Revisiting Cholera in this time of COVID: Exploration of Conscience and Faith

By Sharon M. Bowler

I often have referred to the historical research that I do as following in the methodology of Neil Postman’s “Building of Bridges.” And I have often quoted a 20 March 1841 Kingston Chronicle article by Rev. R. W. Evans:

“The mere collection indeed of dead facts and of obsolete fragments, is as useless as it is foolish, but when it is accomplished by a spirit which, by means of these materials, can cement the present times to the past, and draw reasonable omens respecting the future, it is both useful and wise.”

I write primarily about conscience and faith and try to explore both past and present in order to provide positive opportunities of growth in the future. In these times of COVID-19, I have experienced opportunities of inspiration with regard to conscience and faith as I meet virtually with my fellow Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist (FEB) Central chaplains. Many chaplains continuing to serve while wrestling with all too real potential illness, personal and family concerns and the challenges of new routines and procedures and differing opportunities of outreach. I felt drawn to revisit my own research regarding a previous pandemic—the Cholera Epidemic in Montreal. Were there similarities and guidance that I might find in the past? I found similarities, of course, and a few words to take to heart.

Cholera first entered Montreal on 9 June 1832. The medical community saw several thousand people die and many more attacked by the disease. The medical community recognized that the emigrant steamboat, the Voyageur, brought Cholera into Montreal. The passengers were detained on the Montreal streets with little more than a blanket for fear their movement would spread the disease throughout the colony. This was a disease for which doctors had very little understanding and no cure. The disease spread within Montreal and some neighbouring villages including the village of Caughnawaaga. This First Nation’s village experienced a great loss of life.

As the dead in Montreal increased, carts traveled the streets delivering the dead to mass grave burial sites in the Montreal burying-ground. The medical community fearing a possible wave of disease and realizing that a cure for the disease was not at hand, moved towards implementing a preventative system of public health. Geoffrey Bilson’s A Darkened House: Cholera in Nineteenth-Century Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1980) provides insight into this time in Canadian history.

The 1830s Public Health measures included the deployment of health inspectors to ensure that the community followed health guidelines. The use of lime to disinfect the surroundings, camphor in handkerchiefs to ward off poor air, and the burning of pots of rosin and fired “field-pieces” to purify the air were methods thought to be preventatives.

Documents reflecting conscience and faith during times of pandemic can provide guidance as we serve God today. A young doctor who found himself treating the sick and dying during Montreal’s Cholera Epidemic left his diary for future readers. This doctor records how he was able to spend time in meditation with God, contemplating his difficulties, escapes from danger and progress in his studies, duties and faith. He left behind his thought about those he was trying to heal. He felt that life posed a “shortness,” “uncertainty,” and an “insidiousness,” and lamented on the many that at the beginning of the year were alive and who were now dead.  He wrote:

“is it not lamentable to reflect . . . (that) there are so many who have not as yet heard of a Saviour and consequently are ignorant of the way of salvation and still more lamentable that so few among those who have heard thereof, have embraced it.”

He reasoned that if it was only by chance that people lived and died, then it would not matter the path taken in life, as there would be no incentive. He resolved within himself that a life of temperance and order would be his choice. He believed God presented the incentive that so many were rejecting. God’s power of wisdom, justice and mercy he realized did not protect him from an unavoidable death which he believed could come at anytime. He summed up his decision to choose his life’s road, and decided to pursue “reason rather than inclination, boldness rather than temerity, liberty rather than slavery to lusts, and discretion in serving his God.” He was blessed with a long life of medical service to his community and a heart filled with a love of God and a desire to serve God with integrity as long as he lived.

Reason, boldness, liberty, discretion, and integrity, are words to fill the conscience and provides a life’s path foundation as we walk in faith to serve our God during these times of COVID-19 and beyond.

* * *

Sharon Bowler, EdD, is a Chaplain with the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada and an Indigenous Services Canada Casual Teacher at Six Nations Schools. She is also a Member at Large with the Canadian Baptist Historical Society.

**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**

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