How Clergy and Churches Reacted to the Spanish Flu Pandemic


Numbers 16:36-49: 36 [a] Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 37 Tell Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to take the censers out of the blaze; then scatter the fire far and wide. 38 For the censers of these sinners have become holy at the cost of their lives. Make them into hammered plates as a covering for the altar, for they presented them before the Lord and they became holy. Thus they shall be a sign to the Israelites. 39 So Eleazar the priest took the bronze censers that had been presented by those who were burned; and they were hammered out as a covering for the altar— 40 a reminder to the Israelites that no outsider, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, shall approach to offer incense before the Lord, so as not to become like Korah and his company—just as the Lord had said to him through Moses.

41 On the next day, however, the whole congregation of the Israelites rebelled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the Lord.” 42 And when the congregation had assembled against them, Moses and Aaron turned toward the tent of meeting; the cloud had covered it and the glory of the Lord appeared. 43 Then Moses and Aaron came to the front of the tent of meeting, 44 and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 45 “Get away from this congregation, so that I may consume them in a moment.” And they fell on their faces. 46 Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer, put fire on it from the altar and lay incense on it, and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them. For wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.” 47 So Aaron took it as Moses had ordered, and ran into the middle of the assembly, where the plague had already begun among the people. He put on the incense, and made atonement for the people. 48 He stood between the dead and the living; and the plague was stopped. 49 Those who died by the plague were fourteen thousand seven hundred, besides those who died in the affair of Korah.

2 Samuel 24:9-15: Joab reported to the king the number of those who had been recorded: in Israel there were eight hundred thousand soldiers able to draw the sword, and those of Judah were five hundred thousand.

Judgment on David’s Sin

10 But afterward, David was stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people. David said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Lord, I pray you, take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly.” 11 When David rose in the morning, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Gad, David’s seer, saying, 12 “Go and say to David: Thus says the Lord: Three things I offer[e] you; choose one of them, and I will do it to you.” 13 So Gad came to David and told him; he asked him, “Shall three[f] years of famine come to you on your land? Or will you flee three months before your foes while they pursue you? Or shall there be three days’ pestilence in your land? Now consider, and decide what answer I shall return to the one who sent me.” 14 Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands.”

15 So the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel from that morning until the appointed time; and seventy thousand of the people died, from Dan to Beer-sheba. 

  1. About one hundred years ago, our world was ravaged by the Spanish Flu pandemic. According to one set of statistics about the results of the Spanish Flu pandemic 700,000 Americans died and 50 million people worldwide died. Compare this to the 40 million killed in World War I and the 70 to 85 million people who died as the result of World War II.
  2. The Spanish Flu killed more people than WWI but fewer people than WWII.
  3. The Spanish Flu pandemic ended around November 1918 and attacked the world population as WWI continued unit November 11, 1918.
  4. So… Statistically, an estimated 90 million people died as the result of WWI and the Spanish Flu combined.
  5. More than those who died as the result of WWII.
  6. Countries all over the world suffered incredible loss and fear to be renewed 1929-1933 by the Great Depression.
  7. The years from 1914 when WWI began and 1929 when the Great Depression began made a huge impact on Americans.

1904 San Francisco plague and fire and 1904 Baltimore fire: The San Francisco Plague of 1900- 1904: California Gov …

Mar 18, 2020 · (Wiki) The San Francisco plague of 19001904 was an epidemic of bubonic plague centered on San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was the first plagueepidemic in the continental United States. The epidemic was recognized by medical authorities in March 1900, but its existence was denied for more than two years by California’s Governor Henry Gage.

  1. For the sake of history, what did the disastrous 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic mean to American Churches?
  2. Professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul Minnesota, Chris Gerhz, compiled a short review of how Christian clergy and one Jewish Rabbi reacted to the closure of churches during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Americans then as now were ordered to stay at home, not to socialize in groups, and make only essential trips.
  3. Professor Gerhz commented: Christians made the best of church closures, many grumbled… and a few went to jail rather than stop worshipping.
  4. Soune familiar today?
  5. Here are some newspaper clippings most dated September through November 1918:
  6. One pastor blamed Christians and the Church for this plague just like we heard from the Book of Numbers and 2 Samuel:

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA: At an open air service in front of First Baptist Church, the interim pastor suggested that the churches themselves “are to blame” for the influenza epidemic. Rev. John Quincy Adams Henry preached that Christian churches “have been lamentably weak in moral and spiritual leadership and have not yet risen to the august occasion confronting them. Our churches have become conventional, cowardly and worldly. Not only the people, but the churches must repent their sins, and when they do the plagues will cease.”

  1. Pastor John Quincy Adams Henry must have just read Number 16:49 and 2 Samuel 15.
  2. While I want all of us across the globe to realize that all countries enemies or not are now working together to fight this pandemic, we have a rare chance/opportunity to begin anew with greater wisdom and appreciation for life and our planet.
  3. To say what is responsible for this opportunity, is not possible, unless some want to believe and Pastor Henry believed.
  4. Are we seeing a repeat in history with the coronavirus pandemic. Hear this newspaper report from Boston, Massachusetts:
  5. Sunday, September 29, 1918
    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS: Monday’s front page of the Globe called it the “quietest Sunday Boston ever saw.” With cars largely off the city’s streets and worship services and other public gatherings called off, Boston’s largest newspaperobserved that “there was less for the citizens to do probably than on any Sunday since the old Puritan days.”
  6. Estes was pretty quiet this past Easter. The town was almost silent. A few folks walked by closed shops and churches. Sounds like Boston one hundred years ago, yes?
  7. Sunday, October 6, 1918ing the health board order prohibiting all public gatherings, Father William Scholl held morning mass as scheduled at St. Joseph German Catholic Church. When a police lieutenant arrived on the scene, the priest “declared he was not interested in the order,” but police kept any further services from proceeding. The Enquirer reported “widespread indignation” against Scholl, with “dignitaries of the Catholic Church joining the protest against the disregard of an order that was issued to safeguard the health of the community.”
  8. Friday, October 11, 1918
    LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA: The city council issued an ordinance closing all churches, prompting the city’s Christian Scientists to protest that they provide “services for the dissemination of a universal understanding of omnipotent Divine power, reliance upon which effectually aids in destroying the dread of contagion….” Four weeks later,  a local appeals court refused to release Harry P. Hitchcock, a Christian Scientist “arrested for attending a public church gathering in violation of the city anti-flu ordinances.” One of five Scientists arrested, Hitchcock had argued that the order was an “unconstitutional… unwarranted exercise of the police power.”
  9. What About Us Methodists 100 Years Ago: Monday, October 14, 1918
    BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA: “We have had the strange experience of a churchless Sabbath,” wrote the Methodist revivalist George R. Stuart in the Age-Herald, “what has it taught us?” Most importantly, the pandemic should convince “Intelligent Christians” to trust science rather than seeking to “tempt God to perform a miracle in the preservation of our health… Christians do not discount their faith in the omnipotence of their God by keeping their bodies and homes and streets clean and nongerm producing; by using care in traffic and travel, accepting vaccination, sprays and disinfectants and keeping God’s own laws of health and life. Any other course is the fruit of ignorance and false teaching.” Sunday, October 27, 1918
    NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA: On the same page that the States printed a sermon by a Methodist pastor for those “who are detained from their houses of worship because of the epidemic of influenza,” it reported on the financial consequences for closed churches unable to collect tithes and offerings: “This loss… ranges from $20,000 to $25,000… the most serious set back the churches have received is the delaying if not absolutely destroying the chance of securing the benevolent money for church work during the Winter.”
  10. Here We Have another church rebellion: November 1918, San Francisco’s churches issued a resolution warning that it was “dangerous to the health of the community to allow saloons to be open one hundred and twenty-six hours per week while Churches are not allowed to be open their customary five or six hours per week.” California ratified the 18th Amendment two months later.
  11. INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA: Ten black “Apostolic” Christians were arrested for attempting to worship in defiance of the board of health. “When the [seven] women and [three] men were taken to police headquarters,” reported the News“they began talking in the ‘unknown tongue’ and it was some time before the turnkey and matron were able to learn their names.”
  12. And more rebellion: Saturday, October 12, 1918
    BUFFALO, NEW YORK: While local churches remained closed in accordance with the mayor’s proclamation, “several congregations, however, have arranged to conduct outdoor services” tomorrow. The Courier listed several open-air masses, and St. Paul’s, the Episcopal Cathedral, planned to worship in Shelton Square with the assistance of its full choir: “The service will consist largely of singing of patriotic hymns, and (WWI)Gen.(John) Pershing’s message to the churches of America will be read….”
  13. And More Rebellion and Complaining Sunday, October 13, 1918
    ALEXANDRIA, LOUISIANA: Dr. W.S. Black, rector of the Episcopal church, was dismayed to walk through town and “find the poolroom in full blast, with an ample supply of patrons, none of whom were overly careful as to the degree of distance from their fellow players.” Black didn’t understand how he could keep his church closed while such establishments remained open. “I believe in obeying the law of the constituted authorities,” he told the New Orleans States, “but I am under pledge to the boys ‘over there’ that at the customary times of service… certain prayers shall be said in which they are specially remembered….”
  14. SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH: “For the first time in many years,” the Deseret News reported the next day, the city’s Mormon tabernacle and about fifty other Latter-day Saint chapels — plus other churches and synagogues — were closed this Sunday. Even funerals were suspended because of health regulations for the epidemic. But “in a few instances pastors assembled groups of young people in front of their churches, and either held service there, or marched to some park or recreation grounds, and enjoyed the autumn sun-shine as well as imparting religious instructions to the assemblage.”
  15. Tuesday, October 15, 1918
    BALTIMORE, MARYLAND: The city’s leading Catholic clergyman continued to question why local churches were closed “while the stores, saloons, markets and the like remain open.” While recognizing public health concerns, James Cardinal Gibbons argued that “it would be a much-needed relief to our church-going population if they could be allowed to attend brief morning services… 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.”
  16. Friday, October 18, 1918
    WORCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS: The Daily Telegram shared examples of how Christians were responding to influenza, even as public worship ceased. Women from three local churches were taking care of “epidemic orphans,” giving them not only food and clothing, but “[supplying] them with plenty of healthful recreation and a little systematized instruction, too.” And a Catholic women’s club brought clothing and food to influenza patients, including 28 jars of applesauce, 28 quarts of lamb stew, and 35 squares of johnny cake.
  17. Sunday, October 20, 1918
    MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN: The Journal found that church closures didn’t 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.

Rev. Henry was also a local temperance activist. In

  1. Tuesday, October 22, 1918
    NEWARK, NEW JERSEY: “To avoid the dreaded influenza,” advised the Star-Eagle, “children should play in small groups and outdoors or in well-ventilated rooms.” The paper began to share games suggested by the Young Men’s Christian Association, including “Japanese Tag… In this version of the game… when a player is touched or tagged, he must place his left hand on the spot touched… [and] in that position must chase the other players.”
  2. Saturday, October 26, 1918
    GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN: The Herald doubted that anyone has suffered more from the state ban on public worship than the members of the city’s seventeen Christian Reformed churches, who “have been trained from childhood to regard regular church attendance as natural in their lives as eating breakfast.” Families are trying to fill the gap with private worship, but Reformed leaders are upset that churches are closed while schools remain open: “…it would seem that if there were danger of contagion anywhere it would be among the physically undeveloped youngsters congregating in the school rooms day by day.”
  1. Thursday, October 31, 1918
    DETROIT, MICHIGAN: The Roman Catholic bishop of Detroit, Michael J. Gallagher, joined businessmen and movie theatre owners in pleading for the statewide ban on public gatherings to be lifted. The News reported that those notables “were 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.” But state officials weren’t persuaded, since “Massachusetts and Pennsylvania had found that the exemption of churches tended to nullify the effects of the closing order.”
  2. Friday, November 1, 1918
    DALLAS, TEXAS: With special permission from the mayor, Catholic and Episcopal churches planned worship for All Saints’ and All Souls’, with St. Matthew’s Cathedral holding “special services for the boys who have died in France and will have a special requiem celebration of the Holy Communion.”

Thirty years later, Rabbi Thurman helped convince his friend, Pres. Harry Truman, to recognize the state of Israel.

  1. Saturday, November 2, 1918
  2. LOUIS, MISSOURI: Samuel Thurman, rabbi of the first synagogue established west of the Mississippi, affirmed the closure decision by the chief of the health board: “Due to his determined action, St. Louis has been spared the terrible fate of other cities of its size and larger… The price we are paying now is commensurately small compared with the gain and good we shall obtain in the end. Let us be patient. Let us hope and pray for a speedy banishment of the dread monster, disease, from our midst, and a happy return to the healthy and normal life of the community.”
  3. In summary, our EPUMC has done very well and doing credit to our community doing our best even as our Methodist Church did in 1918. Hopefully, we will get through this soon.