What Did DC Churches Do When the Spanish Flu Struck Again?

Article
05.11.2020

For more resources related to COVID-19, visit our new site: COVID-19 & The Church. You can read Caleb’s earlier article on the subject here: “How DC Churches Responded When the Government Banned Public Gatherings During the Spanish Flu of 1918.”

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For four long weeks, as Washington D.C.’s church bells and congregations remained silent, a deadly sickness took its toll: 23,000 infected, 1,500 dead.

During that same time, Christians across the District waited for the Department of Health’s ban on gatherings to be lifted.[1] Finally, that day came. On Tuesday, October 26, 1918, the commissioners announced that theaters, moving picture houses, and dance halls would be permitted to re-open on Monday, November 4, and that churches would be permitted to gather again on Thursday, October 31.[2]

According to the Saturday edition of The Washington Times, “Pastor and congregation will meet again tomorrow, after having been separated for four weeks by the ‘flu.’ Some of the churches will have special services to celebrate the abatement of the epidemic and the reopening of their services.”[3] For instance, Rev. Gove Griffith-Johnson preached on “The Great Epidemic and Its Cure” at Immanuel Baptist Church.[4] Most pastors, however, preached sermons on the topic of the Great War, which at that point was but one week away from ending.[5]

Daily influenza deaths had fallen from their peak. On October 12, the District saw 92 deaths; on November 4, only 11. The city was optimistic that the worst lay behind them.[6]

Commenting on the opening of churches on Sunday, Health Commissioner Dr. Fowler spoke of no need for concern or alarm. In his opinion, opening churches would not cause the virus to spread, even if infected people attended the services. He gave two reasons: first, “people will take precautions to prevent contracting the disease”; and second, “the contagion is now of a mild form, as shown by the nature of the new cases being reported.”[7] Though businesses were still requested to “stagger hours” and remain closed until 10 AM so as to reduce congestion during commutes, the city was getting back to “business as usual.”[8] As indicated by a November 4 article entitled “Epidemic Danger Passes in the Capital,” the prevailing view was that the danger had past.[9] This was the case not only in DC. New York City also reported that “the Spanish Influenza epidemic” is “practically over,” as new cases had declined by nearly 50 percent.[10]

Little did they know that the return of the influenza in December would reveal such optimism to be fatally premature.

DIFFERENT RESPONSES TO CHURCHES RE-OPENING

By examining three sermons from that “reopening weekend,” we see three different responses to the ban on gatherings. For instance, Rev. Dr. C. Ernest Smith of St Thomas’ Episcopal Church near Dupont Circle responded in his sermon “The Closed Church Epidemic” with anger and frustration.[11] He makes the point that the real epidemic was not the Spanish Flu but “unreasonable fear” rooted in “little faith” and “imperfect information.” He makes the point that “those who feel that the churches must be closed because of the crowds which assemble there apparently know very little about churches,” since a church, unlike a movie theater, is generally “a safe place to avoid a crowd.” His main objection to the government’s treatment of churches, however, was that churches were “put into the class of non-essential industries, . . . on the same level as the poolrooms, saloons, movies.” In some places, Smith says, they were even forced to close while saloons and liquor stores were permitted to remain open.

Rev. Gove G. Johnson of Immanuel Baptist Church had similar concerns. In his sermon “The Great Epidemic and Its Cure,” Johnson called it a “sad mistake” to place churches on the same level as entertainment houses.[12] While not as vitriolic as Dr. Smith, he nonetheless puts his thumb on the same issue: “However sincerely meant for the good of the public health,” he stated, “it is a lamentable and disastrous thing to take the stand that the place of prayer is on a par with the place of entertainment when it comes to a crisis in our community.”[13] Such a mistake, he said, should never be repeated.

A very different response is found in Rev. Francis J. Grimke, the pastor of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. His sermon was later published as “Some Reflections Growing Out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza that Afflicted Our City.”[14] Grimke acknowledged that there was some “considerable grumbling” regarding the closing of churches. But he also offers a defense:

The fact that the churches were places of religious gathering, and the others not, would not affect in the least the health question involved. If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger, and expect God to protect us.[15]

Later in the sermon, Grimke defends the authority of the commissioners to “safeguard, as far as possible, the health of the community” and commends churches for submitting to “such restrictions for the time being.”[16]

THE IMPACT OF THE SPANISH FLU ON CHURCHES 

Despite these various post hoc responses, the uniform practice of churches seems to have been to abide by the government’s instructions and remain closed.[17] As Hugh T. Stevenson, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church, notes in his annual letter to the Columbia Association of Baptist Churches, “In common with the other churches of the community, [Bethany Baptist] kept its doors closed for several weeks.”[18] Even small gatherings, such as the weekly Deacons meetings at Metropolitan Baptist Church, were omitted between October 3 and November 7.[19] Indeed, at the Annual Meeting of the Columbia Association of Baptist Churches on November 18–21, several DC churches indicated that they assented to the government’s recommendations.[20]

Did church members die of the Spanish Flu? Of course they did. Calvary Baptist Church mourned the loss of Mary Winifred Glascock who not only served as a faithful member of the church but also worked as superintendent of the George Washington University Hospital.[21] She succumbed to the influenza even “while ministering day and night to the physical and spiritual needs of the sick and dying.”[22] Fifth Baptist Church reported 26 deaths in 1918—the largest number in its history—many of them due to influenza.[23] Second Baptist Church lost several members, including two sisters who died three days apart.[24] Temple Baptist Church lost 15 members, many in rapid succession, such as Harry A. Sullivan on October 1, and Helen Kirby and Everett Gottlieb on October 6. However, closest to home was the death of pastor J. J. Muir’s firstborn son, Edward; he died on October 12. He served as a church trustee and superintendent of the Bible School. He was remembered with the words: “Never was there a truer son, a more devoted husband and father.”[25]

Despite being unable to gather, these churches actively cared for their flocks to the best of their abilities. For instance, the members and deacons of Brookland Baptist Church “visited the church families, keeping track of cases of sickness and following up [with] church finances.”[26] Their report at the annual meeting singles out their pastor, Henry Millington, for his great “helpfulness in time of sickness.”

THE “SECOND WAVE”

By the end of November 1918, the city was just starting to get back to normal. Sadly, the Spanish Flu came back, too.[27] In July 1919, the DC Commissioner’s Office summarized it this way:

The epidemic having practically subsided by the 1st of November, the commissioners on November 4, 1918, removed the restrictions placed on public gatherings of all kinds. [However], a recrudescence occurred about December 1, 1918, but was not nearly so serious as the original outbreak.[28]

Such prescience was not available to the DC Health Commissioners in 1918. When 122 new cases were reported on December 11, and 244 new cases on December 12, Health Commissioner Dr. Fowler considered “not only . . . the closing of the schools, but all places of public gathering.” [29] Unfortunately, by this point, the Department of Health had already closed its field hospitals and sent many of its nurses and doctors to aid other cities. [30]

 

By December 13, 1918, The Evening Star sported the following headline: “Heads Likely to Close Schools and Forbid Public Gatherings.” The District had seen 343 new cases reported in the past 24 hours, and the District Commissioners were prepared to “order tomorrow closing all schools and places of public gathering as a preventive against the further spread of influenza contagion.”[31]

At a conference that same day, Dr. Fowler discussed the necessity of closing “public and private schools, churches and other places of public gatherings.”[32] The first thirteen days in December had seen 2,016 new cases and 55 deaths. Dr. Fowler explained that the commissioners would be issuing an order “tomorrow morning closing all places of public gathering.”[33]

Given how politically charged the closing of churches had been in October, the response was unsurprising. The day after Dr. Fowler’s announcement, Rev. Randolph H. McKim, pastor of the Episcopalian Church of the Epiphany, wrote a letter to the editor of The Evening Star protesting the suggestion of re-closing churches.[34]

Along the same lines, Theodore W. Noyes, editor of The Evening Star wrote an editorial on December 14 insisting that further closures should only come as a last necessity. “Closing the churches,” he wrote, “instead of so regulating the assemblages in them as to guarantee against overcrowding, would renew the evil and injury of last autumn’s protracted closing.”[35] His language of renewing “the evil and injury” suggests residual hard feelings from October.

Their fears, however, proved unfounded. That very same day, the order was given that in spite of the rising number of new cases, public gatherings would not be stopped. Having discussed the issue that morning, the Commissioners concluded, according to one headline, “Situation Doesn’t Warrant Closing Order.” According to the article, “Unless Influenza Increases to an extent not now anticipated, there will be no closing of schools, churches, theaters or other places of public congregation, it was announced this afternoon by Commissioner Gardiner.”[36]

As it turned out, new cases peaked at 417 on December 15, but steadily declined thereafter. The extent to which the advocacy of churches contributed to the commissioners’ decision not to ban gatherings again is impossible to determine.

LOOKING BACK ON THE EVENTS OF 1918

Time has a way of providing perspective. Looking back on the events of 1918, churches recalled “the distractions of war, fuel famine, and influenza epidemics.”[37] They also remembered blessings that came out of these hardships. Despite losing “10 [members] during the recent influenza epidemic,” Fifth Baptist Church reported that 1918 was “one of the best we have ever had, both from a spiritual and financial standpoint.”[38] Despite the disturbances to “normal church life,” Hyattsville Baptist Church described their financial situation as “the best in the history of the church.”[39]

While it was true that services had been “interrupted by the order of the Commissioners of the District prohibiting assemblage on account of the influenza epidemic,” yet these closures only resulted in “manifestations of still greater interest” once services resumed.[40] Congress Heights Baptist Church similarly reported in glowing language: “It has been the best year spiritually that we have ever experienced. The net gain has been 12 percent of our membership, and all of this has been by baptism.”[41]

Contrary to all expectations, the closing of churches for the month of October in 1918 did not result in decline and ruin, but in revitalization and growth. In many ways, what these churches describe is the realization of the hopes articulated by Francis J. Grimke in his sermon that first Sunday back, November 3, 1918:

God knows what he is doing. His work is not going to suffer. It will rather be a help to it in the end. Out of it, I believe, great good is coming. All the churches, as well as the community at large, are going to be the stronger and better for this season of distress through which we have been passing.[42]

May such confidence in God, his sovereignty, and the ultimate success of his work, mark our ministries and churches today.

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FOOTNOTES:

[1] The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 02 Nov. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1918-11-02/ed-1/seq-6/

[2] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 29 Oct. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-10-29/ed-1/seq-1/ . The official order of the Commissioners’ Office reads as follows: “Ordered: That the operation of the Commissioners’ order of October 3, 1918, closing theaters, moving picture houses and dance halls in the District of Columbia for an indefinite time be terminated on Monday, November 4. 1918. That the operation of the Commissioners’ order of October 4, 1918, requesting the clergy of Washington to omit all church services until further action by the Commissioners, be terminated on Thursday, October 31, 1918.”

[3] The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 02 Nov. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1918-11-02/ed-1/seq-4/

[4] The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 02 Nov. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1918-11-02/ed-1/seq-4/

[5] Ibid. For instance, Rev. Wallace, Radcliffe of the New York Avenue’ Presbyterian Church preached on “War-Time Cities and Their Stories,” Rev. Howard L Stewart of the Second Baptist Church preached on “The Best Thing About the War,” and Rev. Dr. Henry Allen Tupper of the First Baptist Church preached on “Europe, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.” The prevalence of sermons on war shows that the public was even more occupied by the war abroad than with the influenza at home.

[6] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 04 Nov. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-11-04/ed-1/seq-2/

[7] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 03 Nov. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-11-03/ed-1/seq-2/

[8] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 01 Nov. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-11-01/ed-1/seq-1/

[9] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 04 Nov. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-11-04/ed-1/seq-2/. According to the article, “Health officials feel safe in saying that Washington’s influenza epidemic has passed, but in the same breath they urge citizens to take every possible precaution to prevent further spread of the contagion. Their optimism is based on the number of deaths for the twenty-four hour period ending at noon today, which was but eleven, together with the small number of new cases for the same period, which was only sixteen.”

[10] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 04 Nov. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-11-04/ed-1/seq-12/

[11] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 04 Nov. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-11-04/ed-1/seq-20/

[12] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 04 Nov. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-11-04/ed-1/seq-20/

[13] Ibid.

[14] F. J. Grimké, Some reflections, growing out of the recent epidemic of influenza that afflicted our city: a discourse delivered in the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., Sunday, November 3, 1918. (Butcher, C. Simpson, 1918). https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=emu.010002585873&view=1up&seq=3. Accessed on March 10, 2020.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] During an emergency meeting of the Protestant ministers on Saturday, October 5, 1918 to discuss the Health Commissioner’s order, they “voted unanimously to accede to the request of the District Commissioners that churches be closed in the city” (The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 05 Oct. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1918-10-05/ed-1/seq-2/. Accessed on March 10, 2020.)

[18] Annual Report of the Columbia Association of Baptist Churches (Washington DC, 1918), 59.

[19] Metropolitan Baptist Church Deacon Minutes 1918-1919, see p. 60-61.

[20] Annual Report of the Columbia Association of Baptist Churches (Washington DC, 1918), 65. For instance, the report of Hyattsville Baptist Church Hyattsville states, “Like all of the other churches, all our services have been suspended during the month of October.”

[21] See also Laura Donnelly-Smith, “A Look Back: GW’s First Decade in Foggy Bottom” (GW Today, March 15, 2012). https://gwtoday.gwu.edu/look-back-gws-first-decade-foggy-bottom. Accessed on April 30, 2020.

[22] Annual Report, 44.

[23] Ibid, 45.

[24] Ibid, 49.

[25] Ibid, 51.

[26] Annual Report of the Columbia Association of Baptist Churches (Washington DC, 1919), 62.

[27] Throughout this article I will refer to the “First Wave” as the spike in cases in October 1918 and the “Second Wave” as the spike in cases in December 1918. Even though the1918 influenza came to the United States in three waves, only the second and third of these significantly affected Washington DC. See CDC, “1918 Pandemic Influenza: Three Waves” (May 11, 2018). https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/three-waves.htm. Accessed on April 27, 2020.

[28] District of Columbia Board of Commissioners, Annual Report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1920), 31-32.

[29] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 12 Dec. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-12-12/ed-1/seq-2/>

[30] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 24 Dec. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-12-24/ed-1/seq-4/. The field hospital was not able to be reopened until December 22.

[31] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 13 Dec. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-12-13/ed-1/seq-2/

[32] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 13 Dec. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-12-13/ed-1/seq-2/

[33] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 13 Dec. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-12-13/ed-1/seq-2/

[34] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 14 Dec. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-12-14/ed-1/seq-10/

[35] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 14 Dec. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-12-14/ed-1/seq-6/

[36] Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 14 Dec. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1918-12-14/ed-1/seq-2/

[37] Annual Report of the Columbia Association of Baptist Churches (Washington, DC, 1919), 69.

[38] Ibid, 64.

[39] Ibid, 65-66.

[40] Ibid, 72.

[41] Ibid, 63.

[42] F. J. Grimké, Some reflections, growing out of the recent epidemic of influenza that afflicted our city: a discourse delivered in the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., Sunday, November 3, 1918. (Butcher, C. Simpson, 1918). https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=emu.010002585873&view=1up&seq=3. Accessed on March 10, 2020.

By:
Caleb Morell

A graduate of Georgetown University and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Caleb Morell is a pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church. You can follow him on Twitter at @calebmorell.