When an epidemic struck in the ancient world, pagan city officials offered gifts to the gods but nothing for their suffering citizens. Even in healthy times, those who had no one to care for them, or whose care placed too great a burden on the family, were left out to die.
Christians found this intolerable, and they set about to take care of these people and others similarly afflicted. They did so because, Ferngren writes, “Early Christian philanthropy was informed by the theological concept of the imago Dei, that humans were created in the image of God.”
This led not only to a belief in the responsibility to aid others and the inherent worth of every human being, but also to a belief in the sacredness of the body itself. “It was to save the body that Christ took on flesh in the Incarnation. Not only the soul, which in traditional pagan thought was eternal, but the composite of body and soul, which constituted man, was to be resurrected.”
The idea of imago Dei also led to a redefinition of the idea of the poor. Rights in a city or society were given to members, and all members received benefits. Those outside were offered none. Christianity, in addition to seeing all people as “neighbors,” developed a special consideration for the poor. Just as God demonstrated in the Incarnation his solidarity with those who suffer, so the members of his “body” must demonstrate their solidarity with the suffering poor.
The classical understanding of civic care for those who suffered “was not merely insufficient to provide the motivation for private charity; it actively discouraged it,” writes Ferngren. “Christianity, however, insisted that the love of God required the spontaneous manifestation of personal charity toward one’s brothers: one could not claim to love God without loving his brother.”As a result of these theological beliefs, Christians developed a robust system for caring for the poor, the ill, widows and orphans, and other members of society in need of care. When the plague struck, this system provided an opportunity for churches to quickly expand and care for those outside the church.
As early as A.D. 251, according to letters from the time, the church in Rome cared for 1,500 widows and those who were distressed. A hundred years later, Antioch supported 3,000 widows, virgins, sick, poor, and travelers. This care was organized by the church and delivered through deacons and volunteer societies. The churches in major cities had significant resources at their disposal, and though their care was not professional, it is likely to have saved lives and aided the growth of the church.
When the plague of Cyprian struck in 250 and lasted for years, this volunteer corps became the only organization in Roman cities that cared for the dying and buried the dead. Ironically, as the church dramatically increased its care, the Roman government began persecuting the church more heavily.
Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote, according to Ferngren, “that presbyters, deacons, and laymen took charge of the treatment of the sick, ignoring the danger to their own lives. … Their activity contrasted with that of the pagans, who deserted the sick or threw the bodies of the dead out into the streets.” This care was extended even to those persecuting the church at the time.
This care likely led to much higher rates of survival for Christians. And after the plague, with a staff of workers and an existing administrative structure, “Christian medical care became outwardly focused, now enlarged to include many who were victims of the plague.”
Finally, when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, these services were formalized in a number of institutions, including the first hospitals. “The experience gained by the congregation-centered care of the sick over several centuries gave early Christians the ability to create rapidly in the late fourth century a network of efficiently functioning institutions that offered charitable medical care, first in monastic infirmaries and later in the hospital,” Ferngren writes.