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Why do pandemics come and what is God’s role in them? Church historians discuss the topic

Pandemics perplex. Long after the anxiety has receded, the suffering has subsided, and the dead have been buried, troubling questions remain. Epidemic disease often seems to strike indiscriminately, taking the young and the old, the healthy and the vulnerable, men and women, the righteous and the wicked.

“Where is God in a pandemic?” asked a Jesuit priest in a New York Times editorial in late March 2020 as COVID-19 bore down upon the city. “The honest answer,” wrote Father James Martin, “is: We don’t know.” But he believed that Christians and non-Christians alike could find solace in the example of Jesus Christ, who chose to be fully human and enter into a world of suffering, who consistently sought out the sick and the suffering, and who blessed them throughout His ministry.1

Religious figures in past ages have not been as hesitant as Father Martin to answer the question as pandemics have ravaged humanity. Their answers often centered on the idea that pandemics strike to punish sinners. In an age saturated with religion and before germ theory and modern medicine, this idea had tremendous explanatory power.

Joseph Smith and the Saints faced these questions as a cholera epidemic swept the United States in the early years of the Church. The epidemic began in India in 1826, appeared in Canada in June 1832, and gradually made its way into the United States, traveling generally along waterways.2 As thousands died, panic and anxiety spread among the public. “Every new story adds to the general stock of alarm; and under such feverish sensibility, much anxiety is created,” one newspaper reported.3 Although the pandemic had eased by 1834, smaller outbreaks continued.4 Preachers were confident that the disease was sent by God to punish sinners.5

The Saints followed the news of the spread of cholera with deep concern. In July 1832, Joseph Smith wrote to William W. Phelps that “cholera is cutting down its hundreds in the city of New York” and was “raging” in other cities in the eastern United States. Joseph also relayed information from a letter he had received from his cousin Almira Mack Scobey, who was visiting friends in Detroit: “cholera is raging in that city to an alarming degree, hundreds of families are fleeing to the country and the country people have torn up the bridges and stopped all communication and even shot peoples horses down under them who attempt to cross the river on any express.” The disease was “so malignant that it baffles the skill of the most eminent Phisicians.”6

Americans had reason to fear. The disease struck quickly, violently, and ruthlessly. Those afflicted with it experienced “a torment of the bowels,” as well as vomiting, “insatiable thirst, tension of the sinews and calves of the legs and arms,” and fever.7 Because of the diarrhea and vomiting, the disease could lead to severe dehydration and death in a matter of hours.

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Joseph Smith and the Saints encountered cholera most tragically at the end of the Camp of Israel expedition (later known as Zion’s Camp). In 1833, Church members had been driven from Jackson County, Missouri. In the early months of 1834, Joseph had led a group of over 200 men, accompanied by a smaller number of women and children, from Ohio to Missouri in an attempt to help the Saints return to their homes. After arriving in Missouri, Joseph received a revelation in June 1834, informing the camp that the Lord recognized their sacrifice but the time had not yet come to reclaim lands in Jackson County.8

As the expedition started to disband and prepare for their return, the cholera hit. According to Heber C. Kimball, “About 12 o clock at night we began to hear the cries of those who were seized with the cholera and they fell before the destroyer; even those on guard fell with their guns in their hands to the ground.” The nightmarish scene continued the next day: “We had to exert ourselves considerable to attend to the sick for they fell on every hand.”9 Amasa Lyman found it difficult to describe the camp’s condition: “This was a scene that can be more easily imagined than described, to see men stricken down in a moment, and in a short hour the ruddy glow of health displaced by the palor of death.”10

For the next several days, members of the camp struggled with the sickness. It even spread into the community of Saints living in Clay County, Missouri. Thirteen members of the expedition perished from the disease; Sidney Gilbert, one of the Church’s leaders in Missouri, also died. The youngest victim was six-year-old Phebe Murdock, a daughter of a Camp of Israel member, who was staying with the Gilberts.11

Most camp members responded to the outbreak with humility, faith, and service. Like religious leaders in other days who walked into sickrooms ridden with disease, putting themselves in peril, the men of Zion’s Camp tended to the sick.12 There was no social distancing here. Joseph Bates Noble remembered that he spent nearly two days “puking and purging powerfully then cramping from head to foot in the most powerful manner with a burning fever in my bowels.” Seeing his intense suffering, Brigham Young, Joseph Young, Heber Kimball, and several others encircled him and prayed for his relief. “Never had I experenced before such a manifestations of the blessing of god as at this time,” Noble stated. “Through the faith of my brethren that was in exercise for me, I got up and with there assistance put on my close [clothes].”13

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Heber Kimball, after spending hours praying for those afflicted and burying several who died, also contracted the disease. In his suffering, he went to the home of Peter Whitmer in Clay County and found Vienna Jaques, another Church member, there. “I received great kindness” from the Whitmers, Heber recalled, as well as from Vienna, “who administered to my wants and also to my brethren.” Reflecting back on their service to him, he noted, “May the Lord reward them for their kindness.”14

Seeing the suffering of those who had selflessly joined the Camp of Israel to rescue the Missouri Saints, Joseph Smith was pained. When his teenage cousin Jesse Smith died from cholera, Joseph took it “very hard,” according to James H. Rollins, a friend of Jesse’s living in Missouri, “as he undoubtedly had been entrusted with his care by the boy’s parents.”15 Even though Joseph himself contracted the disease, he still helped those in need. “Joseph Smith and others, strove with there mights to rebuke the destroyer,” Joseph Bates Noble remembered, “and continued to do it, till the lord told him [cholera] to go away.”16

Like most Christians in history who have faced pandemics, Joseph Smith and the Saints worried that the scourge had been sent by God to punish them. During the march to Missouri, the camp had suffered from constant complaining and bickering. On June 3, Joseph had stood on a wagon wheel and told the camp that the Lord was not pleased with their “murmuring, and fault finding and want of humility” and was preparing “a severe scourge.” “I cannot help it,” Joseph told the camp members. “By repentance and humility and the prayer of faith, the chastisement may be alleviated,” he continued, “but cannot be entirely turned away.”17

Trying to process this information, 16-year-old George A. Smith, cousin to the Prophet, first believed that the scourge would come at the hands of the Saints’ enemies, who were threatening to attack the expedition seemingly at every turn. George came to believe, however, that Joseph’s prophecy was fulfilled not by the sword but by the cholera. Other men in Zion’s Camp, including Joseph at least for a time, agreed that the disease was a chastisement from the Lord.

But if Joseph believed that the Camp of Israel had been punished with cholera, he later gained additional insight. The following February, he told brothers Brigham and Joseph Young that he had seen a vision of those who had died of the disease. “The Lord knows, if I get a mansion as bright as theirs,” Joseph Smith told them, “I ask no more.” “At this relation he wept,” Joseph Young recorded, “and for some time could not speak.”18

Joseph Smith and the other Saints tried to understand what was happening to them, turning first to the idea of divine punishment. But, ultimately, Joseph’s vision showed him the individuals who died were in heaven, suggesting that their suffering and deaths were not a punishment for sins. As in many issues in life, when facing a pandemic and trying to answer the question of “why,” “we see through a glass, darkly.”19 We generally do not understand fully why pandemics come, what is the mix between germs and contingent human actions, and what is the role of the divine. But, even not knowing some things, we can (like Joseph and the early Saints) pray and seek priesthood blessings and serve others when faced with such challenges.

In the April 2020 general conference, Church leaders—facing an empty auditorium but speaking to Latter-day Saints around the world—sought to uplift their audience with expressions of sympathy and with messages of looking forward. Their themes were not apocalyptic, nor did they speak about the punishments of God. Rather, they pointed to the future and toward Jesus Christ. As President Russell M. Nelson said, “During times of deep distress, as when illness reaches pandemic proportions, the most natural thing for us to do is to call upon our Heavenly Father and His Son—the Master Healer—to show forth Their marvelous power to bless the people of the earth.”20 The members of the Camp of Israel had learned the importance of turning to God in their distress, just as we have been counseled today.

Lead image: Shutterstock

Matthew J. Grow is a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers Project and the managing director of the Church History Department.

Matthew C. Godfrey is the managing historian and a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers Project.


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Notes

  1. James Martin, “Where Is God in a Pandemic?” New York Times, Mar. 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/22/opinion/coronavirus-religion.html.
  2. Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 25–34; J. S. Chambers, The Conquest of Cholera: America’s Greatest Scourge (New York: Macmillan, 1938), 64.
  3. “The Cholera” and “Our City,” Detroit Courier, July 12, 1832, [2].
  4. G. F. Pyle, “The Diffusion of Cholera in the United States in the Nineteenth Century,” Geographical Analysis 1, no. 1 (Jan. 1969): 59–65; John S. Bowron, Observations on the Origin and Causes of Malignant Cholera (New York: Charles S. Francis, 1835), 21–24.
  5. Adam Jortner, “Cholera, Christ, and Jackson: The Epidemic of 1832 and the Origins of Christian Politics in Antebellum America,” Journal of the Early Republic 27, no. 2 (2007):233–64.
  6. “Cholera Morbus,” The Evening and the Morning Star, July 1832, 1:32; Letter to William. W. Phelps, July 31, 1832, in JSP, D2:267–69.
  7. T. H. Pollard, “Asiatic Cholera and Cholera Morbus,” Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 57 (Sept. 10, 1857): 109.
  8. Revelation, June 22, 1834, in JSP, D4:74 [D&C 105:9].
  9. Autobiography of Heber C. Kimball, 16, CHL.
  10. “Amasa Lyman’s History,” Millennial Star, Aug. 12, 1865, 27:502.
  11. Max H Parkin, “Zion’s Camp Cholera Victims Monument Dedication,” Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation Newsletter 15 (Fall 1997): 4–5.
  12. An estimated 42–45 percent of priests during the black death (the bubonic plague) in Europe died, a percentage higher than the rest of the population because of the priests’ service to the sick. See John Kelly, The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 224. Cholera is a water-borne bacterial disease, and transmission generally occurs through drinking or eating contaminated water or food. The participants in the Camp of Israel likely did not understand the method of transmission.
  13. Joseph Bates Noble, Autobiography, 8–9, in Reminiscences, 1836–66, CHL.
  14. Autobiography of Heber C. Kimball, 15–17, CHL.
  15. James H. Rollins, Reminiscences, 5, CHL.
  16. Noble, Autobiography, 9.
  17. George A. Smith, Memoirs, 26–27.
  18. Joseph Young, A History of the Organization of the Seventies (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1878).
  19. 1 Corinthians 13:12. Throughout their lives, many participants in the Camp of Israel understood the cholera pandemic as at least partly an expression of God’s punishment. (See, for example, “Zion’s Camp Festival,” Deseret News, Oct. 13, 1866, 4.)
  20. Russell M. Nelson, “Opening the Heavens for Help,” General Conference, Apr. 2020, ChurchofJesusChrist.org.
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