Lessons from Church history and past plagues

28 January 2021

Tim Dieppe looks back over church history to see what lessons we can learn about responding to crises and pandemics.

It is always worth looking back at church history to learn how the church has responded to crises in the past. Last year I wrote about some Lessons from Spurgeon on Coronavirus. Spurgeon ministered during a cholera epidemic which had a mortality rate of 12.8% in some parts of London – well in excess of what we are seeing today from Coronavirus.

David Robinson has written an excellent article about Healthcare in the Early Church, which looks at how Christians responded to the Plague of Cyprian. While most with means fled the affected areas, Cyprian encouraged Christians to stay and care for others. They did so at great personal risk and won respect and converts as a result.

It is also worth looking at the Puritans and the Plague.

The witness of the Church in The Great Plague

The Great Plague of London in 1665-1666 killed over 100,000 people. That was around a quarter of the entire population of London at the time, and around a third of people in the worst hit areas.[1] Everyone personally knew people who had died. Few families were unaffected. Few streets were unaffected. Death was all around. Coronavirus is nothing in comparison. 100,000 deaths in the UK today is less than 0.2% of the population. Every single one is a tragedy, but the scale of death today pales in comparison to the plague.

Walter Bell, in his classic book The Great Plague, writes pointedly about the role churches played in a this extremely deadly pandemic:

In the despair occasioned, when no man’s life was safe for a day and always the outlook grew darker, the people turned eagerly to the consolations of religion. They gave the last, the only hope. Locked doors and desolate altars of City churches were deplorable witness of forsaken duty; but others were open, and the people remaining at liberty crowded into them for worship. The problem confronting the churches was of perplexing difficulty. Every congregation was a peril, threatening to scatter yet wider and to increase the Plague, yet to debar worship at such a time was impossible.”[2]

Note the powerful witness of risking life to open the churches for worship. The message proclaimed by such an action was that worship is worth the risk. Later Bell comments, “No open church was short of worshippers.”[3]

It was the nonconformists who were the real heroes here:

“Nonconforming ministers ejected from their livings took courage openly to resume their ministries. They resolved in their consciences that no obedience to laws of man could justify them in neglecting men’s souls and bodies in such extremity. They went into the forsaken pulpits to preach to the people who thronged about them, they visited the sick, they entered, taking relief, the shut-up houses which few others dared to enter.”[4]

This powerful witness had consequences which last to the present day:

“The Great Plague had one effect made permanent in our history, of momentous significance. We must not overlook it, for it has vastly influenced English life and thought. The Great Plague established English nonconformity. … Freedom openly to preach the Gospel that these men wrested and won, when non dared supress them, took such deep lodgement in the public conscience that thereafter neither by guards of soldiers nor the imprisonment of congregations could it be restrained.”[5]

Note the bravery of these ministers. Note their conviction. Note the respect that they won and the legacy which we still benefit from to this day.

Where are such brave ministers of the gospel to be found today? Those nonconformist ministers would have railed in the most damning way against any who claimed it was more loving not to hold church meetings or not to visit the sick and lonely. No matter what the law of the land, they would not be stopped from ministering to their neighbours.

Christian ministry is worth the risk

The witness of church history is that true Christians have always bravely ministered to the sick and dying in times of plague. Though the risks were real, they felt obligated to share the love of Christ in very practical ways, including with prayer and preaching. Churches have usually grown in influence during times of plague as a result of their brave and sacrificial witness.

The apostles risked everything for the gospel. It would have been much easier to stay at home. Missionaries throughout church history have taken great risks to spread the gospel. Many gave their lives, succumbing to unfamiliar diseases in foreign climates. Those Christians who have not feared for their lives but have continued to minister to the sick and the lonely in times of plague have gone down as the heroes of church history. The same will be true of this generation.

A pandemic of fear

Coronavirus has created a pandemic of fear, which is stoked up by the news and government messaging every day. The government recently had to discontinue advertising which claimed that joggers and dog walkers were “highly likely to have Covid.” This claim was reported to the Advertising Standards Authority since it is much more likely that any jogger or runner does not have Covid. The purpose of the advert was clearly scaremongering.

The three academic authors of the recently published book, The Price of Panic write:

“Our fear of the coronavirus did what no real war, depression, terror attach, or disease had ever done before. It not only emptied hotels and airplanes. It shuttered professional football and basketball and the Summer Olympics. It closed schools, businesses and churches. It kept healthy people with near-zero risk of death huddled in their homes for months.”[6]

It is fear that has done this. Not the virus itself. But how many times does the Bible command us not to fear? We need to remember that “God did not give us a Sprit of fear” (2 Tim 1:7). Whatever fear we may have is not from God. Christians should never be motivated by fear. Christians are instructed to be bold and courageous. In fact, ‘cowards’ are listed amongst those who are excluded from the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:8.

It is impossible to be courageous if there is no risk. Only when the risks are real can we really be courageous. Therefore, the risk of catching or passing on the virus is an opportunity to demonstrate courage. That is not to say that we should not take reasonable precautions. But faithful Christian ministry will never be hindered by fear. In any decision of what to do or not to do, fear should not be the deciding factor. We need to ask what is the courageous, faith-filled, loving thing to do?

What will future historians say of us?

As we look back at Christian responses to plagues in the past, we should be inspired by their courage and conviction. The risks to us from Coronavirus pale in comparison with what previous generations of Christians have faced. How will our generation of Christians go down in church history?


[1] Walter George Bell, The Great Plague in London (London: Folio Society, 2001), xi.

[2] Ibid., 126.

[3] Ibid., 127.

[4] Ibid., 128.

[5] Ibid., 130.

[6] Douglas Axe, William M. Briggs, and Jay W. Richards, The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic into a Catastrophe (Regnery Publishing, 2020), xvii.

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