Essay / Theology

A Welcome to the Plague (Samuel Shaw)

The 2020 pandemic almost immediately brought out of obscurity a substantial library of historical Christian writing on plagues and mass illnesses. Lots of writing that we might call “plague spirituality” has been sitting on the shelves of the church, just waiting for moderns to get interested in it. There is some powerful plague theology out there.

A particularly striking piece of plague theology is found among the works of Samuel Shaw (1635–1696), an English nonconformist minister and grammar school teacher educated at Cambridge. “A Welcome to the Plague” draws out the spiritual lessons of affliction, and gives some particular advice about how, under these circumstances, to think about God.

The main thing, it turns out, is to think about God. The short book is a kind of sermonic meditation on Amos 4:12, “Prepare to meet thy God.” And what Shaw presses on his readers is that the uncertainties, losses, and suffering brought on by a season of plague are a summons to turn away spiritually from all the comforts offered by created things, and to rest the heart in God.

First, a brief word on Shaw’s bona fides: When the plague spread from London to his little town in Leicestershire, Shaw and his wife fell ill, but recovered. They suffered the loss of two children, though, and many neighbors. Shaw served the needs of the town for burials and other ministry. Without going into more detail, it’s worth noting that he preached and wrote from a first-person encounter with the disease.

Shaw’s book on the text “Prepare to meet thy God” draws out one clear doctrinal claim: “That it is the duty of God’s people to study a right behavior towards him, and to converse with him aright in the way of his judgments, in the time of their afflictions.” What he means by “converse,” however, is not prayer in general; at least he’s not talking about conversation in that sense. To converse, for Shaw, is to commune with God by way of contemplating his attributes. In fact, Shaw uses the phrase, “to converse with God in his attributes,” and chooses eight divine attributes which are particularly appropriate for reflection in a time of distress:

  1. His absolute and unlimited sovereignty
  2. His perfect and infinite righteousness
  3. His faithfulness
  4. His holiness and unspotted purity
  5. His almighty power
  6. His unsearchable wisdom
  7. His unbounded goodness, love, and mercy
  8. Lastly, “converse with the infinite self-sufficient fullness of God in a day of the greatest extremity.”

All his meditations are good, but it’s the last one that I’d like to draw your attention to: God’s fullness. And not just divine fullness, but “infinite, self-sufficient fullness.” This is something about God that is difficult to focus on. I think Shaw puts it as the eighth and final attribute because he wants to make sure that readers arrive at it after having already had a workout. (Aside: One of the few theologians to give direct attention to the doctrine of divine fullness recently is Michael Allen; his “dogmatic sketch” is excellent, brief, and free online.)

Shaw leaps into his account of this attribute with a flourish: “Lastly, and indeed everlastingly too, we are to converse with the infinite self-sufficient fullness of God in a day of the greatest extremity,” and then adds that as we approach this doctrine, we are conversing “not with any one single attribute, but with the very Godhead of God, the immense perfection of God, the allness of the Deity.” This, obviously, is a large claim. Shaw’s plague theology is large-scale theology proper, that is, theology about who and what God is.

For Shaw, the created world is a good place. It is even, in its relative, finite way, full of good things. The reason that times of affliction are appropriate for conversing with divine fullness is that affliction is a kind of emptying out of created fullness: poverty empties your money; sickness empties your health; old age empties your potential; suffering empties your sense of well-being. When these fullnesses fail, says Shaw, is the opportune time to converse with the unfailing fullness. “Whilst we entertain our hearts with a created sweetness, we foolishly forget and neglect the supreme Good.” But when God “empties us of creature-enjoyment” we are strategically well placed to consider this attribute to which we normally tend to be all but blind.

“Whilst we see the creatures stand, we will not believe but that they are stable….Now then, in such a case, at such a time, converse with the infinite self-sufficient fullness of God.” This is the sense in which he can bid a welcome to the plague: it prepares him to meet his God, not only in death, but also right now in a better grasp of his attributes.

Shaw’s idea of conversing with God’s attributes is not a mere intellectual exercise. When he exhorts us to “converse with the self-sufficient fullness of God by the grace of faith,” he goes on:

“I mean by the act of it whereby we do interest ourselves, and as it were, wrap up our own souls in this fullness, and make it our own. … when the soul is able to say, All the fullness of power, wisdom, goodness, is all mine in my Head Christ Jesus, for in him all this fullness dwells, Col 2:9, and he dwelleth in me….

The way to converse with the self-sufficient fullness of God is “by delighting yourselves in it.” Based on a quick look at his other published work, this kind of spiritual experience of God is one of his favorite topics, and he goes into detail about it here:

Then do we converse indeed feelingly and comfortably with the infinite fullness, when the soul is swallowed up in it, doth rest in it, is filled with it, and centered upon it. Oh the noble and free-born spirit of true religion, that disdaining the pursuit of low and created things, is carried out with delight to feed, and dwell and live upon uncreated fullness! Then is a soul raised to its just altitude, to the very height of its being, when it can spend all its powers upon the supreme and self-sufficient good, spreading and stretching itself upon God with full contentment, and wrapping up itself entirely in him. This is the soul’s way of living above losses; and he that so lives, though he may often be a loser, yet shall never be at a loss. He who feeds upon created goodness or sweetness, may soon eat himself out of all; the stock will be spent, and which is worse, the soul will be dried up that hath nothing else to nourish it. But he who lives upon uncreated fullness, is never at a loss, though he lose never so much of the creature: for who will value the spilling of a dish of water, who hath aw ell of living water at his door, from whence he had that, and can have more as good, though not the same.

Even in the loss of our dearest things, we should “live upon the Fountain-fullness” of God himself. “Delight yourself in the Lord, after the example of the prophet Habakkuk 3:17-18.”

“Converse,” Shaw urges, “with God, with God in Christ, with God in his promises, with God in his attributes.”

Modern readers are probably prone to wonder how, of all the divine attributes, this attribute of self-sufficient fullness could possibly matter. Surely the doctrines of mercy and love, or even of power and wisdom, are consoling to sufferers. But what could be less relevant than the theological claim that God in himself is sufficient to himself, complete in himself, utterly and infinitely full in himself? It may be true, but how could it be relevant? Isn’t a doctrine like this (it is, after all, an aspect of aseity) precisely the least relevant or applicable doctrine in the whole theology book?

But Shaw is in earnest when he identifies it as the high point of his plague meditation. That God is infinitely, self-sufficiently full is the best thing to keep in mind under affliction. But “keep in mind” is not quite the right way to say it. Shaw pleads with his readers to ponder this divine perfection “not speculatively, notionally, but really, practically, according as I have directed in the foregoing discourse. Religion is not an empty, airy, notional thing; it is not a matter of thinking, nor of talking, but it hath a real existence in the soul.”

The way of conversing with God in his several attributes is not a thinking often with ourselves, and telling one another that God is just, wise, and merciful, etc., though this be good; but it is a drinking in the virtue and value of these divine perfections, a working of them into the soul; and, on the other hand, the soul’s rendering of itself up to God in those acts of grace which suit with such attributes, as in water face answereth face.”

Some readers will never quite get this point. All of Shaw’s huffing and puffing about some kind of spiritual reality which is not reducible to intellectual apprehension and doctrinal correctness will seem beside the point, excessive. To such readers, I would just say that you should at least record in your memory the fact that Shaw testifies there is such a thing as drinking in the divine perfections. To the reader who is theologically informed but thinks theology is just information, I say: Remember that Samuel Shaw claims that the truths of theology can do more than fill your mind. They can fill you up. He is well aware of what it means to entertain good doctrines in the intellect, and even to assent to them. But this man, having endured the plague and its losses, also says that there is such a thing as thinking these divine thoughts in such a way that you are not just doing theology but actually making yourself present before God in a way that corresponds to God’s making himself present to you in his perfection of infinite, self-sufficient fullness. Face to face, as it were.

Because “a soul’s conversing with the attributes of God is not an empty notion of them, or a dry discourse concerning them, but a reception of impressions from them, and a reciprocation of them: the effluxes of these from God are such as do beget reflections in man towards God.”

Samuel Shaw walked out of his plague experience with a testimony and an exhortation about conversing with God in his attributes, and above all about conversing with God in his attribute of infinite, self-sufficient fullness.

Share this essay [social_share/]