Cholera Outbreaks Revealed Power, Prejudice, and Compassion. So Does COVID-19.

FILE PHOTO: An employee wearing a face mask walks through a device that sprays disinfectant at an entrance to a company, following an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the country, in Chongqing, China February 10, 2020. cnsphoto via REUTERS

Americans watched anxiously as the pandemic crept toward them, spreading with seeming inevitability from its origin in Asia to Europe and then, crossing the Atlantic, to the United States. When the disease arrived, it brought the country to a halt: Ports closed, storefronts shuttered, and once-bustling downtowns emptied. Churches shut their doors. An eerie quiet fell on American cities.

This describes the scene in the early 1830s, as Americans faced the arrival of cholera—a deadly disease endemic to the Ganges Delta that swept across the globe with devastating effects several times during the 19th century.

Yet the description also fits the first months of 2020. Like antebellum Americans, we fretted about when the disease might arrive on our shores. Like them, we raced to understand the disease—its cause, its cure, and how it might be prevented. Like them, we undertook belated public health interventions even as we worried about the economic consequences of those interventions. And now, just as in the 1830s, American Christians are confronting the pandemic within frameworks provided by their beliefs.

Given these parallels, despite all that has changed in medicine and religion in the intervening 190 years, can Christians learn anything from their antebellum forebearers?

We see in their responses to cholera a common impulse to provide moral meaning to the pandemic. But they varied widely in their approaches to those who suffered the most. Christians with socioeconomic and cultural power were blinded to the plight of the vulnerable by their visions of a disciplined, hard-working Protestant nation. It took Christians on the margins to speak on behalf of the sick, the poor, and the immigrant.

What hindsight enables us to see clearly in the 19th century may serve as a challenge to us today. Pandemics are profound social stressors that reveal fault lines of power and prejudice while also serving as opportunities for selfless love. As the coronavirus raises questions about morality, racism, and economic prosperity, we would do well to ask whether we find ourselves on the side of the suffering.

In his masterful bookThe Cholera Years, historian Charles E. Rosenberg describes a theological spectrum of Christian responses to cholera. Some Christians interpreted cholera as a divine judgment on the United States, especially on its more profligate citizens. This was in keeping with tradition: Since the arrival of Puritans in the early 17th century, American Protestants had discerned a connection between sin and sickness. Collective illness suggested collective sin, just as personal illness suggested personal sin. Pandemics had thus long prompted fast days dedicated to repentance and prayer.

Antebellum Christians carried on this tradition. When cholera began spreading along the Eastern Seaboard in the 1830s, clergy such as Congregationalist minister Orville Dewey examined what God intended in such a crisis. Taking his cue from contemporary doctors who believed that drinking too much alcohol rendered people vulnerable to the disease, Dewey saw cholera as divine support for the temperance movement. By superintending a pandemic that struck hard drinkers the hardest, surely God blessed the anti-alcohol crusade. Indeed, Dewey was prepared to consider the fatal public health crisis a “beneficent visitation” if it succeeded in impressing upon Americans the perils of strong drink.

Other Christians also perceived God working in cholera, albeit one step removed. To more liberal believers, the disease arose not from miraculous divine judgment but from the normal operation of the laws of nature. Yet, even if it were explicable in scientific terms, cholera still contained a moral lesson. By all accounts, the disease did its worst damage among the poorest residents of American cities. Because many Americans believed poverty arose from personal moral failures, they assumed these sufferers were also the most reprobate. As Thomas Bradford Jr., a lawyer working in Philadelphia at the time, observed, cholera strikes “among the lower classes of people, the intemperate, the licentious, & and the wretched.” To many Protestants, this was no coincidence. The fact that those who lived fast and loose suffered disproportionally from disease simply illustrated the harmony of God’s moral and natural laws. This etiology thus contained an ethic: Live rightly or face the necessary consequences. As cholera dealt death to impoverished Philadelphians, Bradford wrote this of the pandemic: “The city is not moved by it. … They know they can avoid it by prudence in living and care of their persons & families.” The disease could be staved off “by those who have the means and are careful.”

Click here to read more.
Source: Christianity Today