Church and State in a Health Crisis, Part 1: Biblical and Historical Notes
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Biblical texts to read and reflect on first (ESV):
Titus 3:1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.
1 Peter 2:12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 13 Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
1 Timothy 2:1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth... 8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling
Romans 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God... 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 ... for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
Martin Luther practiced civil disobedience by illegally preaching, but saw black plague health restrictions differently. He wrote: ‘I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others… if everyone would help ward off contagion as best he can, then the death toll would indeed be moderate …if some are so foolish as to not take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die.”i
Charles Spurgeon on cholera epidemic in 1800s: ‘It seems to me that this disease is to a great extent in our own hands, and that if all men would take scrupulous care as to cleanliness … and if overcrowding were effectually prevented … and other sanitary improvements could be carried out, the disease, most probably, would … be in a very mitigated form. I am thankful that there are many men of intelligence and scientific information who can speak well upon this point, and I hope they will never cease to speak until all men learn that the laws of cleanliness and health are as binding upon us as those of morality. So far from a Christian man being angry with those who instruct the people in useful secular knowledge, he ought rather to be thankful for them, and hope that their teaching may be powerful with the masses. The gospel has no quarrel with ventilation … and much as we advocate holiness, we always have a good word for cleanliness and sobriety. We would promote with all our hearts that which may honour God, but we cannot neglect that which may bless our neighbours whom we desire to love even as ourselves...’ii
1918 Epidemic that Closed Churches For Weeks. (A 9Marks article traces the history of how churches abided by the government call to cancel all indoor gatherings, and in those weeks many applied for permits to meet outdoors, and when unsuccessful, appealed in other ways): “As [death] numbers began to decline, churches started to argue for a lifting of the ban. On October 25, an opinion piece on the Friday edition of The Star argued that churches should be transferred from the prohibited to the regulated class of gatherings, such as war workers in factories… The very next day, October 26, another article reports that “strong pleas” were made to Health Officer Fowler and the Surgeon General by the Protestant Pastors Federation of Washington, DC. This group, which had exactly three weeks earlier voted to abide by the city’s restrictions on church gatherings, now sought unsuccessfully to obtain permission to gather…
In a letter to the editor in that evening’s edition of The Evening Star, Rev. Randolph H. McKim, …protested the continued ban on church gatherings… Letters and appeals from pastors to the Commissioners to lift the ban continued for several more days as deaths and new cases continued to decline. One Baptist minister, Pastor J. Milton Waldron, published an editorial on October 29, writing on behalf of “the eleven hundred members of Shiloh Baptist Church.” In the article, Pastor Waldron expresses his members’ concern that … “the authorities are woefully lacking in reverence to God and wanting in a correct knowledge of the character and mission of the church when they place it in the same class with poolrooms, dance halls, moving picture places, and theaters… The Christian church is not a luxury, but a necessity to the life and perpetuity of any nation.”
Then, finally, on October 29 the Commissioners released an order to lift the ban … According to the DC health officer Dr. Fowler, conditions were such now that he felt assured by the fall in the death rate and the reduction in the number of new cases that “it was safe to open the churches this week [Thursday] and the opening of the theaters, schools, and other public gathering places Monday.” A few churches placed advertisements in the Wednesday, October 30 edition of The Star announcing the resumption of services. For instance, Calvary Baptist Church announced that it would be resuming its mid-week prayer meeting on Thursday, October 31 as well as regular services on Sunday, November 3.
On that first Sunday, the Reverend J. Francis Grimke preached a powerful sermon that was later published and distributed, “Some Reflections: Growing Out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza that Afflicted Our City.” In the sermon, Grimke acknowledges that there was “considerable grumbling” on the part of some regarding the closing of churches. However, he offered a defense of the ban on gatherings: “The fact that the churches were places of religious gathering, and the others not, would not affect in the least the health question involved. If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger, and expect God to protect us.”
In conclusion, the influenza of 1918 provides an example of how churches in Washington DC responded to a public health crisis and government orders to close churches. During one of the worst epidemics to ever hit our country, churches respected the directives of the government for a limited time out of neighborly love and in order to protect public health. Even when churches began to disagree with the Commissioners’ perspective, they continued to abide by their orders. This demonstrates a place for freedom of speech and advocacy while respecting and submitting [with appeal] to governing authorities.iii
i Martin Luther, “On Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 43, p. 119.
ii Charles Spurgeon, “The Voice of the Cholera,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 12, p. 445.