One of oddities I recently found in my local second-hand bookshop was “Misery and Misfortune: Sudden Deaths in Suffolk 1800 – 1850”. It turned out to be a collection of inquest reports from Suffolk coroners’ courts in the first half of the nineteenth century. One report into the unexplained death in 1826 of a 19 year old woman, Sarah Hayward, caught my eye:
“She went to bed with her sister about half-past 11 o’clock the preceding evening in perfect health, and when the sister arose the following morning, the deceased was in bed apparently sleeping, but after being called several times by the family, was discovered quite dead. A medical gentleman, who was examined upon the inquest, expressed his decided opinion that the deceased had died from the sudden visitation of God. Jurors’ verdict accordingly.”
The book contains several other examples of death by visitation of God, including James Carter (40) who “fell down in a fit and instantly expired”; Elizabeth Ely (23) who awakened her father “by a strange noise she was making in her throat” but died before assistance could arrive; and Keziah Durrant (28) whose “vital spark had fled whilst she was engaged in prayer”. What they all have in common is the unexplained nature of their deaths.
The verdict of “visitation of God” probably reflected the Old Testament idea that a “visit” from God was dangerous, something to be feared. In Psalm 59 David asks God “to visit all the heathen: and be not merciful unto them”. A visit from God was something you might wish on your enemies.
What a contrast with the Incarnation: the visitation that bought us God in human form, God of healing, compassion, love; the visitation that invites all of us to be part of God’s ongoing work of creation; the visitation by which death lost its sting.