The following is the full text and accompanying resources from EI historian Dr. Stephen Lloyd’s #TheologyTownHall on May 20. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led by different members of the EI community.]
Healing has a central place in our Christian faith. The pages of the Bible are filled with healing. God heals, prophets heal, Jesus heals, and Jesus’ followers heal. Healing is a form of divine service, as Jesus tells his followers that when they care for the sick, they are indeed caring for him. Christians look forward to God’s coming kingdom in which all will be healed. God’s mission in the world is inconceivable without healing and caring concern.
We are now faced with a major pandemic, in which healing and care is absolutely vital. Yet as a Church, we find ourselves in uncharted territory. Most of us have never face “stay-at-home” orders or “safer-at-home” recommendations before. We struggle to think about mission in the context of social and physical distancing. Jesus said, “Go,” but now we are being told to “stay.”
Looking back at the history of healing and Christian mission might give us some insight into how we can move forward. Certainly, the way Christians care for people has changed, but two things have been constant:
- Christians, when at their best, have met sickness with prayerful concern; and
- Christians have used the best contemporary medical knowledge available to promote physical healing.
Prayerful healing has marked Christian history from the very beginning. Before Christianity enjoyed legal status in the Roman Empire (i.e., before 313 CE), Christian mission was largely successful because of Christian healing efforts. When there were epidemics, pagan doctors, like Galenus, often fled to avoid illness. Christians, however, cared for the sick, and their pagan neighbors took note of this tendency.
Lucian was evidently impressed; he said, “It is marvelous how these men rush to one another in misfortune.” But not all pagan observers were so positive. Julian the Apostate was perturbed that Christian communities provided care not just for their own, but people who were not members. He rightly worried that by caring for non-members, Christian numbers would increase.
Statistician-turned-historian Rodney Stark argued that even without modern medicine, simply caring for somebody (feeding, hydrating, keeping cool/warm/comfortable) increased his or her chance of survival. Those cared for by the Christians, argued Stark, would have survived at a higher rate.[i] This certainly gave a miraculous mystique to the early Christians, yet it would have also made them a very attractive community. The healed person would find a natural fellowship with a healing community, and, perhaps, even want to pay that forward.
Medical historian Gary Ferngren has argued that these early Christians were not simply relying on miracles for healing. Instead, they engaged in a variety of techniques, which included contemporary expert medical advice, folk medicine (remember Paul’s advice to Timothy that he “take a little wine for the stomach”), prayers, and the use of sacred objects. When it came to the healing mission of the church, Christians would try what might work from a variety of sources, both Christian and non-Christian.[ii]
Care for the poor, sick, and otherwise vulnerable became part of the institutional landscape of the Christianized Roman Empire beginning in the fourth and fifth centuries. While arguing that trust in medicine should not supplant trust in God, early Church fathers actively promoted the formation of hospitals (for the sick and poor) and monastic infirmaries. Gregory of Nazianzus famously sought to reduce the stigma against diseases such as leprosy. The ill were not outcasts being singled out by God, but victims of misfortune who required both spiritual and physical healing.[iii]
Institutionalized Christian care continued into the early Middle Ages. Christianity spread throughout much of northern Europe through the establishment of monastic communities. These communities frequently established hospitals and infirmaries that tended to the sick and the poor and served as places of refuge for travelers.
Monastic hospitals were run by highly educated monks who relied on a variety of techniques and medicines that were thought to be effective at the time. We now know that promoting cleanliness was probably good, herbal remedies may have had some efficacy, and bloodletting was probably a mistake.[iv] Nevertheless, much like their earlier counterparts, these monastic medics understood illness to have both physical and spiritual components. They used medicine within a religious context.
But when we think medieval, we don’t think medicine. We think dirt, grime, cloudy skies, and plague. During the massive Bubonic Plague outbreak, commonly called the Black Death, 75 to 200 million people died worldwide. Between 1331 and 1353, Europe lost a third of its population. Some major towns lost half of their population in just six years. It was an unsettling pandemic that turned Europe on its head.
Both religious and medical authorities were completely unable to respond to the situation. Half of Europe’s priests died, probably becoming contaminated while administering last rites. People desperately grasped at anything: they asked for the intercession of saints, they engaged in group self-flagellation (later banned by the church), used pagan spells, and some even tried to summon fairies. Charlatans pushed fake cures. Some people went into hiding, others engaged in a myriad of licentious behavior with whatever time they had left.
Christian mobs scapegoated Jewish communities throughout Europe, leading to lethal anti-Jewish pogroms.[v] In many ways, the Black Death demonstrated just how unmooring pandemics can be. I also think its important to recognize that the history of Christianity and healing is not unambiguously positive: poorly considered Christian responses made the situation worse.
To be sure, there were some milder and more pragmatic responses to plagues. In 1527,