During the Black Death plague in the 1600s, London officials encouraged religious devotion by days of prayer and fasting and humiliation. Government leaders asked the people to make public confession of sin and to implore the mercy of God to avert the dreadful judgment which hung over their heads. Can you imagine the mayor of a major city taking such a position today? No? Well, you can imagine him leading a gay rights parade, can’t you?
Citizens of many persuasions embraced the occasion by rushing to the churches until one could not get near the church doors. The people were saying, “There’s a time to play and a time to pray, and this is the time to pray.” While many Christians got serious about godly living and became cautious in daily activities, Muslims were relatively unconcerned. Their rigid predestination (some would call fatalism) led them to not take any unusual health precautions, so they put themselves in danger by exposing themselves to plague carriers.
Just this month, the media reported Muslims in Iran licking their shrines showing no fear of the coronavirus.
When fearful, fanatical, and faithful citizens arrived at church, the parish minister was often absent. He had, well, felt “called” to the safe countryside where the prosperous and powerful had fled. The preacher in the pulpit was often a Dissenter (Independent Bible preacher) who had been outlawed a few years earlier! To be sure, some of the establishment preachers (Church of England) stayed on the job and died of the plague, but many fled to safety. The people flocked to packed churches to hear the preachers preach the Word of God to a confused, concerned, and convicted congregation. Many people professed faith in Christ, and great crowds attended church; but, when the plague took control, the churches emptied because it was not safe to be near any person who might be infected.
Daniel Defoe, author of A Journal of the Plague Year
, wrote that many consciences were awakened:
“Many hard hearts melted into tears; many a penitent confession was made of crimes long concealed…Many a robbery, many a murder, was then confessed aloud, and nobody surviving [in the home] to record the accounts of it. People might be heard, even into the streets as we passed along, calling upon God for mercy, through Jesus Christ, and saying, ‘I have been a thief,’ ‘I have been an adulterer,’ ‘I have been a murderer,’ and the like, and none durst stop to make the least inquiry into such things or to administer comfort to the poor creatures...Some of the ministers did visit the sick at first and for a little while, but it was not to be done. It would have been present death to have gone into some houses.”
The constant atmosphere of death and constant terror drove men to look honestly at their lives and at their religious experience. This resulted in thousands becoming more sincere and placing more emphasis on their personal relationship with Christ. It also led them away from the established churches in various countries.
Printing had been invented in 1440, and people were now reading the Bible and doing their own thinking for the first time in over a thousand years. They realized that church membership and church attendance did not produce personal satisfaction or personal salvation, contrary to what they had been taught. Following personal conversion, those new converts (but old church members) lived and died as Christians.
Christians believed they had a responsibility to help others as a Christian duty, so during times of famine they shared their food; in times of sorrow they wept with the bereaved; and, in times of pestilence, they nursed the sick and dying. The non-Christians and the pagans took notice of such kindness, and at a time when other institutions were discredited and often dissolved, the Christian churches were more desirable. William McNeill wrote, “Pagans fled from the sick and heartlessly abandoned them." Christians stayed and served - and died.
After so much despair and death, a dullness set in. It seemed that people lost their fear of death and had really resigned themselves to death. Defoe wrote: "Towards the latter end men's hearts were hardened, and death was so always before their eyes, that they did not so much concern themselves for the loss of their friends, expecting that themselves should be summoned the next hour."
They no longer asked people on the street (with whom they had to do business) how they were nor did they feel a need to inform others that they were not infected. The general attitude was: all were going to die. So now, they went back to church and sat in hot, crowded pews without fear of the next person. It didn't matter. They were all among the walking dead.
Defoe, an outspoken Christian, made a cogent comment in this regard:
"Indeed, the zeal which they showed in coming [to church], and the earnestness and affection they showed in their attention to what they heard, made it manifest what a value people would all put upon the worship of God if they thought every day they attended at the church that it would be their last."
When the plague ravaged a city, it was natural for people to think God was visiting them for their sins. We have not seen that reaction to the coronavirus.