Learning to Respond to COVID-19 from Early Christians: Eusebius from his Ecclesiastical History

The Chronicles of Gilles Li Muisis plague

One of the most distinctive aspects of the early Christians was the manner in which they responded to troubles themselves while also reaching out to others. As we prepare for what looks to be ongoing results of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is the moment for Christians of today to step forward by faith in relation to the needs not only of our Christian brothers and sisters, but to the community around us.

Eusebius of Caesarea, known as the father of church history, details the devastating effects of a plague which hit Caesarea in the early fourth-century, but also the manner in which the early Christians stepped forward in that time. May we be found faithful like them.

Countless numbers died in the cities and even more in the villages and countryside. Rural registers that were once full of names now were all but obliterated, since lack of food and disease destroyed almost the entire population at the same time. Some bartered their most precious possessions for the smallest scrap of food from those better supplied, while others sold their things little by little until they were reduced to desperation. Still others ruined their health and died from chewing wisps of hay and rashly eating poisonous herbs. As for the women, some ladies of the urban aristocracy were forced to beg shamelessly in the marketplaces, their embarrassment and their clothing revealed a noble upbringing.

Some shriveled like ghosts of the departed, staggered about… until they fell down, and as they lay in the middle of the streets they would beg for a small scrap of bread and, with their last gasp, cry out that they were hungry—anything more than this anguished cry was beyond them. The wealthier classes, astonished at the mass of beggars they were helping, changed to a hard and merciless attitude, since they assumed that before long they would be no better off. In the middle of the city squares and narrow lanes, naked bodies lay scattered about unburied for days on end—a most pitiful spectacle. Some were eaten by dogs, for which reason the living began killing dogs, for fear they might go mad and start devouring people.

No less horrible was the plague that infected every house, especially those that had survived the famine. The affluent, rulers, governors, and numerous officials, as if intentionally left by the famine for the plague, suffered a sudden bitter death. Moaning was heard everywhere, and funeral processions were seen in every lane, square, and street, with the usual flute playing and breast-beating. Death waging war with the two weapons of plague and famine, quickly devoured whole families, so that two or three bodies might be removed for burial in a single funeral procession.

In this awful adversity they alone [the Christian] gave practical proof of their sympathy and humanity. All day long some of them tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all, so that their deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians. Such actions convinced them that they alone were pious and truly reverent to God.

After all this, God, the great, heavenly Champion of the Christians, having displayed his wrath to all men in return for their brutal assaults against us, restored his providence to us again and caused the light of peace to shine on us out of black darkness, as it were, making it clear to all that God himself had constantly been overseeing our affairs. Sometimes he scourged his people and in due time corrected them through trials, but after enough chastening, he showed mercy and kindness to those who had hope in him.

[From Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, Book IX, Chapter 8]

2 thoughts on “Learning to Respond to COVID-19 from Early Christians: Eusebius from his Ecclesiastical History

  1. Such words of challenge and mission for us, the Church, today in these days. Thanks, Matt, for the quote and reminding us of those on whose shoulders we stand as the Body today. May we prove faithful to our mission – to trust and obey.

    • Yes, I pray that is true of us in these days, too, Paul. Hearing from the church across the centuries is so important right now. Otherwise, we can easily lose perspective on the present moment.

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