We tend to make the assumption that our current moment is completely unprecedented. I mean, how many times have we recently heard or used the phrase, "We're living in unprecedented times!" The more I read though, the more I begin to question that assumption. I believe there is actually a precedent for these times. Of course, the unique blend of pandemic, social upheaval and economic downturn does make our times particularly intense and challenging. One commentator said that we are living through a combination of the 1918 Spanish Flu, the 1929 Great Depression and the 1960's Social Revolution. But if we listen closely to history, we will find some very helpful precedents for these times. They are not identical, but they are similar enough to provide helpful warnings and encouragements to us.
The British poet, Steve Turner once wrote, "History repeats itself. It has to. We never listen." Now is our time to listen to the precedent of history, so that we do not repeat it. Now is also the time to take courage from history.
This article is the result of some research on precedents in pandemics by my friend and colleague, Kristine Nethers, a history teacher with her Masters degree from Stanford University. We asked Kristine to do some research on cultural and historic trends around pandemics. This is a teaser for her larger research project which is an outstanding piece of work. While the scope of her study begins broad, it narrows in to the Church's response to pandemics and scattering. This is a fascinating excerpt, used with her permission.
There are stark similarities between the Church's response to the “Spanish Flu” in 1918 and the Covid-19 crisis of today as detailed below. It is estimated that 50 million people died world-wide from the Spanish Flu, with approximately 675 000 of those deaths being in the USA.
12 Historic Church Responses to the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919 (USA)
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. Research suggests that 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.
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 local 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 phones 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 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. Research suggests that courts by-in-large upheld the government’s right to ban public gatherings for health reasons to reasonably enforce those bans .
7. End times were predicted.
Church leaders were predicting that the pandemic would usher in Jesus’ return with numerous Doomsday theories.
8. Tithes & offerings went down.
Appeals to continue giving and to resource a benevolence fund were called for.
Church leaders appealed to their congregations for giving and sought to help those who had been affected financially. The Southern Baptist denomination called for a “A 75 Million Campaign” in response to the pandemic. While they fell short of that goal, their combined giving towards missions was 10 times higher than it previously been in any previous year.
9. Outdoor services were held as a response to government bans.
Some churches pivoted quickly to outdoor services, some to the ire of local authorities.
10. Church leaders were divided about reopening and “grumbling” was common.
Not all church leaders and churchgoers were in the same accord about church re-openings and “grumblings” among Christians ensued.
11. God’s protection of people against the disease was called into question.
One D.C. pastor provided this response, “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.”
12. Pastors were extra busy.
A Milwaukee, Wisconsin newspaper reported that church closures did not “leave the city’s ‘pastors with any surplus of leisure on their hands.’ With the faithful encouraged to engage in ‘home worship’ and read sermons published in newspapers, Protestant and Catholic clergy were instead devoting more of their energy to pastoral care and sick calls.”
Used with permission Kristine Nethers © Manna Publishing
Does any of this ring a bell?! There are so many stark similarities between their pandemic and ours.
So, what can we learn from the Church's response to the Spanish Flu?
1. First, a pandemic is an opportunity for innovation and we must seize it instead of resenting it. Whether new modes of communication, new forms and precautions for gathering, or new ways of expressing care, the church must be faithful with it's message but flexible with its methods. In fact, while the pastoral cohesion becomes more difficult in the scattering of pandemic, gospel innovation can result in the advance of the gospel into new frontiers. Church members should adapt and commit to the new innovations instead of using the change as an excuse to drop out of regular fellowship.
2. Grumbling at God, each other and our leaders is a besetting sin of God's people in crisis, and we must beware of it. History teaches us humility and gratitude. We are not in a completely unique or unresolvable situation. God’s people have experienced these times before, God has got them through it and He will get us through too. Be gracious to your pastors who are in the busiest and most highly criticized season of their ministry lives.
3. We should beware of jumping to Doomsday conclusions, especially simplistic end-time or conspiracy theories. Too many folk have profited off fear-mongering and Christians' gullibility at times like this, and while the Church must live in anticipation of Christ's return, we will lose our witness if we become fixated with how and when that return will take place.
4. Be slow to politicize pandemics.
Of course, convictions around government infringement on freedom of worship run especially deep, and these are valid. But when these convictions cause Christians to disregard the reality of a pandemic, or become cavalier with safety precautions, we put other people in danger and damage our witness. The exercise of civil disobedience should be a last resort, not a first reaction, and a willingness to lay down our freedoms temporarily out of love for our neighbors may very well be better in the long term for our gospel witness.
5. This too shall pass!
These times are not completely unprecedented and they are not permanent. Of course, there is likely to be a new normal after pandemic, but let's not overstate that by saying, everything is going to spiral down into an apocalypse! Remember, the Roaring 20's followed a year after the Spanish Flu which was a surge of economic prosperity, positivity and culture. Humans are remarkably resilient and adaptable, and God is faithful. As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, "There is nothing new under the sun." God brought His people through the Spanish Flu and He will bring us through COVID-19.
(My next blog will be about learning from the Church in Antioch after the Diaspora)