A Follow-Up on Christianity’s Response to Pandemics
This discussion on Christianity’s response to pandemics is the first post in our new ongoing blog series, Adapting to the Covid New Normal, where our research director, Dr. Darren Slade, will provide a deeper research base for the posts we are publishing on congregations and Covid-19.
Dr. Slade will describe the research and Ken Howard will provide a pastoral perspective.
In a previous post, FaithX founder Rev. Ken Howard discussed the providential timing of COVID-19, explaining that this is not the first time that the Christian church had to face a global pandemic. Following up on his original writing, this post will explore in more detail the history of Christianity’s response to pandemics and how the church actually benefited the most once it took the appropriate steps necessary to curb the spread of disease, something the church desperately needs to learn to do today.
In his post, Howard emphasized one important fact about the church’s historical approach to pandemics: Christians did whatever they could to help their neighbors.
Instead of fleeing out of harm’s way, Christians went to the poor to feed them. Instead of hiding from cities, Christianity’s response to pandemics was to go to the sick to comfort them. Instead of defying the rule of law, Christians went to the hurting to mourn with them. The church’s historical response to global pandemics has not only helped slow the spread of contagion, but also increased the church’s overall membership once the rest of the world saw the church take a leading societal role.
Howard’s point is important and timely: Christians today have a
similar opportunity to lead the way in fighting COVID-19. They need only to seize on their spiritual predecessor’s example and take appropriate steps to curb the spread of the Coronavirus.
As you already know, global pandemics, diseases, and other pestilence rank among the deadliest and most routine incidents affecting our planet and our species. Some infectious diseases, like malaria, go back tens of thousands of years. Some of the oldest biblical traditions include Yahweh afflicting people with a plague (Gen. 12:17). It is estimated that during some pandemics, like the Black Death of the 14th century, upwards of one-third of the world’s population died.
While it’s widely known that pandemics have killed off entire people groups, destabilized societies, transformed cultures, and resulted in wholesale upheaval of government systems and philosophies, what is not as widely known is just how influential pandemics have been in the history of the Christian church. Because of Christianity’s response to pandemics, disease and pestilence have actually shaped the trajectory of major doctrines and even which religion or religious sect became the dominant belief system in a given region.
To learn more about how pandemics have influenced the trajectory of religious belief systems, see Darren’s YouTube video here.
Christianity’s Response to Pandemics
The idea that a major epidemic would alter the course of religious history shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The very idea is central to both Judaism and Christianity. The entire Exodus story, where God frees millions of Israelite slaves from captivity in Egypt, is predicated on the occurrence of several plagues. Today we are on the verge of seeing exactly this kind of religion-impacting storyline play out. Depending on how Christians respond to COVID-19, the church will either suffer or benefit in the long run.
Howard specifically discussed the third-century Cyprian plague, which has historically been linked to measles or smallpox. Cyprian, the archbishop of Carthage, himself attributed rising conversion numbers to the increase in suffering from the plague. One of the more fascinating aspects of the crisis was that the plague weakened the power of the Roman military while simultaneously strengthening the influence of the church. When examining Christianity’s response to pandemics, the reasons why the church benefited during times of plague are fairly unsurprising. One reason is that the church offered the promise of an afterlife – a better life beyond this one – at a time when people were dying in large numbers. But even more than that, people saw how Christians responded to those affected by the pandemic. Believers took pride in tending to the sick and dying, both pagans and Christians alike.
Of course, these pandemics didn’t always increase church numbers. During the second century, pagans often blamed Christians for things like earthquakes and disease. When a pandemic would hit, many faulted the church’s countercultural antagonism as the cause of suffering. Notably, however, the fact that Christians did not run off to the countryside means that the church was, in hindsight, responsible for helping slow the spread of the disease in parts of the Roman Empire. And those who did flee out of the cities ended up causing small pockets of outbreaks in the country towns.
So, what can Christians today learn from Christianity’s response to pandemics in their own response to COVID-19?
The answer might be surprising because it doesn’t rest entirely on the command to love one’s neighbor, the commandment Howard emphasized in his original post (though, we must not forget this command, either).
When Cyprian preached to his congregation, encouraging them to show love and compassion for the sick and dying, it wasn’t simply the command to love their neighbors that he emphasized. He went further, exhorting his people to remember Christ’s command to love their enemies.
And their selfless, kindhearted response to the people who hated them was crucial in creating an exponential spread of their Gospel message. When the church saw a hurting world (that also didn’t like Christians very much), believers responded in compassion and empathy. They took the lead in trying to ease the suffering of their enemies, not agitate the situation further.
Today’s Church has a lot to learn from the response of the third-century response of Cyprian and
his people. Examples abound of church leaders and people denigrating others for for complying with measures to stop the spread of the Coronavirus (one pastor even called them “pansies”). Rather, the early Church teaches us the better response for Christians is to express love, not defiance, to accommodate, not antagonize. Love for one’s enemies is unique among the world’s traditions. And if the Church were to return to this practice, then perhaps it might see people rushing back to the pews once the pandemic over.
Bray, R. S. Armies of Pestilence: The Impact of Disease On History. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996.
Kohn, George C. Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence from Ancient Times to the Present. 3rd ed. New York: Facts On File, 2007.
Martin, Ralph P., and Peter H. Davids, eds. Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
Schaff, Philip, and David Schley Schaff. History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910.
Sherman, Irwin W. The Power of Plagues. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: ASM Press, 2017.