Isaac Archer’s Sickly Preaching

[In our mini-series ‘A Page in the Life’, each post briefly introduces a new writer and a single page from their manuscript. In this post, Dr Robert W. Daniel of the University of Warwick offers us insights into the diary of the Church of England clergyman Isaac Archer and his experiences of preaching whilst ill. Robert is a Post-Doctorate researcher and General Secretary of the International John Bunyan Society. Follow him at @BunyanSociety]

25 of September [1679] in the night I had an hott fitt of an ague…

28 [September]… [ague] not so bad; and on October 1 worse…

[13 October] Munday discovered it selfe a quartane, which continues stil…

1st [December?], for a fortnight, ’twas tedious [the ague], but I went to Isleham, and tooke physick, and then it shortned, and now I can bear it, only I am not able to preach… 

December 25. I ventured to preach, and so onwards

February 12 [1680]. I have the ague stil… I can officiate [in church]

March 10. I tooke a small journey, and came home wett, upon which my ague came that night… I ventured to preach twice for about a month, but gatt hurt, and my speech was difficult, and my breath shorter than ever I knew it… I agreed to preach only in afternoons…[1]

These are the entries that appear in a page of the diary of the Church of England clergyman Isaac Archer (b. 1641, d. 1700) when he was the resident vicar at Freckenham, Suffolk. His efforts to preach whilst suffering from a nine-month ‘ague’ (likely malaria) are astonishing in part because these attempts, whilst sporadic, were potentially fatal.[2] His sickly preaching exacerbated serious respiratory difficulties which must have been quite unsettling.In light of the recent CFP from the Ecclesiastical History Society on, ‘The Church in Sickness and in Health‘, I was struck by Archer’s experience of illness, and was left with some nagging questions. Did he often preach when ill? If so, what other ailments did he experience while officiating in church? Did he take any sick days? How did Archer rationalize risking his health to preach God’s Word? In this blog post I will attempt to answer some of these questions by examining the motivations and occasions of Archer’s sickly pulpit exertions. Doing so may tell us something surprising about the convictions of, and cost incurred by, England’s pulpiteers.

archer-sickly-preaching-diary-page
Due to Covid-19, the author was unable to obtain a copy of the manuscript page of Archer’s diary as the Cambridge University Library, where the diary now resides, is presently closed.

Though Archer’s diary has been in print since 1994, he is still a relatively obscure figure in early modern historiography (something the recent work of my esteemed colleague Bernard Capp has sought to correct).[3] We must be careful as scholars not to demote or deprioritize early modern diaries that are now more accessible and purchasable. The archive holds many treasures, and those diarists now in print came from there.  So though this post opens with a transcription taken from a printed page, it was originally a manuscript one, and thus what that page has to tell us is no less valuable.

Archer was a fascinating figure for several reasons, but here I want to unpack his sickly preaching habits. The diary entries I opened with are not the first or last example of Archer’s infirm preaching. Others can be readily found in his largely retrospective diary, which covers all the years of his life, including his twenty years as a parochial clergyman. Like other Protestant diarists, Archer was urged to keep a record of his life by his father the Colchester minister William Archer (b. 1609, d. 1670) who had himself ‘written [a] book of experiences of God to him’.[4] Like his father, Archer chronicled the providences, tragedies and contrapuntal rhythms of his church and home life. Yet unlike his father, and unlike many puritan diarists, Archer did not use his life-writings as a ‘book of conscience’ to record his own sins.[5]

Representing the patient’s experience of an ‘ague’. Coloured etching by T. Rowlandson after J. Dunthorne, 1788. Wellcome Library Collection.

It appears that Archer entered the pulpit with a variety of minor and more serious ailments . ‘I was like an old man for tenderness[s], and could scarce study, or preach but with pain’, he tells us sorrowfully, when enduring a searing ‘toothach[e]’ and persistent ‘rhewme’ (or cold) in the winter of 1679.  A year later, still recovering from ‘3 fiits of an ague’, he records ‘I get up but slowly, but went to preach’. On ‘Easter day’ 1671, after experiencing another feverish ‘ague’ and having ‘vomited choller’, Archer ‘prayed that God would restraine it, at least till the service of that day was over; and he did so’, though a ‘fitt came 2 houres after’. The most serious bout of illness occurred when he suffered a prolonged ague and attempted to sermonise with mixed results (as mentioned above). There were likely more instances of sickly preaching that Archer neglected to record.There were times, of course, when the Suffolk clergyman was simply unable to deliver a Sunday sermon. After contracting flu from one of his children, he admitted, ‘I gott a cold that disabled me from preaching’. Falling fowl of a ‘distemper’ in the summer of 1680, Archer states that it was ‘a month before I had strength to preach’. This must have been a serious illness to keep him away from church for so long.  Whatever his ailments, Archer was in no doubt as to the cause of them. He confessed that ‘all my afflictions were for my sinns’ (though he is scant on specifics).[6] Presumably, like in other parishes of the period, Archer’s curate or a neighbouring preacher stepped in to fill the breach when he was laid low by illness.

figure-2-sickly-preaching-1
Preacher with an hourglass and skull at either side of his pulpit. Though symbols of the ars moriendi, or the ‘art of dying well’, and objects used in the church, they also signified the bodily strains of continuous preaching.  Frontispiece to Anon, Great Britain’s Warning-Piece (London: 1689).

Why did Archer risk aggravating and accelerating these illnesses on the occasions he decided to preach? His choice of religion sheds some light on the matter. A commitment to an unflinching preaching ministry would make sense if Archer was a thoroughgoing ‘Puritan’, that godly group of religious men and women who (and I am oversimplifying here) were convinced of the salvific power of preaching.[7] Archer was no ‘Puritan’, sacramentally, but he was one, devotionally. He was a beneficed vicar, officiated the sacraments in a parish church and read frequently (though unenthusiastically) from the Prayer Book.

But he was also the son of an ardent Independent clergyman, for a while struggled over his choice of conformity, prayed and read the scriptures daily, and was prone to inward spiritual introspection.  Most tellingly, he obtained a licence to hold a Presbyterian meeting at his home in Chippenham after the short-lived Declaration of Indulgence in 1672. So Archer straddled the line between radical and moderate, conformist and nonconformist, religious beliefs. He was an ‘inbetweener’, a minority for sure, but an important one. His zeal for preaching, then, even when unwell, might have spawned from his puritan-side (if we can call it that). 

What of Archer’s natural gifts, did he have a talent for preaching? That might explain why he, like the early reformer John Knox, frequently ‘rose off from his sick and death-bed, and would needs go to the pulpit’. Well, not exactly. Archer struggled with a speech impediment (an acute ‘stammer’) which made his pulpit pronouncements noticeably difficult. He confessed that if his sermons went on for too long, or he had to preach before a large audience, ‘it spent mee too much, and would soon have killed me’.[8] This seems to suggest that Archer preferred leaner rather than lengthier sermons. Pithy preaching might have made delivering pulpit exhortations more bearable when ill.

Exterior of Mildenhall Church, Suffolk where Archer often preached when ill. By Richard Greenwood, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6573056

There were, however, a variety of other issues at play here. Firstly, work ethic. Archer was a conscientious parish divine. He showed an equal commitment to preaching as he did visiting the sick, administering the Lord’s Supper, and catechizing the young. Sickness was an irritant, but it was not an impediment to doing any (if not all) of these pastoral duties. He stated proudly that he rarely ‘staid at home’ on the Sabbath ‘scarce in my whole ministry… but in sicknes[s]’, and even this was rare. Secondly, a strong belief in divine Providence. Archer trusted that his profession was a heavenly calling to be conducted in illness or health, and that God would sustain him in either state. He confidently tells us, during the bleak winter of 1680, that he ‘went to preach, when scarce able to goe, my health being chiefly to serve God in’. Thirdly, Archer had a wealth of resources to draw upon during periods of illness. Archer’s father-in-law, Roger Peachy (b. 1621, d. 1683), vicar of Isleham, had a knowledge in physic and for many years lived close to the family. Archer himself had contemplated the ‘study of Physick’ when at Trinity College Cambridge and took an interest in talismanic medicine and herbal remedies. When justifying his decision to remarry in 1698 after his wife, Anne Peachy (b. 1643), had passed, Archer reasoned that he might require continual palliative care: ‘I had bin healthy beyond most men’, he tells us modestly, ‘but I knew not but a time of sicknes[s] might come; and therefore, that I might not want a carefull nurse in my old age, I thought it best to take one’.[9] These personal and professional help-meets somewhat alleviated the risks of his sickly preaching.  Whatever his motivations, Archer’s exchange of his sickbed for a church pulpit sheds some insight into the vital, and potentially fatal, work ethic of this irrepressible English preacher.

Archer’s sickly preaching has wider implications for the way we view sermons as the ‘ordinary means of salvation’ within English Protestantism. Those who campaigned for and practised constant sermonising knew they did so to the detriment of their bodies, but believed it was for the betterment of souls. Archer’s example cautions us not just to focus on what or how clergymen preached, but how they were feeling when they preached, because that will tell us a great deal about why they preached. In doing so we might come to better appreciate the ways in which regular preaching was a painstaking, and at times painful, process in post-Reformation England. Archer’s experience of illness also tells us something about clerical attitudes to early modern medicine. Unwell preachers did not always resort to physic, physicians or bedrest straight away, but attempted (quite literally) to work through their aliments. There were various reasons for this. God was a heavenly physician and doing God’s work was believed to invite his divine favour and healing. Taking physic could also incapacitate a preacher, whereas some afflictions (despite the pain and discomfort) still enabled ministers to fulfil their preaching duties, as the diary entries of Archer aptly show.


[1] Isaac Archer, ‘The Diary of Isaac Archer, 1641–1700’, in Two East Anglian Diaries 1641–1729, ed. by Matthew Storey (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1994), pp. 41–200 (pp. 161–2).

[2] Archer later records that on ‘June 7. My ague was gone’. ‘Diary’, p. 162.

[3] See Bernard Capp, ‘Fathers and sons, conscience, and duty in early modern England’, in People and Piety: Protestant Devotional Identities in Early Modern England, ed. by Elizabeth Clarke and Robert W. Daniel (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming 2020), pp. 169-184; Bernard Capp, The Ties that Bind: Siblings, Family and Society in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 23-24.

[4] ‘Archer, ‘Diary’, p. 124. For the tradition of diary-keeping as passed down by fathers to sons see Elaine McKay, ‘The Diary Network in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England’, Eras Journal, 2.1 (2001), np. https://www.monash.edu/arts/philosophical-historical-international-studies/eras/past-editions/edition-two-2001-november/the-diary-network-in-sixteenth-and-seventeenth-century-england. Accessed 11 March 2020.

[5] For William’s catalogue of sins, and Archer’s refusal to write his own, see Archer, ‘Diary’, pp. 124–5  For the prevalence of this literary genre of writing see Robert W. Daniel, ‘“Have a little book in thy Conscience, and write therein”: Writing the Puritan Conscience, 1600–1650’, in Sin and Salvation in Reformation England, ed. by Jonathan Willis (London: Taylor and Francis, 2016), pp. 245–258. 

[6] Archer, ‘Diary’, pp. 61-163.

[7] For the importance of preaching within English puritanism see Tom Webster, Godly Clergy in Early Stuart England: The Caroline Puritan Movement, c.1620–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 96–100.

[8] Archer, ‘Diary’, p. 121.

[9] Archer, ‘Diary’, pp. 75-183.

2 thoughts on “Isaac Archer’s Sickly Preaching

  1. Pingback: Treacherous Travels and Chilly Churches: Clerical Experiences of Work-Related Illness in Early Modern Britain – Reconsidering Illness and Recovery in the Early Modern World Online Conference 2020

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