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

Maybe we are weary of hearing about the present flu pandemic, as well as of past ones, such as the Spanish Flu of 1918-19, often mentioned these days (even though there is no comparison in terms of the numbers of those who were afflicted and those who died).

But history is instructive, and the fact is that the church and saints have often had to face such plagues and epidemics. And what believers suffered in those times as well as how they handled those afflictions gives us valuable lessons.

I did a previous post referencing the Spanish flu from the perspective of a former PRC minister, Rev. C. Hanko (when he was a member of the CRC), and that was insightful.

Yesterday, while putting away a recent issue of Origins magazine, the Christian Reformed Church in America’s historical archives periodical, I came across a feature on the Spanish Flu and its impact on the CRC. I checked to see if the article was online, and while the full story was not, this abridged version was.

It is worth pointing to it, so that is our Friday post this week. A serious history lesson with important applications for us too. Below are a few paragraphs from the article; find the full post at the link at the end. [And now, in addition, I followed some links to  the University of Michigan’s online “Influenza Encyclopedia” and found a Grand Rapids Herald news clip about how the CRC churches were suffering. See that below.]

“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.

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.

…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.

…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.

Source: The Flu Epidemic of 1918-1919 and “Churchless Sunday” – Origins Online

GR-Herald-Oct-1918-re-CRC

And here is that additional item mentioned above: the news clip from the October 26, 1918 Grand Rapids Herald on how the Spanish flu was affecting the CR churches in that city.

Sunday Closing Order Keenly Felt By Members Chr. Reformed Churches

There are perhaps few congregations in the city feeling the hardship of the church closing order as keenly as the Christian Reformed churches. Members of these churches have been trained from childhood to regard regular church attendance as natural in their lives as eating breakfast, and at each of the two or three Sunday sessions the churches are wont to be crowded.

Church people are glad to do all in their power to help check the spread of influenza, but much dissatisfaction is voiced by both clergy and laymen of the apparently unjust distinction between schools and churches. The schools are in session five days a week and 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. On the other hand, in view of the supreme importance of service of the Almighty in these critical times and the need of prayer it would seem that the church would be the last of all institutions to be asked to close its doors.

Family Services Substituted

In the meantime, however, church members are making the best of matters and conducting services in their own homes. Many a father had his family gathered about him last Sunday morning and afternoon and read to them one of his favorite sermons.

Pastors are making good use of their time by taking up some specific studies which have long demanded their attention, and by doing extended pastoral work. Rev. Johannes Groen is spending much of his time visiting the members of his congregation and averages about 30 families a week.

And if you are still interested in more information on this 1918-19 influenza, or the State of Michigan’s new archive collections of COVID-19, you will want to visit this page that came in my email this morning.

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