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Patients with the "Spanish flu" are seen at Camp Funston at Fort Riley, Kan., in 1918.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

How Churches of Christ responded when the 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ killed millions

Many congregations canceled services, and some Christians focused on feeding and nursing the poor.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nashville saw its first case of the “Spanish flu” in late September 1918. By November, 1,300 had died — 1 percent of the city’s population.

The influenza would kill almost 700,000 in the United States and 50 million globally. It was the worst pandemic in modern history.

John Mark Hicks | Views

John Mark Hicks | Perspective

Amid the dramatic lifestyle changes brought by the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, the experience of Christians more than a century ago is worth revisiting. 

As the flu spread across the U.S. in the late fall and early winter of 1918, theaters, schools, businesses and churches closed their doors for weeks. The Tennessee Health Department advised churches to suspend their Sunday meetings for Oct. 20 and 27. No one protested, and 92 churches complied.

However, the Russell Street Church of Christ in Nashville did not close its doors. The church approached the Red Cross with an offer of help. Their building became a temporary hospital because the city hospitals were turning away people. The Russell Street members, along with the Eleventh Street and Chapel Avenue congregations, poured their monetary and human resources into feeding and nursing the poor. The influenza epidemic, as A. B. Lipscomb wrote in the Gospel Advocate, had “opened up a way for the enlargement of the sympathies of Christian people.”

As the influenza spread, the government recommended the cancellation of Sunday assemblies. The Christian Leader implored churches “to observe strictly all the regulations urged by our State Boards of Health and cooperate in every way.”

Related: Coronavirus pandemic prompts numerous Churches of Christ to cancel Sunday assemblies

Churches in California, Minnesota, West Virginia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas and all across the country suspended their regular services. Ben West of Ennis, Texas, informed the Gospel Advocate that “Sunday was the first day for twelve years that I have failed to attend service,” and then added, “We had three funerals here Sunday.” Though the church was not assembling, they were “busy attending the sick.”

Some died caring for others. The Gospel Advocate reported that J. D. Northcut, an evangelist from Tracy City, Tennessee, fell ill with “influenza followed by pneumonia” and died at the age of 43. He had given “almost continual attention to sufferers near him.”

The Campbell Street Church of Christ in Louisville, Ky., circa 1923.

The Campbell Street Church of Christ in Louisville, Ky., circa 1923.

M.C. Kurfees, the minister of the Campbell Street Church of Christ in Louisville, Ky., sent a letter to his members announcing the congregation’s compliance with the Kentucky State Board of Health. “It behooves us,” he wrote, “to cheerfully submit to this order and to exert all our energies in an earnest and sympathetic effort to cooperate with the benevolent purpose of our government to check the deplorable disease.”

Though churches suspended their large assemblies, they did not cease to worship. Rather, as E. D. Shelton, in Fayette City, Pa., wrote, “We worshipped God from house to house.” H. E. Winkler, of Adairville, Ky., and his wife “worshipped in our home” for three weeks. Kurfees recommended his congregants worship in their homes “as was sometimes done in the days of the apostles.”

Nevertheless, some experienced this as government interference. They resented the government’s orders to shut their doors on Sunday mornings. “We must obey God rather than man,” a few argued. J. W. Dunn of Paris, Texas, for example, applauded “one of our faithful ones” who “approached the mayor and explained to him our convictions of duty on Lord’s-day services.” The mayor consented but only if a few gathered; no large meetings were permitted. At the same time, Dunn noted, “Paris has had a heavy toll.”

Other ministers accepted the quarantines and restrictions without complaint because they recognized one could obey both God and the government. E. C. Fuqua of Fort Collins, Colo., keenly felt the obligation to meet weekly on the Lord’s Day. “Carefully observing [government] restrictions, we feel free to meet a few brethren in a private home and worship according to the New Testament teaching.” In this way, “the assembly thus formed is not unlawful, and the worship rendered is lawful to God,” which demonstrates “loyalty to both.”

With masks over their faces, members of the American Red Cross remove a victim of the "Spanish flu" from a house in St. Louis in 2018.

With masks over their faces, members of the American Red Cross remove a victim of the “Spanish flu” from a house in St. Louis in 1918.

J.C. McQuiddy, editor of the Gospel Advocate, also felt strongly about weekly assembly. However, this duty was superseded by mercy at times. Just as it was a matter of mercy to care for the sick at home instead of attending the weekly service, it is also merciful to forego meeting with the saints if it “would jeopardize the lives of members of not only their families, but the families also of many other people.”

McQuiddy thought it unnecessary to “assemble in large crowds to break bread in the face of the proclamation of the government.” Indeed, Christians, while meeting with a few in homes, should observe the restrictions “cheerfully, seeking to lead quiet, holy, and unblameable lives.”

JOHN MARK HICKS is a professor of theology at the Hazelip School of Theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville. He has taught in higher education among Churches of Christ for over 38 years. His most recent book is “Searching for the Pattern.” Contact him at [email protected].

Filed under: National Perspective Top Stories

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