EBOLA: What we can learn from epidemics in Church history (part 1)

Most people remember learning something about “the plagues” during World history back in their school days.  Huge portions of the human population often died as a result of these plagues.

The Plague of Cyprian

In the 3rd-Century there was a plague of monstrous proportion. Most experts believe it was a small-pox epidemic. The fifteen year epidemic apparently broke out around 251 AD.  At the height of the plague, 5,000 people were dying each day in the city of Rome alone. Apparently, two-thirds of the population of Alexandria perished in the epidemic.

Several years after the plague, Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria, gave a lengthy tribute to the heroic nursing efforts of local Christians, many of whom lost their lives while caring for others during the plague:

Most of our brother Christians 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 neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.” [p. 82, The Rise of Christianity, by Rodney Stark]

It might not be apparent to the modern reader why the Christians who served the sick and died during the plague would be compared to the martyrs by Bishop Dionysius.  As the epidemic spread there was terrible fear gripping the hearts of people.  The doctors were unable to cure the disease.  Prayers at the temples and to the gods seemed to render no effect either.  People were so afraid of catching the disease that many were fleeing the cities and trying to hide away.  People were shunning their own family members who contracted the disease, abandoning them at their time of need.

But it was not so among the devout Christians of the day.

Even secular historians of the day reported how the Christians tended to the sick of even their pagan neighbors.What they did changed the course of history. I will share more of their story next time!

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