Playwright George Bernard Shaw commented that “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.” In this precedented time, there are direct applications we can and should learn from the church’s response 100 years ago.
While these times are truly unprecedented to us, a look back in history shows that in many ways these times are completely precedented. A century ago the world faced another deadly pandemic – the Spanish Flu. Like today, nearly every person and facet of society was affected by the deadly disease and the resulting upheaval to daily life. And just like today, churches had to respond quickly. Newspaper articles and church records from 1918-1919 reveal that there are stark similarities to how churches responded to the pandemic a century ago.
1. (Most) churches shut down.
As state and local governments began to comprehend the scope of the crisis in their jurisdictions, they called for churches to shut down (along with schools, theaters, etc.). Some churches remained opened in defiance of local orders. Most churches were shut from early Oct. 1918 to early December 1918, while some cities had bans on public gatherings until January 1919. The research is unclear about how churches dealt with the ‘second wave’ of infections in 1919.
2. Churches quickly improvised with “home worship.”
Churches provided sermon notes and hymn notes and worship materials during the shutdown. Some local newspapers printed sermons in their editions. Pastors provided theological framework for this time as extended Sabbath and a way to disciple one’s family.
3. New technology was quickly utilized to connect safely.
Telephones were the Zoom of the day! Homebound people used the phone to greater degrees to connect during the shutdowns at the end of 1918. Home telephones were becoming more popular in the 1910s, but the infrastructure was limited so cities urged citizens to limit their telephone use to emergency only as to not overload the system.
4. Church leaders called for an end to the ban on church gatherings and defended the church’s role in promoting the well-being of the community.
There are several examples of church leaders calling for an end to government bans on gathering beginning three weeks after bans were put in place. A Catholic clergyman in Baltimore pleaded on the vital role that churches play in the community by saying, “I am told that a number of calls upon our physicians are simply the result of nervousness, or the consequence of alarm. This might be considerably allayed by the reassurance of religion, and discreet words from our priests given the people in church.”
5. Services were amended for greater safety.
A Catholic Bishop in Detroit stated they would be “willing to have their edifices fumigated between meetings, to cut the services to 45 minutes, to employ special ushers, who would eject persons who coughed or sneezed and to require all worshipers entering a church to wear influenza masks” if their city allowed them to reopen.
6. Some argued that banning of church gatherings was a violation of the First Amendment.
Many church leaders went to court to argue that the First Amendment right to ‘peacefully assemble’ was violated. Courts by-and-large upheld the government’s right to ban public gatherings for health reasons and for government entities to reasonably enforce those bans.