Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Plagues and Church History
Plagues are not new. That fact, of course, does not make them less deadly or impactful, but it is crucial to bear in mind. While early on in 2020, many talking heads were saying that Covid was unprecedented, this is patently not true regarding a virus affecting humans. Any decent historian, i.e., studied before 1950s America, can easily highlight various plagues throughout history and worldwide.
The most famous plague in the Western world and frequently depicted in art is the Bubonic Plague that destroyed Europe. As it is un-affectionally called, the Black Death killed 25 million in just a few years c. 1347 – 1351. In the 16th century, Mexico was ravaged by new diseases from Europeans. Cocoliztli, the word for pestilence in the Aztec Nahuatl language, killed over 15 million. The death of nearly 80% of the population contributed to many long-term consequences for Mexico. And, of course, there is the damaging exposure and perhaps weaponizing of smallpox upon Native Americans in North America too.
Besides the obvious impact of death, plagues impact society by personalizing death. While our modern western cultures use morgues and funeral homes to distance ourselves from the reality of death, this feature of cold storage and distance were unknown in previous millennia. In terms of numbers and proximity, no one escapes the ravages of an actual plague event. In previous significant plagues, either pandemic or epidemic, every person would see and know death up close.
In our modern experience, we have not had bodies lying in the streets to be carted off for burning. However, Covid not only claimed lives, but the consequences of anxiety and fear brought on by the bombardment of news from every direction have caused skyrocketing numbers of suicide across all demographics. I think it safe that every American, to speak to the context of my setting, has been affected by Covid. Many lost a loved one, a friend, or a neighbor. But if not, they likely either got sick, discouraged, frustrated, fearful, or anxious about the many outcomes of our society’s response.
To our point, is the Christian Church voiceless? Should pastors ‘‘sit down and shut up’’ because they don’t work for the CDC or specialize in medical expertise? The voices of dominant cultural power always wield pressure against the ‘‘other,’’ but the church has rightly never remained silent. As a Pastor, I do not work in a laboratory with microscopes, but that is not where I wish to speak.
Again, church history provides a valuable resource. Turning to past Christian voices during plagues guides Christians in both the necessity to speak and the content of how to speak light into darkness.
The Cholera Outbreak, London 1854
The Cholera outbreak in London in 1854 was the third round of a plague in just a few years. Reports of the outbreak spread from India, Europe, and even South America. Londoners were bombarded with reports from Spain with a death toll of 236,ooo. London alone experienced nearly 11,000 deaths. In practical terms, that means every person either had a close family member die, a neighbor die, or at the bare minimum, saw the dead being ushered away frequently. Funerals were a regular occurrence. According to Spurgeon, “almost every day I was called to visit the grave.”
After ministering at his new post for only a year, Spurgeon found himself attempting to minister during this terrible plague. Spurgeon comments on being discouraged at times, but he knew the need was great for something only the Gospel could provide, hope and comfort. Spurgeon did not flee but gave up other engagements outside of town so 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 remarks that the nearness and intensity of death made people more receptive to the gospel. He comments, “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.” But the more important impact of the reality of death as the last enemy is that the gospel joys are increased in the present. Spurgeon recalls his experience,
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.
Three centuries prior to Spurgeon, Wittenberg Germany was hit by another round of the bubonic plague. While the ravages of the dark death were well known, there were pastors and doctors who refused to abandon their place for the benefit of helping others. Out of great love for the people and desire to apply the gospel, Martin Luther stayed in the city to minister to the sick and the affected. Lest there be confusion, Luther had no patience for foolhardiness. He contended that “If one makes no use of intelligence or medicine when he could do so without detriment to his neighbor, such a person injures his body and must beware lest become some a suicide in God’s eyes.” In the end, the plague hit close to home with the death of his daughter Elizabeth. However, it gave birth to the now-classic tract, “Whether Christians Should Flee the Plague.” In sum, Luther recognizes that not all have strong enough faith, but “those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death.” Luther and others continued to preach, teach, visit, proclaim and apply the gospel during these dark times.
Later, during another round of the Plague, John Calvin turned to the question that all Christians must wrestle with during tough times. Should Christians fear death? This question is not an idle one. It does not point to foolishly jumping off bridges like our mom’s asked us as kids. The question also is not about a lack of intelligence or good stewardship of one’s health. The question of mortality drives to the heart of the gospel gifts in Jesus Christ.
Calvin responds in a way that likely makes us uncomfortable in not downright irritated. He says, “monstrous it is that many who boast themselves Christians are gripped by such a great fear of death, rather than a desire for it, that they tremble at the least mention of it, as of something utterly dire and disastrous.” While he acknowledges that it is natural for the flesh to have longings for self-preservation, it is not natural for a Christian to desire garbage over glory (Phil 3:8). It is an atheistic leaning to desire the present over and against his presence (Phil 1:23).
It is not suggested that we live as masochists or provide sadists with an outlet. Christians are correct not to want to get hit with a stick and try to avoid being hit by a car. We also are right to make decisions and take actions that can prevent us from being thrown to the lions like some of our former brothers and sisters. But should our lives be driven by fear? No, not even fear of death.
Interestingly, for as verbose as Calvin can be at places, he is surprisingly brief in his subsection, Against the Fear of Death! He explains the cause for his brevity is that Cyprian of Carthage spoke best on the matter of death. And I believe this is one of the most accurate statements in all of Calvin’s works.
Cyprian’s sermon ‘‘On Mortality,’’ is the best sermon I have ever read. It is comforting, challenging, convicting, and biblically insightful, and soul penetrating all at the same time. It is not for those who do not want to be affected by the gospel. The sermon is also not for those who want gospel-lite; the gospel flavor without really partaking. Beginning with the next posts, I will dive into this eighteen-century old sermon that has been read and enjoyed by countless Christians.
1) Do I fear death? Not are you scared of dying in certain ways. I surely don’t want to be burned or drowned. But do you fear your mortality because you fear what may or may not be on the other side of the grave?
2) Do you believe that Jesus Christ is advantageous to your life today, tomorrow, and for eternity? Why or why not? What makes us relegate Jesus to only parts of our life?
3) Do we love thoughts of eternity with Christ? Or do they bring about feelings of dread?
 The international experience of Covid may be new in many respects, but that has far more to do with the global connectivity of social media and politics than it does with diseases or viruses.  C. H. Spurgeon’s, Autobiography. Compiled From His Diary, Letters, and Records, 371.  Autobiography, 372.  Autobiography, 371.  Autobiography, 371.  Martin Luther, “Whether Christians Should Flee the Plague.”  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2nd, John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 717.