Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19: “An Epidemic, Sweeping and Terrible”
Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19: “An Epidemic, Sweeping and Terrible”

Coronavirus, or COVID-19, has quickly spread around the world and across the United States. As of early this morning, there were 475,000 confirmed cases worldwide resulting in more than 21,000 deaths. Hospitals are overwhelmed and hundreds of millions of people have been advised to stay in their homes.

Many are comparing today’s health crisis with the 1918 influenza outbreak—commonly called the “Spanish flu” at the time—which was the most severe pandemic in recent history, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At its website, the CDC writes of that flu pandemic: “Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the [H1N1] virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919. In the United States, it was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918. It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.”

We will share editorials this week and next week that offer some insights about what was happening in our country and in our churches during the horrible influenza pandemic of just over 100 years ago. This particular editorial was published just nine days before the Armistice was signed ending World War I.

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An emergency hospital for those suffering from influenza was set up in 1918 at Camp Funston, part of Fort Riley, southwest of Manhattan, Kansas. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

When the Epidemic Passes

November 2, 1918; p. 8

. . . An epidemic, sweeping and terrible, has held the country in its grasp for several weeks. The scarcity of physicians and nurses in the average community has added to the terror of the plague; the people afflicted have not had the attention they would have received under normal conditions. In addition to the inconvenience and extraordinary suffering, the death toll has been enormous. Consequently, the country, in addition to its war burdens and heart-pangs caused by the war, has had placed upon its shoulders a depressing home affliction which has reared the blank wall of common bereavement.

Moreover, business, religious and philanthropic enterprises, and churches in particular, have received a blow, sudden and severe, which, unless courageously faced, will spell temporary wreck and ruin.

Health authorities are now announcing that the epidemic has reached its crest and is receding. Unless it meets a powerful force out in the deep and is sent back, the country will soon be assured that at least one calamity has passed.

It is highly probable, therefore, that the ban will be lifted and that the churches will be reopened in the near future. We trust that such will be the case by the time this issue of the Standard reaches its readers.

We anticipate, however, that, in the majority of churches, conditions will have obtained which will make it necessary for ministers and officers and teachers to put some quick plans into operation. The habit of remaining at home on the Lord’s Day—a habit easy to acquire, even within the short space of a few weeks—will have to be overcome. Many whose homes have been afflicted will be in a discouraged frame of mind. Also, a deficit in treasuries is likely to result from the prolonged inactivity upon the part of churches and Bible schools.

Preachers and superintendents should immediately put on a program of interest and snap, and visiting committees should be speedily organized and sent out among the people.

Every member of the congregation should pay “back dues,” at once, even if it be inconvenient to do so—salaries and other current expenses must be met, epidemic or no epidemic. Moreover, the Bible-school collections have not been taken for several weeks, and the average school is entirely dependent upon its collections for its funds. It . . . may be necessary for people of means in the churches and schools to plank some five and ten dollar bills into the Bible-school collection plate—just to “help out.” . . .

Perhaps the experience so common to communities will have produced sober meditation which will result in a revival wave, if the preachers and officers of churches and Bible-school workers are wise, and active, enough to improve their opportunities. Let a revival of religious interests be the slogan all along the line.

This is no time to despair or retrench, no matter what the local conditions. It is a time to be heroic, “abounding in the work of the Lord.”

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—Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard

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