A Helpful Overview of Churches During Pandemics

Dear brothers and sisters,

I wanted to commend the following article on the history of churches facing past epidemics. It is by Robert “Budd" Kneip, senior warden of our cathedral, a dedicated disciple of the Lord Jesus whom I know well and deeply respect. He was both a major corporate and government leader prior to his retirement. 

Budd did extensive research for this article, including among books on Roman history, Vatican documents and many 19th century American newspapers. I share it with his permission.

Three main points caught my attention:

  1. Churches have been through many epidemics, and it was not unusual for them to close down (and later reopen) as a result. This may be new to us, but it has been a reality throughout history. 
  2. The focus of many churches was to find ways to best serve their communities creatively during such difficult seasons. The community service in Memphis he mentions is a good example.
  3. Even though we no may longer be consulted by civil authorities the way we were in the past, we still must operate on the higher principle of loving our neighbors sacrificially, a goal is not limited by our governments.

I found the article very helpful in understanding the times we are in. Feel free to share it with your congregations, but first of all I wanted you to be encouraged by it. 

May the Lord sustain you as you serve him during this pandemic crisis.

In Jesus the Messiah,


The Rt. Rev. Neil G. Lebhar


Robert (Budd) Kneip, Ph.D.
Senior Warden, St. Peter's Anglican Cathedral, Tallahassee

As churches around the world continue to struggle with worship and the loss of community, we can take some comfort from the fact that this is not the first time Christianity has had to deal with epidemics, plagues or pandemics.  From the days of the early church, Christians have had to balance the competing demands of responding to the suffering around them while honoring the obligations of citizenship.  While by no means an exhaustive analysis, some examples of how Christians have managed to handle this tension over time may provide some helpful perspective for people of faith today. 
The first documented pandemic occurred in the middle of the 6th century, and continued to recur through the middle of the 8th.  Known as the plague of Justinian, who had the misfortune of being Emperor at the time, the disease made its first recorded appearance in Constantinople around 541 AD.  Epidemiologists and medical historians estimate as many as 100 million lives may have been lost by the time the plague burned itself out, and these same sources suggest that roughly half of the Byzantine Empire died as a result.  Most of those who managed to survive did so by literally taking to the hills. 
Although Christianity had been declared the official religion of the Empire by this time, it was not the robust, institutional organization it was to become by the Middle Ages.  While imperial authority was meaningful, at the regional and community level of an Empire in the early stages of collapse, the Church exercised little secular leverage, and its influence outside of imperial circles was limited at best.  Nevertheless, small cells and house churches remained visible and active throughout the plague, ministering selflessly to the sick and the suffering.  The attitude displayed by Christians towards their neighbors, regardless of religion or station, lent credence to the tenets of this still emerging faith.  In fact, it has been argued that this early plague provided Christianity its first real opportunity to demonstrate that the messages of agape love and a God of mercy were real, animating forces behind the narrative of a resurrected Jesus Christ.
The Middle Ages were replete with plagues, the most notorious being the black death.  By this time the influence of the church had expanded significantly, and the nature of the relationship with secular authorities had changed dramatically.  This was particularly evident during times of great fear and uncertainty, as was the case during recurring incidents of the plague. 
Milan suffered greatly during the plague of 1576.  In response, the civil authorities imposed a moratorium on pilgrimages, mandating social distancing (3 meters or 9 feet, 10 inches), documentation certifying that travelers into the area were symptom free, and limitations on the numbers of individuals who were allowed to enter the city in one group (12).  The Archbishop of the Diocese, Cardinal Borromeo, continued to urge priests to tend to the sick, but supported the civil authorities in their efforts to contain the plague.  In fact, he proposed a city wide quarantine, quickly implemented by the governing Milan Court of Providence, which required all citizens to lock themselves in their homes for 40 days and included the suspension of worship.  Interestingly, the Cardinal carried a vinegar soaked sponge with him at all times as a hand and surface sanitizer, maintained a safe distance from those with whom he was interacting, changed and boiled his clothes frequently, and carried alms in a jar of vinegar to sterilize them.  Unable to livestream services, the Cardinal ordered there be crosses and altars constructed at every crossroad so that people could participate in worship from their windows and balconies.
During the plague of 1656, an estimated 1 million people died on the Italian peninsula alone, roughly 20 – 25% of the region’s population.  Pope Alexander VII led the efforts to identify the afflicted, isolate them from the general population and quarantine those who were suspected of coming in contact with someone who had been infected.  Again, public worship was suspended, processions and public sermons were temporarily banned, and the clergy was only permitted to offer private devotions.  The Pope created a “Congregation of Health” to oversee these efforts across the peninsula.  The Church of St. Mary in Portico housed the Blessed Virgin of Portico, the protector from plagues.  Despite very clear directions to the contrary, a number of the faithful refused to abide by the edicts, and gathered en masse to pray for relief.  According to Vatican sources, the Pope’s own Congregation of Health ordered the Church closed, citing the risk of spreading the disease further. 
The expanding role of the Church during pandemics, into what had exclusively been areas of civic responsibility, did not derive so much from increased political authority as much as a broader understanding of what it meant to be a Christian in a diverse community.  This is by no means an attempt to view the expanding power of the church through a purely beneficent lens.  Power and privilege were clearly on the agenda, but by the Middle Ages the Church had come to understand that its expanded role in the larger community encompassed more than simple acts of charity.  Christian leadership demanded responsibility for cultural and social behaviors as well.  A powerful faith did not simply respond to secular authorities, it helped guide them.
The New World was not spared pandemics, epidemics or plagues of all sorts, although they began to appear only after explorers reached the Western Hemisphere.  Dengue fever, cholera, smallpox, all gifts from the Old World, ravaged populations in the Americas from the 16th century onward.  The most vicious by far seems to have been yellow fever, both for the suffering and horrors of the disease and its virulent recurrence.  Yellow fever was introduced to the Americas in the 16th century, largely through increased contact with the Levant and Africa, and proved especially lethal up through the early 20thcentury.  During the summer of 1793, Philadelphia lost 10% of its population to yellow fever.  At the time it was the capital of the United States, and President Washington, the Cabinet and other officials ultimately decided to leave the city.  Businesses and churches closed down, and people left their homes only for essential services.  This pattern repeated itself throughout the 19th century, in cities across the US.  While New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore experienced devastating outbreaks of yellow fever, the south and port cities were hardest hit, in large part due to their milder weather and the constant influx of port traffic which could not easily be isolated or quarantined.  Charleston, Savannah, Norfolk, Memphis, and the coasts of Texas and Florida experienced repeated bouts of yellow fever during the 19th century.  New Orleans, the second most active port of disembarkation in the US behind New York City, suffered the most during these episodes. 
Administrations from John Adams to Theodore Roosevelt sought to acquire federal quarantine powers, including the power to order churches closed.  In the litigious atmosphere of the United States, there were frequent legal challenges to this expansion of federal power, even making it to the Supreme Court on at least two occasions.  The net result is that management of public health issues remains largely within the purview of the states. 
From the standpoint of religious institutions, given the lack of uniform public health guidelines, both churches and local authorities reacted to yellow fever in different ways during the 19th century.  As a rule, churches abided by quarantine and isolation restrictions put in place by civil authorities but were free to interpret and implement guidance according to their own dictates.  As an example, St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans restricted worship services, including a prohibition on holding funerals.  The Diocese directed the building of a separate mortuary chapel in 1826, situated conveniently next to the St. Louis Cemetery #1 on Rampart Street.  Our Lady of Guadalupe remains an active parish to this day.  Memphis experienced six yellow fever epidemics during the 1800s, with the most devastating occurring in 1878.  With businesses closed and the population largely evacuated, churches across the city repurposed their staffs and facilities to care for those left behind, especially children orphaned by the disease.  While clergy of all denominations succumbed to the disease, the sacrifices of the priests and nuns from St. Mary’s Episcopal church, many of whom travelled to Memphis fully cognizant of the risks, stand out.  A stained glass window and altar in the Cathedral commemorate their heroism, and The Martyrs of Memphis is a Lessor Feast day in the Episcopal church, celebrated on September 9.  As the 19th century progressed, and experience with the disease increased, health boards and quarantine programs became more widespread and more broadly accepted at all levels of society, in large measure because men and women of faith were active participants in civic decision making.  By the 20th century, they were the default response to public health issues.
The 20th century began with a World War and an influenza pandemic of epic proportions.  One hundred years of yellow fever outbreaks had impressed upon the population the need for managing disease, although the science was not entirely clear.  A review of local newspapers across the country shows that quarantines and lockdowns were common strategies to counteract the Spanish Flu, and that churches heeded the call to close.  There is some evidence of grumbling on the part of individual clergy and parishes, but more representative is the comment of a Presbyterian pastor in Birmingham, that this was “an opportunity for the exercise of a fuller devotion to God and the things of His Kingdom.”  According to the Society of Saint Pius X, the Roman hierarchy supported closing churches for regular worship, and suspended holy obligations to attend Mass.  Newspapers often printed sermons for local churches as they closed down worship and proactively sought other ways to serve.  In the Texas Baptist Historical Collection one pastor is cited as saying church leadership “knew [closing churches] would help protect each other’s lives.”
It is important to note that the Spanish Flu was not the last health scare to materially alter the lives of Americans.  Polio was a viral epidemic that was evident throughout the 19th century, although it did not have the broad impact of yellow fever.  With the advent of a vaccine for yellow fever, and a greater understanding of influenza, polio grabbed center stage in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  Polio was more localized and seasonal, so the impact was not as widespread, but the appearance of polio in a community was no less frightening.  An outbreak in Chattanooga in 1941 led to the complete shutdown of the city, including its churches.  Wythe County, Virginia experienced one of the most notorious polio epidemics in 1950, with a death rate of 10% of those infected.  Referred to as the “summer without children,” it was thought to have been spread through local baseball games.  While not without controversy, all community gatherings were cancelled until the summer passed and there were no new cases.  Any child growing up in the fifties, including me, can remember the pictures of iron lungs and the general anxiety that summer brought.
When reviewing the reaction of Christian communities during plagues and pandemics, it is important to recognize that the institutional church did not ignore its obligations to either its own standards of faith or the larger needs of the community.  Because churches were part of the conversation, there was no wholesale rejection of civil authority, or the measures that both medicine and common sense deemed necessary for the greater good.  We can look back with humor, curiosity or even horror at plague masks, firing canons in the air to disperse the miasma, leeches, tinctures of mercury or any number of other ameliorative steps recommended by the best minds of the day.  But in the end Christianity is a social religion, it depends on gathering in community, it acknowledges a communion of saints, and it reaches out to others.  By its very nature Christianity cannot retreat from the world during times of great turmoil and social tension.
Up through the mid-20th century, it is more accurate to describe the relationship between secular authorities and the church during public health crises as cooperative rather than contentious.  Church leaders were visible and active participants in forging the social contract.  Throughout American history, faith has always had a seat at the table.  The nearly universal acceptance of faith as a legitimate, motivating impulse has been a hallmark of our society from its founding.  A spirit of cooperation and mutual respect that fosters broad participation in public discourse is far more productive in terms of public policy than marginalizing religious, or other, communities.  It was not until the emergence of post-modernism and nihilism as acceptable, alternative ideologies in the late 50s and early 60s, that the inclusion of a faith based perspective in the debate over social responsibility was challenged.  At its most basic, post-modernism involves the rejection of the idea of reliable knowledge, and the denial of the existence of universal, stable realities whether in the arts, sciences, economics, politics or morality.  It is accompanied by a deep seated suspicion of power as totally corrupting, reflected in a widespread mistrust of all institutions and the ready acceptance of conspiracy theories to explain behavior.  Spirituality became a matter of whatever made the individual feel better about themselves.  Nihilism, the existential view that all knowledge and values are baseless, became the philosophical vehicle for post-modern thought.
It is within this intellectual environment that the current conversations on faith and the COVID-19 pandemic are being framed.  What is new about this pandemic is the seeming willingness of churches to surrender both secular and spiritual leadership to others, to acquiesce in the face of post-modernism and accommodate nihilistic impulses.  We have allowed the secular world to hijack our faithful and heartfelt discussions on how best to serve during this season.  Suddenly, scriptural admonitions on how we treat one another have become tests of political authenticity.  Too many churches no longer help guide and inform public reactions, but instead measure their own adherence to the Gospel based upon the litmus test of social correctness.  The decision to open or not open has devolved into an argument over civil liberties, not a discussion of how best to serve both God and our fellow humans.  In 1527, Martin Luther and his wife Katharina, were faced with a familiar dilemma.  Yet another iteration of the plague was ravaging the countryside, and local authorities were restricting individual movement including attending worship services.  Luther and his wife decided that their call was to serve the sick and suffering.  But in a letter to a colleague, Luther cautioned against self-righteousness, and admonished those who judged others for following the dictates of their own consciences.  Luther clearly understood that the church leads by service, not by succumbing to the agenda of others.
Recently, during the course of my morning prayer, I was reflecting upon all that we as a nation are going through, and particularly what the faithful of St. Peter’s have experienced over the past few years.  I had occasion to recall a quote I read many years ago, when I was preparing for my doctoral exams.  It comes from a letter written by John Page, a prominent Virginia patriot, to Thomas Jefferson just after independence had been declared.  These were not good times for the colonies, and the outcome was far from certain.  Yet Page wrote “We know the Race is not to the swift nor the Battle to the Strong.  Do you not think an Angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this Storm?”  As Ezekiel instructs us, it is in the midst of the howling winds that the Glory of the Living God is revealed (Ez. 1:4-28). 
For my part, I am willing to let the matter rest with Him, be guided by the authentic narrative of our crucified and risen Savior, and in all things, be governed by God’s call for compassion and the ascendency of scriptural truths.