Formation

Fascism, Pandemic, and Apathy: How Christians Led in Past Crises

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” Mark Twain allegedly said. So in addition to listening to my peers about “what is working” right now, I’ve also been curious about what faithful generations before ours did, when they faced crises like ours. What Twain meant, presumably, is that no moment before this one presented precisely the same mashup of challenges and opportunities, pressures and precipices, but if we offer our attention, we’ll see similar ones striped across the centuries before ours.

'History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.' ... No moment before this one presented precisely the same mashup of challenges and opportunities, pressures and precipices, but if we offer our attention, we’ll see similar ones… Click To Tweet

Here, in no particular order, are three vignettes of steadfast Christian leaders of yesterday, doing their best to be faithful, creative, and present in the crises they faced, each of which, I think, rhymes with our own.

Refusing retreat and ease in a pandemic

In the 1780s, the church in colonial America had a failure of nerve. Following independence, abolitionist momentum swept through the colonies. Methodist General Conferences in 1780, 1783, and 1784 passed legislation condemning slavery and prohibiting Methodists from any form of participation. Just a few years later, the General Committee of Virginia Baptists condemned slavery as a “violent deprivation of the rights of nature.”[1] Black Christians began to retool the diatribes of the Puritans, pointing out, with lament, the injustices of white Christianity.

But when the momentum hit the Southern colonies, it sputtered and died. Methodists backed down, suspending their anti-slavery legislation a year after passing it. Virginia Baptists punted to individual conscience. The majority opted for “better treatment” for enslaved people, leaving the institution of slavery intact and, in that sense, protected by a church that knew better but lacked the backbone to abolish it.

So it was after a decade of collapsed hopes that Absolom Jones and Richard Allen, founders of the first Black Episcopal congregation and first Black Methodist denomination respectively, found themselves called upon to lead through a public health crisis. Yellow fever tore through Philadelphia—at the time home not only to Jones and Allen but also to the US government—in the autumn of 1793. Roughly five thousand people, out of a city population of thirty thousand, fell to the plague in a matter of weeks.

Many wealthy, white residents did the eighteenth-century equivalent of telecommuting from “Zoom towns” outside the city, but pastors Jones and Allen led a citywide effort to provide nursing, sanitation, and burial services, sustaining great loss in their community as they did so.

When yellow fever tore through Philadelphia,... pastors Absolom Jones and Richard Allen led a citywide effort to provide nursing, sanitation, and burial services. Click To Tweet

Perhaps the most galling injuries, though, came not from the virus but from fellow citizens, accusing Philadelphia’s Black community of profiteering and plundering during the outbreak. So, having sacrificially served the city through the crisis, Allen and Jones then painstakingly gave themselves to correcting the narrative, going so far as to publish balance sheets demonstrating that the city’s Black organizations had spent nearly twice what they’d received in serving their city in crisis.

The American church’s response to the COVID pandemic has been broad and varied. My instinct, though, is that history will be kinder to those who have followed the lead of Richard Allen and Absolom Jones, sacrificing to meet needs, proclaiming the gospel with words and actions, while patiently and vigorously correcting disinformation.

Combating apathy and resistance in the pews

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Cambridge, England, a young, recently converted Anglican priest named Charles Simeon was trying to put spiritual defibrillator paddles on the heart of an apathetic college-town congregation. Not only was the congregation Simeon inherited at Holy Trinity largely apathetic (a later writer would call it “sermon proof”), but the things they did rouse themselves for often took the form of outright resistance to the young pastor. In a decade-long battle of wills he faced off against lay leaders who locked the pews and even the church doors to make it more difficult for him to pastor effectively.

With remarkable patience, Simeon began to pour himself into discipling small gatherings of university students in his home, all while not neglecting his congregation. After more than a decade, the tides shifted, with resistance and apathy turning to warm-hearted piety; arms that were once folded across chests now served the city. Charles Simeon pastored Holy Trinity for the remainder of his life (fifty-four years).

I don’t think there’s any way he would have survived that long, much less the church have thrived as it did, were it not for his humility and patience. Simeon nurtured his own sense of humility, preached it to his congregation, and coached himself to let God fight the battle against his staunchest resistance in the pews. He writes, “I hoped that God would at last effect change; and I found, after about ten years, that I was not disappointed” (emphasis added).

Charles Simeon nurtured his own sense of humility, preached it to his congregation, and coached himself to let God fight the battle against his staunchest resistance in the pews. Click To Tweet

From the balcony of later life, he was able to reflect on some of the brashness of his early years of ministry. At least some of that resistance and apathy, he judged, might have had as much to do with the pulpit as with the pew. Simeon thought about what he would do differently if he had it to do over again: “I would endeavor to ‘win souls,’ and ‘speak to them the truth in love’; not considering so much what I was able to say, as what they were able to receive” (emphasis added).

I haven’t lived fifty-four years, much less pastored that long. But I want to be able to look over my shoulder at a long obedience, a long patience, and have the humility to see where I might have been part of the problem.

Actively persisting amid division and decay

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s first taste of church leadership was in a German expat church in Spain. He was an associate pastor for an affluent congregation in Barcelona who were friendly enough but with a “benign disinterest in religion.”[2] The late 1920s saw growing economic disparity and his congregants enjoyed the privileges that considerable disposable income provides in perpetual sunshine.

A scant decade later and Bonhoeffer’s own denomination, the German Lutheran Church, was sharply polarized as the majority were swept up into the nationalistic, macho-Jesus movement spearheaded by pawns of the Third Reich or were numbed into acquiescence by a totalizing reading of Romans 13. A small minority, which became known as the Confessing Church and of which Bonhoeffer became the mouthpiece, tried to call the church back to the deep-center current of historic Christianity. When even the Confessing Church movement seemed to lose its backbone, Bonhoeffer threw himself into discipling a clandestine cohort of next-gen leaders, most only a couple of years younger than himself.

When the Confessing Church movement seemed to lose its backbone, Dietrich Bonhoeffer threw himself into discipling a clandestine cohort of next-gen leaders. Click To Tweet

The two years Bonhoeffer led his students at Finkenwalde— more an intentional community than a seminary—were the highpoint of Bonhoeffer’s life. The students were a rag-tag bunch of dissenters, drawn not from the esteemed academic halls of Bonhoeffer’s own background but rather from the ranks of ordinary German believers, eager to kneel before the Prince of Peace rather than to salute the führer. Bonhoeffer’s school was part Protestant neo-monastic experimentation, part giddy improvisation, part joy-fueled resistance to a regime of terror and death.

Finkenwalde was shut down. The students were scattered. But until the point of his imprisonment, Bonhoeffer stoked the embers of his students’ love for Christ and each other with a drip feed of letters and instruction. He is known for his writings and his resistance, but more than anything else Bonhoeffer’s genius in his cultural crisis was to pour himself into a faithful few.

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Their contexts were vastly different than ours, and even their crises were not entirely the same. But, still, they shepherded and served, prayed and preached, resisted and rebuilt, through disease and apathy and even war. I’m grateful that history doesn’t repeat itself, just as I’m grateful that the rhymes of these faithful predecessors help me to imagine and then to improvise a path through the crises of our day.


[1] Albert Raboteau, Canaan Land, 2001, pg 19

[2] Charles Marsh, Strange Glory, 2014, pg 68