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.
[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.