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Christians have lived through many major plagues, epidemics, and pandemics over the past two thousand years. Some of the most severe pandemics were the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death, both of which are estimated to have possibly killed up to half of the population of Europe. There were also many smaller localised epidemics of plague, measles, smallpox, and others.

What did Christian pastors and ministers teach during these times, to encourage and reassure their congregations?


This is a special open-ended question that would not normally be allowed here, but during this current pandemic we feel it could be helpful. For more, see this Meta discussion.

Lets please restrict this to past plagues, epidemics, and pandemics. Right now every man and his dog has something to say about COVID-19, and while some of it may pass the test of time and be recognised as inspired Godly wisdom, most won't.

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    Are you only interested in the 'encouraging' and 'reassuring' aspects ? Would you be interested in answers regarding the judgments of God against the wicked ? – Nigel J Apr 1 at 9:48
  • @NigelJ If they've said it then it's part of our shared church history. Though if it's not Biblically sound then I'd probably downvote. – curiousdannii Apr 1 at 10:10
  • Wasn't one of the reasons the Romans persecuted Christians because they kept breaking public health ordinances by attending to the sick? – nick012000 Apr 2 at 3:55
  • @nick012000 I haven't heard that specifically, though would be interested in reading about it. Wikipedia notes that Christians were blamed for plagues and other disasters because they didn't worship the Roman gods. – curiousdannii Apr 2 at 4:29
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    @nick012000 Adding to curiousdannii, what I heard instead is their attending the sick was a plus point because the sick, especially poor sick, were neglected by non Christians. So early Christians did "show and tell" by attending to the weak as well as preaching love to the neglected (as in the Samaritan story). See The Witness of Christian Compassion – GratefulDisciple Apr 2 at 18:07
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Martin Luther writing to Johann Hass:

Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way:

“Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.

The whole letter is available online and is worth reading.

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Cyprian wrote the following during the plague of 250 AD to remind his diocese that Christians are not to expect special protection from disease:

It disturbs some believers that the power of this Disease attacks our people equally with the unbelievers, as if the Christian believed for this purpose - that he might have the enjoyment of the world and this life free from the contact of ills, and not as one who undergoes all adverse things here and is reserved for future joy. It disturbs some that this mortality is common to us with others; and yet what is there in this world which is not common to us with others?

From "On Mortality" quoted by John Dickson.

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The third cholera pandemic (1846–60) was the third major outbreak of cholera originating in India in the nineteenth century that reached far beyond its borders, which researchers at UCLA believe may have started as early as 1837 and lasted until 1863.[1] In Russia, more than one million people died of cholera. In 1853–54, the epidemic in London claimed over 10,000 lives, and there were 23,000 deaths for all of Great Britain. This pandemic was considered to have the highest fatalities of the 19th-century epidemics. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1846%E2%80%931860_cholera_pandemic

Charles H. Spurgeon (U.K. Baptist) and the Cholera Outbreak of 1854:

As a young village preacher, Charles Spurgeon admired the Puritan ministers who stayed behind to care for the sick and dying during the Great Plague of London in 1665. Now in the fall of 1854, the newly called pastor of the New Park Street Chapel in London (England) found himself pastoring his congregation amid a major cholera outbreak in the Broad Street neighbourhood just across the river.

If there ever be a time when the mind is sensitive, it is when death is abroad. I recollect, when first I came to London, how anxiously people listened to the gospel, for the cholera was raging terribly. There was little scoffing then.

In the year 1854, when I had scarcely been in London twelve months, the neighbourhood in which I laboured was visited by Asiatic cholera, and my congregation suffered from its inroads. Family after family summoned me to the bedside of the smitten, and almost every day I was called to visit the grave. I went home, and was soon called away again; that time, to see a young woman. She also was in the last extremity, but it was a fair, fair sight. She was singing, — though she knew she was dying, — and talking to those round about her, telling her brothers and sisters to follow her to Heaven, bidding goodbye to her father, and all the while smiling as if it had been her marriage day. She was happy and blessed.

All day, and sometimes all night long, I went about from house to house, and. saw men and women dying, and, oh, how glad they were to see my face! When many were afraid to enter their houses lest they should catch the deadly disease, we who had no fear about such things found ourselves most gladly listened to when we spoke of Christ and of things Divine

I was returning mournfully home from a funeral, when, as God would have it, my curiosity led me to read a paper which was in a shoemaker’s window in the Great Dover Road. It did not look like a trade announcement, nor was it, for it bore, in a good bold handwriting, these words: — “Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.” The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as her own. I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying, in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil, and I suffered no harm. The Providence which moved the tradesman to place those verses in his window, I gratefully acknowledge; and in the remembrance of its marvellous power, I adore the Lord my God.

Speaking in 1866, amid another cholera outbreak, Spurgeon gave this charge to pastors and all Christians:

And now, again, is the minister’s time; and now is the time for all of you who love souls. You may see men more alarmed than they are already; and if they should be, mind that you avail yourselves of the opportunity of doing them good. You have the Balm of Gilead; when their wounds smart, pour it in. You know of Him who died to save; tell them of Him. Lift high the cross before their eyes. Tell them that God became man that man might be lifted to God. Tell them of Calvary, and its groans, and cries, and sweat of blood. Tell them of Jesus hanging on the cross to save sinners. Tell them that “There is life for a look at the Crucified One.” Tell them that He is able to save to the uttermost all them that come unto God by Him. Tell them that He is able to save even at the eleventh hour, and to say to the dying thief, “today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”

Geoff Chang, associate pastor Hinson Baptist Church Portland, Oregon, working on PhD on Charles Spurgeon at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/blog-entries/spurgeon-and-the-cholera-outbreak-of-1854

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Christianity Has Been Handling Epidemics for 2000 Years

The March 13 2020 Foreign Policy newspaper has this article Christianity Has Been Handling Epidemics for 2000 Years listing several examples from historical records. Some quotes:

... the terrible Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, which might have killed off a quarter of the Roman Empire, led to the spread of Christianity, as Christians cared for the sick and offered an spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God.

... Plague of Cyprian, named for a bishop who gave a colorful account of this disease in his sermons. Probably a disease related to Ebola, the Plague of Cyprian helped set off the Crisis of the Third Century in the Roman world. But it did something else, too: It triggered the explosive growth of Christianity. Cyprian’s sermons told Christians not to grieve for plague victims (who live in heaven), but to redouble efforts to care for the living. His fellow bishop Dionysius described how Christians, “Heedless of danger … took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.”

In 1527, when the bubonic plague hit Wittenberg, Martin Luther refused calls to flee the city and protect himself. Rather, he stayed and ministered to the sick. The refusal to flee cost his daughter Elizabeth her life. But it produced a tract, “Whether Christians Should Flee the Plague,” where Luther provides a clear articulation of the Christian epidemic response: We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.

The article then noticed some common elements in the Christians's response and elaborate them. The whole article is worth reading.

A New Era in Roman Healthcare

A Christian History magazine article from Issue 101 (2011), A New Era in Roman Healthcare, made the point that:

Compassion was not a well-developed virtue among the pagan Romans; mercy was discouraged, as it only helped those too weak to contribute to society. In the cramped, unsanitary warrens of the typical Roman city, under the miserable cycle of plagues and famines, the sick found no public institutions dedicated to their care and little in the way of sympathy or help. Perhaps a family member would come to their aid, but sometimes even close relatives would leave their own to die.

But the Christian response was starkly different:

During this time, in spite of great danger to themselves, these churches carried on an active ministry of philanthropy that included the care of the sick. Christian medical philanthropy found its basis in the biblical concept of the imago Dei, the belief that human beings are created in God’s image.

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[More on the Cyprian plague in 250 AD]

The churches’ program of benevolent care soon expanded, owing to an unfortunate cause. A devasta­ting epidemic began in 250 and spread from Ethiopia across North Africa, then to Italy and the Western Empire. It lasted 15 to 20 years, and at one point in Rome 5,000 people died in one day.

Beyond offering supplications to the gods for relief, public officials did nothing to prevent the spread of the disease, treat the sick, or even bury the dead. This is not surprising, since the pagans believed that nothing effective could be done in a time of plague other than appeasing the gods.

By 251 the plague swept into Carthage in North Africa. Piles of the dead rotted in the streets, where they had been abandoned by their families. The pagans, casting about for causes, fingered the Christians, and a severe empire-wide persecution erupted. The emperor Decius ordered all Christians to sacrifice to the gods on pain of death. Carthage’s bishop, Cyprian, enjoined the city’s Christians to give aid to their persecutors and to care for the sick. He urged the rich to donate funds and the poor to volunteer their service for relief efforts, making no distinction between believers and pagans. Under Cyprian’s direction, Christians buried the dead left in the streets and cared for the sick and dying. For five years he stood in the breach, organizing relief efforts, until he was forced into exile.

The plague of Cyprian, as it has come to be called, marked a new chapter in early Christian medical charity. For the first time, Christians extended their medical care to pagans as well as Christians. To provide even basic care for large numbers of the sick, Cyprian probably hired unemployed men to carry out work that had grown beyond the resources of Christian volunteers. These may have included grave diggers and perhaps an ambulance corps.

Witness of Christian Compassion

Another article The Witness of Christian Compassion referencing the article above as well as a book by Rodney Stark The Rise of Christianity also argues that early church's compassion led to growth:

... that some of the marked growth of the church in the early centuries can be attributed to care and compassion Christians showed for the sick. He tracks increased conversion rates during three plagues: the Antonine plague (2nd c.), the Cyprian plague (3rd c.), and the Justinian plague (6th c.). Christians demonstrated their love for God and biblical values, and they offered a very attractive witness.

Their example has been followed through the history of the Christian church. Catholic orders were devoted to care. Mennonites in Holland and Quakers in England formed societies to improve health care. Modern medical missionaries carry on in this mission today.

Today, we take for granted the responsibility to care for the sick regardless of religious convictions. It was Christians practicing what the Bible taught them that began caring for those in need.

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John Calvin wrote in 1542 about the duty he felt he had to minister to those in the plague hospital outside the city, should the minister who had volunteered before him, Peter Blanchet, not survive.

The pestilence also begins to rage here with greater violence, and few who are at all affected by it escape its ravages. One of our colleagues was to be set apart for attendance upon the sick. Because Peter offered himself, all readily acquiesced. If anything happens to him, I fear that I must take the risk upon myself, for as you observe, because we are debtors to one another, we must not be wanting to those who, more than any others, stand in need of our ministry. And yet it is not my opinion, that while we wish to provide for one portion we are at liberty to neglect the body of the Church itself. But so long as we are in ministry, I do not see that any pretext will avail us, if, through fear of infection, we are found wanting in the discharge of our duty when there is most need of our assistance.

From Letters of John Calvin page 358.

Later on Peter did die of the plague, and Calvin volunteered himself, but the city refused his offer.

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Joseph F Smith (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in a Oct 1918 conference, shortly after the spanish flu, spoke to those grieving lost loved ones:1

29 And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them;

30 But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.

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32 Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets.

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58 The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God,

1 D&C 138

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The arrival of the Black Death in England was preceded by rumours of plagues abroad getting closer and closer. In October 1348 it had already reached parts of England when the Bishop of Winchester wrote to his clergy;

A voice in Rama has been heard. Much weeping and crying has sounded through the countries of the world.... This cruel plague, we have heard has already begun to afflict the coasts of the Realm of England. We are struck by the greatest fear lest, which God forbid, the fell disease ravage any part of our city or diocese. And although God, to prove our patience and justly to punish our sins, often afflicts us, it is not in man's power to judge the divine counsels. Still it is much to be feared that man's sensuality which, propagated by the tendency of the old sin of Adam, from youth inclines to all evil, has now fallen into deeper malice and justly provoked the Divine wrath by a multitude of sins to this chastisement.

He also warned that sickness and premature death often come from sin and that, by the healing of souls, this kind of sickness is known to cease.

He urged all to attend the sacrament of penance. He ordered that on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays barefoot processions with heads bowed should recite the seven penitential and fifteen gradual psalms.

The Bishop of Hereford forbade the acting of theatrical plays and interludes in churches.

A common approach to the threat of plague was to see it as God's judgement on the general lax state of morals, and to believe it might, perhaps, be averted by repentance and a general improvement in morals. Even if penitence did not induce God to stay the plague, it was still believed that a penitent and more religiously observant people were better prepared for death.

In Germany especially, but also elsewhere in Continetal Europe, groups of flagellants travelled about from town to town, scourging themselves three times a day for 33 days, and once on the last day. This too was a form of penance, though not generally approved of by Church authorities.

Once the plague arrived changes were made in religious practice to address the shortage of clergy. Many men and boys were ordained to the priesthood who would not ordinarily have been considered suitable. Many were ordained deacon one day and priest the next. The Bishop of Bath and Wells relaxed the rule that only priests could celebrate Mass, allowing deacons also to do it. (The practical effect of this was that any one who was already a deacon had no need to travel to the bishop for priesting.) He decreed that if no clergyman was available then in extremis confessions should be made to anyone even, if there was no male available, to a woman. It was also permitted to extend churchyards or open additional burial grounds without the usual formalities.

Source: The Black Death by Philip Ziegler.

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