The Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919 and “Churchless Sunday”

The Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919 and “Churchless Sunday”

“What’s happening is unprecedented!” I keep hearing people say that about Covid-19 (a coronavirus). Some seem to mean that a pandemic like this is unprecedented. Others mean that the public health response—shutting down schools, sporting events, perhaps eventually churches, etc.—is unprecedented. Neither is unprecedented, really.

Around 650,000 people died in the United States in the flu epidemic of 1918-1919 and 50 million worldwide. Some scholars estimate up to 100 million deaths worldwide.  In comparison, 20 to 22 million soldiers and civilians died in World War I, which ended in late 1918, and about 20 to 22 million were wounded.

In the century between the 1918-1919 pandemic and today’s Covid-19 pandemic there have been several smaller pandemics

  • 1957 (H2N2 Flu)
  • 1968 (H3N2 Flu)
  • 2002-3 (SARS; a coronavirus)
  • 2009 (H1N1 Flu)

The range of public health responses we see today is not new either. That some places–cities, nations–have put in place late or ineffective policies is like what happened in 1918-1919. So too with some places being immediate and effective. If you are looking for lessons from 1918-1919, or at least perspective, there is some useful history to learn.

Comparison of the death rate over time in Philadelphia vs. St. Loius. Source: Hatchett et al., 2007. PNAS.

In 1918, U.S. cities that quickly intervened with “social distancing” policies had “lower peaks of pneumonia and influenza-related mortality.” Philadelphia downplayed the danger in September 1919 when the first cases of flu were reported. It allowed a city parade to go forward. It started school closures and bans on public events only in early October. By contrast, St. Louis reacted within two days to reported cases of flu, in early October.. “The peak weekly death rate from pneumonia and influenza-related deaths was 257/100,000 people in Philadelphia. The same metric in St. Louis was 31/100,000.”

The lessons are simple. Be forthright about the danger. Act quickly. Keep social distancing policies in place longer rather than shorter. Don’t panic. This is the way to slow the spread of the epidemic and reduce the likelihood of hospitals from being overwhelmed. (In Italy, where I have family, doctors are being forced to choose who gets life saving treatment and who does not.)

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What did churches experience in 1918-1919? For a broad overview, check out this story on Patheos. The Patheos story also points you to a great website at the University of Michigan on the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. A few years ago, I had a student (who’s now in medical school) use that website as a major resource for her history honors thesis.

Grand Rapids Herald 26 October 1918.

For the rest of this blog post, I’ll describe what happened with the Christian Reformed Church.

The University of Michigan website has a page from the Grand Rapids Herald of October 1918 with a story, “Sunday Closing Order Keenly Felt by Members Chr. Reformed Church” who “have been trained from childhood to regard regular church attendance as natural in their lives as eating breakfast.” The story notes “dissatisfaction” by some people that the city allowed schools to remain open, but not churches. It emphasizes that religious folk were willing to do what they could to “help check the spread of influenza.” And it described how Christian Reformed members responded by conducting worship services in their homes. For more on Grand Rapids, check out this story.

To find more material, I turned to the Christian Reformed Church Periodical Index and did some page turning in The Banner from late 1918 and the first half of 1919.

I did not find any “feature” stories in The Banner on the flu epidemic. There are some on the Great War (i.e., World War One). Some on the communist revolution in Russia and labor unrest in America. Some on apocalyptic prediction of end times and the second coming of Christ—and Christian Reformed criticism of premillennial theology and predictions of Christ’s return. But no “influenza” headlines or major stories.

My quick search yielded one lengthy piece, an editorial in the 24 October 1918 issue of The Banner: “Churchless Sunday and Its Lessons.” The governor of Michigan had ordered the closure of all churches in the state.

The Banner editorial called its readers to “pray earnestly that the scourge may soon be removed” so that churches could reopen. It also suggested “lessons from this appointment of Providence” to learn:

  • “the value of our church privileges,” as we really understand what blessing are when they are withheld
  • “the value of fellowshipping with God’s people,” “the communion of the saints,” which might lead to a renewal of devotion in the church
  • “to appreciate religious literature more than we have done,” as that is what people turn when they cannot come to church

With these lessons in mind, the editorial suggested that the epidemic might be a blessing in disguise. But it also wondered whether “churchless Sunday” was a sign divine judgment on the nation. It pointed to the description of God’s judgement in Revelation. The nation and world had seen famine, pestilence, war, and death, with the recently ended Great War and now the epidemic. It was time for people to repent and to turn to righteousness.

The editorial concluded by emphasizing that Christians respect government and law. It prayed that the burden of churchless Sundays not be too heavy and that the scourge of influenza be lifted quickly.

What struck me about the editorial is that it said little directly about the suffering and grief of people in Christian Reformed congregations or in the nation more widely. I’m not sure what to make of that. You can see grief and concern about suffering when you dig a bit deeper into The Banner in 1918-1919. The stories are in the community news section.

A short report from Paterson, New Jersey, in the 20 February 1919 edition of The Banner connected the war and the epidemic. No one, in the fall and early winter of 1918 had died of the flu. But the “tide turned” in the new year. Several children and an infant had died, and the wife of an elder in the congregation.

A note from Edgerton, Minnesota, in the 27 February 1919 issue, reported a mild winter, one more profitable for the doctor than the coal dealer. “This winter,” it lamented, “the influenza coming in bond with the great war, to mow away so many young and valuable people.”  It went on to say: “The influenza played havoc with everything run to schedule in our village and vicinity. Churches, Schools, Movies, even Poolrooms were promptly closed in the beginning of the dreaded disease, even before it had really reached us, and by the time the Flu caught us in its whirlwind everything was running wide open again, and nobody closed it. Our people got their share of trouble too.”

Flu patients in the gym at Iowa State University in 1918 during the flu epidemic. More than 93,000 Iowans got the flu and 6,116 died, according to the Iowa State Board of Health. (Photo from Office of the Iowa Public Health Service Historian).

A report from Atwood, Michigan, in the 13 February 1919 issue said with thanks that none of the “five boys” in the military during the war had died. Moreover, “The influenza  epidemic which as saddened so many homes, has not been in our midst.” However, “Our neighbor church, Ellsworth, had a time when about half its people were sick with it, and two were taken away. Our prayer is that we may be spared from it, and the plague removed from us all.”

A story on missions among the Navajo, in New Mexico, described the impact of the flu as part of a larger report. “Of all the most painful scenes I saw during the influenza epidemic,” J. D. Mulder reported, “the most pathetic was in a Gallup hospital. In it eight Navaho Indians were interned because of typhoid. . . . They were doing well until the influenza also attacked them. At least four died before the rest were moved to a different hospital.”

You also can catch a glimpse of the flu epidemic in the Agenda of Synod of 1920. “The Classis Pella requests that Synod approve the honorable retirement that it has granted to Rev J Vissia at his request, supported by its church council, 16 March 1920. This was granted to the brother on the basis of lasting sickness due to the ‘Flu,’ which has weakened his voice so much that he has not only been prevented from preaching, but has also been forbidden to work by the physicians.” (The Agenda of Synod was in Dutch then. This is my rough translation, with help from Google Translate).

Advice from a century ago.

Today, the Christian Reformed Church has a story on its website about churches and coronavirus in China. Christian Courier, a religious magazine associated with the CRC in Canada, has a story on anti-Chinese responses in North America to the coronavirus.

Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary are joining many of their peer institutions in Michigan, in teaching all classes online, at least for the next few weeks. Public events are being cancelled and official university travel limited. My own church has not cancelled all worship services, but it is recommending that people over 60, others health issues, and those with symptoms stay home.

In other words, we are following the “social distancing” policies that helped St. Louis weather the storm in 1918. You can follow what Calvin University is doing here. And Calvin Theological Seminary here.

William Katerberg is professor of history and interim curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.



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