Americans watched anxiously as the pandemic crept toward them, spreading with seeming inevitability from its origin in Asia to Europe and then, crossing the Atlantic, to the United States. When the disease arrived, it brought the country to a halt: Ports closed, storefronts shuttered, and once-bustling downtowns emptied. Churches shut their doors. An eerie quiet fell on American cities.

This describes the scene in the early 1830s, as Americans faced the arrival of cholera—a deadly disease endemic to the Ganges Delta that swept across the globe with devastating effects several times during the 19th century.

Yet the description also fits the first months of 2020. Like antebellum Americans, we fretted about when the disease might arrive on our shores. Like them, we raced to understand the disease—its cause, its cure, and how it might be prevented. Like them, we undertook belated public health interventions even as we worried about the economic consequences of those interventions. And now, just as in the 1830s, American Christians are confronting the pandemic within frameworks provided by their beliefs.

Given these parallels, despite all that has changed in medicine and religion in the intervening 190 years, can Christians learn anything from their antebellum forebearers?

We see in their responses to cholera a common impulse to provide moral meaning to the pandemic. But they varied widely in their approaches to those who suffered the most. Christians with socioeconomic and cultural power were blinded to the plight of the vulnerable by their visions of a disciplined, hard-working Protestant nation. It took Christians on the margins to speak on behalf of the sick, the poor, and the immigrant.

What hindsight enables us to ...

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