Skip to content

Christian Mercy in a Time of Plague

In the first centuries of the Christian church, several major plagues swept through the Roman Empire. In each case, the Christians’ reaction to the crisis demonstrated the transforming power of the Gospel in their lives.

Pandemic in the Early Church

In 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, an epidemic of what is thought to have been smallpox was brought to Rome by troops returning from wars against the Parthians (in modern Iran). The disease decimated the Roman army and spread rapidly throughout the entire Empire. Lasting episodically for fifteen years, it is estimated that 1/4 to 1/3 of the population in the Empire perished. The noted Roman physician Galen, who described the disease in detail, was in Rome during the first outbreak and fled the city for the country. While Galen fled, Christians remained in the city and cared for the ailing and dying. Mercy and pity was not a virtue among the pagans, but the Christians knew God as a God of mercy. They were to be merciful and love one another, and they showed mercy in caring for others during the plague.

In the early years of the Church, Christians were frequently persecuted by local authorities at different times. However, in 250, the Emperor Decius issued an imperial edict which applied throughout the Empire. Everyone was to take an oath and sacrifice to the Roman gods for the well-being of the Emperor. The edict was only in force for eighteen months, for Decius died in 251, but its brief implementation coincided with the beginning of another pandemic throughout the Empire. Historians have called this the Cyprian Plague, since Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, vividly described the characteristics of the disease:

…the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled; or the hearing is obstructed or the sight darkened…[1]

After giving the details of the disease, Cyprian then rejoiced in the Christian’s faith in the face of such gruesomeness:

What a grandeur of spirit it is to struggle with all the powers of an unshaken mind against so many onsets of devastation and death! What sublimity to stand erect amid the desolation of the human race, and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God; but rather to rejoice, and to embrace the benefit of the occasion; that in thus bravely showing forth our faith, and by suffering endured, going forward to Christ by the narrow way that Christ trod. We may receive the reward of His life and faith according to His own judgment!

Thinking About Death

Christians were liberated from the fear of death.  To God’s servants, death was “a departure to salvation.”

Cyprian counseled that Christians should not be surprised by the plague sweeping through the Empire. Christ foretold that afflictions such as wars, famines, pestilence, and earthquakes would increase in the last days. Christians suffer in this world equally with the heathen, as seen in the life of Job, but they should have patience and endure without murmuring. There must be a struggle before there can be a victory. We should not mourn without hope and so become a stumbling block to the Gentiles. If death comes, the Christian should depart with a glad mind, for he is going to a country where many dear ones are waiting. Through all the afflictions, the Christian’s faith should be like a rock which shatters the waves, but is not itself shattered. Faith is not shattered by “turbulent onsets of the world and the raging waves of time.”[2]

Cyprian taught that the plague searched out the righteous to see if they would tend the sick and love their relations. Not fearing death, during the plague, Christian masters will pity their servants, and Christian physicians will take care of patients (not flee the city as did Galen!). Christians have renounced the world and are living here only as guests and strangers, awaiting their time to go home: “Who that has been placed in foreign lands would not hasten to return to his own country?”[3] Since the Christians’ country is Paradise, they have no fear of death, seeing it as only a pathway to their home. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”[4] To be in Paradise is to see Christ in all His glory and to be with Him. [5]

Caring for the Needs of Others

Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, recounted how the Christians showed mercy to others during the pandemic:

Most of our brethren showed love and loyalty in not sparing themselves while helping one another, tending to the sick with no thought of danger and gladly departing this life with them after becoming infected with their disease. Many who nursed others to health died themselves. The best of our own brothers lost their lives in this way – some presbyters, deacons, and laymen – a form of death based on strong faith and piety that seems in every way to equal martyrdom. They would also take up the bodies of the saints, close their eyes, shut their mouths, and carry them on their shoulders. They would embrace them, wash and dress them in burial cloths, and soon receive the same services themselves.

Dionysius noted that the pagans showed no such compassion to the suffering, but only sought to protect themselves from the disease and death:

The heathen were the exact opposite. They pushed away those with the first signs of the disease and fled from their dearest. They even threw them half dead into the roads and treated unburied corpses like refuse in hopes of avoiding the plague of death, which, for all their efforts, was difficult to escape. [6]

Pagan priests fled the city, and the pagan temples were closed. The actions of the pagan priests implied they thought the gods didn’t care about the needs of the people. The Christians, however, in showing mercy and caring for others, demonstrated that they worshipped a God of mercy and love.Whereas the pagans simply tried to preserve themselves from death, throwing out the ailing and leaving carcasses in the streets, the Christians showed mercy and care for all. Click To Tweet The plague affected every house; no one was immune from its infection; but whereas the pagans simply tried to preserve themselves from death, throwing out the ailing and leaving carcasses in the streets, the Christians showed mercy and care for all. Cyprian told his people that it was nothing wonderful to cherish their own people with love, but they should show love to the heathen as well. They should overcome evil with good, practicing clemency even to those who persecuted them, and praying for their salvation. As God causes His sun to shine and gives rain showers to all, Christians as well as aliens, so Christians too should imitate their Father in showing mercy and care to all:

It becomes us to answer to our birth; and it is not fitting that those who are evidently born of God should be degenerate, but rather that the propagation of a good Father should be proved in His offspring by the emulation of His goodness![7]

In the early 4th century, famine and plague again affected many in the eastern portion of the Empire. Under Emperor Maximinus Dai (308-313), Christians were under persecution as well, yet, the Christians again sought to help others in their distress.  According to the early church historian Eusebius,

…the zeal and piety of the Christians are obvious to all the heathen.  In this awful adversity they alone gave practical proof of their sympathy and humanity.  All day long some of them tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them.  Others gathered together from all part of the city, a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all, so that their deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians.  Such actions convinced them that they alone were pious and truly reverent of God.[8]

Whether during the second century Antonine Plague, or the third century Cyprian Plague or the later plague under Maximinus, the actions of the Christians demonstrated that their lives had truly been transformed by their faith in Christ. Their actions of love and mercy to all men expressed the mercy of their Heavenly Father. They did not fear death and willingly showed mercy to others at the risk of their own lives. Conversions to Christianity increased greatly after each of these pandemics as the Christians let their light shine before men.[9]

Towards the end of the fourth century, fifty years after Constantine had established toleration for Christianity in the Roman Empire, Emperor Julian wanted to restore a polytheistic paganism as the state religion. However, in his program of restoration, he exhorted the pagans to emulate the Christians in their charities and works of mercies to others. The Christians’ works of mercies, especially during times of pestilence and plague, had been impressive attractions to the Christian faith. Julian got little response to his appeal. The pagans had no belief in everlasting life and could only live for the present world. Christians, however, demonstrated in their lives that they took seriously Jesus’ words as He ushers His sheep into the kingdom:

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’[10]


[1] Cyprian.  “On the Mortality”, Treatise VII in The Treatises of Cyprian.  Fathers of the Third Century, volume V of The Ante-Nicene Fathers.  W.W. Eerdmans, 1986, VII.14. Kyle Harper in The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton U. Press, 2015) analyzes the evidence and suggests the Cyprian Plague was a viral hemorrhagic fever like Ebola.

[2] “On the Mortality”.VII.1.

[3] “On the Mortality”, VII.26.

[4] Philippians 1:21.

[5] John 17:24.

[6] Eusebius. The Church History, trans. Paul Maier.  Kregel Publishers, 1999, 7.22.

[7] Life and Passion of Cyprian, 9. In Fathers of the Third Centuries.

[8] The Church History, 9.8.

[9] Rodney Stark.  The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion.  Harper One, 2011, 111-119.

[10] Matthew 25: 34-40.

Diana Severance

Diana Severance is Director of the Durham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University. She received her PhD in history from Rice University and is the author of several books, including Her-Story: Devotions from Twenty-One Centuries of the Christian Church; Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History; A Cord of Three Strands: Three Centuries of Christian Love Letters; The Story of Emily, a Proverbs 31 Woman; and, with her husband Gordon, Against the Gates of Hell: A Christian Missionary in a Moslem World.

Back to Top