Let's hear it for Rebecca Thompson

Near to this stone Rebecca Thompson lies,
Who was both modest, sober, chaste and wise.
Religion was her study, Leal her care,
A fervent lover of the house of prayer.


She was a spinster lady, who spent her entire life looking after her parents. She died on January 20th, 1729, at the age of 35, and her Mum and Dad missed her terribly. I think she must have been a lovely person. I am reminded of her every time I switch lights on or off, because her memorial in the church where I used to live was on the South Transept wall just by the switchboard. Amazing, that I have such a sharp impression of a really rather ordinary person who was born nearly three hundred years ago.

On Rebecca's stone, apart from the details of her death and 'The Maid is not dead, but sleepeth', there are eight lines of verse. The last four are merely a conventional hope that her soul is in Heaven, but the first four are wholly original and concisely descriptive. How carefully chosen are the adjectives! Modest, sober, chaste and wise. But I think it's the word leal that endears her most to me. Religion was her study, Leal her care.

They say words die when people no longer have use for them. In the case of the gibbet and the Ague, few can regret their current disuse. But that we have forgotten the meaning of Leal is a black mark against modern society. Leal means true-hearted, faithful, dutiful; the word comes from the same root as loyal, but goes a little deeper. Cranmer's 'steadfast loving-kindness' comes close to it, and in the last century a common phrase for Heaven was The Land o'the Leal.

The Rebecca Thompsons of history make no great mark; they pass no laws, storm no cities, defend no barricades. They spread around them an atmosphere of calm, of love, of sweet-scented devotion which touches perhaps a score of lives and makes them richer, gentler, more understanding of God's love. There have been times when, in a particular place, a town, a country, the chain was complete; when everybody knew a Rebecca and was better for it. Her impact on society was cumulative. No individual changed the fate of nations, but the presence of their multitude inclined a nation towards peace.

Most of us, today, still know a Rebecca Thompson; Leal is not wholly lost. But how old is the Rebecca you know? Under thirty-five, or much older? Is the fountain dry, that provided them? Are Faith, and Duty, and Goodness unfashionable, mere rejects on the rubbish-heap of time? If so and it is difficult to argue that it is not so are these virtues worth saving? And whose job is it to save them?

It is, of course, our job. The fact that this still claims to be a Christian country enlists you. Everything for which Rebecca Thompson is to be admired, Jesus was. Everything she stood for, he taught.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.