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Tears Against the Plague: A 17th century Woman's Devotional
by John Featly

A rare devotional text written explicitly for women. First printed in 1646 at the request of a female friend, Featly's book speaks in the voice of a woman facing quarantine and bubonic plague, a woman trying to make religious sense of the inevitable holocaust. When the "Great Plague" struck London in 1665, an unknown English reader reissued the book for his (or her?) generation. Fascinating (but far from cheerful!) penitential text on redemptive tears, vivid details of the plague; challenging imagery of women's role in grief.

This is an unabridged reprint of a work originally published as Tears in time of Pestilence: or, A Spiritual Antidote against the Plague by John Featly London: Printed by W. Godbid, London 1665


New Introduction*

 

When the "great plague" struck London in 1665, it devastated a nation already torn apart by civil and religious strife. Red crosses were painted - by order of the authorities - on the door of houses containing anyone afflicted with the disease. Those inside were quarantined, unable to go out or invite others in. Many fled to the countryside; others hid at home; countless died.

Somewhere in the city a person we know only as "S.K." had on a bookshelf a copy of John Featly's devotional treatise for Christian women, Tears in time of Pestilence: or, A Spiritual Antidote against the Plague, written during an earlier outbreak in 1646. Chaplain to King Charles I, Featly had fled to the Lowlands during the Civil War. S.K. decided to bring the book back into print, apologizing to the reader that it is somewhat out of date. He (or she) thinks the book will provide an apt and timely religious devotional for contemporaries afflicted with - or hiding from - plague. It may also have been a profit venture.

Featly wrote the book explicitly for women; S.K. explains that "the whole was undertaken and perfected at the request of a pious gentlewoman of his acquaintance who complained that her sex was much neglected by divines, in that they had not penned meditations, soliloquys, etc. suited to the several sufferings of Christians... On which account it is that it speaks all along in the person of one of that sex." As its editor in the next generation, S.K. clearly hopes for a wider audience, explaining to the reader that, although the style, written for women, is naturally plain, familiar, and "with affectionate copiousness of expression," S.K. hopes that "it may afford considerable assistance to many of stronger abilities" as well.

In this work Featly speaks in a (constructed) woman's voice. His original, intended audience was one of women who had been displaced from home and country, their economy and household struck down by disease and doctrine. They had lost economic security; now life itself was at risk. Featly advises them to regard their bodies as despicable, and to seek refuge, as they are shut up in their houses waiting to die, in the spiritual value of tears. Tears are a common theme across many ascetic traditions within Christianity; this work offers a rare glimpse of the role of tears in one Protestant view of suffering.

Featly's book contains what some Protestants might call "worm theology at its worst," the teaching that disease is never undeserved and must always be accepted as a divine punishment and corrective for personal sin. Although this belief is typical of much Protestant 17th century theology, and although it is a universal reaction to senseless and apparently incurable illness, Featly is not for the fainthearted. Taken as literature belonging to a particular theological viewpoint at a specific time in history, however, the treatise provides a rare and fascinating glimpse of 17th century devotional material for the non-Catholic English woman, and especially the woman in crisis.

We at Rhwymbooks have reprinted Featly's unabridged original with several minor changes that reflect our general editorial policy for rendering historical reprints as user-friendly as possible for 21st century reader. We have modernized spellings and archaisms. The 17th century printer set Featly's words in Roman type (what you are reading now) except when he was quoting scripture. Yet Featly quoted scripture constantly; fully half of the original text is in one font and half in the other, making it hard to follow. We have unified the font. Each page of the original also included scripture references in the margin; we moved this marginalia into an index, and also added a new index with a full list of all the Bible verses Featly uses to support his text. Scholars interested in Featly's original format may readily locate it through any good microfilm library of early English books. Our edition is intended instead for the general reader or student interested in the narrative for what it tells us about social issues and the theology of suffering in Christian history.

-Scott Rutherford


*This text is protected by copyright and posted here with the permission of the owner for use for private reading and academic reference only. Please give proper credit if used for academic citation.