness, that seriousness, and that profitableness sparkling and shining in their converse one with another, as once was to be found among them.
And many were withered in their affections. Ah, what a flame of love, what a flame of joy, what a flame of desires, what a flame of delight, what a flame of zeal as to the things of God—was once to be found among the citizens of London! but how were those mighty flames of affection were reduced to a few coals and cinders! and therefore, it is no wonder if God sent a flaming fire in the midst of them, and many were withered in their very duties and services.
How slight, how formal, how cold, how careless, how remiss, how neglective were many in their families, in their closets, and in their church-communions, who heretofore were mighty in praying and wrestling with God, and mighty in lamenting and mourning over sin, and mighty in their groanings and longings after the Lord, and who of old would have taken the kingdom of heaven by violence Mat. 11:12.
There were many in that great city that had lost their spiritual taste; they could not taste that sweetness in promises, in ordinances, in Sabbaths, and in the communion of saints, that once they had tasted and found, 2 Sam. 19:35. In spiritual things, many citizens could taste no more sweetness than in the white of an egg, Job 6:6. Many in that great city had lost their spiritual appetite, they did not hunger and thirst after God and Christ, and the Spirit and grace, and the light of God’s countenance, and pure ordinances, and the fellowship of the people of God—as once they did.
Now is there anything more contrary to the nature of God, the works of God, the word of God, the glory of God—than spiritual decays? Oh the prayers and the praises that God loses by decayed Christians! Ah, how do decayed Christians— grieve the strong, and stumble the weak, and strengthen the hands of the wicked, and lay themselves open to divine displeasure! Many in London did like Mandrobulus, who the first year offered to his god gold, the second year offered to his god silver, and the third year offered to his god nothing; and therefore no wonder if God sent a fire among them. But,
[5.] Fifthly, Their non-improvement of the mercies and privileges that they were surrounded with, and their non-improvement of lesser and greater judgments that God had formerly inflicted on them, and their non-improvement of their estates to that height they should have done—for the supply of them whose needs, bonds, necessities, and miseries did call aloud for supplies. Many did something, a few did much—but all should have done more.
[6.] Sixthly, Those unnatural arguments, fiery contests, violent passions, and severe divisions that have been among them, may well work them to justify the Lord in his fiery dispensations towards them; for a wolf to worry a lamb is usual—but for one lamb to worry another is unnatural; for Christ’s lilies to be among thorns is common, Cant. 2:16—but for these lilies to become thorns, and to tear and rend, and fetch blood of one another, is monstrous and strange.
[7.] Seventhly and lastly, There were many in London who were so very secure, and so excessively taken up with their worldly comforts, contentments, and enjoyments, that they did not lay the afflictions of Joseph
(1.) so kindly,
(2.) so seriously,
(3.) so affectionately,
(4.) so readily,
(5.) so frequently,
(6.) so lamentingly, and
(7.) so constantly to heart as they ought to have done, Amos 6:6. Upon all these accounts, how well does it befit the citizens of London to cry out, “The Lord is righteous, the Lord is righteous in all his fiery dispensations towards us!”
But to prevent mistakes, and that I may lay no heavier a load upon the people of God who truly feared him, and who had and have a saving interest in him, than is fit, and that I may give no advantage to profane people to father the burning of the city of London wholly, mainly, or only upon the sins of the people of God, give me permission therefore to propound these FOUR QUERIES—
First, Whether all these seven sins last cited, or most of them, can be justly charged upon the body of those sincere Christians who lived then in London, and whose habitations are now burnt up?
Secondly, Whether those of the people of God, upon whom any of the aforementioned sins are chargeable, have not, before the city was burnt, daily lamented, bewailed, and mourned over those sins which might have been charged upon them either by their own consciences or others?
Thirdly, Where and how it does appear by the blessed Scriptures that ever God sent so great a judgment of fire as was poured out upon London upon the account of the sins of those who truly feared him, be it those seven that have been already specified, or any others that can be now clearly and justly proved against them?
Fourthly, Whether there are not some other men’s sins upon whom in the clear evidence of Scripture light, this heavy judgment of fire may be more clearly, safely, and fairly fixed—than upon the sins of those who had set up God as the great object of their fear?
Now, in answer to this last query, give me permission to say,
[1.] First, That sin in the general brings the dreadful judgment of fire upon a people.
Mark, personal afflictions may come upon the people of God for trial, and to show the sovereignty of God, as in the case of Job, whose afflictions were for trial, and not for sin, Job 1. The same may be said of the man who was born blind, John 9.
But general judgments, such as this fiery dispensation was, never comes upon a people but upon the account of sin. This is evident in my text, Isaiah 42:24-25; God set Jacob and Israel on fire, and burnt them round about; but it was because they would not walk in his ways, neither were they obedient unto his law. Jer. 4:4, “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it.” So Psalm 107:33-34, “He turned rivers into a desert, flowing springs into thirsty ground, and fruitful land into a salt waste—because of the wickedness of those who lived there.” The very country of Jewry, as travelers report, which flowed once with milk and honey, is now for fifteen miles surrounding Jerusalem, like a desert, without grass, tree, or shrub. Ah, what ruins does sin bring upon the most renowned countries and cities that have been in the world! Such is the destructive nature of sin, that it will sooner or later level the richest, the strongest, and the most glorious cities in the world.
Just so, the prophet Amos tells us that it is sin which brings God’s sorest punishments upon his people: Amos 1:3, “For three transgressions of Damascus,” (by which we are to understand the greatness of their iniquities,) “and for four,” (by which we are to understand the multitude of their transgressions,) “I will not turn away the punishment thereof.” The same is said of Gaza, verse 6, and of Tyre, verse 9, and of Edom, verse 11, and of Ammon, verse 13, and of Moab, chapter 2:1, and of Judah, verse 4, and of Israel, verse 6.
Now it is very observable of every one of these, that when God threatens to punish them for the greatness of their iniquities, and for the multitude of their transgressions, he does particularly threaten to send a fire among them to consume the houses and the palaces of their cities; so he does to Damascus: Amos 1:4, “But I will send a fire into the house of Hazael, which shall devour the palaces of Ben-hadad.” So he does to Gaza, verse 7, “But I will send a fire on the wall of Gaza, which shall devour the palaces thereof.” So he does to Tyre, verse 10, “But I will send a fire on the wall of Tyre, which shall devour the palaces thereof.” So he does to Edom, verse 12, “But I will send a fire upon Teman, which shall devour the palaces of Bozrah.” So he does to Ammon, verse 14, “But I will kindle a fire in the wall of Rabbah, and it shall devour the palaces thereof, with shouting in the day of battle, with a tempest in the day of the whirlwind.” Just so, he does to Moab, chapter 2 verse 2, “But I will send a fire upon Moab, and it shall devour the palaces of Kirioth; and Moab shall die with tumult, with shouting, and with the sound of a trumpet.” So he does to Judah, verse 5, “But I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem.”
By all these remarkable instances it is evident that God, by his fiery dispensations, tells all the world that the sins of that people are great and many, upon whom the dreadful judgment of fire is inflicted in its fury; and therefore it is high folly and madness in many men, which makes them impute this heavy judgment of fire to anything rather than to their sins. O sirs, it is sin which burns up our habitations, and which turns flames of love into a consuming fire. And this the Parliament, in their Act for the Rebuilding of the City of London, well observes. The clause of the Act is this: “And that the said citizens, and their successors for all the time to come, may retain the memorial of so sad a desolation, and reflect seriously upon their manifold iniquities, which are the unhappy causes of such judgments: Be it further enacted, That the second of September (unless the same happen to be Sunday; and if so, then the next day following) be yearly forever hereafter observed as a day of public fasting and humiliation within the city—to implore the mercies of Almighty God upon the city, to make devout prayers and supplications unto him to divert the like calamity for the time to come.”
So Sir William Turner, knight, in his speech to the king upon the prorogation of the Parliament: “We must,” says he, “forever with humility acknowledge the justice of God in punishing this whole nation by the recent dreadful conflagration of London. We know they were not the greatest sinners on whom the tower of Siloam fell,” Luke 13:4, “and doubtless all our sins did contribute to the filling up that measure, which being full, drew down the wrath of God upon that city.”
So much the king, in his proclamation for a general fast on the 10th of October, observes. The words of the proclamation are these: “His majesty therefore, out of a deep and pious sense of what himself and all his people now suffer, and with a pious care to prevent what may yet be feared, unless it shall please Almighty God to turn away his anger from us, does hereby publish and declare his royal will and pleasure, that Wednesday, being the tenth of October next ensuing, shall be set apart, and kept, and observed by all his majesty’s subjects of England and Wales, as a day of solemn fasting and humiliation, to implore the mercies of God, that it would please him to pardon the crying sins of this nation, those especially which have drawn down this last and heavy judgment upon us, and to remove from us all other his judgments which our sins have deserved, and which we now either feel or fear.”
Thus you see that not only the blessed Scriptures—but also king and Parliament, do roundly conclude that it was for our sins, our manifold iniquities, our crying sins, that God has sent this heavy judgment upon us. His majesty also well observes, that there are some special crying sins that bring down the fiery judgment upon us. Now this royal hint leads me by the hand to say—
[2.] Secondly, Though sin in the general lays people under the fiery dispensations of God—yet if we will but diligently search into the blessed book of God, which never spoke an untruth, we shall find that there are several specific sins which bring the heavy judgment of fire upon cities and countries. As, [to be continued]