In 1836, a typhus epidemic hit Scotland. The minister in my own congregation in Stranraer at the time was William Symington. As both his unpublished diaries and a memoir written by his sons reveal, the epidemic took a huge toll on both his family and congregation, and it seems a particularly apt period in our town’s history to revisit at the current time.

In the winter of 1836, William’s older brother Andrew, who was a minister in Paisley, lost a son and daughter ‘in the prime of youth’ to the disease. A few weeks later, the grave was reopened to receive the mother and one of her new-born twins. William travelled to Paisley to attend the funeral and stay and help his brother, but news reached him that the disease had reached his own manse. He hastened home to find three of his own children suffering from the same illness. On New Year’s Day, 1837, he made the last entry in his diary for three months. Soon, all six of his children were suffering from the disease, and three weeks later he contracted it himself. While it was initially assumed to be influenza, the true nature of the disease soon became clear.

Looking back on this sombre time, his sons comment that ‘during the remainder of the winter the manse was turned into a hospital’. William himself was confined to bed for eight weeks. He wrote in his diary: ‘From the infections nature of the disease we were forsaken by those friends whose kind aid we had received in other times of distress. In this I cannot think that they acted right; for if others, on whom we had no such claim and who might have reckoned themselves exempted from the obligation to attend us, had stood also aloof, our whole family must have been left to perish’.

The epidemic also brought financial consequences, just as coronavirus has done for many of us. Reflecting on it, he wrote: ‘The expenses incurred during this sickness have been such as my ordinary income could never have enabled me to meet. Had it not been that I had something of my own, and that the Lord had put it into the hearts of a few friends to aid us I must inevitably have been brought under a heavy load of debt. When all things are taken into account the expense incurred during these few memorable months of affliction cannot be much less than a hundred pounds. But he whose are “the silver and the gold” will not leave us unprovided for. Indeed we have already seen much reason to remark his goodness in this matter. We must not forget that his name is Jehovah Jireh’ [‘The LORD will provide’].

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His recovery was hindered by news reaching him of the illness and then death of his younger brother Walter, also of typhus, at the age of 33. William wrote in his journal: ‘He has left a widow and four children for whom my heart bleeds’. The illness also took the lives of a ‘considerable number’ of people in the Stranraer congregation. Symington lamented the fact that he had been unable to be with them on their death beds or visit their mourning families.

On the 2nd of April he took up his diary for the first time since January, and recorded reasons for thanksgiving to God in the intervening period – not least in sustaining his wife who had only had snatches of sleep for five weeks, but ‘her calm trust in the promises of God served to bear her through’.

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By the 22nd of April, he was well enough to visit friends in Dumfries for a fortnight, dining with the Editor of the Dumfries and Galloway Courier and managing to preach for the first time in 14 weeks. However, he still did not feel up to resuming full duties, noting: ‘I have had to wait for recovery as my progress has been exceedingly slow’.

On the 7th of May, he preached in his own congregation for the first time in four months. ‘The church was very full and the audience most attentive’ as he preached, very significantly, on Lamentations 3v22: ‘It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not’.

Our times are very different in some ways, but not in others – and as some form of normality returns in the wake of COVID-19, we would do well to take those timeless words to heart.

Stephen Steele, Stranraer RPCS

This article was originally published in the Stranraer & Wigtownshire Free Press, 17th September 2020. If you are interested in learning more you can listed to a talk Rev Steele gave on the life of William Symington at the Wigtownshire Antiquarian and Natural History Society in 2019 here.

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