Courage Amongst Disaster – Baptists response in times of need
The growing international concern about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, might lead us all to wonder how we should respond to such outbreaks. If it (or indeed, any other deadly infectious disease) were to land on our doorstep, what would we as Baptists do?
It might surprise us to realise that such an outbreak has occurred for us in the history of our movement. In 1665, the bubonic plague hit London, killing an estimated 100,000 people, about a quarter of the city’s population in just under a year. And the way we responded to it was remarkable.
To understand the impressive response of Baptists a little background is helpful. About fifteen years earlier, the Baptists had joined with a group called the Puritans (made up of Presbyterians and other religious minorities) to remove the Anglican Royalists from power and had set up a republic in England. Throughout the 1650s, the Baptists had been part of the government under Oliver Cromwell. But over that decade the English population had come to want a king again and resented the people who had taken their king from them. The return of Charles II to England in 1660 was met with cheers across the country – and death-threats to Baptists. Unsurprisingly, the Anglican Royalists won the Parliamentary elections in a landslide and began to bring in vicious policies to suppress the Puritans and Baptists.
In 1662, they sacked 2,000 pastors, including Baptists, who had served in churches throughout England, sending many of them away from London. It wasn’t a great time to be a Baptist in England.
Then in 1664, the plague hit. Numerous Anglican rectors, many who were aristocrats, responded by fleeing to their country estates. But as their carriages went out on the roads from London, the Puritan pastors started walking back into town. They cared for the sick and dying, and ultimately many of them lost their lives to the plague.
What drove our forebears to do that, while the powerful turned around and ran away? Well, they were compelled by Christ’s love for the people of London, despite those people having rejected them so viciously only a few years before. The Baptists were also so certain of their future hope that they weren’t afraid to die to help those dying. Coming back to a plague-hit London was an act of compassion, but also courage and forgiveness.
That led to many in the city forgiving them, too; Baptist churches grew strongly after the plague. Meeting in Oxford instead of London because of the outbreak, the Anglicans in Parliament passed the Five-Mile Act, banning all these pastors from going within five miles of their churches in order to halt the renewed popularity of the movement. That law didn’t stop the pastors from returning in 1666 when the Great Fire of London ravaged the city and doing the exact same thing: caring for the people in their time of crisis.
We can be proud of these people from our movement, and perhaps a little challenged by their compassion and courage. We can also be empowered to know that the same Source of that compassion and courage is with us and will fuel our response when disaster comes to our door.
The following article was written by invitation of the President by Dr Matthew Gray, Head of Divinity at Tabor College, Adelaide.