by Burnell F Eckardt Jr
in collaboration with the editorial staff
There’s been plenty of well-founded worry about the Ebola virus these days. As I write this, we’re already tracking the possibilities of its spread through two
Dallas nurses who
contracted the disease from the Liberian man who came here and has died. One of
those nurses took a flight to and from Cleveland,
and that plane has been to Florida.
Some schools have closed as precautions. Who knows where this can go? By the
time you read this it may have been stanched, or it may have become epidemic,
official reassurances to the contrary notwithstanding.
One cannot help but think of the plagues of the Middle Ages to find points of comparison, most especially the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century in which over a third of all Europeans died. But we can also make a more recent comparison. Having just recently updated the chronicles of St. Paul’s in Kewanee, I happen to be somewhat versed in the ease with which a plague can suddenly sweep across even a nation that has the advantage of knowing more than medieval folk did about how disease is spread.
In 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic reached the shores of America, probably through the U.S. Government War Exhibition in Chicago, which opened in September of that year and brought a quarter of a million visitors.
Chicago was the nation’s
largest rail hub at the time. As was
the case across Illinois,
Kewanee’s first announced victims were servicemen who were still away from
home, but soon the ravages of the disease were felt by families here and across
the nation. By the end of October, over
40,000 new cases were reported in Chicago
in one week alone. In the same month Kewanee noted its first local death of an
Articles appearing in the Kewanee Star Courier appear to have been written with the aim of quelling people’s fears. Weekly stories would announce the reported decline of new cases, or of good news on the flu front. An often-reprinted article entitled “Spanish Influenza—What It Is and How It Should Be Treated,” confidently averred that it is “nothing new . . . simply the old ‘grippe’” of 1889-90, and insisted that there was “no occasion for panic.” When the war ended in November, the newspaper declared that the city received the news with “unbridled joy.” At year’s end a half-page artist’s sketch chronicled the year’s mostly significant events, and most of it was devoted to excitement about the war’s drawing to a close, while allowing only a small corner to note that “Uncle Sam got the flu.”
But obituaries didn’t lie, and since the middle of October there had been a steady stream of reports of new local victims who had died of “the flu and pneumonia.” And since it was customary in those days to print obituaries on the front page of the paper, their daily appearance seemed almost to mock the newspaper’s valiant if pitiful attempts to maintain a bright outlook.
One of the particularly odious facets of a plague—and this pandemic certainly qualified as a plague—is that spiritual care became difficult to obtain in a time when it was most sorely needed. The city of
Kewanee closed all its
public places, and all the local churches had agreed to cooperate. By the year’s end they had all ceased to
conduct services, with the sole exception of the funerals, which of necessity
were held away from the church, and at which attendance was kept to an absolute
minimum. St. Paul’s
closed its doors with an announcement that arrangements could be made with the
pastor for private catechetical instruction.
The church stayed closed for thirteen weeks.
Usually the victims of influenza would die within a single week of their contraction of the disease. Delirium was not uncommon. People everywhere were getting sick. The city of
Chicago ran out of hearses. Morgues were stacked to the ceiling with
The pandemic didn’t actually abate until the late spring and summer of 1919. Researchers estimate that between 30 and 50 million people died worldwide, with an estimated 675,000 Americans being among the dead.
So today we are facing the threat of Ebola. We have received word that some of our Liberian brothers have questions about our communion practice and we realize these questions might soon afflict us as well. What of the common cup? What of the reliquae (leftover elements)? Should this disease take on the marks of an actual pandemic among us, we may once again be in need of extraordinary measures, and history can guide us. Under extraordinary circumstances, it might be proper for churches to take extraordinary measures, to quell fears where possible. There will surely be a temptation to attempt a sterile distribution of the Lord's Supper. The pastor should wash his hands thoroughly before the Service, but extra care might be taken and public awareness of this precaution could be raised. Hand-shaking could be forbidden. And certainly, the idea that glass individual cups could be used, perhaps with vodka dampened purificators or other precautions, will be brought up as more sanitary than the chalice.
The editors have considered all these things, and it seems to us all that such precautions are really no guarantee of complete sterility and that our fathers felt that the best course was not to change the mode of distribution but to abstain from public communion services; and we think that if we do face an actual pandemic of plague proportions, this would still be the best and safest course. Pastoral care would have to be handled mostly in a private way and may even require at times, if the communicant is quarantined or some such thing, the use of rubber gloves and a face mask by the celebrant. Unless the pandemic shuts down the power grid and the internet, we will enjoy ways of preaching to and catechizing our people that our fathers did not have. If things do get out of hand, it might become necessary, once again, to close our churches altogether for awhile and rely solely on individualized pastoral care and electronic media.
We do have plenty of reason, however, even from a medical point of view, to be hopeful that no such thing will befall us in these days. It is certainly true that the Lord will provide and that He might well deliver us to Himself through Ebola or some other horrific disease. We trust, without flinching, that if the Lord deliver us to that fate through the Chalice or the Services of the Church that it is His good and gracious will to do so and that the forgiveness of sins that always comes to the faithful through the Lord's Supper will be what we truly need. Indeed, such an end, as all those that God gives, will be a blessing. But we should not shirk our duty to the 5th commandment in all of this or engage in extra-Biblical fantasy that the Lord never delivers crosses through the means of grace. The Lord never hurts or harms His children in any place or time and certainly He never harms them in the Lord's Supper, but the Lord does call His people home and allow them to suffer trials on this side of glory. We do not refuse medical care because the Lord provides and we should not ignore the dangers of plague if it is visited upon us. Again: extraordinary and temporary measures may be necessary. Meanwhile, like many before who have not only been threatened by plagues, but have actually suffered them, we can, and should, pray. For the prayer of a righteous man availeth much.