Angel of the Pestilence

Elizabeth Knowles, April 2020

In the last week of January 2020, when I was exploring possible walks in the vicinity of the market town of Wantage, I noticed an unusual commemorative inscription on the (exterior) north wall of the chancel of the parish church of St Michael’s Wantage. (I had no idea, of course, that a couple of months later we would be one of many countries grappling with a twenty-first century version of a “pestilence.”) The inscription reads: “Between this Wall and the pathway were interred from Sept: 29th to Oct: 15th 1832 the bodies of sixteen persons, who with three others of this Town had died of the Asiatic Cholera, the ravages of which disease were mercifully terminated by Him, who alone could say to the Angel of the Pestilence—‘It is enough, stay now thine hand.’”  As the diligent editor of a dictionary of quotations, I immediately wondered about the source of the quotation, and how recognizable it would have been to the community for whom it was first put up. Ironically, by the time I was able to investigate it in detail my resources were somewhat limited, since lockdown in response to that modern pestilence of Coronavirus had closed the Bodleian and restricted my researches to what could be done from my desk at home, but I have at least been able to establish an outline picture. (I should perhaps say at the outset that my interest and investigation have been lexicographical in nature rather than theological.)

The OED entry for cholera (updated in March 2012) is helpful in providing a context for what happened in Wantage in 1832. It gives 1807 as the first recorded date of what is now the most common sense of the word, denoting an acute infectious disease caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae and frequently occurring in epidemics or pandemics. It provides the further information that it is endemic in parts of South Asia, and that the alternative term “Asiatic cholera” is still used. Cholera as defined here reached Western Europe in a pandemic of 1831, of which the outbreak in Wantage must clearly have been a part.

While it seemed likely that the source was biblical, and (given the date) from the Authorized Version, I did not recognize the words from the “Bible” entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Research at home confirmed that they did not appear in ODQ; nor could I find them referenced in other collections. It took further work online to trace them to 2 Samuel 24:15-16, verses which recount a story of divine punishment enacted in the form of “a pestilence upon Israel” in the days of king David. Initially, seventy thousand died “from Dan even to Beer-sheba.” However, when Jerusalem itself was threatened, there was a change. In the words of the Authorized Version, “The Lord … said to the angel that destroyed the people, It is enough: stay now thine hand.”  As a churchgoing Anglican, I am reasonably familiar with texts forming part of the Lectionary, but I had never come across these verses being read or preached on. I wondered therefore how recognizable they would have been when the epitaph was placed on the church wall, and undertook some further exploration.  I was interested both in the use of the unattributed quotation itself, and in the phrase “Angel of the Pestilence.”  

While I did not find significant general uses of the quotation from 2 Samuel, the Book of Common Prayer (1662) includes the text of a prayer for use “In the time of any common Plague or Sickness.” This refers directly to the “plague of Pestilence” which killed “threescore and ten thousand” in the time of David, and clearly alludes to the story in 2 Samuel 24:15-16. It is highly likely to have been used in in churches during the cholera outbreak of the 1830s, and would thus have ensured familiarity with the relevant biblical passage.

 “Angel of the Pestilence” as a phrase does appear to have been used in the context of 1832. It occurs in 1833 as the title of a poem by “J. W.”, appearing in The Aurora Borealis: a literary annual, edited by “Members of the Society of Friends”, and published in Newcastle upon Tyne and London. “The Angel of the Pestilence” in this collection is an eight-page dramatic poem in which the angel personifies the deadly infection spreading across the world. The phrase appears again two years later in the title of a prose reflection on “the Angel of the Pestilence”  as “the instrument of inflicting that disorder which hath lately visited the nations, and smitten its millions” (“The Angel of the Pestilence” in John Cox (ed.) The Friend of Sinners, 1835).  I take this to refer to the cholera pandemic.

From the admittedly rather limited resources I can currently look at, it does not look as though “Angel of the Pestilence” developed any very substantial use, other than in the particular context of the 1830s. There was of course already an established rival of which it is presumably a more specialized variant. OED dates the more familiar “angel of death” from the mid sixteenth century, and Byron’s 1815 poem The Destruction of Sennacherib provides a high-profile example from the early nineteenth century of a similarly fatal angelic visitor, in the couplet “For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast, /And breathed on the face of the foe as he passed.” (Lines which, of course, are likely to be found across a whole range of dictionaries of quotations.) It may well be that “Angel of the Pestilence” it is too specific to have the general utility that marks the linguistically successful quotation or phrase. When John Bright, Liberal politician and reformer, spoke in the House of Commons in February 1855 describing the impact on British households of losses in the Crimea, the more general phrase gave his words the necessary impact: “The angel of death has been abroad throughout the land; you may almost hear the beating of his wings.” A personification which limited the agency through which the angel exerted power would not have served him. Added to that, as time goes on, “pestilence” to a degree loses some range of usage, and acquires a more archaic flavour—although to the inhabitants of Wantage in 1832, faced with a terrifying new disease, it was presumably a vivid and immediate image. In terms of quotations, I find the Wantage epitaph a striking example of the way in which local circumstances may mean that in a certain time and place, a quotation that might more widely be considered obscure can be very well known.