Making history in an age of pandemic
Priscilla E. Eppinger
July 8, 2020
How often do you think to yourself: “I’m making history”? How will people of the future know how you made history?
Most people think of history as something that took place long ago. Don’t we experience a bit of cognitive dissonance when we realize that songs that were popular during our young adult years are now considered “classic” or “oldies”? But every historical moment was someone’s present time.
The current moment is indelibly marked by a global pandemic. Despite our discomfort with the unfamiliar circumstances, this moment is not unique in history: archaeologists point to evidence of epidemics devastating communities in today’s northeastern China as long ago as 3000 BCE. Some of the most deadly epidemics include the Plague of Athens in the 5th century BCE, the Antonine Plague (165-180 CE) thought to have been spread by soldiers of the Roman Empire, and the bubonic plague that killed millions in Europe during the 14th century. In the Americas, indigenous peoples were decimated by epidemics during the 16th century, making it far easier for European explorers and colonists to dominate the continent than had the First Nations populations been at full strength. Epidemics are not new in human history.
The American Baptist Historical Society (ABHS) has received several queries regarding churches’ responses to the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. There is interest in knowing about ministry during that pandemic. Alas! this is an article that has yet to be researched and written. A quick survey of annual reports revealed that some gatherings were cancelled due to the epidemic.
When this present moment becomes history, how will people know how your faith community responded? Will they know that many congregations quickly developed the capacity for online worship services—or even be able to watch our worship from their future position? Will they know which communities continued to supply food banks and provide housing for the homeless? Will you leave records reflecting the shift from pastoral visits to pastoral telephone calls and emails? It all comes down to how well you document these days.
The 1919 report of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society (now called International Ministries) says, “The influenza epidemic, cholera, plague, famine, high prices and scarcity of food have all taken their toll and brought in their wake, anxiety and suffering. Scarcely a letter has been received during the past six months, which has not borne silent but effective testimony to the unusual and trying problems which our missionaries have been called upon to bear. The influenza epidemic was far more widespread and fatal than in America, . . . It found its way up the Congo, into the jungles of India and into inland towns of China, leaving a weary weak people behind as it took its departure.” Missionary F.W. Stait serving in South India wrote, “Those who were stricken with the influenza and the terrible pneumonia which accompanied it, flocked to the hospital, until the wards were so full that the overflow had to be cared for in cots along the verandas. We lost very few cases, only one in fact, where there was any chance at all from the first.”
Epidemics are not new. What is new are the extent and ease of global connectivity. To our detriment, the Novel Corona virus spread farther and more quickly than epidemics of the past because so many of us travel worldwide. Conversely, modern communications networks have facilitated the work of scientists in developing tests, protocols, and treatment. Like many others, ABHS staff benefit from modern communications and have been working from home, telecommuting.
Fifty, one hundred, or two hundred years from now, scholars will pinpoint 2020 and the Coronavirus pandemic as a moment when Christianity developed great new capacities for ministry. When this present moment becomes history, how will people know how your faith community responded? Will they know that many congregations quickly developed the capacity for online worship services—or even be able to watch our worship from their future position? Will they know which communities continued to supply food banks and provide housing for the homeless? Will you leave records reflecting the shift from pastoral visits to pastoral telephone calls and emails? It all comes down to how well you document these days.
ABHS would like to help you document your ministry at this crucial moment in Christian history. The “Preserving and Sharing Your Church’s Story” resource, available from ABHS on a thumb drive, offers information on record-keeping and setting up a church archives. We’re also planning webinars to help with analog and digital recordkeeping and archives. Watch for a notice later this summer or email us to receive an invitation. You’re making history; make sure your story can be told!
Priscilla E. Eppinger is executive director of the American Baptist Historical Society. Used by permission of ABHS. “Preserving and Sharing Your Church’s Story” is available from ABHS for $15.00. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to receive an invitation to upcoming webinars.