Pestilence and Pastoral Ministry
As a pastor it hasn't been an easy two weeks. To be clear, I'm not trying to throw a pity party. I know that as society shuts down over the COVID-19 pandemic almost no one has had an easy time. Each of us in our own place and vocation have challenges to face and obstacles to overcome. Personally, I haven't met a single person for whom life is going on as normal. But I'm a pastor so I feel the unique burdens that this pandemic brings for the pastorate.
Namely, as a part of the leadership of the church I'm confronted with the difficult questions relative to continuing the worship and life of the church. As Christians we have a very high regard for all of God's law. I find myself grappling with the difficulties of bringing together, for instance, the fourth commandment and the necessity of public worship with the sixth commandment and preserving the life and health of my neighbor. On top of that, suddenly the ivory tower discussions of the relationship between the church and state have become the practical theology of my daily routine. It isn't easy to know what to do.
On a personal note, I've been disappointed with many of the pastoral responses I've read on these difficult questions. For me, they've actually created more questions. But yesterday I stumbled on an account from the pen of a late 18th-century pastor that has been very helpful to me. Now, to be clear, I'm not sure it's altogether wise to respond to our current crisis on the basis of how they did it in the past. Our advances in epidemiology and technology are to our advantage, whereas our social interconnectedness is, in this case, likely to our disadvantage. These differences put our current pandemic in an unprecedented category in the history of the world. I don't think we can pretend that the past has all the answers for today. Nevertheless, their wisdom and insight, whether we agree or not, is useful to think through in our situation.
I have been most helped by a book – a memoir and collection of journal entries – titled: The Life of Ashbel Green. Green (b. 1762, d. 1848) was an American Presbyterian and eighth president of Princeton Seminary. He pastored in the time of the Yellow Fever pestilence which, in 1793, was one of the worst pandemics in American history. Green writes about how he himself likely contracted the fever – together with members of his family – when visiting two families that suffered from it. This led to a spiritually painful absence from his congregation for nearly three months in which time the toll of the fever was great and many under his charge died.
The Yellow Fever returned in 1797. This time, Green took his family to Princeton away from the pestilence but he himself decided to remain in the city to pastor the few of his people who remained. He wrote: “I was desirous to show them that I was ready to face danger in their service.” On one occasion Green's wife, wanting to support him, felt duty bound to be with him in the city. However, upon seeing how serious the disease was she couldn't handle it. He said to her: “My love – to use a military phrase – if you cannot stand fire better than this, I think it is clear that you ought to remain at Princeton, and not come here until our city is free from pestilence.”
In the absence of his wife, Green continued to minister in the city even under the threat of the Yellow Fever. With gratitude he records in his memoir of God's preserving him in that time, of the spiritual blessings he experienced, and how powerfully this effected his preaching ministry. At the same time, with grief he observed:
During a season of pestilence, unsanctified men were commonly so engrossed with apprehensions of danger, and with the means and measures which they adopt to protect themselves from the prevailing disease, that any occasional impressions which they experience from alarming sermons, are soon lost in the anxiety they feel and the means they use to preserve their bodily health.
Again, the Yellow Fever returned with much more severity the following year. Recognizing that gatherings of people – even for church – helps to spread the infection, Green determined not to have the church meet. He wrote:
[I] resolved to go and preach and advise all my people who could leave the city to escape for their lives. This I accordingly did, and to this in a great measure it was probably owing that, under the blessing of God, very few of my congregation became the victims of the pestilence in this year. To those of my charge who I knew could not leave the city, I said as much as I conscientiously could to alleviate their fears, exhorting them to put their trust in God, seeing that in the order of his providence it was impractical for them to go from their homes. I told the people explicitly that I could not see any call of duty that they should assemble for public worship, or that I should attend to preach while the city should remain in its present state.
As a pastor who is struggling through difficult questions facing my own ministry, Green — a man who was infected with disease as a result of pastoral visitation, who dealt charitably with the weakness of his family and wife, who labored tirelessly in preaching, and who recognized God’s blessing even in canceling church — is a tremendous encouragement. His careful wisdom was applied differently in circumstances with tremendous sensitivity and an earnest desire that God would be glorified it in all: “Thanks to God who has preserve us from all pestilence, shown us many favors, and returned us again to our home. O let us live to his praise.”