Disease, religion, and the “here and now”

Smallpox didn’t rate a line in the ‘Western Civilization textbook that I used in 1961—The Course of Civilization, by Strayer, Gatzke, and Harison.  In fact, the Plague, or Black Death, which some now think wiped out a third of Europe’s population in the mid fourteenth century, gets less than a page. Ironically, the disease is credited with preceding and influencing “bloody peasant rebellions…, senseless civil wars,” and “the witchcraft delusion,” in which “innocent men and women were falsely accused of practicing black magic.”
Prior to Alfred Crosby’s linking biology to traditional history, I guess that was par for the course: history was wars and politics; disease was for the biologists and epidemiologists to discover and discuss, and poets to mourn. Mention was brief and, like the Salem Witch Trials, a sideshow left to novelists and preachers to explore.
Even without the plague, life in medieval Europe—for the more than 80 percent who were peasant farmers—was always precarious. If the child made it past the first year or two, self-immunizing against common diseases in the process, life expectancy might be 30 or 40 years. Accidents and infections were rampant.  A year or three of drought or heavy rains brought hunger and sometimes starvation. And the wealthy classes—e.g., nobles and churchmen—fought and enlisted the peasantry to fight—and die—for them.
As the Little Ice Age—roughly 1400-1850—tightened its grip on the old world, thousands ran or were shipped to the new world as indentured servants. Over half of the Europeans who came to North America between 1600 and 1776 came that way. And by 1600, more than half of the indigenous people in North America had already been slain by smallpox, measles, and other maladies mostly sent ahead by Europe’s advance guard of explorers and fishermen. Eurocentric thinking—which saw European tools and religious beliefs as superior to anything “discovered” in America, quickly covered over 30,000 years or more of complex civilizations and histories as white Europeans marched across the continent.
We don’t’ know what life expectancies were among Indian tribes—though it surely varied greatly from tribe to tribe and even continent to continent. And the Little Ice Age and the Great Warming that preceded it took their tolls on the populations in the Americas before European arrival. In the Great Warming, Brian Fagin accounts for huge population losses on the California coast, in the desert southwest, and among the Mayans and pre-Incans. In other words, life for indigenous Americans before the European arrival was precarious too.
Among small and dispersed tribes in areas of great natural resources, as in what is now the Pacific Northwest, it might have been easier to cope with weather and disease before the Europeans. But we know now that these diseases crept in—from the sea, with horse-mounted Indians, with the fur trade—well ahead of the Europeans who carried them. With horses and guns and metal pots came smallpox, measles—and missionaries.
This week’s “aha” moment came when it occurred to me that the Indians and the early white settlers held very similar religious views—or at least “goals” for their religious practices and beliefs. With life expectancy short and a world full of hazards, what religion offered was a bit of power and some solace in dealing with it! Lewis and Clark doctored—and they had guns. The four Indians who went back to St. Lewis to find Clark were looking for some of the white religion’s power. Father Desmet and his Catholic troops among the Flathead wedged their way in with ceremony and similarities—weyakin/angels; baptism/sweat lodge; chapel/long house. But when the Indians were asked to give up their own rather than supplement it with the new, they chased the Catholics off.
And of course white doctor Whitman’s ineffectiveness in dealing with measles led to his Indian death sentence.
There might have been pious Christians who carried real visions of an eternal hereafter, and Indians I’m sure felt that spirits continued after death. How long and in what form seems less vivid. I surmise spiritual presences who might be leaned on with all other religious tools—weyakins, dances and ceremonies—in dealing with the day to day struggles of life. My guess is that for most white settlers looking at high infant death losses and 40 years as old, religion was just such a tool. You did what you could to build a future for offspring—and to acquire goods to enjoy now. And baptized and genuflected and prayed for help. And, Indian or white, if you were a man (yes, my guess is that gender roles on the American frontier were firm and exceptions rare) you might pursue fame, which Indian oral tradition and white books told you did endure.
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