first umc

The main sanctuary part of First United Methodist Church in Pierre, the right, was built in 1910 and went through the pandemic of the 1918 flu that killed thousands in South Dakota in a few months at the close of World War I. The congregation is holding worship services Sunday without a congregation, but livestreaming it on the internet and broadcasting it on the radio, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Christianity has been handling epidemics for 2,000 years but maybe wasn’t quite ready for COVID-19 right now, says Lyman Stone in a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine.

“The modern world has suddenly become reacquainted with the oldest traveling companion of human history: existential dread and the fear of unavoidable, inscrutable death,” writes Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. “No vaccine or antibiotic will save us for the time being. Because this experience has become foreign to modern people, we are, by and large, psychologically and culturally under-equipped for the current coronavirus pandemic.”

Stone argues that Christianity’s experience and teaching and “distinctive approach to epidemics is worth dusting off.”

Jesus taught to do to others what you would have them do to you, Stone says. “To love your neighbor as yourself. That the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for his friends.

Historians have said that the Antonine Plague of the 2nd Century that killed maybe 25 percent of the Roman Empire, led to the spread of Christianity as the church was seen as a model of caring for the sick, according to Stone.

In the third century during a plague, Bishop Cyprian counseled Christians to care for the sick. Roman Emperor Julian later complained that Christians “would care even for non-Christian sick people,” Stone said.

In 1527, when the bubonic plague hit the city of Wittenberg, Martin Luther did not flee, but stayed. He and his family ministered to the sick and his daughter Elizabeth died because of it, Stone says.

But Luther made clear what Christians’ duty was in an epidemic, Stone writes: “We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations.”

That spirit was seen, perhaps, in South Dakota during the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed so many, so fast at the close of World War I and beyond.

Eugene Collett and Elaine Scott of First United Methodist Church in Pierre shared this report from the congregation’s archives, of the 1919 conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the state that met in Mitchell:

“Immediately after the conference last fall (1918), the churches were closed on account of the influenza, some for several weeks, and some for several months. This enforced vacation gave our pastors an unusual opportunity to minister to the people in their need and their sorrow. Almost without exception the pastors were alive to the situation and cared for the sick, carrying them cheer and comfort, and in hundreds of cases, burying the dead, some pastors conducting as many as 40 funerals during the ravages of this awful epidemic.”

“Probably 70-75 percent of the pastors or their families were stricken with the disease, but there was not a death in one of the parsonage homes in the district, and of the unusually large number of funerals conducted by our pastors during this time, it was most remarkable that our church members constituted a comparatively small percentage of the total number.”

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