The first outbreak of Asiatic cholera in Britain was at Sunderland on the Durham coast during the Autumn of 1831. From there the disease made its way northward into Scotland and southward toward London. Before it had run its course it claimed 52,000 lives. From its point of origin in Bengal it had taken five years to cross Europe, so that when it reached the course of Durham, British doctors were well aware of its nature, if not its cause. . . . One doctor recalled: "Our other plagues were home-bred, and part of ourselves, as it were; we had a habit of looking at them with a fatal indifference, indeed, inasmuch as it led us to believe that they could be effectually subdued. But the cholera was something outlandish, unknown, monstrous; its tremendous ravages, so long foreseen and feared, so little to be explained, its insidious march over whole continents, its apparent defiance of all the known and conventional precautions against the spread of epidemic disease, invested it with a mystery and a terror which thoroughly took hold of the public mind, and seemed to recall the memory of the great epidemics of the middle ages." — Bruce Haley

decorated initial 'I' n 1832, when England first experienced cholera in what a modern epidemiologist describes as the first global epidemic, Thomas Arnold, the great reformist headmaster of Rugby, preached a characteristically inspired, yet moderate sermon. According to Ralph R. Frerichs of the Department of Epidemology at UCLA, "Cholera first came to England in 1831-32. The disease caused much fear, and invoked considerable debate and intellectual sparring in both the scientific community and general society." Some preachers, as Arnold makes clear, saw the epidemic, which occurred during the struggle over the first great Reform Bill, as divine punishment. Arnold, in contrast, begins his sermon on this "the new and fatal disease which has appeared in several parts of the kingdom, and which is likely to spread itself over the whole of it." by pointing out "that new and alarming dangers are apt to breed a great deal of folly and superstition. Men's minds become highly excited, and their feelings far outrun their judgment." Among the "exaggerated notions" brought about by the cholera Arnold counts the fact that

it has been represented as a punishment sent by God for our great and universal sinfulness. Undoubtedly our sins are great, and it would be a most false and mischievous representation which should endeavour to palliate them. But the aspect of the present disease seems to me by no means that of a judgment of God upon our sins. Of course no one could dare to speak of it as a judgment in the cases of individuals; we know that it would be equally false and uncharitable to think that they whom it carried off were greater sinners than those whom it spared. [88-89]

At the same time that Arnold emphasizes the impiety of claiming that cholera came as punishment for individuals — since only God can save or damn anyone, preachers commit a serious sin when they act as if they themselves had divine judgment — he points to the obvious fact that "with regard to the nation, it has not hitherto been in any degree so destructive as to weaken the power or diminish the resources of the country." For Arnold the cholera came more as divine warning than divine judgment, and "far from regarding it as a judgment of God in His anger, it seems to me to bear far more of the character of a chastening given in His mercy," for it has had several positive effects, one of which is to provide a warning "of the uncertainty of life, while it has encouraged temperance, and called forth a considerable exertion of active charity. It has been a timely interruption to political violence, and has given men a subject of human interest, on which not only they could not quarrel, but which placed them toward each other in relations of mutual kindness" [89-90]. Arnold, who often sounds like a religious Carlylean, turning away from unproductive abstract speculation toward useful action, here points to the beneficient results of the epidemic. One may add something that Arnold could not have known: the appearance of cholera in 1832 to some extent prepared England for the far more serious epidemic twelve years later.

Related Material


Arnold, Thomas. "Judgments and Chastisements" [text] (1832) Sermons chiefly on the Interpretation of Scripture. [Ed. Mary Arnold] 4th ed. London: T. Fellowes, 1859.

Hale, Bruce. The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Morris, R. J. "The 'Lessons of 1832" from Cholera 1832: The Social Response to An Epidemic. 1976. (UCLA site)

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Last modified 6 July 2012