St Andrews University Medieval history lecturer delves into of religion and pandemics

Dr Rory Cox, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of St Andrews, delves into the history of religion and pandemics.
With over 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and a reported death toll fast approaching 5,000, more than half the US population has now been ordered to observe social distancing measures. Following federal guidelines, the majority of US states have banned large group gatherings in an attempt to slow down the increasing rate of infection and the spread of the coronavirus.

Despite these measures, and in the face of highly publicised global death rates, there are reports of numerous churches across the USA continuing to hold services for their congregations. A pastor in Tampa, Florida, was recently arrested for a “reckless disregard for human life”, while a 1,200-person service was held in a megachurch in Central, Louisiana. It’s estimated that almost 20 per cent of services are still being held across the country, and some states like Ohio and New York have excluded religious services from their ban on large-scale gatherings.

Defending their actions, conservative Christians argue that the Constitution enshrines a fundamental right to the freedom of worship. While this may be considered a legal defense of such actions, it is not the reason for them.

The underlying belief motivating the continuation of church services in violation of public health measures is that the solution to the coronavirus pandemic is not to be found in social distancing, or even medical science, but in faith.

In holding this belief and opposing civic public health officials, conservative Christian congregations across the US are continuing a trend that can be traced back to the European Middle Ages.

The bubonic plague – more popularly known as the Black Death – first arrived in Europe in 1347-1348, having already ravaged its way across Asia and the Middle East. Its effects were catastrophic.

In some regions up to 50 per cent of the population died; elsewhere, death rates of around 30 per cent were probably the norm.

The increasing urbanization of the period, poor sanitary conditions, and rudimental medical knowledge provided the perfect breeding ground for the virus. To make matters worse, bouts of plague (perhaps not all bubonic) continued to ravage Europe in recurring cycles for the next 300 years.

At a time of such massive social upheaval, medieval Christians unsurprisingly looked to their faith for solutions. Many believed that the plague was a punishment from God, or that it heralded the Apocalypse. Faced with the complete failure of medical knowledge, people sought a cure through religious devotion and reform. Perhaps the most extreme and famous example was the Flagellants, who, through their very public acts of self-harming penance, sought to avert God’s wrath.

Dr Rory Cox Image supplied

Yet, by the fifteenth century, civic authorities were beginning to take a more methodical approach to public health, experimenting with quarantine procedures and isolation hospitals. An increasing awareness of the risks of contagion sparked attempts to enforce social distancing. Civic authorities in Italian city-states such as Florence and Venice – who had for a long time employed public health officials – banned all public assemblies during outbreaks of plague.

These attempts by the state to limit public interactions opposed the wishes of religious authorities, whose reaction to epidemics was to encourage mass public displays of worship and penance. In 1497, a Venetian preacher criticised the closing of churches by the authorities, claiming: “Gentleman, you are closing the churches for fear of the plague, and you are wise to do so. But if God wishes, it will not suffice to close the churches. It will need a remedy for the causes of the plague, which are the horrendous sins committed.”

A similar logic motivates conservative Christian reactions to the COVID-19 crisis today. Writing a few days ago in First Things, a leading Christian magazine, R. R. Reno defends the opening of churches because “When we worship, we join the Christian rebellion against the false lordship of the principalities and powers that claim to rule our lives, including sickness and death… In a time of pandemic – a time when Satan whips up in us all fears of isolation, abandonment, and death –  churches must not join the stampede of fear”.

In times of crisis, different people turn to different sources of comfort. It is natural that Christians should find comfort in their faith. But the importance of social distancing in the face of epidemic has been understood for more than 600 years. The truth, after all, is that the fifteenth-century Venetian authorities were right and the preacher was wrong. Restricting public gatherings was the only effective method at their disposal to limit the contagion and reduce the death toll. That this lesson is being ignored in 2020 is not only exasperating, it is dangerous.