February 1, 2021

That Dangerous Miasma

It’s a time, like never before, when believers need each other.

Bill Knott

As American missionary Hannah More waved farewell to her surviving colleagues from the banks of West Africa’s Boom River in August 1851, she pondered the mysterious “miasma” that had already claimed the lives of five female colleagues in six months and was now causing their husbands to quickly retreat to the safer precincts of the coast. Of 10 missionaries sent out by the American Missionary Association to work among the repatriated survivors of the Amistad mutiny, she alone was left to operate the large inland mission station—as cook, preacher, teacher, and mother to nearly 200 orphaned children.

“The causes of fever are doubtless generated from marshes, swamps, and decaying vegetable matter, especially the poisonous Mangroves which line the banks of many of the rivers,” she wrote to a wealthy patron of the AMA. “The miasma seems to exhale at the commencement & close of the rains, rendering it more sickly at those periods.”1

Hannah, who later became the first Seventh-day Adventist in Africa in 1863 and planted several Adventist congregations on the West African coast in the 1860s, was reflecting the commonly held belief of her era that infectious diseases were spread through dank “night air” emanating from rotting organic material. Her own survival can now be traced to the likelihood that she had developed an immunity to the mosquito-borne malaria of Sierra Leone by contracting malaria herself a decade earlier while a missionary in the Mississippi delta of the United States.

It’s a time, like never before, when believers need each other.

Before the development of the “germ theory” of infectious disease in the 1880s, much of the world’s population believed in the presence of dark clouds of “miasma” that spread cholera, malaria, smallpox, and dysentery to tens of millions annually. Early comments of Ellen White also reflected this commonly held belief. Ellen White’s later writings, however, largely use the term as a metaphor for a dark, morally poisonous atmosphere surrounding unwary believers.2

Today, the term miasma is almost always used to refer to a clouded, even befuddled state of mind brought on by difficult, unexplained circumstances.

Which is why we should consider resurrecting the word.

As I listen to dozens of friends in phone and Zoom conversations from six continents, I’ve noted a pervasive pandemic-related malaise caused by the uncertainties of this public health moment, as well as a sense of confusion and angst fueled by apparent stagnation of the church’s mission in many regions. Many describe their increasing doubts about their call to ministry or service. Others decry the ineffectiveness of their efforts to reach populations psychologically and spiritually traumatized by a stubborn and deadly disease. In front of many, there seems to be a dangerous fog of personal anxiety, professional restlessness, and spiritual uncertainty.

The miasma seems real enough.

It’s not likely to be waved away by cheery bromides about personal discipline, increased activity, or even deeper devotional experience. The friends of whom I write are doing all these things, but still are battling a keen and unrelenting sense of discouragement and loss.  The “norms” of their experience cannot be grasped in the dark cloud of uncertainty and unpredictability before them.

It’s a time, like never before, when believers need each other, even while opportunities to be physically present with each other are more restricted than ever.  The apostle counseled, “Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24, 25, NKJV).3 This isn’t, as some insist, a declaration of an inalienable right to physically assemble in church buildings during a public health crisis, but an insistence that spiritual support and care for each other is the vital core of Christian community.

Every soul needs encouragement, and in the Lord’s providence, He gives each of us the words—and the silences—to share through phone or Zoom conversations, in text messages and e-mails, the hope by which His Spirit is sustaining us. This we owe each other, even as we wait for brighter days and warm embraces.

  1. Hannah More to Lewis Tappan, Aug. 28, 1851.
  2. Ellen G. White, Christian Education (Battle Creek, Mich.: International Tract Society, 1893), p. 149.
  3. Bible texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.