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‘The Best Friend in the Worst Time’: pandemics in church history

April 2021 | by Michael Haykin

The triumph of death, Trionfo della morte, già a palazzo sclafani, galleria regionale di Palazzo Abbatellis, palermo (1446) affresco staccato SOURCE Wikipedia
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As historians look at history, they seek to discern the forces or people that have shaped the past. My own historical convictions have led me to focus on people as the main actors on the stage of history, not economic forces or ideologies per se.

Yet there is definitely a place to evaluate the impact of such forces as these, or pandemics. One thinks in this regard of the impact of a pestilence on the forces of the Athenian Empire during the early stages of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and her allies, a war which lasted from 431 to 404 BC and was made famous by the Greek historian Thucydides. The loss of the Athenian general Pericles (c. 495‒429 BC) to this plague may well have affected Athenian fortunes in that war.

The conquest of the Aztec world by the Spaniard Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) was largely facilitated by a smallpox epidemic that the Spanish conquerors brought with them in 1519 and against which the Aztecs had no natural immunity.

Now, the church has not been unaffected by various epidemics and pandemics down through the years. Let us look at three examples, and how the church responded.

The Plague of Cyprian

Between 250 and 270, what has become known as the Plague of Cyprian erupted in Ethiopia in 250 AD, and reaching the Roman Empire the following year, it ravaged the Empire for two decades. At one point, possibly as many as 5,000 people were dying every day in Rome, including two emperors, Hostilian in 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in 270.

From our vantage-point, it is difficult to determine the nature of the plague, but from what the African bishop Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200–258) tells us of the various symptoms, it may well have been a viral hemorrhagic fever like Ebola.

Another African bishop, Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 265) tells us that when many pagans fled the major urban centres and left their relatives and friends dying of the plague, it was the Christians who took care of the sick and the dying, and helped to bury the dead.

In the words of an Anglican archbishop from Canada, Mark MacDonald:

As all others fled, they were seen, at great risk from persecution and infection, going in the opposite direction. It was this that was the compelling argument for the faith. The witness was twofold: extraordinary compassion, even for those who were persecuting them; and a fearless attitude towards death, even in the face of a horrific and excruciating fatal illness.

Little wonder that this plague was a key factor in the significant growth of Christianity in the late third century.

The Black Death and its impact

Eleven centuries later Europe experienced another devastating plague; this time it was the bubonic plague, which reached its peak around 1349, and which carried away at least one third of the entire European population.

The bubonic plague – or Black Death, as it came to be known – was caused by the bacillus Pasteurella pestis, which tends to live in the stomachs of those fleas that reside in the hair of rodents, sometimes a squirrel, but preferably the black rat (rattus rattus).

The initial wave of the plague may well have been caused by rats on board the ships of knights returning from fighting Muslims in Palestine. The flea would bite the rat, infecting it, and when it died, jump off to another mammal, which might well be a human being.

This pestilence was exacerbated by the unsanitary conditions of the Middle Ages, which have been described as ‘a thousand years without a bath’!

The bubonic plague was so-called because it produced swollen lymph nodes, or ‘buboes’ in the armpits or groin. They were black in appearance and oozed blood and pus. When the infection spreads to the lungs, it can produce the less common, but deadlier, pneumonic plague. The latter is caught by inhaling infected respiratory droplets from people who are sick. Today, it is easily curable with antibiotics if treated within 24 hours of its onset.

What was the impact of the medieval Black Death on the church? Well, first of all there was an exacerbation of anti-Semitism. Since Jewish ghettoes in Western European cities tended to be more sanitary environments due to the observance of the cleanliness laws of the Old Testament, Jewish deaths from the bubonic plague were fewer. But this only convinced their fellow Europeans that they were poisoning the wells of the Christians and led to a distinct rise in anti-Semitic sentiments.

Painting depicting Mary, by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato. painted circa 1640/50. Wikipedia
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A distinct increase in Marian devotion is also traceable to this era, since it was commonly believed that Mary played a critical role in convincing her Son to end the plague in the course of the fourteenth century.

Trust in Mary’s saving power increasingly became a key element of late medieval spirituality. In time, this devotion to Mary would lead to the addition of the clause ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death’ by Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) to the prayer known as the Ave Maria (‘Hail Mary’).

Finally, the artistic portrayal of the death of Christ became much more realistic – and gruesome. Portrayals of the crucified Christ prior to the advent of the bubonic plague usually displayed Christ reigning from the cross, crowned and fully clothed. Such portrayals were not at all realistic. But after the waves of the bubonic plague in the fourteenth century, Christ’s death was portrayed in all of its physical horror, and meditation on his physical sufferings became a key part of medieval piety. In other words, some of the key elements that disturbed the Reformers about medieval piety are traceable to this era.

The plague year of 1665 and one long-term effect

There were numerous outbreaks of the bubonic plague in England during the seventeenth century: in 1603, 1625, 1636, and 1665, with at least 30,000 dying of the plague in London alone in 1603, and 35,000 in 1625, 10,000 in 1636, and 68,596 recorded deaths in 1665.

By that latter date, the population of the city of London had reached almost half a million: this means that at least one-seventh of the population died of the plague in 1665. In fact, the eminent Puritan author Richard Baxter (1615–1691) reckoned in his autobiography that the number of dead was closer to one hundred thousand people, which would have been about a fifth of London’s population. Baxter noted, ‘It is scarce possible for people that live in a time of health and security, to apprehend the dreadfulness of that pestilence! … O how sinfully unthankful are we for our quiet societies, habitations and health!’

And as in the third-century Roman Empire many fled the cities, the wealthy fled London for their country estates. Baxter noted: ‘The richer sort removing out of the City, the greatest blow [of the plague] fell on the poor.’

This would be one negative effect that persisted well into the eighteenth century when, even though the plague was no longer an issue, its memory still shaped English culture. The poor who were regarded as the potential source of another outbreak: their very bodies were regarded as prone to generating and spreading contagious disease. Wherever the urban poor congregated in large numbers – in workhouses, factories, slums, markets, and prisons – public imagination considered them to be sites of immense danger and potential epicentres of plague.

Wesley preaching outside
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Little wonder that the state church of the eighteenth century, the Church of England, had no desire to plant churches in these urban areas. And what bravery for evangelists like the Wesley brothers, John (1703–1791) and Charles (1707–1788), and George Whitefield (1714–1770), to go into these areas again and again to preach the gospel to the poor.

Precious words of James Janeway

Similarly, Richard Baxter noted that ‘one great benefit the plague brought to the city’ in 1665, as he put it, was that Nonconformist ministers – that is, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist pastors – who had been forbidden to preach since 1662 (due to the repressive government of Charles II), stayed in the city when most of the Anglican ministers fled the capital.

Though forbidden to preach, these Nonconformist ministers proclaimed the gospel to all who would listen – and the churches were crowded. Before this they had been preaching in rented rooms – ‘secret narrow meetings’, Baxter calls them. But the plague, Baxter went on, ‘brought them … into public’.

Among the ministers whom Baxter mentions were active in preaching during this time was a young man by the name of James Janeway (1636‒1674), a graduate of Christ Church College in Oxford. One of six brothers, all of whom died before the age of forty of tuberculosis, Janeway’s written works were among the most popular of Puritan books long after his death.

Now the sermons that Janeway preached during this period were published shortly after the plague as Heaven upon Earth; or The Best Friend in the Worst Times. Among his emphases in these sermons was that men and women need to find succour in God as the friend of his people. In his words:

Another glorious effect of acquaintance with God, is, that it makes a man like God, which is the top of the creature’s honour. Company is of an assimulating nature. He that before was unholy, and like the Devil; by conversion to God, and converse with him is made holy like God… O how doth such a one shine! What a majesty, glory, and beauty is there in his face! … A full and perfect conformity and likeness to God is the very glory of glory… O why stand you then so far off from God! Come nearer him, and the rays of his glorious Image will reflect from your lives; Be acquainted with him, and you shall be like him; keep much in his company by faith, secret prayer, and meditation, and you will be more holy, divine, spiritual.

And that is still precious and sweet advice in our trying and fear-filled times!

Reproduced from Banner of Truth Magazine with permission.