“We are living in unprecedented times.” I have heard this several times in the past few days. It sure feels that way. Remembering the influenza pandemic of 1918 can help us understand the challenges the church is facing in the current coronavirus pandemic.
Called the “Spanish flu,” it infected nearly 500 million people worldwide, with a death toll estimated between 20 million and 50 million. It claimed more lives in just a few months than any other illness recorded in history. One quarter of the American population was infected, and 675,000 lives were lost. It coincided with World War I, which took the lives of 16 million worldwide. Life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years in the year 1918.
When the Spanish flu swept across South Carolina, 50,000 cases were reported. The flu began with a small number of cases in the spring of 1918. It declined over the summer, but returned in the fall with a vengeance, often bringing death just days after the first symptoms.
In South Carolina, it caused the death of 14,250 persons. Everyone was affected across the state. The hospitals were overwhelmed with patients in need of medical care. The University of South Carolina converted several buildings to emergency hospitals. The Board of Health in Charleston invoked a curfew at sunset and banned all assemblies of more than five people. In Spartanburg, all public gathering places were closed.
By October, the epidemic was spreading rapidly in South Carolina. Government officials imposed quarantines restricting gatherings and travel. Churches canceled their services. In the October 24 edition of The Baptist Courier, a public service announcement instructed people to not panic and “always call a doctor.” The Fairfield Association was not able to meet because of the “prevalence of influenza.” The Kershaw Association sought to abide by the request of the government agencies and announced that “owing to the restrictions of the State Board of Health prohibiting the meeting of bodies of people, our Association could not meet at the appointed time.” The Spartan Association recognized the burden that the epidemic placed upon the churches. They reported that “the influenza epidemic has been raging for some time in the bounds of the Association, and this, no doubt, since public assemblies have been prohibited, has broken into the plans of almost all of our churches.”
The churches could not gather and had to spend “extra energy and greater endeavor” in order to minister to their people. The editor of The Courier wrote that “the epidemic and the quarantine have dislocated our associational schedule for the whole state, and the brethren are seeking to remedy matters as best they can.” The Charleston, Lexington, and Chesterfield associations all postponed or cancelled.
The most harrowing of reports came from the superintendent of the Baptist Hospital, Louis J. Bristow. Established in 1914, the hospital was small but had already proven itself to be an important ministry in the state’s capital. Bristow wrote to The Courier on November 7, 1918 that “these October weeks have been the busiest of my life, perhaps the situation at the Baptist Hospital has been one without a parallel in its history.”
Bristow provided an eyewitness account of the devastation that the epidemic caused: “I have been on duty continuously sixteen, eighteen, and even twenty hours in a day, while Death was on a hideous spree, destroying precious lives of men and women.” In many cases, all that he could do was to bring comfort to families as their loved ones passed. Even that overwhelmed him, because “death was too agile, and would jump from room to room, and from building to building, and seize his victims almost before we knew it.”
In his subsequent report to the convention, Bristow could not help but express his pride in the work of the hospital staff during the crisis: “A pardonable pride is felt for the service rendered in the crisis, a season of sickness which in volume and number of fatalities is unparalleled in the knowledge of this generation.” He bore testimony of God’s favor: Although many of the nurses contracted the disease, none died.
With the situation dire within the state, and the government officials calling for suspension of all assemblies, the Baptists in the state saw it as their duty to do their part in stopping the spread of the epidemic. In the December 5, 1918 edition of The Courier, it was announced that the annual meeting of the South Carolina Baptist Convention was postponed. Z.T. Cody, the editor of The Courier, addressed the news of the postponement in his editorial section of the paper. Both the State Board of Health and the local Board of Health in Darlington had requested the convention not to meet. The SCBC agreed that this was “the wise course.”
Cody praised the decision: “We have been thoroughly convinced that public gatherings are an impetus for the spread of the epidemic that has brought so much sorrow to our people.” Their “first priority should be to stamp out the evil as rapidly as possible.” This meant that the convention and its churches must “heartily cooperate with our Health department.”
Writing on December 12, 1918, the secretary of the Baptist Young Peoples Union, Joseph A. Gaines, reported that “the plague of influenza, and the quarantine against public meetings of all sorts, which was absolutely necessary to prevent the spread of the disease, have greatly hindered all church work.” The churches and the convention felt it was vital to follow the guidelines of the state government, even though “having to go so long without meeting together for worship has left us somewhat disordered and confused.”
The strain on the churches was severe. Pastor R.E. Hardaway of Allendale told Cody that “we have been hard hit down here on account of the flu. Our church was closed five Sundays.” Hardaway was pleased to report, however, that the members of the congregation were able to meet all of their monetary needs, including the fact that “the pastor is paid in full.”
This was the attitude throughout the convention. It led South Carolina Baptists to postpone the convention rather than cancel it. The overwhelming sentiment of the people was to meet as soon as the public health crisis ended, for the annual meeting was an “essential feature of our Baptist polity.” The meeting would bring great encouragement to the people after a difficult year.
The quarantine was lifted in late December, and the postponed convention gathered at First Baptist Church in Columbia on January 13, 1919. As they met in Columbia, they heard the reports from the various institutions about how the Lord had prospered them throughout the year, in spite of many challenges. It was with great joy that the State Mission Board gave its report. C.E. Burts, the president of the Board, stated, “[T]hough taxed in numerous ways, the people of our denomination have, nevertheless, carried forward their usual work, though in an unusually liberal manner.” The Baptists of South Carolina gave that year an amount of $67,499.97, the largest amount ever raised during any one year of its history.
We can learn today from the response of South Carolina Baptists to the 1918 pandemic. First, they believed that caring for the sick was the duty of every believer. Superintendent of the hospital Bristow argued that the statement of Jesus, “‘I was sick and you visited me,’ is an expression full of suggestion.” Second, one of the ways that they cared for the sick was to adhere to the government requirements about not assembling together. Adherence to the health department’s recommendations helped “stamp out the evil as rapidly as possible.” Third, South Carolina Baptists did not cease to do ministry, even though they could not assemble together. Pastoral care, church giving, caring for the sick, and raising the largest amount of cooperative giving in any year of their history — South Carolina Baptists stepped up to the challenge.
The times we are living in have not been seen in our lifetime, but they are not unprecedented. Our forebears in the faith left remarkable faithfulness and resiliency for us to emulate. I pray that we do.
Lisa J. Dimitriades, “Influenza Pandemic of 1918” in The South Carolina Encyclopedia. The University of South Carolina Press, 2006.
The Baptist Courier. October-November 1918.
— Josh Powell is senior pastor of Lake Murray Baptist Church in Lexington and president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.