Mar 28, 2020

We Must Move Forward

Approaching coronavirus as God has gifted us

[Fumigating for plague c. 1862—New York Public Library Digital Collection]

by Dan Graves

This year, for the first time, I was planning to attend the Evangelical Press Association's annual Conference. Not only was I looking forward to meeting other writers and engaging with the publishing pros, but the trip was going to serve double-duty. My wife has never been to Colorado—and I haven't been there since I rode through as a child—so it would be a real treat to visit that beautiful state. 

And then coronavirus became the monster in the news. 

We waited as long as we could to decide, but in the end the decision was made for us. Needless to say, we were  disappointed to lose this opportunity. But on reflection, our loss dwarfs into insignificance compared to the losses some are now enduring and reminds me of how Christians of the past have experienced and responded to plagues. 

When Julian of Norwich was about eight years old in the fourteenth century, plague carried off almost everyone of importance in her immediate circle. The experience made her spiritually attuned and unusually conscious of death. She prayed to experience as close a brush with death as one can have and still survive. Perhaps her famous visions would never have happened without that childhood experience and her resulting prayer.

The results of her experience were unique, but the experience of death all around was not. During the Middle Ages, about one third of all Europeans died of the black plague. Suffering loss and terrified, flagellants gathered for large processions, carrying crosses and whipping themselves as public acts of penance. The church frowned on these acts, but desperate people saw the hand of God in their troubles and ignored religious authorities to seek relief.

Sometimes the plague reset the world order. The Hussites of Bohemia lost their greatest general when Jan Zizka died of bubonic plague. After many victories against great armies, his name had become sufficient to strike terror in his enemies. That terror was never again evident and in time the Hussites lost all that they had gained.

In other cases, societal upset had a domino effect. When an epidemic came to Wittenberg, Germany in 1552 the university moved temporarily to Torgau. Because feeding and housing students was her livelihood, Martin Luther’s impoverished widow, Katharina, decided to follow them. Near the gates of Torgau, her horses bolted, forcing her to leap into a lake. Severely injured, Katie never recovered, and died later that year. 

An epidemic brought embarrassment to the Reformed clergy of Geneva. After one of their number died from contagion acquired while visiting the sick, the rest (including John Calvin) refused to attend the dying. Calvin said it was not right to weaken the whole church for a part of it and the other clergy declared God had not given them the courage to undertake the task. Sebastian Castiello alone was willing to make the visits, and city authorities prepared to enroll him among the clergy. But Calvin barred the appointment on two doctrinal grounds and Castiello left Geneva, sometimes having to beg for provisions. 

Plague has not brought only suffering but hope as well. John Harvard inherited wealth when relatives died during an epidemic. He moved to New England where he soon succumbed to tuberculosis, but not before willing half his estate and all of his books to support a recently established college in New Towne [i.e. Cambridge], Massachusetts. In honor of its benefactor, the school changed its name to Harvard College—today’s Harvard University.

No one yet knows what the lasting impact  the current pandemic will leave or how history will record our response. Whatever the personal, national, or international shakeout, the lesson of church history is that those who remain must move forward. How should we do so? As God has gifted each of us. For some it will be in mysticism. For others in grief. Still others may find duty requires them to brave danger. Others may find themselves with inheritances they can use for God's work. For now, secure in our sovereign God, we can all fall to our knees in prayer, asking that no matter how this pestilence develops, the world might experience a renewal of repentance and faith.

Tags epidemics • plagues

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