The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 17/A Faithful Narrative of What Passed in London, &c.
A TRUE AND FAITHFUL
WHAT PASSED IN LONDON,
GENERAL CONSTERNATION OF ALL RANKS AND DEGREES OF MANKIND,
TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY, THURSDAY, AND FRIDAY LAST.
ON Tuesday the 13th of October, Mr. Whiston held his lecture, near the Royal Exchange, to an audience of fourteen worthy citizens, his subscribers and constant hearers. Beside these, there were five chance auditors for that night only, who had paid shillings apiece. I think myself obliged to be very particular in this relation, lest my veracity should be suspected; which makes me appeal to the men, who were present; of which number, I myself was one. Their names are,
Henry Watson, haberdasher.
George Hancock, druggist.
John Lewis, drysalter.
William' Jones, cornchandler.
Henry Theobald, watchmaker.
James Peters, draper.
Thomas Floyer, silversmith.
John Wells, brewer.
Samuel Greg, soapboiler.
William Cooley, fishmonger.
James Harper, hosier.
Robert Tucker, stationer.
George Ford, ironmonger.
Daniel Lynch, apothecary.
Mr. Whiston began by acquainting us, that (contrary to his advertisement) he thought himself in duty and conscience obliged to change the subject matter of his intended discourse. — Here he paused, and seemed, for a short space, as it were, lost in devotion and mental prayer; after which, with great earnestness and vehemence, he spake as follows:
"Friends and fellow-citizens, all speculative science is at an end: the period of all things is at hand; on Friday next this world shall be no more. Put not your confidence in me, brethren; for to-morrow morning, five minutes after five, the truth will be evident; in that instant the comet shall appear, of which I have heretofore warned you. As ye have heard, believe. Go hence, and prepare your wives, your families, and friends, for the universal change."
At this solemn and dreadful prediction, the whole society appeared in the utmost astonishment: but it would be unjust not to remember, that Mr. Whiston himself was in so calm a temper, as to return a shilling apiece to the youths, who had been disappointed of their lecture, which I thought, from a man of his integrity, a convincing proof of his own faith in the prediction.
As we thought it a duty in charity to warn all men, in two or three hours the news had spread through the city. At first indeed, our report met with but little credit; it being, by our greatest dealers in stocks, thought only a court artifice to sink them, that some choice favourites might purchase at a lower rate; for the South sea, that very evening, fell five per cent, the India eleven, and all the other funds in proportion. But, at the court end of the town, our attestations were entirely disbelieved, or turned into ridicule; yet nevertheless the news spread every where, and was the subject matter of all conversation.
That very night (as I was credibly informed) Mr. Whiston was sent for to a great lady, who is very curious in the learned sciences, and addicted to all the speculative doubts of the most able philosophers; but he was not now to be found: and since, at other times, he has been known not to decline that honour, I make no doubt he concealed himself to attend the great business of his soul: but whether it was the lady's faith, or inquisitiveness, that occasioned her to send, is a point I shall not presume to determine. As for his being sent for to the secretary's office by a messenger, it is now known to be a matter notoriously false, and indeed at first it had little credit with me, that so zealous and honest a man should be ordered into custody, as a seditious preacher, who is known to be so well affected to the present happy establishment.
It was now I reflected, with exceeding trouble and sorrow, that I had disused family prayers for above five years, and (though it has been a custom of late entirely neglected by men of any business or station) I determined within myself no longer to omit so reasonable and religious a duty. I acquainted my wife with my intentions: but, two or three neighbours having been engaged to sup with us that night, and many hours being unwarily spent at cards, I was prevailed upon by her to put it off till the next day; she reasoning, that it would be time enough to take off the servants from their business (which this practice must infallibly occasion for an hour or two every day) after the comet had made its appearance.
Zachary Bowen, a quaker, and my next neighbour, had no sooner heard of the prophecy, but he made me a visit. I informed him of every thing I had heard, but found him quite obstinate in his unbelief; for, said he, be comforted, friend, thy tidings are impossibilities; for, were these things to happen, they must have been foreseen by some of our brethren. This indeed (as in all other spiritual cases with this set of people) was his only reason against believing me; and, as he was fully persuaded that the prediction was erroneous, he in a very neighbourly manner admonished me against selling my stock at the present low price, which, he said, beyond dispute, must have a rise before Monday, when this unreasonable consternation should be over.
But on Wednesday morning (I believe to the exact calculation of Mr. Whiston) the comet appeared: for, at three minutes after five by my own watch, I saw it. He indeed foretold, that it would be seen at five minutes after five; but, as the best watches may be a minute or two too slow, I am apt to think his calculation just to a minute.
In less than a quarter of an hour, all Cheapside was crowded with a vast concourse of people, and notwithstanding it was so early, it is thought that, through all that part of the town, there was not man, woman, or child, except the sick or infirm, left in their beds. From my own balcony, I am confident, I saw several thousands in the street, and counted at least seventeen, who were upon their knees, and seemed in actual devotion. Eleven of them, indeed, appeared to be old women of about fourscore; the six others were men in an advanced life, but (as I could guess) two of them might be under seventy.
It is highly probable, that an event of this nature may be passed over by the greater historians of our times, as conducing very little or nothing to the unravelling and laying open the deep schemes of politicians, and mysteries of state; for which reason, I thought it might not be unacceptable to record the facts, which, in the space of three days, came to my knowledge, either as an eyewitness, or from unquestionable authorities; nor can I think this narrative will be entirely without its use, as i: may enable us to form a more just idea of our countrymen in general, particularly in regard to their faith, religion, morals, and politicks.
Before Wednesday noon, the belief was universal, that the day of judgment was at hand, insomuch, that a waterman of my acquaintance told me, he counted no less than one hundred and twenty-three clergymen, who had been ferried over to Lambeth before twelve o'clock: these, it is said, went thither to petition, that a short prayer might be penned, and ordered, there being none in the service upon that occasion. But, as in things of this nature it is necessary that the council be consulted, their request was not immediately complied with; and this I affirm to be the true and only reason, that the churches were not that morning so well attended; and is in no ways to be imputed to the fears and consternation of the clergy, with which the freethinkers have since very unjustly reproached them.
My wife and I went to church (where we had not been for many years on a week-day) and, with a very large congregation, were disappointed of the service. But (what will be scarce credible) by the carelessness of a 'prentice, in our absence, we had a piece of fine cambrick carried off by a shoplifter: so little impression was yet made on the minds of those wicked women!
I cannot omit the care of a particular director of the Bank; I hope the worthy and wealthy knight will forgive me, that I endeavour to do him justice; for it was unquestionably owing to sir Gilbert Heathcote's sagacity, that all the fire-offices were required to have a particular eye upon the Bank of England. Let it be recorded to his praise, that in the general hurry this struck him as his nearest and tenderest concern; but the next day in the evening, after having taken due care of all his books, bills, and bonds, I was informed, his mind was wholly turned upon spiritual matters; yet, ever and anon, he could not help expressing his resentment against the tories and Jacobites, to whom he imputed that sudden run upon the Bank, which happened on this occasion.
A great man (whom at this time it may not be prudent to name) employed all the Wednesday morning to make up such an account, as might appear fair, in case he should be called upon to produce it on the Friday; but was forced to desist, after having for several hours together attempted it, not being able to bring himself to a resolution to trust the many hundred articles of his secret transactions upon paper.
Another seemed to be very mielancholy, which his flatterers imputed to his dread of losing his power in a day or two; but I rather take it, that his chief concern was the terrour of being tried in a court, that could not be influenced, and where a majority of voices could avail him nothing. It was observed too, that he had but few visitors that day; this added so much to his mortification, that he read through the first chapter of the book of Job, and wept over it bitterly; in short, he seemed a true penitent in every thing, but in charity to his neighbour. No business was that day done in his compting-house; it is said too, that he was advised to restitution, but I never heard, that he complied with it any farther, than in giving half a crown a piece to several crazed, and starving creditors, who attended in the outward room.
Three of the maids of honour sent to countermand their birthday clothes; two of them burnt all their collections of novels and romances, and sent to a bookseller's in Pall-mall to buy each of them a Bible, and Taylor's holy Living and Dying. But I must do all of them the justice to acknowledge that they showed a very decent behaviour in the drawing room, and restrained themselves from those innocent freedoms, and little levities, so commonly incident to young ladies of their profession. So many birthday suits were countermanded the next day, that most of the tailors and mantuamakers discharged all their journeymen and women. A grave elderly lady of great erudition and modesty, who visits these young ladies, seemed to be extremely shocked by the apprehensions, that she was to appear naked before the whole world; and no less so, that all mankind was to appear naked before her; which might so much divert her thoughts, as to incapacitate her to give ready and apt answers to the interrogatories, that might be made her. The maids of honour, who had both modesty and curiosity, could not imagine the sight so disagreeable as was represented; nay one of them went so far as to say, she perfectly longed to see it; for it could not be so indecent, when every body was to be alike; and they had a day or two to prepare themselves to be seen in that condition. Upon this reflection, each of them ordered a bathing-tub to be got ready that evening, and a looking-glass to be set by it. So much are these young ladies both by nature and custom addicted to cleanly appearance.
A west-country gentleman told me, he got a church-lease filled up that morning for the same sum, which had been refused for three years successively. I must impute this merely to accident; for I cannot imagine, that any divine could take the advantage of his tenant in so unhandsome a manner; or that the shortness of the life was in the least his consideration; though I have heard the same worthy prelate aspersed and maligned since upon this very account.
The term being so near, the alarm among the lawyers was inexpressible, though some of them, I was told, were so vain as to promise themselves some advantage in making their defence, by being versed in the practise of our earthly courts. It is said too, that some of the chief pleaders were heard to express great satisfaction, that there had been but few state-trials of late years. Several attornies demanded the return of fees, that had been given the lawyers: but it was answered, the fee was undoubtedly charged to their client, and that they could not connive at such injustice, as to suffer it to be sunk in the attorneys' pockets. Our sage and learned judges had great consolation, insomuch as they had not pleaded at the bar for several years; the barristers rejoiced in that they were not attorneys, and the attorneys felt no less satisfaction, that they were not pettifoggers, scriveners, and other meaner officers of the law.
As to the army, far be it from me to conceal the truth. Every soldier's behaviour was as undismayed, and undaunted, as if nothing was to happen: I impute not this to their want of faith, but to their martial disposition; though I cannot help thinking they commonly accompany their commands with more oaths than are requisite, of which there was no remarkable diminution this morning on the parade in St. James's park. But possibly it was by choice, and on consideration, that they continued this way of expression, not to intimidate the common soldiers, or give occasion to suspect, that even the fear of damnation could make any impression upon their superiour officers. A duel was fought the same morning between two colonels, not occasioned (as was reported) because the one was put over the other's head; that being a point, which might at such a juncture have been accommodated by the mediation of friends; but as this was upon the account of a lady, it was judged it could not be put off at this time, above all others, but demanded immediate satisfaction: I am apt to believe, that a young officer, who desired his surgeon to defer putting him into a salivation till Saturday, might make this request out of some opinion he had of the truth of the prophecy; for the apprehensions of any danger in the operation could not be his motive, the surgeon himself having assured me, that he had before undergone three severe operations of the like nature with great resignation and fortitude.
There was an order issued, that the chaplains of the several regiments should attend their duty; but as they were dispersed about in several parts of England, it was believed, that most of them could not be found, or so much as heard of, till the great day was over.
Most of the considerable physicians by their outward demeanor seemed to be unbelievers; but at the same time, they every where insinuated, that there might be a pestilential malignancy in the air, occasioned by the comet, which might be armed against by proper and timely medicines. This caution had but little effect; for as the time approached, the christian resignation of the people increased, and most of them (which was never before known) had their souls more at heart than their bodies.
If the reverend clergy showed more concern than others, I charitably impute it to their great charge of souls; and what confirmed me in this opinion was, that the degrees of apprehension and terrour could be distinguished to be greater or less, according to their ranks and degrees in the church.
The like might be observed in all sorts of ministers, though not of the church of England; the higher their rank, the more was their fear.
I speak not of the court for fear of offence; and I forbear inserting the names of particular persons, to avoid the imputation of slander, so that the reader will allow the narrative must be deficient, and is therefore desired to accept hereof rather as a sketch, than a regular circumstantial history. I was not informed of any persons, who showed the least joy; except three malefactors, who were to be executed on the Monday following, and one old man, a constant church-goer, who being at the point of death, expressed some satisfaction at the news.
On Thursday morning there was little or nothing transacted in 'Change alley; there were a multitude of sellers, but so few buyers, that one cannot affirm the stocks bore any certain price except among the Jews; who this day reaped great profit by their infidelity. There were many who called themselves Christians, who offered to buy for time, but as these were people of great distinction, I choose not to mention them, because in effect it would seem to accuse them both of avarice, and infidelity.
The run upon the Bank is too well known to need a particular relation: for it never can be forgotten, that no one person whatever (except the directors themselves, and some of their particular friends and associates) could convert a bill all that day into species; ail hands being employed to serve them.
In the several churches of the city and suburbs there were seven thousand two hundred and forty-five, who publickly and solemnly declared before the congregation, that they took to wife their several kept mistresses, which was allowed as valid marriage, the priests not having time to pronounce the ceremony in form.
At St. Bride's church in Fleet street, Mr. Woolston (who writ against the miracles of our Saviour) in the utmost terrours of conscience, made a publick recantation. Dr. Mandevil (who had been groundlessly reported formerly to have done the same) did it now in good earnest at St. James's gate; as did also at the Temple church several gentlemen, who frequent coffeehouses near the bar. So great was the faith and fear of two of them, that they dropped dead on the spot; but I will not record their names, lest I should be thought invidiously to lay an odium on their families and posterity.
Most of the players, who had very little faith before, were now desirous of having as much as they could, and therefore embraced the Roman catholick religion: the same thing was observed of some bawds, and ladies of pleasure.
An Irish gentleman out of pure friendship came to make me a visit, and advised me to hire a boat for the ensuing day, and told me, that unless I gave earnest for one immediately, he feared it might be too late; for his countrymen had secured almost every boat upon the river, as judging, that in the general conflagration, to be upon the water would be the safest place.
There were two lords, and three commoners, who, out of scruple of conscience, very hastily threw up their pensions, as imagining a pension was only an annual retaining bribe. All the other great pensioners, I was told, had their scruples quieted by a clergyman or two of distinction, whom they happily consulted.
It was remarkable, that several of our very richest tradesmen of the city, in common charity, gave away shillings and sixpences to the beggars, who plied about the church doors; and at a particular church in the city, a wealthy churchwarden with his own hands distributed fifty twelvepenny loaves to the poor, by way of restitution for the many great and costly feasts, which he had eaten of at their expense.
Three great ladies, a valet de chambre, two a customhouse officer, five half-pay captains, and a baronet (all noted gamesters) came publickly into a church at Westminster, and deposited a very considerable sum of money in the minister's hands; the parties, whom they had defrauded, being either out of town, or not to be found. But so great is the hardness of heart of this fraternity, that among either the noble, or vulgar gamesters (though the profession is so general) I did not hear of any other restitution of this sort. At the same time I must observe that (in comparison of these) through all parts of the town, the justice and penitence of the highwaymen, housebreakers, and common pickpockets, was very remarkable.
The directors of our publick companies were in such dreadful apprehensions, that one would have thought a parliamentary inquiry was at hand; yet so great was their presence of mind, that all the Thursday morning was taken up in private transfers, which by malicious people was thought to be done with design to conceal their effects.
I forbear mentioning the private confessions of particular ladies to their husbands; for as their children were born in wedlock, and of consequence are legitimate, it would be an invidious task to record them as bastards; and particularly after their several husbands have so charitably forgiven them.
The evening and night through the whole town were spent in devotions both publick and private; the churches for this one day were so crowded by the nobility and gentry, that thousands of common people were seen praying in the publick streets. In short, one would have thought the whole town had been really and seriously religious. But what was very remarkable, all the different persuasions kept by themselves, for as each thought the other would be damned, not one would join in prayer with the other.
At length Friday came, and the people covered all the streets; expecting, watching and praying. But as the day wore away, their fears first began to abate, then lessened every hour, at night they were almost extinct, till the total darkness, that hitherto used to terrify, now comforted every freethinker and atheist. Great numbers went together to the taverns, bespoke suppers, and broke up whole hogsheads for joy. The subject of all wit and conversation was to ridicule the prophecy, and rally each other. All the quality and gentry were perfectly ashamed, nay, some utterly disowned that they had manifested any signs of religion.
But the next day even the common people, as well as their betters, appeared in their usual state of indifference. They drank, they whored, they swore, they lied, they cheated, they quarrelled, they murdered. In short, the world went on in the old channel.
I need not give any instances of what will so easily be credited, but I cannot omit relating, that Mr. Woolston advertised in that very Saturday's Evening Post a new treatise against the miracles of our Saviour; and that the few, who had given up their pensions the day before, solicited to have them continued: which, as they had not been thrown up upon any ministerial point, I am informed was readily granted.
- Sir Gilbert Heathcote had before signalized his care for the Bank when in equal danger, by petitioning against the lord treasurer Godolphin's being removed, as a measure that would destroy the publick credit.
- Author of the Fable of the Bees, a book intended to subvert not only religion but virtue, by showing that private vices are publick benefits.