The Heidelberg Catechism is justly regarded as one of the finest summaries of the Christian faith ever written. First published in 1563, the catechism is used by more than a million Christians globally. The first question of the catechism is among the most beloved among the Reformed confessions and catechisms:
1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
This question and answer was not written in a vacuum. Medieval life, which includes the 16th century, the period in which the Reformation began, was not an easy time in which to live. There had been some major technological breakthroughs, e.g., the printing press in 1450 (forerunners of which had been fashioned in China and Korea by the 11th century) and international exploration and travel was increasing but life for most people, most of the time, was difficult and short.
It was dirty. This is the traditional picture of medieval life. Though I have seen this characterization disputed the objection to the traditional picture of medieval life seems to be based on supposition rather than upon evidence (e.g., contemporaneous records). Consider the fact that the idea that a physician should wash his hands between patients is relatively new. Dr Joseph Lister was considered a radical when, in 1867, he began washing his hands in between patients. As we navigate the spread and affects of Covid-19 we are all being reminded of how important it is to wash one’s hands. Such basic practices were more or less unknown in the medieval period. Health conditions were primitive and harsh. People (even nobility) bathed rarely. Most Europeans changed clothes only once or twice a year.
The Black Death
When the authors and editors of the Heidelberg Catechism asked about the Christian’s comfort “in life and in death” it was not a mere theory. Death was a frequent visitor to Heidelberg and to every pre-Modern city. Tuberculosis was widespread. Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), one of the principals behind the catechism died of it. The plague came to Heidelberg and took many lives. More on that below.
“The Black Plague” or the “the Black Death” refers to a massive outbreak of the Bubonic Plague across the globe in the 1340s. It is uncertain exactly where the plague began (perhaps the Mongolian Plain between Russia and China), but it spread “along international trade routes,” as one author says. As it arrived in Europe it capitalized upon poor health conditions to kill about one-third of the population of Europe in the 1340s. By comparison, only World War II produced more human suffering in the same period of time.
Though the intensity lessened, outbreaks of the plague recurred through the 17th century into the 30 years war. It also occurred in parts of Asia and the Middle East. It was known at the time as the “Great Mortality.” Contemporary accounts described bodies stacked “like ‘lasagna.’” “After watching a pair of wild dogs paw at the newly dug graves of the plague dead, a part-time tax collector in Siena wrote, ‘This is the end of the world.’” Victims typically ran a high fever (101–105F), with headaches, vomiting, delirium, and coughing up blood. It is called the “bubonic plague” because of the “bubo” eruptions in the skin. It was called the “black death” because it caused bleeding under the epidermis that turned the skin black.1
There is a vigorous debate in the secondary literature about the exact cause of the plague. Medievalists and medical researchers have questioned the older story, that the contagion was a form of the plague transmitted by rat fleas to humans, but the consensus seems to be that the traditional story is still the best explanation. In the 1990s, French researchers performed a DNA test on corpses from in two “plague pits” in So France. One was a medieval pit and the other was more recent. Both tested positive for the bubonic plague.
More recently, on the basis of computer models, scholars have questioned the older theory arguing that it was transmitted not by rats but by “human fleas and body lice.” I, for one, am a little skeptical of the model and think we should do what we have been doing to control the plague (e.g., controlling rats) until the picture is clearer.
Ministering To Victims
Late in 1544 or early in 1545 a conspiracy was discovered in Geneva. A number of people were convicted of creating a salve containing elements of the plague and smearing it on doorknobs, in an attempt to murder Genevans. A number of people were put to death by the civil government. This was the second such episode since 1530.
In 1542 Calvin wrote to his old colleague, Pierre Viret (1511–71)
The [plague] also begins to rage here with greater violence, and few who are at all affected by it escape its ravages. One of our colleagues was to be set apart for attendance upon the sick. Because Peter offered himself, all readily acquiesced. If anything happens to him, I fear that I must take the risk upon myself, for as you observe, because we are debtors to one another, we must not be wanting to those who, more than any others, stand in need of our ministry. And yet it is not my opinion, that while we wish to provide for one portion we are at liberty to neglect the body of the Church itself. But so long as we are in this ministry, I do not see that any pretext will avail us, if, through fear of infection, we are found wanting in the discharge of our duty when there is most need of our assistance. In what concerns yourselves I have already told you what occurred to me. Now, since that colleague has been removed, you must seek for some one else to be put in his place. If no such person can be found, you must devise some plan, but with the common advice of the brethren.2
Bruce Gordon writes that the plague “swept across” the Swiss Cantons in the period. It took notable lives, including Simon Grynaeus (1493–1541), to whom Calvin had dedicated his Romans commentary. Gordon notes that it was probably the passage of 10,000 French troops through Geneva that brought the plague to that city-state. Calvin and Sebastian Castellio, who would later become one of Calvin’s most vituperative critics, volunteered to tend the plague victims, a job “rewarded with almost certain death but neither was accepted.”3 The city decreed that all the ministers, except Calvin, who was deemed to be too valuable, were to serve in the plague hospital.
Scott Manetsch notes that some of the minister “undertook this dangerous assignment with compassion and courage. For others, the fear of contracting the contagion reduced them to cowards.”4 When the plague returned in the Spring, the city was virtually shut down. Dogs and cats, through to be carriers, were exterminated. Pierre Blanchet, once again appointed to serve the plague victims finally contracted the disease himself and died.5 The Company of Pastors took to drawing lots to replace him. Some refused to go. “Finally, a young minister named Mathieu de Garneston began making periodic visits to the plague hospital outside the city.”6 Like Blanchet, he too contracted the disease and died. The city’s exemption of Calvin from service rankled some in the Company of Pastors. It was, as Manetsch observed, not their finest hour.
In 1566 Heidelberg itself was afflicted with the plague. Even though most fled, including the court, Olevianus, who was the chief pastor, and Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) stayed behind to minister to plague victims.7
There is a great deal of uncertainty swirling about concerning the Covid-19. There is much that we and perhaps government officials do not know about what has really happened so far in China. Reports from Iran and Italy are equally distressing. As of this writing public behavior seems to waver between indifference and panic.
Christians, however, believe in providence and we also believe in wisdom. Our only comfort in life and in death is that we belong to Christ, who purchased us. We are his inseparably. This is not a license to tempt providence. Scripture also counsels wisdom. It is wise to follow the instructions of the civil authorities, to wash our hands and to avoid contact with others etc. There is probably wisdom in putting group activities on pause until more is known. Most of us are not tasked with making these decisions and we trust the Lord to use those who have been given that responsibility to act wisely and in our best interests.
We are Christians. We are a purchased people. Covid-19 is not the Black Plague—which some survived. We know that this world is not random. The Savior who purchased us by his obedience and death will not abandon us. Should he will to take us out of this life, we will go to be with him who loves us. This is not to be cavalier but to try to put our fears into some perspective. The world tell us that this life is all there is. So, they panic. By contrast, we make preparations. We love our neighbors. We serve them as best we can, as citizens of a twofold kingdom, but with the confidence of knowing that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). We belong to him.
This gets it right. Please turn your audio up.
— James Hoffman (@jameshoffmanjr) March 11, 2020
1. John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death… (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 2005).
2. Letters of John Calvin, 1.357
3. Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 124–25.
4. Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 285.
5. Manetsch, 285.
6. Manetsch, 286.
7. R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 20.