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Plagues Throughout Christian History and Some Christian Responses

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Category Articles
Date October 23, 2020

When coming to consider plagues throughout history and some Christian responses, it is appropriate to begin with this extract from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer:

O Almighty God, who in thy wrath did send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with the plague of Pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest; Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Down through history, plagues, including very terrible ones, have struck societies at various times. In 431BC, the historian, Thucydides, barely survived a serious one in Athens, where people dared not visit one another, nor help one another, and became indifferent to the gods due to their ineffectiveness.1 In all plagues, there is an element of unpredictability and uncertainty as to the right responses.

The Early Church

There was what was called the Antonine Plague, and also called the Plague of Galen, because it was described by the physician and philosopher (a Platonist of some kind who wrote against the Stoics). The plague itself was probably smallpox. Various death rates have been suggested from 1% to over 50% of the Empire’s population, both extremes of which seem implausible. Possibly five million perished, but that is not certain. With breaks, it went from ad 165–180 and claimed the life of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161–180). Meanwhile, the pagan physician, Galen, escaped out of Rome as soon as he could.

The so-called Plague of Cyprian, which was possibly measles, is sometimes said to have derived its name because it supposedly claimed the life of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (248–258). However, he described the plague and did not succumb to it. His death came through persecution, being beheaded in the amphitheatre. Eusebius of Caesarea cited Dionysius of Alexandria (bishop 248–264), who described a terrible and unexpected plague in his city. It affected all, from infants to old men. The Christians stood out, in the estimation of Dionysius:

Most of our brother-Christians showed unbounded loved and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains.2

Dionysius saw this as ‘the equal of martyrdom’ and contrasted the behaviour of the Christians with the heathen who threw out their family members onto the roads even before they were dead.3

In Cyprian’s day the plague was also terrible, with about 5,000 a day dying, as he recorded in On the Plague (often called On Mortality):

But nevertheless it disturbs some that the power of this Disease attacks our people equally with the heathens, as if the Christian believed for this purpose, that he might have the enjoyment of the world and this life free from the contact of ills; and not as one who undergoes all adverse things here and is reserved for future joy. It disturbs some that this mortality is common to us with others; and yet what is there in this world which is not common to us with others, so long as this flesh of ours still remains, according to the law of our first birth, common to us with them? So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality, but are separated in spirit. Therefore until this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal receive immortality, and the Spirit lead us to God the Father, whatsoever are the disadvantages of the flesh are common to us with the human race. Thus, when the earth is barren with an unproductive harvest, famine makes no distinction; thus, when with the invasion of an enemy any city is taken, captivity at once desolates all; and when the serene clouds withhold the rain, the drought is alike to all; and when the jagged rocks rend the ship, the shipwreck is common without exception to all that sail in her; and the disease of the eyes, and the attack of fevers, and the feebleness of all the limbs is common to us with others, so long as this common flesh of ours is borne by us in the world.4

Cyprian understood Paul’s warning against grieving like those without hope (1 Thess. 4:13) to mean that Christians should not grieve at all.5

Christian care of those afflicted by the plague can be contrasted with the way many responded to the persecution unleashed by the emperor Decius in 250. Cyprian recalled, ‘Many were conquered before the battle, prostrated before the attack.’6 Decius, who like most tyrants, saw himself as a saviour and bringer of peace,7 desired a revival of the state cults. According to Cyprian, many, indeed most, Christians were ready to oblige him, and the bishop graphically described the panic: ‘They ran to the market-place of their own accord; freely they hastened to death, as if they had formerly wished it, as if they would embrace an opportunity now given which they had always desired.’8 Presumably, if only a minority held firm in dealing with persecution, only a minority showed similar bravery in dealing with the plague.

Rodney Stark, who is a sociologist rather than a historian, considers that plagues in the ancient world made a significant contribution to the expansion of Christianity.9 Pagan morale was devastated, its interpersonal attachments were greatly weakened, and its survival rates were significantly lower than that of Christians (despite what Cyprian said). The emperor, Julian the Apostate (who was given that nickname after his death) lamented as he neared death in 363 that the pagans readily abandoned the sick, while the Christians looked after sick, and even the pagan sick. Unwittingly, Julian provides evidence for the Christian testimony.

Around AD541, the bubonic plague broke out under the reign of the emperor Justinian, who was the Eastern Emperor from 527–565. Justinian himself caught it but survived. Whilst it is now treatable, recovery was more unusual in the ancient and medieval world. It is customary to say that tens of millions died and that the Empire never recovered, and that it led to eight years of famine. Originating in Ethiopia, the plague seems to have devastated Europe, Asia, North Africa, and Arabia, and those who survived probably developed some kind of immunity, although that is not certain.

As far as the earlier period is concerned, it is clear that many Christians, whether as individuals or through the deacons of the Church, looked after those in distress. The sick and dying were nursed, most often by Christians, whereas the pagans tended to abandon those who might infect them.

The Medieval Period

Having travelled through Asia and North Africa—but not originating in China as sometimes thought10—what was probably bubonic plague ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century. The Black Death, to use its later name, was especially severe in 1347–1348 when probably well over 30%, and even up to 50% or more, of Europe’s population was wiped out. The plague would die down in the winter, only to re-emerge in the warmer months, so the sunnier Mediterranean societies in the south suffered most. The medieval chronicler, Jean Froissart, commented that ‘a third of the world died’, although that may draw on the Apocalypse as much as sober history.11 Paintings and drawings of Le Danse Macabre dealt with the universality of death, while in 1582, over two centuries after the worst plague, Pieter Bruegel painted The Triumph of Death. Europe could not forget what had taken place.

A common epitaph was ‘As I am, so you shall be.’ Black humour was common. Ring Around the Rosey is a song about the plague, the rosey being the reddish ring that preceded the skin blotch. Tumours grew mainly in the armpit and groin, to be followed by acute fever and vomiting of blood. The Pied Piper story may derive from about this time. Chaucer, who was born around 1340, mentions shops that sold rat poison, but the rat flea would look to human beings when there were not enough black rats upon which to feed.

The poet, Petrarch, has left a famous description of the plague. Writing from Parma to his brother in a monastery in Monrieux (who with his dog had alone survived to guard the monastery when 34 or 35 others had succumbed), Petrarch lamented:

Alas! My beloved brother, what shall I say? How shall I begin? Whither shall I turn? On all sides is sorrow; everywhere is fear. I would, my brother, that I had never been born, or, at least, had died before these times. How will posterity believe that there has been a time when without the lightnings of heaven or the fires of earth, without wars or other visible slaughter, not this or that part of the earth, but well-nigh the whole globe has remained without inhabitants. When has any such thing been even heard or seen; in what annals has it ever been read that houses were left vacant, cities deserted, the country neglected, the fields too small for the dead and a fearful and universal solitude over the whole earth?…Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries and perchance will class our testimony with the fables. We have, indeed, deserved these [punishments] and even greater; but our forefathers also have deserved them, and may our posterity not also merit the same…12

Philip Daileader comments that Petrarch could make receiving a parking ticket sound tragic,13 but the Black Death remains the most devastating natural disaster in human history. The death-obsessed poet came to see the recurring plague as ‘a sign of the divine anger at human crimes. If those crimes were to end, the divine punishments would grow less or milder.’14

The practice of quarantining the sick was prominent in Venice, which kept newly arrived sailors in isolation for thirty days, later extended to forty days. In Poland and Milan, the practice was reasonably successful. Flight from infected areas was the primary response, and bad air was often blamed. The young suffered in higher proportion than the old, and women more than men.15 King Alfonso XI of Castile died, as did Boccaccio’s mistress, while the historian, Giovanni Villani of Florence, died without finishing a sentence he was writing. Three Archbishops of Canterbury died August 1348 – August 1349. Peasants dropped dead in the fields, and in Austria, wolves came down to attack sheep but fled back into the wilderness. The stench of dead bodies could be quite overwhelming.16 Boccaccio’s well-known quip is that people ‘ate lunch with their friends and dinner with their ancestors in paradise.’

A bishop in England permitted confessions to be made to laymen and even laywomen, while Pope Clement VI (1342–1352) granted remission of sins to all who died of the plague, as there were few priests to give the last rites.17 He finally came to prohibit processions as they spread the plague. The pope’s physician, Guy de Chauliac, saw so much abandonment of sick people that he declared, ‘Charity was dead.’18 Still, not all charity was lost, and the nuns of the Hôtel Dieu in Paris tended the dying with sweetness and courage.19

Flagellants, usually in groups of 200–300 but sometimes more, paraded through the towns of Europe, and punished themselves with whips, for their own sins and the sins of their communities. They were anti-clerical and often attacked the Jews. Pogroms were known before the Black Death, but there were massacres of Jews in Languedoc and Catalonia, and then across the Germanic lands and France as Jews were blamed for the plague. In many places, such as Mainz, Erfurt, Antwerp, and Brussels, entire Jewish communities perished. Pope Clement VI did his best to protect the Jews from accusations such as the blood libel. However, says Barbara Tuchman, ‘The period of the Jews’ medieval flourishing was over.’20

To many, it seemed to be the prelude to the end of the world. Medicine was linked to astrology and so looked to the planets to explain events. The Pestilence did lead to the invention of the beak-like mask with glass eyes and two breathing nostrils filled with herbs and flowers to ward off miasmas. In September 1348, the pope spoke of the ‘pestilence with which God is afflicting the Christian people’, while Piers Plowman declared that ‘these pestilences were for pure sin’.21 Oddly, Chaucer barely mentions it. It was said that the manufacturers of dice turned to the making of rosary beads, but others thought that morals declined. In 1350, the Archbishop of Canterbury lamented that priests had become ‘infected by insatiable avarice’, and were charging excessive fees and neglecting souls.22 Still, 1350 was declared a Jubilee Year, and pilgrims flocked in large numbers to Rome, although the Pope was in Avignon. The impact of the Great Mortality can hardly be overestimated, and Barbara Tuchman refers to it as ‘the equivalent of the First World War’.23

The Reformation

Zurich

On 27 December 1518, Ulrich Zwingli moved to Zurich, whose bishop lived in Constance. It was at Zurich that Zwingli undertook his life’s work. Zurich was a prosperous town of about 7,000. Birnbaum estimates that there were about 5,000 in the city and 60,000 in the Zurich state.24 Zurich, however, had a poor reputation, and Bullinger once commented that ‘Zurich was to Switzerland what Corinth was to Greece’.25 Zwingli himself had already fallen sexually in both Glarus and Einsiedeln. He claimed that he avoided married women, virgins, and nuns, but lamented that he was like a dog returning to its vomit.26

In 1519, Zwingli abandoned the Church’s lectionary, and began to preach through Scripture—Matthew, then Acts, 1 Timothy, Galatians, 2 Timothy, 1 and 2 Peter, and Hebrews. In the same year, Zwingli began to read Luther (he had already read much of Erasmus). It was also 1519 when a plague devastated Zurich’s population, with 2,000–3,500 succumbing to it, including Zwingli’s brother Andrew. Zwingli himself had caught the disease and almost died.

His ‘plague hymn’ dates from this time, with its twelve stanzas neatly divided—four written as the disease struck, the next four as his health deteriorated, and the last four on his recovery.27 Beginning with ‘Help me, O Lord, my strength and rock; Lo, at the door I hear death’s knock’, it works through to his healing, but also the realisation that death will come, perhaps ‘in deeper gloom’. Its triumphant conclusion is: ‘But, let it come; with joy, I’ll rise, And bear my yoke straight to the skies.’ Clearly, Zwingli underwent a sobering spiritual experience.

Wittenberg

In 1527, Martin Luther stayed behind in Wittenberg as plague threatened the town. To Rev Dr Johann Hess, pastor at Breslau, Luther sought to answer the question as to whether one may flee from a deadly plague. He argued that one could not place the same burden on everyone: ‘Peter could walk upon the water because he was strong in faith. When he began to doubt, and his faith weakened, he sank and almost drowned.’ He heaped up many examples from Scripture as to the lawfulness of fleeing, from pestilence, famine, sword, and wild beasts (Ezek. 14:21). However, he took all sensible precautions to protect his own life and not to spread the plague, as he considered it wrong to tempt God. Leviticus 13–14 shows that separation and quarantining are not contrary to the Word of God. Nevertheless, he added: ‘If my neighbour needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely’.28

Elector John of Saxony urged Luther and the faculty at Wittenberg to flee to Jena, but Luther refused. He maintained that if one would stay to minister to Christ or his mother if they were ill, one must stay to look after the least of Christ’s brothers (Matt. 25:40). It can be inferred that the churches were still open, for he recommended to prepare for death by attending church and hearing the sermon, and by going to confession and taking the sacrament once every week or fortnight. Finally, he suggested that it was best that burials took place outside the town.

The great Reformer lived through three plagues in his lifetime. All in all, Luther’s response was measured, full of common sense, faith, caution, and courage.

England

There were epidemics in England in 1553, 1563, 1593, 1625, and, as will be noted next, in 1665. The 1563 plague was the most severe, and Elizabeth I left London for Windsor, along with all her court. She ordered that gallows be erected for anyone who followed suit, in case he or she also brought the plague. John Hooper spoke for virtually all preachers of the day that ‘the chief causes (sic) of all plagues and sicknesses, is sin.’29 That being said, he did maintain that Christians ought to respond to plague in both human and divine ways30 — namely, medicines, flight, and repentance.

The Modern Period

1665 in London

In 1722 Daniel Defoe, the nonconformist novelist and author of Robinson Crusoe, published a journal of the plague year in London, 1665, which was apparently based on the journal of his uncle who lived through it. Samuel Pepys’ diary is often regarded as more reliable, although it is only marginally less subdued. Defoe’s numbers are high, but he goes out of his way to downplay rumours, for example, about the murders that supposedly took place that were disguised as plague victims.31

As a novelist, Defoe was also something of a chronicler and statistician. He mentions that many fled the towns, while those who stayed behind flocked to quacks and astrologers as well as churches. The magic incantation ‘Abracadabra’ came into its own. Red crosses were painted on the doors of those who were infected, often with the words, ‘Lord have mercy upon us’. As it wore on, and people became more used to the death toll, Defoe recorded, ‘Time inured them to it all.’ People began to take fewer precautions concerning rulings that houses were to be shut up for 28 days. This last regulation was much resented, as it meant that whole families, including the well along with the sick, were locked up together. Watchmen were appointed, by day and by night, to keep them locked up, but there were many escapes. The airing of linen was to last 5–6 days. At the suggestion of the Earl of Craven, the practice of locking up whole families was abandoned, and pest-houses built—although not many proved to be needed.

All public activities except worship were banned. Church services were held in the open fields, with the congregation observing what has recently been called ‘social distancing’. No mourners were allowed at funerals. There were orders that dogs and cats be destroyed, although one might wonder if the feline culling did not have the baneful effect of stimulating the rodent population. The Great Fire of London in 1666, however, may have helped in destroying the rat population. Many people fled London for the countryside, and some of them made little shelters for themselves in the woods and fields. It is almost certain that Bills of Mortality underestimated the true figures.32 Jews and Quakers were not counted, for example, and there was a desire not to encourage panic, which is always an effective way to promote it.

Although, as we have seen, church services were often held in the open air to hinder the spread of the disease, Thomas Vincent (one of the 2,000 Puritans ejected in 1662) sometimes clambered over pews in order to get to the pulpit. It was all rather illegal, but as Vincent said: ‘if you ever saw a drowning man catch at a rope, you may guess how eagerly many people did catch at the word’.33 It is worthy of note that Daniel Defoe considered that Christian unity between Anglican and Nonconformist was enhanced by the plague, as the great issue of eternity swamped all others.

1860–1861 on Aneityum, New Hebrides

As is well-known, the coming of Westerners, including missionaries, to the Americas, Australia, and the Pacific Islands was often the prelude to devastating depopulation due mainly to diseases. In December 1860, a measles epidemic broke out and decimated the southern islands of the New Hebrides, especially Aneityum, Tanna, and Erromanga. The missionaries blamed a sandalwood vessel, Hirondelle, owned by Captain Towns and commanded by Captain Rodd, for the introduction of the disease. J. G. Paton claimed that the introduction of the disease was deliberate and that the sandalwooders had then blamed the missionaries.34 Geddie stopped short of making the same accusation, but he did claim:

No care was taken to prevent the spread of the contagion, and it almost seemed as if the parties who introduced it were determined that this island should not escape a disease, which has been sweeping the natives of other islands into the grave by thousands.35

As it happened, it was not the measles that killed the New Hebrideans, so much as the dysentery which followed.

Geddie’s own little daughter, Helen, aged two, almost succumbed during the epidemic. Geddie predicted, accurately, that the epidemic would carry off perhaps one-third of Aneityum’s population.36 In Scotland, Inglis predicted, rather less accurately, that:

The middle-aged, those who are invariably the worst opponents of Christianity, have been cut off; while the young, those who are the most hopeful, the most easily impressed, have been left. For some years after this the public health is likely to be unusually good. The hurricanes of last season will have purified the atmosphere; the weak and sickly will all have been swept away, and nothing but the strong and healthy left; and, consequently, it may reasonably be expected, that the sickness and mortality will be greatly less for some years to come.37

Inglis was certainly no Darwinist38 nor follower of Herbert Spencer, and he lived to see the error of his hasty proclamation of the doctrine of the survival of the fittest. As Geddie explained: ‘The mortality has been greatest among persons in the prime of life, while many of the old and young have been spared.’39

The poignancy of the whole tragedy which engulfed the community has been captured by Geddie’s pen:

It would be difficult and painful to describe the distress and suffering which the sickness has caused. When it enters a place the whole community is soon laid prostrate, so that the sick can receive but little attention. Many, who might otherwise recover, die from want of food. They cannot go to their plantations, and cook it, and there are few who can do this for them. It is with great difficulty that the dead can be buried, and this duty is often performed by persons who are on the verge of the grave themselves.40

The Geddies spent all their time attempting to alleviate the suffering, as all other work was virtually suspended. Naturally, Geddie was deeply affected by the events around him:

It is sad indeed to see so many of the poor natives, whom we love almost as much as if they were our own children, cut off so suddenly, and in such numbers, around us. Many who were our earliest and warmest friends, and who endured along with us the first trials of the Mission, are no more, and it seems as if we would be left to labour among a new generation.41

Geddie particularly mourned the death of Simeona, the Samoan teacher who had begun work on Aneityum in 1842, six years before the Geddies’ arrival. Another victim of the epidemic was Dora, the wife of Williamu, who was with Inglis in Britain. This may have contributed to Williamu’s breakdown, although Inglis placed more emphasis on the impact of the news of the Gordons’ murder.42

Within three months, 1,100 out of a population of fewer than 4,000 had perished. Still, the epidemics which afflicted Aneityum in the 1860s provided much evidence to indicate that seed had fallen on good soil. The Dayspring Report for 1866 stated:

One very gratifying feature of Christian character among the natives was brought out prominently during the sickness; they were remarkably attentive to the sick; they ministered without ceasing, both to their temporal and spiritual wants; and we have reason to believe that a large number died in the faith of the Gospel.43

Ultimately, this is what counts.

Australian Aborigines: A Race Dying Out?

At one stage, Daisy Bates (1859–1951) had a reputation for being a kind of nomadic Florence Nightingale to the aborigines, and in 1933, was informed that she would receive the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire). She tends to be unpopular now because she often referred to aboriginal cannibalism, supported the removal of children from abusive situations, and believed that the aborigines would become extinct.44 Until the 1940s or even later, it was a common view.

If massacres slew their hundreds, even thousands, disease slew their tens of thousands. Arthur Ward, the historian of the Presbyterian work at Mapoon in north Queensland, believed the doomed race theory: ‘The time is fast approaching when the Australian natives will be extinct.’45 As early as 1841, the Congregationalist missionary at Lake Macquarie, Lancelot Edward Threlkeld, in his last report predicted that ‘ere a few years elapse’ Aborigines would become extinct or amalgamated.46 In Melbourne, James Forbes (1813–1851) spoke in similar terms of ‘these precious but perishing souls’.47 Aboriginal numbers in Victoria declined to about 780 in 1889, from about 15,000 fifty years earlier.48 As late as 1937, Aeneas MacDonald was still writing of the ‘blackfellow’ in terms of ‘his doom already written across his brow.’49

Disease killed far more aborigines than anything that might be called genocide.50 In 1789, a smallpox epidemic killed thousands. Watkin Tench called it ‘an extraordinary calamity’. Henry Reynolds suggests, ‘The epidemic may well have been the single most destructive event in the history of relations between Aborigines and the European colonists.’51 Governor Phillip estimated that the aboriginal population on the coastal strip from Broken Bay to Botany Bay was about 1,500, with perhaps 700 dying in the smallpox epidemic.52 Richard Broome suggests that in Port Phillip 1835–1853 there were perhaps 8,000 aboriginal deaths, with about 5,000 due to disease.53 This probably underestimates the impact of disease. The Roman Catholic Archbishop, John Bede Polding, delineated three causes of aboriginal depopulation: the aggressive mode of taking possession of their country; the sensual indulgence of white males with indigenous females, even children; and the introduction of diseases for which they had no proper remedy.54 It was one of the few times when the redoubtable Presbyterian John Dunmore Lang agreed with Polding.55

 Charles Spurgeon in London in 1854 and After

There was an outbreak of cholera in 1854, and Charles Spurgeon describes how it sobered many people, causing them to ponder the brevity of life and the reality of eternity. Spurgeon was barely twenty when he had to deal with this crisis. There were over 600 deaths, with a mortality rate of about 12.8% in parts of the city. Most of Soho fled in a week. Geoff Chang has made five observations of Spurgeon’s response.56

  1. He prioritised local ministry. Spurgeon refused all invitations to preach in other parts of the country in order to remain with his people.
  2. He adjusted his meetings but continued meeting. Spurgeon’s church was not quarantined, and he continued preaching and pastoring. He thought people were subdued by events: ‘There was little scoffing then.’
  3. He cared for the sick. He recorded: ‘Family after family summoned me to the bedside of the smitten, and almost every day I was called to visit the grave.’ He described one young woman who was singing on her deathbed. He preached that for the Christian, sudden death meant sudden glory, and cited some verses, as he often did: ‘Plagues and deaths around me fly, Till He please, I cannot die.’
  4. He was open to new evangelistic opportunities. He would enter the houses of afflicted people in order to evangelise. One notable occasion took place when a man who had denounced Spurgeon as a hypocrite summoned him at 3:00 a.m. when he was dying. By the time Spurgeon arrived, the man was unable to give any response although Spurgeon spoke to him. Spurgeon knew of many who responded, but fell away, and in 1857 declared:

How many of the same sort of confessions, too, have we seen in times of cholera, and of fever, and pestilence! Then our churches have been crammed with hearers, who, because so many funerals have passed their doors, or so many have died in the street, could not refrain from going up to God’s house to confess their sins. And under that visitation, when one, two, and three have been lying dead in the house, or next door, how many have thought they would really turn to God! But, alas! when the pestilence had done its work, conviction ceased; and when the bell had tolled the last time for a death caused by cholera, then their hearts ceased to beat with penitence and their tears did flow no more.

  1. He entrusted his life to God. As he carried on his work, Spurgeon felt more and more exhausted, both physically and mentally. Psalm 91:9–10, in a shoemaker’s window, revived his spirits when he thought that he was in danger of succumbing.

In 1866, amid another cholera outbreak, he charged pastors and Christians:

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.’

He saw the plague in terms of the gospel because he saw all things through a gospel lens.

During the 1866 cholera outbreak, Spurgeon preached on Amos 3:3–6, on ‘The Voice of Cholera’. He was comprehensive and commended greater cleanliness and better dwellings for the poor, as well as medical research. He could even state: ‘It seems to me that this disease is to a great extent in our own hands…and much as we advocate holiness, we always have a good word for cleanliness and sobriety.’

Still, he went on to declare that ‘the hand of the Lord is in all this.’ He saw the judgment of God, particularly on four sins: drunkenness, licentiousness, neglect of worship, and Popery in the Established Church. ‘My brethren, our God is too gracious to send us this cholera without a motive…The great Lion of vengeance has not roared unless sin has provoked him.’ To Spurgeon, as to the Bible, all things work for a purpose: ‘Let us conclude most surely that a purpose consistent with the love and justice of God lies hidden in the present harvest of death.’ Although we have responsibilities regarding clean air and good sanitation, the truth is that ‘God himself is traversing London.’

The 1918–1919 Spanish Flu in Australia

From 1855, plague re-emerged from the Chinese province of Yunnan. This finally reached Australia in 1900, causing about 100 deaths, and causing much consternation and some ill-feeling towards Chinese people. Indeed, the plague lingered on throughout the world for the next five decades.57 However, it is the Spanish flu, striking at the end of World War I, which was more drastic.

This pandemic received its name not because it originated in Spain, but from the fact that its king, Alfonso XIII, caught it and survived. Neither the Axis nor the Allied powers wished to admit that flu was devastating their troops, and Spain, in this at least, was conveniently neutral, and so ‘Spanish flu’ was a useful and diversionary nomenclature. It possibly originated in isolated Haskell County, Kansas, although that is by no means certain.58 Worldwide deaths have been variously estimated between 19–50 million—perhaps even 100 million—and its spread among German troops may have hastened the end of the war. It can be said to have rivalled and even exceeded the Black Death in terms of mortality and social and economic effects. Furthermore, the Spanish flu was not the only pestilence. In December 1919, the Bolsheviks struggled with a typhus epidemic that claimed more than five million lives, leading Lenin to declare that ‘either socialism will defeat the louse or the louse will defeat socialism’.59

In Australia, over 12,000 died, out of a total population of a little over five million. It came to Australia later than it did the rest of the world, and it was less severe in its effects. There were cases in Australia in September–October 1918, but then it seemed to die down. It was even believed that Australia would escape with only relatively mild flu.

The pandemic did not die out, however, and in 1919, there were roughly three waves in Australia. The first wave (late January–late February) was relatively mild, the second wave (19 March–27 May) was much more virulent, and the third wave (28 May–5 August) was more virulent still. The first wave claimed about 50 lives in NSW, the second wave 1,542, and the third wave 4,302.60 Males aged 25–39 registered the highest number of fatalities,61 and indigenous communities suffered disproportionately. Medical advice kept changing, and a vaccine that was produced may have been close to being useless..

Reactions to the pandemic provoked much contention. On 3 December 1918, a nurse, Annie Egan, who was a Catholic, died at the Quarantine Station in North Head (all major ports had quarantine stations). She was denied the last rites as no ministers of religion were allowed into the quarantined area. Even an appeal to the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, proved to be of no avail. There was a public outcry at this, especially from the Roman Catholic community. Archbishop Daniel Mannix protested strongly, and the Freeman’s Journal portrayed government policy as a cruel and pagan attempt to ‘divide man from his Maker by official red tape’.62 Meetings of Roman Catholics protested, and a written protest from East Maitland saw the same spirit as moved Henry VIII and Cromwell!63

The Roman Catholic protests did not move J. Laurence Rentoul, the fiery Irish-born Presbyterian minister from Ormond College in Victoria. He accused Mannix of discovering new grievances and not cooperating with rational and merciful laws. He suggested that Roman Catholic priests could visit those in quarantine but stay there until the danger of infection was past.64 Some Anglicans sided with the Roman Catholics although there was an Anglican chaplain stationed there, having been isolated as one of the crew and passengers on an infected ship. A month after Nurse Egan’s death, a Roman Catholic priest, John Peoples, was allowed within the precincts for six weeks and to bless the grave of Annie.

Quarantines meant that family reunions were delayed and victory parades cancelled. Still, on 6 June 1919, the Peace Ball was held, and all 1800 tickets were sold—the age of the flapper was not to be denied, even in the midst of the deadly third wave. Lockdowns were of relatively short duration—about 36 days. Schools were closed. Outdoor activities were actually encouraged, but not in crowds. Over 50% of Sydney’s population was inoculated.65 There were official calls for prayer, but church services were cancelled. In February 1919, one Presbyterian lady, who had never missed church, repeated ‘all the “comforting” passages she knew’ and preached to herself a sermon on ‘the duty of trusting God’.66 On 8 February 1919, the Sydney Morning Herald published a suggested order of service for Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Baptists, those in the Churches of Christ, and Salvationists who were denied public worship on the next day as no services were allowed.

All was not well. Public houses were sometimes left open, albeit with a restriction as to air space that was not likely to be enforced. Even open-air services were banned in church grounds, but trams and boats could be crowded, and no restriction was placed on the use of beaches. Picture-shows and all places of public entertainment were closed. The wearing of masks, popularly known as ‘dog muzzles’, was compulsory, although some wearers cut a little hole in them to allow them to smoke. By the end of February, some of the regulations on churches were relaxed, and services were held outside with the parishioners wearing masks, although the officiating minister was excused. Restrictions were re-imposed during the second wave but not for the churches.

Some Comments and Lessons

  1. The early Church showed great compassion during plagues, in ministering to the sick, even those who were pagans. This is also seen in the responses of Luther, Spurgeon, the new Christians on Aneityum, and countless other Christians.
  2. Both Luther and Spurgeon commend sensible precautions but point out that the love of neighbour remains God’s command to us all.
  3. Luther refused to lay down one rule for all Christians in a plague.
  4. Inconsistent restrictions such as those in London in 1665 and Australia in 1919 fail to win universal consent. These can unnecessarily divide society and the Church.
  5. There is nothing wrong with the Church obeying state regulations. Indeed, it ought to do so, but it must be wary of state power becoming all-devouring.
  6. The obvious lesson comes from Luther: ‘Death is death, no matter how it occurs.’ Life is short, and the mortality rate is always 100%. Therefore, preach Christ and the resurrection. Psalm 91:3–4 has been often cited in dealing with God’s promises to keep His people from the fowler’s net and the deadly pestilence. Spurgeon’s paraphrases this promise most memorably: ‘No bird of paradise shall die in the fowler’s net.’67

This article was first published in the August 2020 edition of the Reformed Theological Review and has been reproduced with permission.

Notes

    1. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 1997), 84–85.
    2. Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), 7.22, 305.
    3. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 7.22, 305–306.
    4. Cyprian, ‘On the Mortality’, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5 (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1981), 8:470–471.
    5. Cyprian, ‘On the Mortality’, 20–21:474.
    6. Cyprian, ‘On the Lapsed’, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5 (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1981), 8:439.
    7. W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965), 407.
    8. Cyprian, ‘On the Lapsed’, 8:439.
    9. Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 74.
    10. Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (London: Papermac, 1995), 101.
    11. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 94.
    12. Cited in George Deaux, The Black Death 1347 (New York: Weybright and Talley, 1969), 93–94.
    13. Philip Daileader, The Late Middle Ages (Chantilly: The Teaching Company, 2007), Lecture 8.
    14. Cited in Renee Neu Watkins, ‘Petrarch and the Black Death: From Fear to Monuments’, Studies in the Renaissance 19 (1972), 218.
    15. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 98–99.
    16. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 98–99.
    17. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 94–95.
    18. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 97.
    19. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 97.
    20. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 116.
    21. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 104.
    22. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 118.
    23. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror, 124.
    24. N. Birnbaum, ‘The Zwinglian Reformation in Zurich’, Past and Present 15 (1959), 29.
    25. R. Tudor Jones, The Great Reformation (Leicester: IVP, 1985), 50.
    26. Jean Rilliet, Zwingli: Third Man of the Reformation (London: Lutterworth, 1964), 33–34.
    27. See Christian History 4 (January 1984), 20.
    28. Martin Luther, ‘Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague’, Works 43 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 119–138.
    29. John Hooper, ‘A Sermon to be Read in the Time of Pestilence’, Godly Directions in a Time of Plague, ed. C. Matthew McMahon (Crossville: Puritan Publications, 2020), 13.
    30. Hooper, ‘A Sermon to be Read in the Time of Pestilence’, 22.
    31. See Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year, read by Andrew Cullum (Naxos AudioBooks, 2018).
    32. Rebecca Rideal, 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire (London: John Murray, 2017), 47.
    33. Cited in Rideal, 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire, 52–53.
    34. James Paton (ed.), John G. Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides, 2 vols, vol. 1 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1890), 267–268.
    35. John Geddie, Misi Gete, ed. R. S. Miller (Launceston: Presbyterian Church of Tasmania, 1975), 260.
    36. Geddie, Misi Gete, 260.
    37. John Inglis, Reformed Presbyterian Magazine (November 1861), 350.
    38. John Inglis, Bible Illustrations in the New Hebrides (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1890), 85.
    39. Geddie, Misi Gete, 261.
    40. Geddie, Misi Gete, 260–261; see Home and Foreign Record of the Presbyterian Church of the Lower Provinces of British North America (September 1861), 225–231.
    41. Geddie, Misi Gete, 261.
    42. Home and Foreign Record (December 1861), 326.
    43. Dayspring Report, 1866, 3.
    44. See Susanna De Vries, Desert Queen: The Many Lives and Loves of Daisy Bates (Sydney: HarperCollins, 2008).
    45. Arthur Ward, The Miracle of Mapoon (London: Partridge, 1908), 127.
    46. Niel Gunson (ed.), Australian Reminiscences & Papers of L. E. Threlkeld, Missionary to the Aborigines 1824–1859, vol. 1 (Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1974), 169.
    47. Mairi Harman, James Forbes of Melbourne (Sydney: Crossing Press, 2001), 118.
    48. Malcolm Wood, Presbyterians in Colonial Victoria (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008), 218.
    49. Aeneas MacDonald, One Hundred Years of Presbyterianism in Victoria (Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1937), 73.
    50. See Judy Campbell, Invisible Invaders: Smallpox and Other Diseases in Aboriginal Australia, 1780–1880 (Carlton South: Melbourne University Press, 2002).
    51. Henry Reynolds, An Indelible Stain? (Ringwood: Viking Books, 2001), 36.
    52. Cited in Roger Milliss, Waterloo Creek (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1994), 44.
    53. E.g. Richard Broome, Aboriginal Australians, 3rd edition (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2001), 65. Broome’s book is savaged by Michael Connor, ‘History on Fire’, Quadrant (April 2010), 32–36.
    54. Cited in John Harris, ‘The Myth of the Humane Colonisation of Aboriginal Australia’, Aboriginal History 27 (2003), 82.
    55. Roger Milliss, Waterloo Creek, 126, citing Colonist (31 December 1835); R. H. W. Reece, Aborigines and Colonists (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1974), 167, citing Colonist (5, 12, 19 November 1835), 1–3, 1–2, 1–2 respectively.
    56. Geoff Chang, ‘Five lessons from Spurgeon’s ministry in a cholera outbreak’ Evangelical Times (May 2020), https://www.evangelical-times.org/58435/
      five-lessons-from-spurgeons-ministry-in-a-cholera-outbreak, accessed 6 July 2020.
    57. John Frith, ‘The History of Plague: Part 1. The Three Great Pandemics’, History, Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health 20, no. 2 (April 2012), 15.
    58. John M. Barry, ‘The site of origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic and its public health implications’, Journal of Translational Medicine 2 (2004), 3.
    59. Cited in Henry Ergas, ‘Australia’s tough fight to defeat ‘the louse’, The Australian (1 May 2020), 10.
    60. NSW Government State Archives and Records: Pneumonic Influenza (Spanish Flu) (1919), 8.
    61. NSW Government State Archives, 8.
    62. Robyn Arrowsmith, A Danger Greater than War: NSW and the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic (Curtin, ACT: Homeland Security Communications Groups, 2007), 45–46.
    63. Arrowsmith, A Danger Greater than War, 46.
    64. Arrowsmith, A Danger Greater than War, 47.
    65. Peter Curson and Kevin McCracken, ‘Australian Perspective of the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic, NSW Public Health Bulletin 17, no. 7–8 (2005), 105.
    66. Cited in Humphrey McQueen, ‘The ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic in Australia, 1912–19’, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History (2018), 7.
    67. Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, for the morning of January 24.

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