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Book review: The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History

J. N. Hays. The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History. Rutgers, 2003.

During the coronavirus epidemic of 2020, I decided to pull this book off my shelf and read it. I’m glad I did, since it approaches the history of epidemics and disease in Western civilization from a historical and social perspective, explaining how society reacted to such epidemics as the Black Death, leprosy, typhus, cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox, polio, the flu epidemic of 1918, and AIDS. Hays traces the history of how physicians, governments, religion and common people responded to these epidemics. In particular, he gives a history of the development of modern medical science.
Although the book was written long before the international crisis of COVID-19, many lessons in his book will be of interest to readers today. He sees epidemic as a social issue, not just a medical issue, because it affects all of society.
Religious views toward disease have often been a factor. During the bubonic plague (Black Death) of the late Middle Ages, people often thought God was punishing them, and groups of “flagellants” even drew their own blood to atone for sins, assuming the role of Jesus’ sacrifice. Diseases like syphilis and AIDS were especially associated with sexual sin, but also tuberculosis (formerly called “consumption”) and polio were associated with the immorality in filthy slums, until the presence of these diseases among the rich and famous reframed attitudes. Hays tends to be negative toward religious faith, saying the scientific revolution “undercut traditional Christian orthodoxy” (p. 88), although he does not explain how, and later admits that the devout Christian scientist, Isaac Newton, appealed to “the very first Cause, which certainly is not mechanical” (p. 99). On the other hand, Hays also points out the limitations of science, holding in the mirror of irony the bold claims of scientists in 1872 that “men will master the forces of Nature” (p. 213) and in 1955 a news writer’s claim that “man one day may be armed with vaccine shields against every infectious ill that besets him” (p. 240).
Hays shows how disease was used and abused by the powerful, particularly governments, sometimes to protect, and sometimes to control. Italian city-states often quarantined people during the bubonic plague in an attempt to stop the spread of disease, much to the chagrin of businessmen and churches not allowed to meet or trade. Governments cleaned up slums, installed sanitary running water and garbage collection, and required vaccinations, all with a view to better health. However, democracies that valued personal freedoms struggled with this approach, as cities like Hamburg, Germany about 1900 were reluctant to impose vaccinations against the liberties of its people, until the city saw evidence of its effectiveness. City officials in San Francisco denied the existence of plague in Chinatown in 1900, calling it a “scare” and made it a felony to tell the news (p. 183). Governments fighting in World War I suppressed the news stories of the flu epidemic of 1918-19, so as not to divert attention from the war effort, thus it was nicknamed “Spanish flu” because Spain, a non-combatant in the war, reported on it freely. The darkest story of disease was the use of eugenics and euthanasia by Nazi Germany, which considered Jews “diseased” and also exterminated “the tubercular, the homeless, those unwilling or unable to work, and criminals of many sorts” (p. 287). Perhaps the most sinister destruction was the elimination of most of the Native American population by diseases that were brought by Europeans to the New World.
Socially, Hays discusses how social isolation protected people from epidemics in the Middle Ages, when people rarely travelled outside their own villages, and the Black Death only occured after cities arose in Europe and trade developed from nation to nation. He notes that major advances in transportation such as steamships and railroads provided opportunities for plagues to spread rapidly as travel from continent to continent was reduced to days, not giving viruses time to die before they spread to new victims.
Social changes also occurred for the better to prevent disease, as it became socially accepted to take baths, wash hands frequently, drink pastuerized milk, and it became socially unacceptable to spit or sneeze in public, or smoke tobacco in public. One wonders what social changes may occur after our current epidemic, but that is likely the subject of another book.

The Declaration of Independence

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In Congress, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.


Georgia

Button Gwinnett

Lyman Hall

George Walton

 

North Carolina

William Hooper

Joseph Hewes

John Penn

 

South Carolina

Edward Rutledge

Thomas Heyward, Jr.

Thomas Lynch, Jr.

Arthur Middleton

 

Massachusetts

John Hancock

Maryland

Samuel Chase

William Paca

Thomas Stone

Charles Carroll of Carrollton

 

Virginia

George Wythe

Richard Henry Lee

Thomas Jefferson

Benjamin Harrison

Thomas Nelson, Jr.

Francis Lightfoot Lee

Carter Braxton

 

Pennsylvania

Robert Morris

Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Franklin

John Morton

George Clymer

James Smith

George Taylor

James Wilson

George Ross

Delaware

Caesar Rodney

George Read

Thomas McKean

 

New York

William Floyd

Philip Livingston

Francis Lewis

Lewis Morris

 

New Jersey

Richard Stockton

John Witherspoon

Francis Hopkinson

John Hart

Abraham Clark

 

New Hampshire

Josiah Bartlett

William Whipple

 

Massachusetts

Samuel Adams

John Adams

Robert Treat Paine

Elbridge Gerry

 

Rhode Island

Stephen Hopkins

William Ellery

 

Connecticut

Roger Sherman

Samuel Huntington

William Williams

Oliver Wolcott

 

New Hampshire

Matthew Thornton

DeclarationOfIndependence

Book review: “The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religon in America”

FoundingFathers
Frank Lambert, professor of history at Purdue University, does an excellent job of surveying this complex topic over a 200-year period. He does so thoroughly, yet concisely, in only 296 pages. While making generalizations at times, he often illustrates his points with quotations from original sources of the time period.

He begins by criticizing extremists on both sides of the issue, and proceeds to present a balanced approach. However, as I will explain at the end of this review, he shows his bias at the end.

Lambert’s thesis is this: America WAS first settled by people who wanted to make it a Christian nation, whether Puritans in New England, Anglicans in Virginia, or Quakers and others in Pennsylvania. These early founders had a vision of making America “a city on a hill,” a model Christian commonwealth. However, two major influences led the founding fathers to establish a government that separated church and state. These two influences were the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening. Men like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, who were influenced by the Enlightenment, felt that men should be free to use their own reason in matters of religion. The Baptists and others who benefitted from the rapid growth of “free” churches in the Great Awakening were persecuted by established churches and wished to have no established church, so they joined with men like Jefferson in calling for separation of church and state.

Lambert shows that there was great division over these issues, and gives interesting anecdotes and quotations from both sides. He quotes frequently from religious leaders on both sides of the issue. However, near the end of the book he spends much more time quoting Republicans like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and gives little space to Federalists like George Washington and John Adams. At one point, on page 161, Lambert implies that John Adams was a deist, even though biographies of Adams have shown him to be a devout Christian with a Puritan heritage.

Lambert shows his view in his conclusion, as he criticizes accomodationists such as Judge William Rehnquist and “religious right” preachers like Pat Robertson.

While Lambert gives both sides of the argument, he clearly leads the reader to his own separationist interpretation. Because the book is so full of useful information, I highly recommend it as a textbook on the subject, but let the reader understand that Lambert has his own bias, too.

Guest blog: Vietnam vet reflects on Memorial Day

(This guest blog is by my father, retired Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Robert H. Rogers, pictured here in 1969 with our family before he left for Vietnam, and as he looks today, with my mother. Here my Dad reflects upon Memorial Day through the harsh experiences of his first days as a chaplain in the Vietnam War. I appreciate my father’s service to our country. It was a great sacrifice for him and our family, as we spent a year apart from him while he was at war, and my mom had to take care of me, in the sixth grade, and my younger brother, Todd, and sister, Nancy. It was 1969-1970.)

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What does Memorial Day mean to me? It is a time to remember those who have served, but especially those who have given their lives in defense of our country.

I have many memories. Just a few days after I had arrived in Vietnam as a relatively young Army Chaplain, I was introduced to the reality of war. I flew out to a forward base in a helicopter and was dropped off with the expectation that I would come back to our base on the resupply helicopter later that day. But that helicopter never came because of a fire fight the company got into with a contingent of the North Vietnamese army. It was away from the compound where I and a few of the company waited. During this fight, the company commander and several others were killed. So after spending the night there I was asked to have a memorial service for those who had lost their lives. I did so even though I was totally unprepared both mentally and emotionally. That was the first of many memorial services I conducted during my year in Vietnam. I remember these and those who have died in all of our wars.

I also remember the sacrifice of those who fought but survived. I have some church friends who are veterans of Word War II. One of them spent about 24 hours floating with his life jacket after the ship he was on was shot out from under him. I remember his service and many others like him. I am grateful to them and to God for the free country we live in.

Guest blog: Afghan vet tells what Memorial Days means

(This is a guest blog from my cousin, Brad Alford, shown here with his fiance, Laura Tucker. Brad is a Lieutenant in the United States Army, and veteran of Afghanistan. A big thanks to Brad for taking time to write his thoughts, and most of all for his service to our country.)

Memorial Day is definitely a day to sit and enjoy time with family. This is my first Memorial Day since my tour to Afghanistan. I can tell you that as a veteran now, holidays are much more special. Memorial Day is a day that is reserved for those who have fought but more importantly to me it is reserved for those who have died for our nation and its freedoms. I am currently out at a lake in Campbellsville, KY with my fiance and family. I couldn’t be happier than where I am at currently in my life. Holidays are important to enjoy with friends and family, but it is important to remember the reason for the holiday. Like Christmas, it is very much distorted sometimes into what is more convenient for everyone.

For me, Memorial Day is a day for me to spend time with family and friends, relax and take time away from the daily grind of work. Last year, I was in the middle of Kajran, Daykundi Province, Afghanistan. We were on a 2 day mission out to the district center to spread democracy and security for the locals. We would have weekly, sometimes bi weekly, shura’s about local security. No matter the pain of what I went through last year in Afghanistan, while a great sacrifice, pales in comparison to the ultimate sacrifice that those before me made and those after me will continue to make.