Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice
— Epitaph of Christopher Wren, 1723, St. Paul’s Cathedral
Twelve years after the completion of the beautiful and historic St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, it’s architect, Christopher Wren, died. Following the destruction of the Great Fire of London in 1666, Wren played a vital role in designing many of the rebuilt buildings. Much of London today is shaped by his vision and this is seen most prominently in St. Paul’s.
So much so, that when he died he was entombed in the bottom of St. Paul’s and his place marked with a modest plaque. His son, desiring to pay tribute to the lasting mark his father left on the city through his buildings, inscribed the words “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice,” which, translated, says “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around.”
The idea, clearly, is that Christopher Wren’s lasting legacy is not a statue of his likeness, but rather these iconic and culture transforming structures that serve as the backbone of London architecture.
Just a few miles north of St. Paul’s there is a cemetery that dates to the fourteenth century. It lacks the grandeur of Wren’s masterpiece and, indeed, the precise location of many of those buried there have been lost in history via German bombing in World War II.
Originally called “Bonehill,” this cemetery developed in the seventeenth century as a resting place for Nonconforming Dissenters from the Church of England. These Separatists, Independents, and Baptists, parted ways with the State Church bound by their consciences and, thus, were not privy to more formal spaces.
Interred without much expense or fanfare in this nondescript 11-acre tract, and often they also were buried “without a monument.”
Eventually, the graveyard took on the name Bunhill Fields and close to 6,000 from this early era found it as their final place of rest. The funeral of the Separatist, Samuel Eaton, was one of the first recorded in August 1639 as is said to have brought the attendance of over 200 Separatists and Baptists. He was joined by the godfather of the English Particular Baptists, Henry Jessey, also with a large funeral of devoted friends in 1663.
The English Baptists who served to shape much of the foundational 1644 London Confession and the 1689 Second London Confession, William Kiffin and Hanserd Knollys are buried there though the precise location of their graves has long been lost.
John Bunyan, lies at the center of the cemetery in a visible tomb for all pilgrims to see.
The pastors who preceded Charles Spurgeon, John Gill and John Rippon, both of whom served that congregation for over half a century each, are buried in Bunhill.
They hymn writer, Isaac Watts, rests there bidding all to survey the wondrous cross.
Just a few steps away lies John Owen, the Puritan theologian and one who unlocked the key to mortification of sin for so many.
Susanna Wesley was buried there, directly across the street from the house, chapel, and grave of her son, John.
These and many more untold and unknown to history are buried in Bunhill Fields. None of them left a city of beautiful buildings like Christopher Wren, but their legacy is, in fact greater. For they dedicated their lives to the building of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Eph 2:20).
Bunhill Fields has never attracted the crowds of St. Paul’s, but the kingdom influence of those buried in that field lives far beyond the crowds through the churches that carry forth the same Gospel they preached and shared.
So, reader, if you seek a monument for these, go to Bunhill Fields, and from there, to the ends of the earth, and look around.
This week I am with students and faculty on our United Kingdom Study Tour visiting and lecturing in places like St. Paul’s and Bunhill Fields as well as learning about ongoing ministry needs of local churches in the present day. This article is an adaptation from my lecture given at Bunhill. For more information on the history of this cemetery and who is buried there, see:
T. G. Crippens, “The Tombs in Bunhill Fields,” Transactions of the Congregational Historicial Society 4 (1909-1910), 347-363
J. A. Jones, Bunhill Memorials (1849)
Alfred W. Light, Bunhill Fields (1913)
Richard Rawlinson, The inscriptions upon the tombs, grave-stones, &c. in the
dissenters burial place near Bunhill-Fields (1717)