Such cases have sprung up in Ohio, Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere. In Kentucky, several ministers disobeyed the warnings against congregating, claiming they had to maintain the “spiritual health” of their members.
In Virginia, Pastor E.W. Jackson shrugged off Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order and vowed to hold church services, assuring his congregation that if they believed in God, they could avoid coronavirus infection. In South Florida, Pastor Guillermo Maldonado urged parishioners to continue attending in-person church services, dismissing the state of emergency for the City of Miami. “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus? Of course not,” he claimed.
Most criticism laments how these ministers prioritize faith over medical expertise, but that misses a larger point. These pastors are grossly trivializing the breadth and scope of biblical faith by pitting the principles of public health against the Bible.
Their views not only misrepresent biblical faith on a theological level, but also contradict the example of countless Christians throughout history — both clergy and health professionals — who affirmed faith while drawing inspiration and guidance from the Bible in taking matters of public health seriously, and even advocating precautionary quarantine to stem the spread of disease.
Some of the eminent leaders of the Protestant Reformation understood the biblical concept that not merely the spiritual, but also the physical well-being of humanity was important to God. When the bubonic plague reached Wittenburg, Germany, in August 1527, Martin Luther led by example, declaring: “I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated.” Luther wanted to avoid infecting others and causing their death through his “negligence.” He saw this action as wholly consistent with Christianity: “See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.” Luther also invoked the Bible’s admonition in the book of Leviticus that social-distancing and quarantine are essential to prevent the spread of disease. “We must do the same with this dangerous pestilence,” he wrote.
This sense of Christianity carried over through the centuries to the United States.
Notable American protestants in the 19th century modeled some of the ways that religious faith could foster a deeper commitment to public health issues. In fact, scholar John Blevins has shown that the early founders of public health systems in the United States were influenced by their biblical faith.
John Griscom, a devoted Quaker, served as a physician and health inspector of New York City. He spent much of his career working to curb the spread of disease, and in 1859 he became president of the Third National Quarantine and Sanitary Convention. Griscom thought that God ordained the physical body to be governed by natural laws, that over-spiritualizing the nature of disease was willful ignorance, and that unnecessary sickness and premature death was an affront against God. His work to address epidemics of contagions, in the words of Blevins, “spurred the emergence of some of the first formal public health programs in the United States.”
Similarly, in the 1840s and 1850s — more than 20 years before medical organizations coordinated responses to public health issues — Robert Hartley, a staunch Presbyterian who drew on the Bible to inform his public health endeavors, built “the most coherent and far-seeing public health program of any benevolent group.” Reared in New York’s Burned-over district and immersed in theological convictions, he considered it a moral obligation to address the rise in infant mortality by the spread of disease. In Hartley’s view, God had granted rational faculties to human beings and to ignore the physical danger of disease was “impious,” “absurd” and contrary to the Bible.
Both Griscom and Hartley understood that biblical faith did not undermine efforts against the real physical threat of disease. Instead it demanded such mobilization and use of the best scientific methods available. As the medical doctor and health activist John H. Kellogg put it in 1898, when God instructed the Israelites in their deliverance from bondage, he did not stop at the Ten Commandments, but supplemented his moral law with a code of regulations to protect their society, including public health principles such as sanitation, hygiene and quarantine against the spread of disease.
During the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918, local governments ordered churches to close in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Some ministers complained, but others recognized that ceasing to congregate in compliance with public health efforts was in harmony with the essence of biblical faith. When the ban against mass gatherings was finally lifted in Washington, D.C., the Rev. J. Francis Grimke reiterated to his congregation that the closure of churches was justified, and that “if avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger, and expect God to protect us.”
In October 1918, at the height of the pandemic, Methodist revivalist George R. Stuart went further, declaring that those who spurned public health warnings were exemplifying not biblical faith, but rather “sinful neglect” and the “fruit of ignorance and false teaching.” He implored readers of the Alabama periodical Age-Herald that it was inconsistent with the teaching and example of Jesus to dismiss the natural laws of disease and health and then presumptuously expect God’s miraculous protection. “Intelligent Christianity seeks to discover all of God’s natural laws of disease and health and all the remedies deposited in nature for our relief, and it is the duty of every intelligent follower of Jesus Christ to both observe these laws and to teach others to observe them.”
All of these men had a similar religious belief undergirding their approach to public health: God himself was the architect of natural law, and ignoring scientific knowledge about health, to the point of putting human lives at risk, wasn’t placing faith in him, but rather disrespecting his gifts.
Believers today who think that ignoring the edicts of public health officials is somehow virtuous are ignoring this long tradition and have interpreted Christianity and biblical teaching too narrowly. Their misconceptions hinder their ability to see the principles so evident to Luther, Griscom, Hartley, Kellogg, Stuart and Grimke.
As public health officials struggle to convince certain sectors of American society to take covid-19 seriously, it is a critical time for religious communities to model a more careful and balanced approach to biblical faith. The example of devout believers throughout history should caution Christians from over-spiritualizing the threat of disease, encourage adherence to the warnings issued by medical and scientific experts and inspire them to embrace the legacy of faith’s impact on public health.