Thursday, April 30, 2009

Religious Responses to Epidemic Disease

Randall Stephens

According to the New York Times: "Health officials continue to report mild cases of swine flu throughout the United States and worldwide. The number of deaths in Mexico that officials suspect to have been caused by the flu is 159." The NYT also features a map that tracks cases by region. Schools and private companies have laid out plans of action. Churches and mosques are urging the faithful to reconsider "several traditional observances," according to the Raleigh News & Observer. "At St. Mel Parish in Fair Oaks, Calif., congregants will be asked not to shake hands during the exchange of peace or hold hands when the community recites the Lord's Prayer. The church will not offer the Communion cup during Mass."

For some historical perspective on this coverage--and perhaps to counter the shrieking, doomsday coverage of swine flu--I post here a link to a forum we ran in Historically Speaking several months ago. In the intro to “Religious Responses to Epidemic Disease: A Roundtable,” Donald Yerxa writes:

Thanks to the seminal work of William McNeill and Alfred Crosby, historians pay much more attention to the impact disease has had in history. Historians, however, have been slower to consider the nature and variety of religious responses to epidemic disease. To help readers think about this relatively neglected topic, we invited Andrew Cunningham to comment in general terms about religion and widespread disease in the West. We also asked David Arnold and Howard Phillips to explore two specific cases outside of Europe—one from India, the other from South Africa. Then we commissioned Duane Osheim to use these essays to comment on the overall topic of religion and epidemic disease in history.

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