How Did Early Christians Respond to Plagues? Historical Reflections as the Coronavirus Spreads

COVID-19 is spreading across the globe as I write these words. In my section of the world, people are stockpiling hand sanitizers, facemasks, toilet paper, and bottled water, and some have already self-quarantined. The focus of these efforts, naturally, is protection of self and others from the spread of the virus. But in the midst of all this worry, let’s take a moment and reflect on how Christians dealt with plagues in the past. Twenty-first century followers of Jesus might profit from viewing a page from our own Christian history as we consider how to navigate this looming crisis known to most as Coronavirus—that is, how to navigate this peril as Christians.

Sociologist and historian Rodney Stark mounted a powerful argument that one of the principal reasons Christianity grew while Roman paganism waned in the 1st-4th centuries was because of the mercy Christians displayed toward people who physically suffered, and in particular, how Christians showed mercy during two plagues that ravaged the Roman Empire. Below I will include a few paragraphs from Stark’s book, The Triumph of Christianity. Perhaps we can draw some insight from these historical reflections as we weigh whether to hide out in our houses, or wisely and carefully venture out to care for the weak and suffering.

In the year 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a devastating epidemic swept through the Roman Empire. Some medical historians suspect this was the first appearance of smallpox in the West. Whatever the actual disease, it was lethal—as many contagious diseases are when they strike a previously unexposed population. During the fifteen-year duration of the epidemic, a quarter to a third of the population probably died of it. At the height of the epidemic, mortality was so great in many cities that the emperor Marcus Aurelius (who subsequently died of the disease) wrote of caravans of carts and wagons hauling out the dead. Then, a century later came another great plague. Once again the Greco-Roman world trembled as, on all sides, family, friends, and neighbors died horribly.

No one knew how to treat the stricken. Nor did most people try. During the first plague, the famous classical physician Galen fled Rome for his country estate where he stayed until the danger subsided. But for those who could not flee, the typical response was to try to avoid any contact with the afflicted, since it was understood that the disease was contagious. Hence, when their first symptom appeared, victims often were thrown into the streets, where the dead and dying lay in piles. In a pastoral letter written during the second epidemic (ca. 251), Bishop Dionysius described events in Alexandria: “At the first onset of the disease, they [pagans] pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape”….

As for action, Christians met the obligation to care for the sick rather than desert them, and thereby saved enormous numbers of lives!

As William H. McNeill pointed out in his celebrated Plagues and Peoples, under the circumstances prevailing in this era, even “quite elementary nursing will greatly reduce mortality. Simple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.” It is entirely plausible that Christian nursing would have reduced mortality by as much as two-thirds! The fact that most stricken Christians survived did not go unnoticed, lending immense credibility to Christian ‘miracle working.’ Indeed, the miracles often included pagan neighbors and relatives. This surely must have produced some conversions, especially by those who were nursed back to health. In addition, while Christians did nurse some pagans, being so outnumbered, obviously they could not have cared for most of them, while all, or nearly all, Christians would have been nursed. Hence Christians as a group would have enjoyed a far superior survival rate, and, on these grounds alone, the percentage of Christians in the population would have increased substantially as a result of both plagues.

What went on during the epidemics was only an intensification of what went on every day among Christians… Indeed, the impact of Christian mercy was so evident that in the fourth century when the emperor Julian attempted to restore paganism, he exhorted the pagan priesthood to compete with the Christian charities. In a letter to the high priest of Galatia, Julian urged the distribution of grain and wine to the poor, noting that “the impious Galileans [Christians], in addition to their own, support ours, [and] it is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid.” But there was little or no response to Julian’s proposals because there were no doctrines and no traditional practices for the pagan priest to build upon…. Christians believed in life everlasting. At most, pagans believed in an unattractive existence in the underworld. Thus, for Galen to have remained in Rome to treat the afflicted during the first great plague would have required far greater bravery than was needed by Christian deacons and presbyters to do so. Faith mattered.[1]

What can we draw from these reflections by a social historian about the practices of early Christians during the two great plagues of the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D.? By all means, practice scrupulous hygiene, both for your own sake and for the sake of others. Wash your hands, cough into your arm, elbow-bump instead of shaking hands. Even stay away from public meetings that your local health authorities recommend you avoid. But if one of your Christian brothers or sisters, or one of your non-Christian neighbors, contracts the disease and needs you to serve them—or (may it not come to this!) if our health systems get overwhelmed and need some extra volunteers—consider serving simply because you are a Christian. Let me reiterate, by all means, take into account every precaution laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and your local authorities—but by all means, also continue to show mercy and serve others as Christ taught us to do. This is what Christians have done throughout the centuries in the midst of suffering and death. According to Stark, it is also one of the main reasons Christianity flourished during the first four centuries of its existence. Let us not be driven by fear, no matter what transpires in the days and weeks ahead. Rather, let us be guided by the One who declared a blessing upon those who show mercy.[2]

—————

[1] Excerpted from Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 114-119.

[2] Matthew 5:7.

Today two Christian friends put up the following message on each of their Facebook pages [slightly edited]: “If you are in the [City Name] area and need to self-quarantine due to exposure or health issues, I’m available to shop for you. Please consider making this offer to your friends who are > 65 or in poor health.” Thanks Kent Ostby and Jill Beasley for modeling one practical way of showing mercy during this period.

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