London Burning

Ian Rush | June 28, 2016

During my early school years, a centuries old children’s nursery rhyme still remained popular among the children of my English school playground.

London’s burning, London’s burning;
Fetch the engines, fetch the engines;
Fire, fire! Fire, fire!
Pour on water, pour on water.

Although the specific origins of the nursery rhyme are unknown, the words within are thought to represent the horror of the 1666 Great Fire of London.

Centuries have passed since The Great Fire of London, but the vivid memory of that event still remains with the people of England.

Historical Setting

The bubonic plague helps form the bleak backdrop of the fire of London. The plague was a fatal bacterial disease passed to humans by fleas on rats. The first outbreaks were reported in December 1664 with the peak mortality rate occurring in July 1665 when there were over two thousand deaths per week.

The total death count from 1665–66 was around 200,000 people. The population of London dropped by almost 40 percent as a direct result of the plague.

The reign of Charles II on the English throne had brought a somewhat varied but similar discomfort among the people of England. Upon his return to England (after the death of Oliver Cromwell), Charles insisted that the churches of England return to the Book of Common Prayer. This was unacceptable to Puritan ministers, who viewed it as a work that distracted from true worship of God.

As a result, over two thousand Puritan “dissenter” ministers were ejected (The Great Ejection, 1662) from their pulpits for failing to adhere to the Book of Common Prayer in worship. Edward Calmany the Elder was one such Puritan ejected from his pulpit in central London. The Great Ejection was only the beginning of the persecution these men would face over the next decade.

The London of 1666 was breaking down physically, spiritually and on all fronts!

London had experienced two wet summers in 1664 and 65 but from November 1665 the city had experienced a major drought. The timber built buildings had become extremely dry over the course of the hot summer of 1666.

After midnight on Sunday, September 2, a fire broke out at the King’s bakery in Pudding Lane, central London. Early attempts to calm the fire by destroying surrounding buildings were in vain and over the course of the next few hours over 300 houses had been destroyed.

The Great Fire continued to ravage London over the course of the next few days due to high winds, the dense population of wooden structures and the drought. The fire reached devastating points with an estimated high temperature of three thousand degrees Fahrenheit – the melting point of iron.

Nothing stood in its way, the actual death toll is considered to be relatively low although it is difficult to pinpoint as the fire was so hot it instantly incinerated anyone who didn’t flee from its path. More than 13,000 houses and 87 churches were destroyed by the fire. Even St Paul’s Cathedral did not escape the devastation. Two hundred thousand of London’s residents were displaced as a result of the tragedy.

Samuel Pepys is arguably the most famous survivor. His journal entries provide an insight into the minds of London residents at that time. Smoke was still seen rising out of the city eight months after the end of the fire, in February of the following year.

Pepys made this recording in his diary: “I did within these six days see smoke still remaining of the late fire in the City; and it is strange to think how to this very day I cannot sleep at night without great terrors of fire; and this very night I could not sleep till almost 2 in the morning through thoughts of fire.”

Edward Calmany, the ejected Puritan of London, was another victim of The Great Fire, although he did not feel the physical lick of the flames he was said to have died out of anguish, terror and distress at such a morbid event after he reviewed the aftermath.

Ironically, it was the fire that brought an end to the great killer, the bubonic plague. Death tolls from the plague severely subsided due to the purging of the disease from the city thanks to the extreme heat of the fire.

Theological Reflections

The marks of this event are still seen today in London and school children are still taught about the events that occurred in 1666. The intent I am sure is to mark such a loss of life and to ensure that the victims of this tragedy are never forgotten.

While I agree with this sentiment, I would be remiss not to recognize the workings of God within this period of human history.

First, it is necessary to remember that catastrophic events like this do not occur outside of the sovereign plan of God. The Lord divinely ordained the unfolding of each specific detail and it all happened exactly as He planned it would (Rom. 11:36). In the face of tragedy, we are not called to question God, but to worship and obey Him as the creator and ruler of all things (John 1:3; Col. 1:16).

Second, the events mentioned above offer a vivid illustration of our urgent role as ministers of the gospel. We are indeed dying men given the job to preach to dying men, but the message we preach is not of morbidity but of life to those who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

All men are spiritually dead apart from this gospel, they stand teetering on the precipice of eternal fire and torment with no hope of rescue but Christ, and we are commanded to preach to them this rescue. Natural disasters and national tragedies (like the Great Fire of London) serve as powerful reminders of the brevity of life and the impending reality of eternity.

The memory of such events ought to motivate us, as believers, to live with eternity in our hearts and on our tongues (Rom. 10:13–15, 2 Tim. 4:1–5).


Ian Rush avatar
Ian Rush is a graduate of the Master of Divinity program at The Master's Seminary.

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