We’ve Been Here Before: Lessons from the Church’s Responses to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919
“Unprecedented” will likely be the Merriam-Webster Dictionary ‘Word of the Year’ for 2020.
While these times are truly unprecedented to us, a look back in history shows that in many ways these times are completely precedented. A century ago the world faced another deadly pandemic - the Spanish Flu. Like today, nearly every person and facet of society was affected by the deadly disease and the resulting upheaval to daily life. And just like today, churches had to respond quickly. Newspaper articles and church records from 1918-1919 reveal that there are stark similarities to how churches responded to the pandemic a century ago.
1. (Most) churches shut down
As state and local governments began to comprehend the scope of the crisis in their jurisdictions, they called for churches to shut down (along with schools, theaters, etc.). Some churches remained opened in defiance of local orders. Most churches were shut from early Oct. 1918 to early December 1918, while some cities had bans on public gatherings until January 1919. The research is unclear about how churches dealt with the ‘second wave’ of infections in 1919.
2. Churches quickly improvised with “home worship”
Churches provided sermon notes and hymn notes and worship materials during the shutdown. Some local newspapers printed sermons in their editions. Pastors provided theological framework for this time as extended Sabbath and a way to disciple one’s family.
3. New technology was quickly utilized to connect safely
Telephones were the Zoom of the day! Homebound people used the phone to greater degrees to connect during the shutdowns at the end of 1918. Home telephones were becoming more popular in the 1910s, but the infrastructure was limited so cities urged citizens to limit their telephone use to emergency only as to not overload the system.
4. Church leaders called for an end to the ban on church gatherings and defended the church’s role in promoting the well-being of the community
There are several examples of church leaders calling for an end to government bans on gathering beginning three weeks after bans were put in place. A Catholic clergyman in Baltimore pleaded on the vital role that churches play in the community by saying, “I am told that a number of calls upon our physicians are simply the result of nervousness, or the consequence of alarm. This might be considerably allayed by the reassurance of religion, and discreet words from our priests given the people in church.”
5. Services were amended for greater safety
A Catholic Bishop in Detroit stated they would be “willing to have their edifices fumigated between meetings, to cut the services to 45 minutes, to employ special ushers, who would eject persons who coughed or sneezed and to require all worshipers entering a church to wear influenza masks” if their city allowed them to reopen.
6. Some argued that banning of church gatherings was a violation of the First Amendment
Many church leaders went to court to argue that the First Amendment right to ‘peacefully assemble’ was violated. Courts by-and-large upheld the government’s right to ban public gatherings for health reasons and for government entities to reasonably enforce those bans.
7. End times were predicted
Church leaders were predicting that the pandemic would usher in Jesus’ return.
8. Tithes & offerings went down
Appeals to continue giving and to resource a benevolence fund were called for. Church leaders appealed to their congregations for giving and sought to help those who had been affected financially. The Southern Baptist denomination called for a “A 75 Million Campaign” in response to the pandemic. While they fell short of that goal, their combined giving towards missions was 10 times higher than it was in any previous year.
9. Outdoor services were held as a response to government bans
Some churches pivoted quickly to outdoor services, some to the ire of local authorities.
10. Church leaders were divided about reopening and “grumbling” was common
Not all church leaders and churchgoers were in the same accord about church reopenings and “grumblings” among Christians ensued.
11. God’s protection of people against the disease was called into question
One D.C. pastor provided this response, “The fact that the churches were places of religious gathering, and the others not, would not affect in the least the health question involved. If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run into danger, and expect God to protect us.”
12. Pastors were extra busy
A Milwaukee, Wisconsin newspaper reported that church closures did not “leave the city’s pastors with any surplus of leisure on their hands. With the faithful encouraged to engage in home worship and read sermons published in newspapers, Protestant and Catholic clergy were instead devoting more of their energy to pastoral care and sick calls.”
Sound familiar? Playwright George Bernard Shaw commented that “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” In this precedented time, there are direct applications we can and should learn from the church’s response 100 years ago:
1. God has been here before
He has led his people through pandemics (and famines, persecutions, wars and natural disasters) before. Decisions church leaders are making today are fraught with challenges and often greeted with hostility; yet in these perilous times we can trust that God is building his Church, sanctifying his people and drawing men and women to himself. His mission has not changed, but our means to fulfill that mission must adapt. For every unprecedented decision we face, let us rely on the faithfulness and wisdom of God.
2. ‘Necessity is the mother of innovation’
Rather than viewing online services, Zoom prayer rooms and outdoor gatherings as a necessary evil until we can go back to ‘normal,’ look for how God is using these forums for gathering and evangelism and seek to implement these innovative opportunities into the future.
3. Avoid conspiracy and end time theories
Those who lived 100 years ago had greater cause to predict Jesus’ return. Between 1914-1918 over 20 million men died and another 21 million were injured in WWI. The war ended in a stalemate and as the armistice was being signed in November of 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic which would eventually kill 50 million worldwide was already lethally under way. End times theories predicted during that time were obviously disproven. Remembering that can help us heed Jesus warning that “concerning that day [of his return] and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Mat. 24:36). The Lord calls us to eager readiness, but predictions and conspiracies seem to bear little fruit.
4. “Give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17)
The world is watching the church (even more so online). Paul commends that we “give thought,” so let us take seriously our thoughts, words, deeds and posts to ensure our witness is honorable to Jesus and his Bride. More than ever we need the Spirit’s power to replace our grumbling with gratitude, our frustration with grace, our impatience with patience and our bickering with brotherhood.
5. “Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17)
Church and state tensions have been confounding for Christians for millenia. As each church leader today seeks to faithfully apply the teachings of Jesus, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 to our times, let us remember that Jesus himself was a victim of the Roman government’s brutal attempts to stamp out Christianity. Jesus’ resurrection proves that a government, no matter how extreme in their tactics, can ultimately not thwart the forward progression of the gospel. With an assured faith let us pray for our government leaders, honor them and as my pastor, Alan Frow says, “use civil disobedience as a last resort rather than a first response.”
(An earlier version of this post appeared on the Roots & Wings blog.)
Kristine Nethers serves on staff at Southlands Church in Orange County, CA. Prior to her current role, she studied history and education at University of the Pacific (BA), Stanford University (MA) and San Jose State University (MA) and taught history for 10 years both in California and Australia. She enjoys the outdoors, reading and trying to make people laugh.