PRC Archives: Rev. C. Hanko’s Recollection of the 1918-19 Pandemic

Our PRC Archives item this Thursday relates to the present pandemic sweeping the world, COVID-19. But in 1918-19 a far greater pandemic swept the world, taking away one fifth of the wold’s population. How did this affect the life of God’s people and His church then?

Less_Than_the_least-CHanko-2017Rev. Cornelius Hanko’s book of memoirs contains his personal remembrance of the disastrous worldwide flu (Spanish influenza) of 1918-19. Hear his story as the church and her saints dealt with a great affliction in those days too:

And then, to make matters worse, the influenza epidemic hit in the winter of 1918-1919. Once more schools and churches were closed for six weeks. Almost no one went to work. Nearly every home had one or more sick with the flu. Doctors could not keep up with the calls that came in. They worked day and night. But the worst of all was that they knew no cure. They tried the usual medicines, and they tried the most caustic medicines, all to no avail. Hundreds died. Funeral services were held outside. Very few went to the cemetery.

A little girl in our neighborhood died also. Her coffin was placed by the front window for the neighbors to see. The minister preached the funeral sermon in the street.

A gloom hung over all. Everyone wondered, ‘Will it strike us next?’ There were some homes in which the whole family was stricken, and one home in which there were five deaths. My future mother-in-law, Mrs. Alida Griffioen, gave birth to a child in a room shut off by sheets while others in the family had the flu.

Ministers were in a quandary as to what to do. Rev. Groen was so afraid of catching the flu that he refused to visit any one. Rev. Peter Jonker Jr. of Dennis Avenue Christian Reformed Church was out almost day and night visiting the sick. He would place a ladder next to an upstairs window in order to visit someone upstairs. He wore himself out to the point where he could hardly preach. The consistory allowed him to preach old sermons for awhile.

Our family was spared. We sat at home, trying to seek a bit of entertainment amongst ourselves. But sitting home day after day can grow very wearisome. I remember walking along Wealthy Street just to get out, but the streets were void of pedestrians. The street was ‘like a painted ship on a painted ocean.’ [a line from a poem of Samuel T. Coleridge] It hardly seemed real. The break came on Sunday when we had our home service in the morning. To prevent further spreading of the sickness, no more than seven people were allowed to meet together; but we did invite in a few neighbors. These were times when prayer was no longer a mere formality, but a cry of the anxious soul pleading for the sick and bereaved.

As the nation struggled to deal with this public health disaster, it also had to contend with sick and crippled men returning from the front.

Taken from Less Than the Least: Memoirs of Cornelius Hanko, 2nd ed. (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, pp. 42-43.

It may be necessary to note that though I begin this post with the title “PRC Archives” because C. Hanko became a Protestant Reformed Churches’ member and minister of the Word, the history recalled and recorded here is really “pre-PRC” (the PRC did not begin until 1924-25) and took place when Cornelius was a lad of 11/12 years old (he was born in 1907) and still a member by baptism in the Christian Reformed Church. Hence, the reference to the CRC ministers also.