Dr. Donald M. Fairbairn, Jr.
Academic Dean, Charlotte Campus Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity
Today, the words “endemic” and “pandemic” have become all too common a part of our vocabulary—striking fear into our hearts and creating social panic on a scale most of us have never seen before. We all know that a pandemic is a disease whose outbreak affects the entire world, and by now most of us have heard that “endemic” means a disease is regularly found in a given area of the world. In these uncertain and frightening times, perhaps it is instructive to remember one of history’s worst pandemics, and to learn about the endemic situations that produced it and accompanied it.
Most western Christians have heard of “the plague” (or what has often been called “the Black Death”). We may have heard the horror stories of the way it ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century. But the plague’s effects were not felt only in Europe by any means, and in fact, it didn’t start in Europe. The bacterium that caused the Bubonic Plague was and still is endemic to the steppes of northwestern China and Central Asia, where it has thrived for centuries with rats as its hosts.
The plague broke out in Central Asia in 1331, carried to human beings by the bites of fleas that had lived in the infected rats’ fur. It traveled the Silk Road eastward and brought down the mighty Mongol Empire. No one knows how many millions it killed in China, but reliable estimates place China’s population in 1200 at more than 120 million, but in 1400 at only 65 million. Surely the plague accounted for much of that stunning reduction. Moving westward, the Bubonic Plague wiped out entire tribes that lived and traded along the Silk Road, and its devastation was profound across the 4000-mile-stretch of the world’s greatest trade route. Muslim pilgrims to Mecca brought the plague with them and carried it back to their homelands. India, the Middle East, and North Africa were decimated.
The plague reached the Crimean Peninsula by 1346. Terrified Crimean merchants fled the region, crossing the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. They brought the fleas—and the plague—with them to Italy. In Europe the plague mutated into a new form—Pneumonic Plague—that could be transferred from person-to-person when someone who had been bitten by fleas (and thus had the Bubonic Plague) coughed in the vicinity of someone else. This form was vastly more contagious and brought death within three days. The plague almost instantly crossed the Alps and raced across Europe from 1347 to 1350. It killed as much as 40% of Europe’s population—perhaps 40 million people—in less than three years.
By 1350 virtually the entire Eastern hemisphere north of the equator lay in tatters. But while the pandemic was over, the plague was not finished. It became endemic in many areas, and new outbreaks occurred every 20-30 years for more than three centuries. Indeed, new cases are occasionally still recorded today, usually in Central Asia where it all began.
For us as Christians, what is most instructive is the way Christians at the time responded to the plague in their midst. Sadly, the most common reaction to any large-scale misfortune at the time was to blame it on religious minorities. In Europe, Jews and Muslims became the scapegoats, leading to a vast upsurge of anti-Semitism and (eventually) to the efforts to expel the Muslims from Spain. In fairness, we should also note that in the Middle East, the Muslim majority blamed the plague on Christians, and the plague may have done more to worsen Muslim-Christian relations than the Crusades had done earlier.
But there were nobler Christian responses. Pope Clement VI urged Christians to treat Jews respectfully and even opened the gates of Avignon (in France, where the papacy was housed for much of the 14th century) to welcome Jewish refugees. King Pedro of Spain ordered swift punishment upon all those within his realm who exploited the situation to persecute Jews and Muslims. And many, many Christians whose names we will never know ministered to the sick, buried the dead, and often died themselves as they carried out their service.
The pandemic we face today is nothing like the plague. For starters, its lethality is mild in comparison. Second, we know what it is and how it spreads; we are not acting in ignorance. Third, we have medical technology and treatments such as the world has never known before.
But there is one basic similarity. We too are faced with a choice of how to respond. Will we react in panic, seeing other people only as potential carriers of a dangerous disease? Or will we seek to love and to serve (even in ways that involve social distancing!), as befits believers who should have no fear of anything and who are called to serve others?
During one of the last great outbreaks of the plague, in 1636, there was a Lutheran pastor named Martin Rinkart in the small German town of Ellenburg. The outburst was swift, and as Christians ministered to the sick, Rinkart was soon the only pastor left alive. That year he conducted 4000 funerals, including that of his wife. Yet in the midst of that suffering, Rinkart wrote one of Germany’s greatest hymns, also well known in English translation. It is fitting, I think, for us to savor the words of that hymn in light of its grim context:
Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done,
in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms
has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace,
and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills,
in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns
with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God,
whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn, Jr. is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His research interests focus on the relation between the doctrines of the Trinity, Christ, salvation and Christian life in the early church, especially in the 4th through 6th centuries. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.