As reports of the coronavirus spread around the world, pastors and church leaders are discussing how they should respond to the outbreak. Throughout church history, many pastors have worked through similar challenges. 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.
In autumn 1854, the newly called pastor of London’s New Park Street Chapel pastored the congregation amid a major cholera outbreak in the Broad Street neighbourhood just across the river.
How did Spurgeon respond?
1. He prioritised local ministry.
Spurgeon wrote: ‘During that epidemic of cholera, though I had many engagements in the country, I gave them up that I might remain in London to visit the sick and the dying. I felt that it was my duty to be on the spot in such a time of disease and death and sorrow.’
Spurgeon’s popularity had grown throughout the Fenland villages outside Cambridge during his pastorate at Waterbeach. Even after arriving in London, he continued to be invited to preach in those villages throughout the week. During the outbreak, however, Spurgeon recognised his responsibility to be present with the sick and dying.
This was not a time to be an itinerant preacher; this was a time to focus on caring for his church and the community in which he lived. He would not outsource this task to his deacons or other church leaders, but remained in London in order to fulfil his duty.
2. He adjusted his meetings, but continued meeting.
The Broad Street Cholera Outbreak of 1854 occurred in August and September of that year, and its effects were felt in the weeks and months to come. The neighbourhood where Spurgeon’s church met was not quarantined, so they were able to continue meeting throughout those months. Interestingly, no record of the sermons Spurgeon preached during those days remain. Perhaps the outbreak forced the congregation to adjust some of their previous practices, including the transcription of sermons. Additionally, Spurgeon was likely too busy in those days to edit sermons for publication.
Yet we know that the congregation continued meeting during those days, because the church’s minute books contain records of congregational meetings throughout autumn 1854. In those books, amid all the pastoral challenges of the outbreak, Spurgeon and his deacons continued to receive new members, pursue inactive members, observe the Lord’s Supper, and practice all the other normal activities of a church.
Not only that, but in retrospect it was particularly during this time, when news of death raged all around the city, that Spurgeon found Londoners most receptive to the gospel: ‘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 other words, not only did Spurgeon gather his church amid the outbreak, but he saw in these gatherings a uniquely powerful opportunity for the gospel. Given our current limitations, our greatest opportunities will likely come in the aftermath of the outbreak, when (in God’s mercy) the church is once again able to gather. Those gatherings of the church will not only be a sweet reunion of God’s people, but also a tremendous opportunity for preaching the gospel to those desperately looking for hope.
3. He cared for the sick.
As the pastor, Spurgeon not only continued to gather his church, but he also made himself available throughout the week, working tirelessly to visit the sick and grief-stricken: ‘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.’
In these visits, Spurgeon prayed with the sick and grieving, and pointed them to the hope of the gospel. But more than just bringing gospel content, his presence communicated something of God’s comfort to his people.
Though these visits were often full of fear and grief, there were also glorious occasions of faith and joy: ‘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.’
While pastors are limited in their ability to be physically present with their people in the current outbreak, they must continue to remain in touch with their people, especially those who are must vulnerable. Through the use of technology and others means of communication, we have the responsibility to shepherd our people through this trial.
4. He was open to new evangelistic opportunities.
Spurgeon did not limit himself merely to visiting members of his congregation, but was willing to visit ‘persons of all ranks and religions’: ‘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.’
On one occasion, at 3 a.m., Spurgeon was summoned to visit a dying man. Surprisingly, this was not a Christian, but someone who had opposed him: ‘That man, in his lifetime, had been wont to jeer at me. In strong language, he had often denounced me as a hypocrite. Yet he was no sooner smitten by the darts of death than he sought my presence and counsel, no doubt feeling in his heart that I was a servant of God, though he did not care to own it with his lips.’
Spurgeon went right away, but by the time he arrived, there was little he could do. ‘I stood by his side, and spoke to him, but he gave me no answer. I spoke again; but the only consciousness he had was a foreboding of terror, mingled with the stupor of approaching death. Soon, even that was gone, for sense had fled, and I stood there, a few minutes, sighing with the poor woman who had watched over him, and altogether hopeless about his soul.’
Not every evangelistic opportunity will result in dramatic conversions. But during times of disease, surprising opportunities may arise. Therefore, take advantage of any opportunities you have to preach the gospel to those who are afraid.
5. He entrusted his life to God.
As Spurgeon gave himself to this pastoral work, he soon grew physically and mentally exhausted. He also began to fear for his own safety. Amid his fears, though, he learned to entrust himself to God and to his faithfulness: ‘At first, I gave myself up with youthful ardour to the visitation of the sick, and was sent for from all corners of the district by persons of all ranks and religions; but, soon, I became weary in body, and sick at heart. My friends seemed falling one by one, and I felt or fancied that I was sickening like those around me. A little more work and weeping would have laid me low among the rest; I felt that my burden was heavier than I could bear, and I was ready to sink under it.
‘I was returning mournfully home from a funeral, when, as God would have it, my curiosity led me to read a paper which was wafered up 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.’
Here Spurgeon does not promise that no Christian will ever die of sickness. Rather, the Christian ‘[need] not dread [sickness], for he has nothing to lose, but everything to gain, by death.’
Once again, pastors must exercise wisdom and take appropriate precautions as they care for the sick. At the same time, our security cannot finally be in those precautions; it must be in God. As we entrust our lives to him and faithfully carry out our responsibilities, we have an opportunity to demonstrate what hope and peace look like in the midst of death.
Ordinary ministry in extraordinary times
In many ways, Spurgeon’s example during the cholera outbreak of 1854 follows the pattern of normal pastoral ministry on every occasion. Pastors are to be present with their people, care for the suffering, be faithful in evangelism, and model trust in God through it all. The main difference is that during an outbreak, there is a heightened reality of suffering and death. Therefore, the work becomes more intense and urgent, and the opportunities for the gospel multiply.
Certainly our task in looking to church history is not simply to copy all that was done before. This coronavirus outbreak presents unique challenges that previous pastors did not face. We need to exercise wisdom appropriate to our current day. But the core of our ministry remains: preach the gospel.
Speaking in 1866, amid another cholera outbreak, Spurgeon gave this charge to pastors and all other 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 is associate pastor at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, USA