Abigail Adams in a Time of Pestilence

Precisely because of her powers of empathy, because of the true love she felt for those with whom she lived, in the land she loved, what most strengthened Abigail throughout this crisis was her trust in her Maker.

Abigail Adams in later life (c. 1810-15), painted by Gilbert Stuart. [Wikipedia]

“Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” — John 11:40

“I set myself down to write with a Heart depressed with the Melancholy Scenes around me,” Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John in September of 1775, when he was in Philadelphia with the Second Continental Congress and she was managing the family farm at Baintree with her four young children and the family’s servants Susy and Patty. A dysentery epidemic had broken out, which would predictably ensue from the quartering of soldiers; General Washington and his men had struggled with dysentery and small pox throughout the siege of Boston; indeed, during the Revolutionary War more soldiers would die of disease than wounds on the battlefield; and in the letter that Abigail wrote her husband (one of over a thousand that passed between the married couple) we can see the sort of faithful Christian courage that would sustain many of the 13,000 civilians living in and around Boston at the time. “My Letter will be only a Bill of Mortality,” she wrote,

though thanks be to that Being who restraineth the pestilence, that it has not yet proved mortal to any of our family, though we live in daily Expectation that Patty will not continue many hours. A general putrefaction seems to have taken place, and we cannot bear the House only as we are constantly cleansing it with hot vinegar. I had no Idea of the Distemper producing such a state as hers till now. Yet we take all possible care by shifting her bed every day. Two of the children John and Charles I have sent out of the house, finding it difficult to keep them out of the chamber. Nabby [Abigail, her eldest child] continues well. Tommy {Thomas Boylston her youngest son] is better, but entirely stripped of the hardy robust countenance as well as of all the flesh he had, save what remains for to keep his bones together. Jonathan is the only one who remains in the family but what has had a turn of the disorder. Mrs. Randle has lost her daughter, Mrs. Bracket hers, Mr. Thomas Thayer his wife. 2 persons belonging to Boston have died this week in this parish. I know of eight this week who have been buried in this Town.

In Weymouth, a neighboring town, where Abigail had been the daughter of the Congregationalist parson, in whose library she read so widely and so profitably, the dysentery had not yet taken hold, though it would soon enough and to devastating effect. “It is very sickly, but not mortal,“ she reported to her doubtless anxious husband. Still, the general sickness in the surrounding towns was bad and getting worse. “The dread upon the minds of people of catching the distemper is almost as great as if it was the smallpox,” she wrote, after having succumbed to the dysentery herself and recovering from it.

With her husband away, Abigail had charge not only of the children but the household and the farm. “I have been disturbed more than ever I was in my life to procure watchers and to get assistance,” she wrote. But she was also worried about how the neighbors were faring. “I hear Mr. Tudor has been dangerously sick, but is now upon the recovery. Mr. Wibird is very low indeed, scarcely able to walk a step. We have been four Sundays without any meeting.” In a subsequent letter of the same month, she commiserated with those neighbors who were parents: “The desolation of War is not so much distressing as the Havock made by the pestilence,” she assured her husband. “Some poor parents are mourning the loss of 3, 4, and 5 children, and some families are wholly stripped of every member.”

Nevertheless, precisely because of her powers of empathy, because of the true love she felt for those with whom she lived, in the land she loved, what most strengthened Abigail throughout this crisis was her trust in her Maker, in whose image those loved ones were created. “Thus does pestilence travel in the rear of war, to remind us of our entire dependence upon that Being who not only directeth the arrow by day, but has also at his command that which flieth in darkness,” she wrote. This was a reference to Psalm 91, the wisdom of which would always inspire Abigail when trouble arrived on her doorstep.

 I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress:
my God; in him will I trust.
Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler,
and from the noisome pestilence
…Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night;
nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness;
nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
A thousand shall fall at thy side,
and ten thousand at thy right hand;
but it shall not come nigh thee.

Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold
and see the reward of the wicked.
Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge,
even the most High, thy habitation;
There shall no evil befall thee,
neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
For he shall give his angels charge over thee,
to keep thee in all thy ways.

The faith that the Psalms renewed in Abigail put a lot of worldly matters in perspective. “So uncertain and so transitory are all the enjoyments of life, that were it not for the tender connections which bind us, would it not be folly to wish for continuance here,” she asked. “I think I shall never be wedded to the world, and were I to lose about a dozen of my dearest connections, I should have no further relish for life. But perhaps I deceive myself and know but little of my own heart.” This was prescient. Abigail would lose a good deal in the world – one daughter in stillbirth, another in infancy and one son at the age of thirty after he had drunk himself to death — but she would never lose her relish for life, for eternal life. And she could speak of conforming her own will to the Lord’s with such conviction because it was the rule of her life.

And unto Him who mounts the whirlwind and directs the storm I will cheerfully leave the ordering of my lot, and whether adverse or prosperous days should be my future portion, I will trust in his right hand to lead me safely through, and, after a short rotation of events, fix me in a state immutable and happy.

In signing off her letter, Abigail repeated a proverbial saying that may have dated back to ancient Greece but had a perennial immediacy for eighteenth-century Americans in a world without vaccines. “God helps them that help themselves,” she wrote, “and if we can obtain the Divine aid by our own virtue, fortitude, and perseverance, we may be sure of relief… Adieu! I need not say how sincerely I am Your affectionate PORTIA”

Scarcely a month later, Abigail would send another letter to her husband, in which the cry of her pain is still pitiably audible.

Have pity upon me, have pity upon me o! thou my beloved for the Hand of God presseth me sore. Yet will I be dumb and silent and not open my mouth because thou o Lord hast done it. How can I tell you (o my bursting Heart) that my Dear Mother has Left me, this day about 5 oclock she left this world for an infinitely better. After sustaining 16 days severe conflict nature fainted and she fell asleep. Blessed Spirit where art thou? At times I almost am ready to faint under this severe and heavy Stroke, seperated from thee who used to be a comforter towards me in affliction, but blessed be God, his Ear is not heavy that he cannot hear, but he has bid us call upon him in time of Trouble.

Again, affliction made Abigail cling to her biblical bearings. Here, she invokes Job 19:21 and Psalm 38.2 in the opening and Isaiah 59:1 and Psalm 50:15 in the closing sentence. The extremity of her pain shows why these bearings were so vital to her. “You often Expressed your anxiety for me when you left me before, surrounded with Terrors,” she wrote her husband. “but my trouble then was as the small dust in the balance compared to what I have since endured.”

Bereaving for her dead mother, alone with her children, confronted by a plague that was scarcely controllable, this brave woman could still regret that she might not be capable of writing her husband with her accustomed elegance. “You will pardon and forgive all my wanderings of mind,” she wrote. “I cannot be correct. Tis a dreadful time with this whole province. Sickness and death are in almost every family. I have no more shocking and terrible Idea of any Distemper except the Plague than this.” And with that, she returned to the incantatory solace of Psalm 91: “Almighty God restrain the pestilence which walketh in darkness and wasteth at noon day and which has laid in the dust one of the dearest of parents. May the Life of the other be lengthened out to his afflicted children and Your distressed Portia.”

Days later, it was time to give her husband another report on the family fortunes, and here we see the Christian Abigail in all of her radiant fellow feeling. “I have just returned from attending Patty to the Grave,” she writes of the family’s servant. “No doubt long before this will reach you, you have received a melancholy train of Letters in some of which I mention her as dangerously sick. She has lain 5 weeks wanting a few days so bad as that we had little hopes of her Recovery; the latter part of the Time she was the most shocking object my Eyes ever beheld, and so loathsome that it was with the utmost difficulty we could bear the House. A mortification took place a week before she died, and rendered her a most pitiable object. We have great sickness yet in the Town; she made the fourth Corpse that was this day committed to the Ground. We have many others now so bad as to despair of their lives.”

What would we feel if a beloved nanny or housekeeper were carried off in such a ghastly fashion? We might find out sooner than we imagine; Abigail counted her blessings and marched on. “Blessed be the Father of Mercies all our family are now well,” she wrote, “though I have my apprehensions lest the malignancy of the air in the House may have infected some of them, we have fevers of various kinds, the Throat Distemper as well as the Dysentery prevailing in this and the Neighboring Towns.”

With dysentery still raging about the town, Abigail was intent on showing how the death of her mother could only deepen her love for her mother.

How long o Lord shall the whole land say I am sick? O shew us wherefore it is that thou art thus contending with us? In a very particular manner I have occasion to make this inquiry who have had Breach upon Breach, nor has one wound been permitted to be healed e’er it is made to Blead afresh, in six weeks I count 5 of my near connections laid in the grave. Your Aunt Simpson died at Milton about ten days ago with the Dysentery. But the heavy stroke which most of all distresses me is my dear Mother. I cannot overcome my too selfish sorrow, all her tenderness towards me, her care and anxiety for my welfare at all times, her watchfulness over my infant years, her advice and instruction in mature age; all, all endear her memory to me, and heighten my sorrow for her loss.

In that great poem of his maturity, Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot wrote that “Love is most nearly itself/ When here and now cease to matter.” Love, in other words, will not be bound by time and space, it will not shrink before the terrors of death, it will only lay claim more insistently to its true boundless dominion, though the only thing that can effectively remind us of this truth is the death of those we love.

Abigail Adams certainly recognized this when she lamented the death of her beloved mother in a time of pestilence. “I know a patient submission is my duty,” she wrote. “I will strive to obtain it! But the lenient hand of time alone can blunt the keen Edge of Sorrow. He who deigned to weep over a departed Friend, will surely forgive a sorrow which at all times desires to be bounded and restrained, by a firm Belief that a Being of infinite wisdom and unbounded Goodness, will carve out my portion in tender mercy towards me!” Could there be an apter reference to Christ’s love for Lazarus?

Taking that love to heart, Abigail could see her blessings with a faithful perspicuity. “Yea though he slay me I will trust in him said holy Job. What though his corrective Hand hath been stretched against me; I will not murmur. Though earthly comforts are taken away I will not repine, he who gave them has surely a right to limit their duration, and has continued them to me much longer than I deserved. I might have been stripped of my children as many others have been. I might o! forbid it Heaven, I might have been left a solitary widow. Still I have many blessings left, many comforts to be thankful for, and rejoice in. I am not left to mourn as one without hope.” The eighteenth century produced many fine writers of letters, from Jonathan Swift and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Horace Walpole and Lady Sarah Lennox, but with her Yankee eloquence, her profoundly Christian eloquence, Abigail Adams beats them hollow.

“Patriotism,” Samuel Johnson was fond of saying, “is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Certainly, John Adams, in his long and rancorous political career, could vouch for that. But patriotism is also the thing we feel when our family and our neighbors are suffering both the fear of death and death itself, for it is then that we prize not only our native land but our eternal home and those with whom we shall share our eternal home. That the most admirable of our first ladies felt and expressed this patriotism so deeply and so movingly should encourage all of us as we endure our own time of pestilence.


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About Edward Short 21 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries and Newman and his Family, both published by Bloomsbury, and Adventures in the Book Pages, published by Gracewing. His most recent book Newman and History has just been published by Gracewing. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.

7 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this beautifully written article.
    It helped to wash away the bad taste experienced from a traditional Catholic podcast I listened to recently which claimed Protestants and Satanists were equally bound for Hell.
    It’s too bad. I’m quite old fashioned and traditional but I think some traditionalists are as guilty of rebellion as their counterparts on the opposite side. They’re trying way too hard to distance themselves from whatever worldly past they’ve rejected. One doesn’t need to demonize good, decent Protestant folk who do the best they can with the knowledge they possess. My evangelical and Anabaptist friends exhibit the sort of charity that puts some Catholics to shame.
    Many thanks again for this lovely article. May God bless you and keep you and your family safe.

    • mrscracker, would you please name the Catholic podcast that said what you recount? I would like to listen and see about it. I was a former Protestant, and I am still of the opinion that late Presbyterian Pastor D. James Kennedy is a Proto-Catholic saint. I was in 7 different denominations at different times, and I met some of the sweetest, most charitable believers in Jesus there, a FEW of them.

      I did not leave Protestantism because of those exemplary few but because I came to the realization that those few had chosen to believe in Jesus in a way that greatly resembled the constant, determined, daily growth in the Faith typical of True Catholicism and not the believe-and-you’re-done of most all of the Protestant Denominations (Sola Fide).

      I still look at their situation, which is how I know that Protestant Pastors Ray Comfort and John MacArthur among several others have called against BELIEVISM (extreme Sola Fide), which means Faith with no consequences or changes in behavior toward holiness whatsoever. They call out how way too many Protestants are morally much worse than the unbelieving world.

      That sounds very familiar like in the Protestantization of the Catholic Church, where more and more Catholics divorce Faith from Behavior, believing in all-will-be-saved, Jesus-as-soft-enabler-not-as-Lord, Satan-and-Hell-Don’t-exist, etc. Will BELIEVISM lead eventually to condemn many to Hell? Oh, Yes!! Regardless of whether those BELIEVISTS are Catholic or Protestant, Laity or Clergy. BELIEVISM is Satan’s Religion: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons BELIEVE that–and shudder”, (James 2:18-19).

      • Phil,
        I found that discussion through a random YouTube selection that popped up and most of it was concerning fantasy/science fiction type literature and Catholicism and it was quite fair minded.
        So was the conversation about folk beliefs and the Church’s historical attitudes towards those.
        But at the very end it devolved into what I guess was Feeneyism. (I’m not even sure how to spell that.)
        Anyway it was very disappointing.
        Speaking of Protestants, I always remember hearing a preacher state that Christians are balancing on a sort of tightrope- being pulled from the left and the right. Without equal energy exerted from either side we lose balance and fall off.
        It’s always been a balancing act between extremes. It’s easier to fall off into one camp or the other. The harder thing is to keep your balance whilst maintaining charity and orthodoxy.

        • Dear mrscracker, if you look hard and long enough, you will find some really crazy ideas out there, with some even dressed as representing authentic Catholic thought and practice. By the way, you spelled “Feeneyism” correctly. It was founded by Leonard Feeney (1897–1978), and he was excommunicated then later reconciled with the Church.

          His position was extreme, but using extremists in the Church (of which Protestantism has WAY, WAY more) to give a free pass to Protestantism and its virtues (which indeed some do have) is not a way to get to that precious balance that you mention at the end of your reply.

          If you stay in any way, form or manner, mentally and/or emotionally, on the fence between Protestantism and TRUE Catholicism, you are losing much of the enormous Spiritual Treasure of the True Catholic Church. That True Balance that you and I both crave is found only in the True Catholic Church and that’s why when I made my transition to Catholicism it was 100%, like Scott Hahn and so many others.

          The grave faults in Catholicism are due to us being all sinners and compromisers, not faults in the God-Given, Pure Catholic Truth and Tradition. Just look at the Saints and see that there’s no real balance at all in spiritual hybrids. It’s a trap. God is merciful with the lost and misguided (like me in the past) but not when the Truth is very well known and rejected. God bless you mrscracker and all you hold dear!

  2. Abigail Adams’ words are a humbling reminder of the stern stuff that built this country! Her acceptance of God’s often difficult will– in her marriage (to a husband who was away for months and years at a time in the service of his country) and in her life–are remarkable. In addition to a stillbirth, a child who died in infancy, and the tragic death of her son Charles, she also outlived her oldest child and namesake, Nabby, who died of breast cancer in her 40’s. And, less than a year after the dysentery outbreak, she shepherded her young family –again, far from her husband— through the smallpox epidemic that was devastating the young country. Rather than risk almost certain death from the disease, Abigail and the Adams children were inoculated against the disease— a lengthy process that was ultimately protective, but, unlike the vaccinations of today, was only considered effective if the patient actually contracted smallpox (hopefully, but not necessarily, a mild case).

    Thank you for an excellent and inspiring article!

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