March 17, 2020

Brethren and the influenza of 1918

Excerpted from Messenger, May 2008

As World War I wound to a bloody close, the Pandemic of 1918-1919, known in that era as the Spanish Influenza, killed up to 675,000 in the United States and up to 100 million people worldwide, far more than the conflict that preceded it. Death was dramatic and sudden, beginning with a dull headache that gave way to shivering, delirium, and semi-consciousness. The feet turned black, the face turned purple, with death caused by drowning as the patient’s lungs filled with blood.

More than 25 percent of the population of the United States contracted the flu as it swept through large cities, as well as military camps where soldiers were crowded in close quarters.

Nor did the Angel of Death pass over Brethren enclaves. Churches were closed for weeks or even months. Love feasts were cancelled. Colleges were shut down. The obituary pages of The Gospel Messenger swelled as many died. Yet judging from the front pages of that periodical you would never have known that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had descended in their midst!

There were numerous articles on the war, the Armistice, on missions, and on the Forward Movement in Sunday schools, but all references to the pandemic were relegated to the “Round Table” columns, obituaries, and correspondent sections inside the periodical. These included one mistaken news item early in the pandemic that reported those who abstained from alcohol were safe from the flu. Experience quickly proved that false.

By and large, articles about the flu were not written by the male elders of the church, but by women. Brethren writers such as Julia Graydon, Rose D. Fox, and Alice Trimmer addressed not only the pandemic but the important pastoral opportunities that accompanied the disaster, setting a tone for the rise of women in ministry among the Brethren.

Following the pandemic, Brethren experienced a shift in mission philosophy from an emphasis on evangelism to one of service. … The flu may have been one of the factors that led to the Brethren Service explosion of the 1930s and ‘40s.

Frank Ramirez currently serves as pastor of Union Center Church of the Brethren, Nappanee, Indiana.