Warfare of Science with Theology   Chapter XIV: From Fetich to Hygiene

The Relation of Sanitary Sciene to Religion

The question may now arise whether this progress in sanitary science has been purchased at any real sacrifice of religion in its highest sense. One piece of recent history indicates an answer to this question. The Second Empire in France had its head in Napoleon III, a noted Voltairean. At the climax of his power he determined to erect an Academy of Music which should be the noblest building of its kind. It was projected on a scale never before known, at least in modern times, and carried on for years, millions being lavished upon it. At the same time the emperor determined to rebuild the Hotel-Dieu, the great Paris hospital; this, too, was projected on a greater scale than anything of the kind ever before known, and also required millions. But in the erection of these two buildings the emperor's determination was distinctly made known, that with the highest provision for æ sthetic enjoyment there should be a similar provision, moving on parallel lines, for the relief of human suffering. This plan was carried out to the letter: the Palace of the Opera and the Hotel-Dieu went on with equal steps, and the former was not allowed to be finished before the latter. Among all the ``most Christian kings'' of the house of Bourbon who had preceded him for five hundred years, history shows no such obedience to the religious and moral sense of the nation. Catharine de' Medici and her sons, plunging the nation into the great wars of religion, never showed any such feeling; Louis XIV, revoking the Edict of Nantes for the glory of God, and bringing the nation to sorrow during many generations, never dreamed of making the construction of his palaces and public buildings wait upon the demands of charity. Louis XV, so subservient to the Church in all things, never betrayed the slightest consciousness that, while making enormous expenditures to gratify his own and the national vanity, he ought to carry on works, pari passu, for charity. Nor did the French nation, at those periods when it was most largely under the control of theological considerations, seem to have any inkling of the idea that nation or monarch should make provision for relief from human suffering, to justify provision for the sumptuous enjoyment of art: it was reserved for the second half of the nineteenth century to develop this feeling so strongly, though quietly, that Napoleon III, notoriously an unbeliever in all orthodoxy, was obliged to recognise it and to set this great example.

Nor has the recent history of the United States been less fruitful in lessons. Yellow fever, which formerly swept not only Southern cities but even New York and Philadelphia, has now been almost entirely warded off. Such epidemics as that in Memphis a few years since, and the immunity of the city from such visitations since its sanitary condition was changed by Mr. Waring, are a most striking object lesson to the whole country. Cholera, which again and again swept the country, has ceased to be feared by the public at large. Typhus fever, once so deadly, is now rarely heard of. Curious is it to find that some of the diseases which in the olden time swept off myriads on myriads in every country, now cause fewer deaths than some diseases thought of little account, and for the cure of which people therefore rely, to their cost, on quackery instead of medical science.

This development of sanitary science and hygiene in the United States has also been coincident with a marked change in the attitude of the American pulpit as regards the theory of disease. In this country, as in others, down to a period within living memory, deaths due to want of sanitary precautions were constantly dwelt upon in funeral sermons as ``results of national sin,'' or as ``inscrutable Providences.'' That view has mainly passed away among the clergy of the more enlightened parts of the country, and we now find them, as a rule, active in spreading useful ideas as to the prevention of disease. The religious press has been especially faithful in this respect, carrying to every household more just ideas of sanitary precautions and hygienic living.

The attitude even of many among the most orthodox rulers in church and state has been changed by facts like these. Lord Palmerston refusing the request of the Scotch clergy that a fast day be appointed to ward off cholera, and advising them to go home and clean their streets, - the devout Emperor William II forbidding prayer-meetings in a similar emergency, on the ground that they led to neglect of practical human means of help, - all this is in striking contrast to the older methods.

Well worthy of note is the ground taken in 1893, at Philadelphia, by an eminent divine of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The Bishop of Pennsylvania having issued a special call to prayer in order to ward off the cholera, this clergyman refused to respond to the call, declaring that to do so, in the filthy condition of the streets then prevailing in Philadelphia, would be blasphemous.

In summing up the whole subject, we see that in this field, as in so many others, the triumph of scientific thought has gradually done much to evolve in the world not only a theology but also a religious spirit more and more worthy of the goodness of God and of the destiny of man.