Christianity in a time of plague

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Epidemic infections were a source of terror in the ancient world. They would sweep into the cities of the Roman Empire, causing devastation. The Plague of Cyprian was a pandemic that afflicted the Roman Empire from about AD 249 to 262. From 250 to 262, at the height of the outbreak, 5,000 people a day were said to be dying in the city of Rome itself.

Pontius of Carthage wrote a first-hand description:

Afterwards, there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house. All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also. There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves. No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience….’

Strikingly no first-hand accounts of the clinical symptoms and signs of plague have been recorded from the Hippocratic physicians at the time. Although the clinical descriptions of many other diseases were recorded with great detail, it has been remarked that the contemporary medical descriptions of plague seem vague and impressionistic.

Why was this? Almost certainly because at the first sign of plague, the Hippocratic physicians would have deserted the towns and fled to the safety of the countryside! When plague threatened Rome, the great physician Galen moved swiftly to a country estate in Asia Minor where he stayed until the danger had receded.

In the Hippocratic work ‘The Art’ the goal of the physician was defined as ‘to do away with the sufferings of the sick, to lessen the violence of their diseases, and to refuse to treat those who are overmastered by their diseases, realizing that in such cases medicine is powerless.’ To treat those who were dying was likely to bring the reputation of the profession into disrepute and damage faith in the healing skill of the physician.

So it is remarkable that it was a Christian bishop Cyprian, who provided the most accurate and detailed clinical description of ancient plague: ‘These are adduced as proof of faith: that, as the strength of the body is dissolved, the bowels dissipate in a flow; that a fire that begins in the inmost depths burns up into wounds in the throat; that the intestines are shaken with continuous vomiting; that the eyes are set on fire from the force of the blood; that the infection of the deadly putrefaction cuts off the feet or other extremities of some; and that as weakness prevails through the failures and losses of the bodies, the gait is crippled or the hearing is blocked, or the vision is blinded…

Cyprian’s account suggests that the third-century plague he witnessed may have been a highly infectious and lethal haemorrhagic viral infection similar to Ebola virus, although there is continuing controversy about the nature of these ancient epidemics.

What is clear is that there were scenes of horror – the streets filled with the bleeding bodies of the dying, and there were desperate attempts from the population to save themselves whatever the consequences for others. Here is another witness account from Dionysius in Alexandria ‘At the first onset of the disease, the 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…’

Yet in many of those cities of the Roman Empire there was a small body of believers, often shunned and despised as ‘atheists’ (because there were no idols in their homes and assembly places) or ‘Galileans’. How will they respond in this time of horror and distress? Will they too head for the countryside in order to save their own lives?

Dionysius’s account continues, ‘…Most of our Christian brothers and sisters showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of 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. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…

Following the example of Christ, the Christian believers provided compassionate nursing care for their pagan neighbours – bringing them into their houses, washing wounds, cleaning up the blood and diarrhoea, providing water, food and basic medicines, ‘ministering to them in Christ’, even though they knew that they were exposing themselves to extreme risk.

The ancient world had never seen anything like this. Rodney Stark, a social historian, has undertaken a detailed analysis concluding that the actions of the Christians at time of plague were one of the most important factors in the explosive growth of the Christian church in this period.

When I read these accounts, I feel unworthy to be called by the same title as a Christian carer. How little I have experienced the cost of Christ-like caring compared with my sisters and brothers of the third century.

But over the succeeding centuries, Christian carers have behaved in the same way during the tragic history of epidemics from the Cyprian plague in 250 right up to the Ebola epidemic in 2014 and into the present. Many of the nurses and doctors in Sierra Leone who sacrificed their lives to care for Ebola victims were Christian believers. They knew that the protective equipment was substandard and that despite their best efforts, they could not completely protect themselves. And yet they kept on caring, just like their ancient sisters and brothers who ministered to the sick in Christ.

And I have no doubt that over the next weeks and months, stories of heroic self-sacrifice will emerge. Of course, it is not only Christian believers in our modern world who practice sacrificial care for strangers. We must celebrate the caring actions of everybody, whatever their creed or motivation. And of course, as professional carers, we must be wise about taking protective measures, so that we can continue to care whenever possible, rather than becoming a victim. But we should not forget the noble history of Christianity in a time of plague, remembering the words of Jesus just as those early Christians did, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ Matthew 25:40.

John Wyatt is Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at UCL and Senior Researcher at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, University of Cambridge.

Further reading

Rodney Stark, The rise of Christianity, HarperCollins

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