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Epidemic and Christian Charity in the Early Church

As humanity continues to struggle against another pandemic that threatens the entire world, many Christians have begun to express curiosity at how the Christians of the Early Church dealt with epidemics and crises such as this. We have compiled some resources relevant to that question in this article, providing some accounts of early Christian responses to epidemics and crises in order to allow us to develop a soundly Christian lens by which we might frame our understanding of, and responses to, today’s challenges and concerns.

There arose in the mid-third century an epidemic commonly referred to as the Plague of Cyprian. Eusebius the historian records the testimony of St. Dionysius of Alexandria regarding this event, and especially the Christian response to it, as follows:

“After these events a pestilential disease followed the war, and at the approach of the feast [St. Dionysius] wrote again to the brethren, describing the sufferings consequent upon this calamity:

‘To other men the present might not seem to be a suitable time for a festival. Nor indeed is this or any other time suitable for them; neither sorrowful times, nor even such as might be thought especially cheerful. Now, indeed, everything is tears and every one is mourning, and wailings resound daily through the city because of the multitude of the dead and dying. For as it was written of the firstborn of the Egyptians, so now 'there has arisen a great cry, for there is not a house where there is not one dead.' And would that this were all! For many terrible things have happened already. First, they drove us out; and when alone, and persecuted, and put to death by all, even then we kept the feast. And every place of affliction was to us a place of festival: field, desert, ship, inn, prison; but the perfected martyrs kept the most joyous festival of all, feasting in heaven. After these things war and famine followed, which we endured in common with the heathen. But we bore alone those things with which they afflicted us, and at the same time we experienced also the effects of what they inflicted upon and suffered from one another; and again, we rejoiced in the peace of Christ, which he gave to us alone. But after both we and they had enjoyed a very brief season of rest this pestilence assailed us; to them more dreadful than any dread, and more intolerable than any other calamity; and, as one of their own writers has said, the only thing which prevails over all hope. But to us this was not so, but no less than the other things was it an exercise and probation. For it did not keep aloof even from us, but the heathen it assailed more severely.’

Farther on he adds: ‘The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death. And the popular saying which always seems a mere expression of courtesy, they then made real in action, taking their departure as the others' 'offscouring.'

Truly the best of our brethren departed from life in this manner, including some presbyters and deacons and those of the people who had the highest reputation; so that this form of death, through the great piety and strong faith it exhibited, seemed to lack nothing of martyrdom. And they took the bodies of the saints in their open hands and in their bosoms, and closed their eyes and their mouths; and they bore them away on their shoulders and laid them out; and they clung to them and embraced them; and they prepared them suitably with washings and garments. And after a little they received like treatment themselves, for the survivors were continually following those who had gone before them. But with the heathen everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends. And they cast them out into the streets when they were half dead, and left the dead like refuse, unburied. They shunned any participation or fellowship with death; which yet, with all their precautions, it was not easy for them to escape...’” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, VII.22).

This same epidemic is described by Pontius the Deacon, providing his account of the response of St. Cyprian of Carthage to the crisis:

“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. In these circumstances, it would be a wrong to pass over what the pontiff of Christ (i.e. St. Cyprian) did, who excelled the pontiffs of the world as much in kindly affection as he did in truth of religion. On the people assembled together in one place he first of all urged the benefits of mercy, teaching by examples from divine lessons, how greatly the duties of benevolence avail to deserve well of God. Then afterwards he subjoined, that there was nothing wonderful in our cherishing our own people only with the needed attentions of love, but that he might become perfect who would do something more than the publican or the heathen, who, overcoming evil with good, and practising a clemency which was like the divine clemency, loved even his enemies, who would pray for the salvation of those that persecute him, as the Lord admonishes and exhorts. God continually makes His sun to rise, and from time to time gives showers to nourish the seed, exhibiting all these kindnesses not only to His people, but to aliens also. And if a man professes to be a son of God, why does not he imitate the example of his Father? ‘It becomes us,’ said he, ‘to answer to our birth; and it is not fitting that those who are evidently born of God should be degenerate, but rather that the propagation of a good Father should be proved in His offspring by the emulation of His goodness’” (Pontius, Life of Cyprian, 9).

It is clear that the Christians in the Early Church truly embodied the principles of their Faith, selflessly caring even for their enemies in times of widespread illness.

Julian the Apostate, in his Letter to Arsacius, High-Priest of Galatia, expresses his envy of the Christians for this manner of life and urges that the pagans imitate the Christian “atheists” for their benevolence and holiness of life:

“The Hellenic religion does not yet prosper as I desire, and it is the fault of those who profess it...why do we not observe that it is [the Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism? I believe that we ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues...For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”

Rodney Stark, in The Rise of Christianity, notes: “For all that [Julian] urged pagan priests to match these Christian practices, there was little or no response because there were no doctrinal bases or traditional practices for them to build upon” (Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 88).

This spirit of Christlike service embodied by the early Christians is clearly seen in the time of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite, two centuries after the Plague of Cyprian ravaged the ancient world. When the Nubians carried out raids on villages nearby, St. Shenouda opened his monastery’s doors to 20,000 people, feeding and sheltering them while providing physicians to care for their illnesses and wounds.

“In a short work by Shenoute, entitled Continuing to Glorify the Lord, found in an Appendix to Canon 7 he refers to this story himself relating how the Lord worked during this time to provide for the masses of people in need. Putting the two sources together, we learn how the federation fed multitudes of refugees (at times miraculously), buried 94 people, assisted with 52 new births, and provided seven physicians to care for the sick and wounded, entirely from out of the monastery’s own expenses which God had blessed for fulfilling these acts of charity in time of war” (Deacon Antonios the Shenoudian (A. Bibawy), St. Shenoute of Atripe and His Monastic Order, in John A. McGuckin, Orthodox Monasticism Past and Present, 241, 257-8).

St. Basil of Caesarea, possibly inspired by the philanthropic efforts of St. Shenouda as well as St. Pachomius (Ibid., 254), erected the Basileiad, considered the prototype for the modern hospital, between 369-72, providing health care at no cost to all who required it. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, delivering an oration on his friend St. Basil after his death, says:

“A noble thing is philanthropy, and the support of the poor, and the assistance of human weakness. Go forth a little way from the city, and behold the new city, the storehouse of piety, the common treasury of the wealthy, in which the superfluities of their wealth, aye, and even their necessaries, are stored, in consequence of his exhortations, freed from the power of the moth (Matt. 6:19), no longer gladdening the eyes of the thief, and escaping both the emulation of envy, and the corruption of time: where disease is regarded in a religious light, and disaster is thought a blessing, and sympathy is put to the test...My subject is the most wonderful of all, the short road to salvation, the easiest ascent to heaven. There is no longer before our eyes that terrible and piteous spectacle of men who are living corpses, the greater part of whose limbs have mortified, driven away from their cities and homes and public places and fountains, aye, and from their own dearest ones, recognizable by their names rather than by their features: they are no longer brought before us at our gatherings and meetings, in our common intercourse and union, no longer the objects of hatred, instead of pity on account of their disease; composers of piteous songs, if any of them have their voice still left to them. Why should I try to express in tragic style all our experiences, when no language can be adequate to their hard lot? He however it was, who took the lead in pressing upon those who were men, that they ought not to despise their fellowmen, nor to dishonour Christ, the one Head of all, by their inhuman treatment of them; but to use the misfortunes of others as an opportunity of firmly establishing their own lot, and to lend to God that mercy of which they stand in need at His hands. He did not therefore disdain to honour with his lips this disease, noble and of noble ancestry and brilliant reputation though he was, but saluted them as brethren, not, as some might suppose, from vainglory, (for who was so far removed from this feeling?) but taking the lead in approaching to tend them, as a consequence of his philosophy, and so giving not only a speaking, but also a silent, instruction. The effect produced is to be seen not only in the city, but in the country and beyond, and even the leaders of society have vied with one another in their philanthropy and magnanimity towards them. Others have had their cooks, and splendid tables, and the devices and dainties of confectioners, and exquisite carriages, and soft, flowing robes; Basil's care was for the sick, and the relief of their wounds, and the imitation of Christ, by cleansing leprosy, not by a word, but in deed” (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Homily 43.63).

In these uncertain days, may we live by the example of our fathers in returning to God the True Physician, remembering that “if we consider ourselves humans, we can not neglect our own kind, for with our heartlessness and wickedness, we offend Christ Himself, who is the head of all” (Ibid.). Let us seek the healing of our souls before that of our bodies, while actively contributing however we can to the societal struggle against the disease that threatens us today.


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