Guest Post about Spanish Flu Church Closures

[The Civil War resulted in the death of over 600,000 Americans, more than all our other wars combined. The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed more Americans than the Civil War.

The current coronavirus does not appear as scary as the Spanish Flu, praise God. May the good Lord deliver us.

Our guest writer has many accomplishments to her credit, including a personal strategic reserve of toilet paper, built through years of careful contingency planning.]

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Dr. Ann White

The Great Flu Pandemic and the Churches

“The quietest Sunday Boston ever saw,” proclaimed the Boston Globe about Sunday, September 29, in the year _________. You fill in the year.

You get a set of steak knives if you said the year was 1918. All the churches were closed because of the great flu pandemic, which began during the last weeks of World War I and killed more people than the war. In the United States, influenza killed 675,000 people. The flu pandemic lowered Americans’ life expectancy by twelve years, from 51 to 39.

Despite its horror, the 1918 pandemic never became part of Americans’ historical consciousness. My parents were children during the pandemic, but I never heard them say that their parents had talked about fearing the flu. In my many years of studying and teaching history, I never heard anyone teach about the great flu pandemic of 1918.

Now that we’re in our own pandemic, we can compare our experiences with experiences of Americans in 1918. There were church closings then. You know something about bishops suspending Masses now. Here I’ll give you a few glimpses of what the Spanish flu did to church life back then.

In 1918 the public-health authorities insisted that all buildings for public gatherings be locked. Many church leaders opposed the closing of churches. Sometimes they claimed that open churches had great psychological power. In Baltimore, James Cardinal Gibbons opposed church closing, saying that people called doctors out of nervousness, and this nervousness could be ended by “discreet words from our priests . . . in church.” Christian Scientists claimed that their worship would help to destroy “the dread of contagion.” Clergy in Louisville made a bigger claim. They said that reopening the churches would actually stimulate churchgoers’ resistance to influenza.

Spanish flu notice

Some clergy suggested that the churches were forced to compete with other groups – and that the churches were losing the competition!  In Grand Rapids: why should our churches be closed when schools remain open?  In Washington, D.C.: why close the churches when department stores, poolrooms, and bowling alleys are doing business as usual? In Baltimore: why are churches closed while stores, saloons, markets remain open?

In October 1918, the Roman Catholic bishop of Detroit, along with owners of closed movie theaters and businesses, begged for the lifting of the statewide ban on public gatherings. The churches would fumigate their buildings between meetings, cut services to 45 minutes, require all worshipers to wear masks, and employ special ushers who would eject anyone who coughed or sneezed. What was the reply from state officials? “No lifting of the ban!”

But not all church members spent their time begging that churches be reopened. In Worcester, Mass., churchwomen brought food to flu patients and provided food, clothes, and recreation to children orphaned by the pandemic. Newspapers printed sermons in New Orleans and Milwaukee.

And not all church leaders opposed church closings. Cincinnati’s Catholic leaders joined other citizens in protesting when one of their own priests held morning mass in violation of a health board order. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported “widespread indignation” that anyone would disregard an order “issued to safeguard the health of the community.” Police made sure the offending priest held no more masses.

Church closings might continue, but no one was allowed to forget their unfortunate financial results. The New Orleans States, the New Orleans newspaper that carried a sermon, printed a report on the financial loss from closed churches on the same page as the sermon: $20,000 to $25,000 which, it said, left little or no money for “benevolent work” in the winter.

In St. Louis, clergy and others protested the cancelling of all public meetings, but the health commissioner remained firm about closure. On November 2, 1918, a St. Louis newspaper carried these words: “Due to the health commissioner’s determined action, St. Louis has been spared the terrible fate of other cities of its size and larger… 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.”

Perhaps you’re thinking that these were the words of a thoughtful Christian pastor. Think again. They’re the words of Rabbi Samuel Thurman, rabbi of the first synagogue west of the Mississippi River. Rabbi Thurman was correct in his view that St. Louis was better off than most other cities. With only 358 deaths per 100,000 people, St. Louis had the sixth lowest death rate of large cities in the nation.

Never giving in to protests and keeping its public buildings–including churches–closed, made a difference for St. Louis. Giving in to protests made a difference in the other direction for some cities–for example, for Washington, D.C. Leaders in Washington promptly closed schools, churches, and theaters at the beginning of their epidemic in October 1918. The closures continued until the end of October, when the flu epidemic seemed to be improving. They lifted the ban on public gatherings on October 29. But flu cases started spiking in early December. Leaders debated re-closing the public buildings but in the end gave in to protests and left them open. The result was devastating for the city: 608 deaths per 100,000 people. Washington, D.C. had one of the worst epidemics in the nation.

Your blog writer tells me that so far there have been no protests of church closures in the Diocese of Richmond. Here we have no desperate promises to eject coughers and sneezers if only the churches can stay open. Let’s hope that this steadiness of purpose results in a St. Louis-type result and not in a Washington, D.C.-type result. Remembering our brothers and sisters of 1918, we, too, pray for the speedy banishment of the dread monster, disease, from our midst.

–Ann White

P.S. I hope this post has given you some food for thought. But sorry, there are no steak knives.

4 thoughts on “Guest Post about Spanish Flu Church Closures

  1. Interesting read….to say the least… some ive picked up over the years some in the last weeks… there is a lot about 1918 on youtube, but i hadnt heard how bad dc had it.. thanks for writing that ann.. well spoken as always Im in ohio now and our governor has been extremely proactive..thank god for that but on one of his pressers when all this started he explained the difference in Philadelphia and in st louis during the flu then… we dont want to be philly… and a lot of it was about how they didnt want to cancel a parade…. whic( was really the wrong move. I have heard a catholuc show on the radio praise those bishops who didnt close the diocese and ive read local responses by people up here who were angry over it, i really hope the6 spoke out of emotion…. we will get through this…. it will be a very weird easter season… but many priests have died in italy….they need our prayers… but we need to heec their warn8ngs and the warnings of days past…. st joseph, terror of demons, pray for us.

  2. Excellent article! (As I expected it would be, knowing Ann.) Thank you Ann for writing this and for the research that went into it. I recognized the need for the closings today, but having these statistics from the past helps us to appreciate the wisdom of the closings today. And encourages us not to rush into re-openings.
    Judy R.

  3. Great article – thank you! One point worth noting is the unfortunate naming of the 1918 flu pandemic as “Spanish”, a name that persists today. As it turns out, the virus most probably started in farm animals in Kansas, made the leap to humans, spreading to local people including soldiers in nearby Army barracks and then was carried off to Europe during WWI. Pres. Woodrow Wilson insisted on holding war bond rallies in major cities like Philadelphia, which contributed to more casualties. John Barry’s “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague In History,” is an excellent study of the pandemic, the state of medicine at the time, and the heroic medical sleuths.

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