By Richard Gammill | PREVIEW Columnist
Before and after stories and pictures can portray great change and advancement, whether they tell of a successful weight-loss diet, a self-improvement project, a great awakening, a home remodel, a new hairdo or other instances of dramatic alterations. Before and after stories are welcomed and even celebrated when the changes are positive and good. Other stories describe painful experiences with unwelcome outcomes: a divorce, say, or a foreclosure.
Before January 2020 the world’s economies seemed to be on a positive course with promises of gain and improvements. After February, with the outbreak of COVID-19, everything hit the skids. Crowded streets and sidewalks were suddenly empty. Theaters, restaurants, ballparks, churches and schools were shuttered. Faces were hidden behind masks, if out in public at all. Millions of workers lost their jobs, businesses lost their customers, school teachers and pastors adapted to new technologies, and children were isolated from their friends.
Overnight, Illness and death loomed over everything: thousands upon thousands became severely ill and died, first in one part of the country, then in another. The content of evening newscasts was dominated by this one subject only, night after night. When the death toll exceeded 1 million in the United States alone, who could fathom such an extent of mortality?
Providentially, research and rapid development of new vaccines had been underway for several years, but when they came available for widespread use, they were greeted with horrified suspicion by nearly a third of our population, becoming a highly charged political issue. Yet the vaccines helped account for a drastic drop in the death toll and our cautious emergence from the nightmare of the pandemic.
“Before” the horrific, deadly plague of COVID-19, the threat of epidemics was blithely assumed to be confined to fictional movies or depraved pockets in Africa. Now, “after” these two plus years, we have a greater appreciation of the need for cleanliness, good hygiene, air circulation and other health issues. We lost our innocence and are better prepared to confront such threats to our well-being.
Another historic “before and after” story occurred in England during the 18th century. Throughout the early decades of the century, the quality of life in Britain was not so “great.” An impossibly wide divide existed between the “haves,” who literally had it all, and the “have nots,” who had little of nothing.
Property ownership was severely restricted, resulting in squalid housing blocks paying exorbitant rents. The slave trade was booming, bringing enormous profits to slave ship owners. The expansion of industry with no regulation put thousands of children to work for long hours in dangerous, dirty factories. Justice was perverted, with death sentences (public hangings and beheadings) meted out for minor offenses. Debtors were locked up for years and forgotten about. Coal miners worked with no safety standards. There was no system of public education. Public drunkenness from cheap gin was so bad, weddings were held in the early mornings so all parties would be somewhat sober. Parliament sessions were held in the mornings for the same reason: few MPs returned sober from lunch.
A long course of improvement began when a preacher, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, gained widespread, national attention. Opposition within the church forced him to take his ministry outside the church buildings and began preaching to outdoor crowds numbering in the thousands. His was no “come to Jesus” simplicity; he called for deep and sincere confession of sin and repentance, requiring major lifestyle changes. He believed improved individuals would improve society and rectify its abuses. His pulpit thundered against the slave trade, railed against the broken justice system and demanded penal reform, both in sentencing laws and prison conditions. Wesley called for an end to child labor and the beginning of children’s education. No aspect of social failure escaped his attention.
Wesley rode on horseback for thousands of miles crisscrossing the nation while he wrote sermons (preaching 45,000 times), pamphlets and books (233 volumes). Like Jesus, he was heard by the people gladly. Not only did commoners listen to him, but also prominent society and business leaders, members of Parliament and literary giants. Together, they formed the Clapham Sect and put their wealth and influence into new laws and reforms. United in their devotion to Jesus Christ, these leaders from all political, literary and religious sectors — men like Wilberforce, Cowper, Lord Shaftesbury and more— led the way, with Wesley and the Evangelical Revival, to change England from what it was “before” into what it became “after.”
Parliament abolished the slave trade in 1807 and ended the institution of slavery altogether in 1833. During those same years, child labor laws, along with penal and justice reforms, were enacted; education systems were begun; liquor traffic was regulated; labor conditions were rectified; and churches themselves were revitalized. Great Britain recovered its soul and avoided a bloody replica of the French Revolution.
Similarly, as a result of the death-laden COVID crisis, we in America are witnessing anew what our nation can achieve when we act together to focus on a massive issue that threatens us. We are living now “before” leadership emerges to mobilize our country to address the seemingly insurmountable issues still confronting us: destructive climate change, highly charged race relations, justice, historic inflation, mass shootings, rampant street violence and crippling political paralysis.
We must remember Abraham Lincoln’s prophetic warning: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” This column may include both fiction and nonfiction, and views expressed do not necessarily represent those of The SUN. Submissions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.