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How Did Churches Respond to A Pandemic When Public Worship Was Banned?

I can imagine what the history books say: There was a global pandemic caused by a virus. The number of infected people grew daily. Officials recommended frequent hand-washing and quarantining of the sick. Several cities went so far as to ban public worship services and other public gatherings! In the end, the pandemic killed 50 million people, including 675,000 Americans. No, we are not describing the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019-2020, but rather what is commonly known as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

Chris Gehrz, a history professor at Bethel University, recently wrote about how churches and church leaders responded to that 1918 pandemic, as reported by local newspapers.

-Some pastors were creative and lead outdoor services, encouraged home worship and even reading sermons published in newspapers.

-An interim pastor in San Francisco preached that many Christians had caused the pandemic as a result of being "cowardly" and "worldly" and only repentance of these sins would stop the spread of the virus.

-At the other spectrum, A Methodist leader wrote that "… the pandemic should convince “Intelligent Christians” to trust science rather than seeking to “tempt God to perform a miracle in the preservation of our health ..."

-Some pastors refused to close their doors, held services in protest, and in at least one city a pastor was arrested for refusing to cancel services.

-The Daily Telegram, of Worchester, Massachusetts, reported on how Christians were responding. Women from three local churches were taking care of “epidemic orphans.” They not only gave food and clothing, but “[supplied] them with plenty of healthful recreation and a little systematized instruction, too.”

Possible Preaching Angle:

In this time of national crisis, we are reminded that this is not the first time that churches have faced a major disruption of regular activities. And just as history is judged in retrospect, how we respond to our current crisis not only gives witness to our faith, but also will be reported and evaluated by future generations. How do we want our response to be remembered?

Source:

Chris Gehrz, “What the 1918 Influenza Pandemic Meant for American Churches,” Patheos, Anxious Bench blog (3-10-20)

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