Tuesday, July 20, 2021
Pandemic Past, Pandemic Present: Church is Cancelled
By Andrew Gardner, PhD
In March of 2020, congregations across the United States made drastic and abrupt changes to their worship services and programming, shifting from in person gatherings to digital gatherings via Zoom and Youtube. One survey found that from March 8 to March 22, 2020, 84% of respondents indicated that their congregations had transitioned to virtual gatherings. [i] Many churches made this decision after their own analysis of the evolving pandemic, whereas others looked to national and local public health officials for guidance. Some states chose not to invoke any particular “ban” or “restrictions” on religious gatherings, whereas others, like California, Colorado, and others, did. Much of US religious life followed public health guidelines and adhered to restrictions, understanding that religious communities had a responsibility to protect the health and well-being of both their members and the general public. This was not the first time, however, that religious congregations had shuttered doors amid a public health crisis. During the influenza pandemic of 1918, church life adapted as well, following public health guidelines and banning church gatherings.
In cities throughout the country from Cleveland to Dallas to Los Angeles, churches across the country cancelled weekly services.[ii] The banning of public worship services, however, did not mean that congregations were inactive. Pastors in Canada reportedly utilized the telephone to contact and keep in touch with congregants who had this “modern convenience.”[iii] Many newspapers also published sermons in the Sunday edition of the paper, allowing pastors to continue to address their congregants.[iv] In the New Orleans States, the Rev. A. J. Gearheard offered a “Sermon for Stay-At Homes Sunday” in which he conveyed society’s interconnectedness drawing upon Romans 14:7 “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.” [v] Gearheard implored readers to take this time to consider the many ways that questions of “individual happiness, health and prosperity” are dependent upon larger societal answers rather than personal, individualized answers.
Many Protestant ministers worked together and collaborated during the period of church closures. In Fall River, Massachusetts, local Protestant Clergy, following the request of ‘the Mayor and the Board of Health,” issued “A Call to Prayer in Our Homes,” on Sunday October 29, 1918. The pastors noted that medical science has advanced in recent years, discovering the “minute creatures called the germs.” The group of Protestant clergy explained that they “reluctantly” agreed to “discontinue public services” for the following two Sundays.[vi] In Franklin, Indiana the local “ministerial association,” composed of Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and Christian ministers, put together a plan for Sunday services taking place within homes. Writing into the local paper, the ministers provided a “Program for Flu Sunday,” encouraging Christian families to begin their Sunday morning at 9:30 with a reading of a “favorite passage of scripture” followed by an “explanation of the passage by some member of the family.”[vii]
The Indianapolis Star on Sunday October 13th published an order of worship including an invocation of the Lord’s Prayer, Scripture Lessons from the Psalms and 1 Corinthians, a Silent Prayer time, as well as the sheet music for hymns. Sermons were included from the local Episcopal, Methodist, Christian, Presbyterian, Catholic, Baptist, and even Jewish congregations.[viii] Despite the ecumenical and interfaith inclusion of such a diversity of sermons, the order of worship and hymns including “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” signaled a Protestant majority.[ix]
Not all places across the country practiced this level of cooperation, and many Roman Catholic congregations choose to celebrate low Mass or conduct Mass in open-air services.[x] In Buffalo, New York while many Protestant congregations had cancelled services, most local Catholic parishes made arrangements “to celebrate mass in the open air.”[xi] Many Protestants also held open air services, but the Protestant emphasis on the preached word rather than the eucharist meant that printed text in a local newspaper could suffice for a few weeks. Ministers in El Paso, Texas made an “effort” to “hold open air meetings” after a ban on church gatherings went into effect, but decided it “best to strictly observe the closing order.”[xii] The emphasis on the eucharist within the Roman Catholic tradition pushed many parishes to gather for a shortened Mass outside.
While no ministers welcomed and celebrated the closure of churches, many understood and recognized the need for such restrictions. In an address to the Fifteen Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC after the ban on congregational gatherings had been lifted, Rev. Francis J. Grimke offered some reflections on the influenza pandemic. Grimke remarked at how impressed he was by the justification of “extraordinary exercise of powers that would not be tolerated under ordinary circumstances.” The closing of theaters, schools, and churches marked a significant act on the part of public officials, but Grimke found it “wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in[to] danger and expect God to protect us.” While he acknowledged that the closing worried him at first, he had come to conclude the “churches as well as the community at large are going to be the stronger and better” as a result of this “season of distress.” For ministers like Grimke, the closing order may not have been ideal, but it served as a helpful measure to protect the wellbeing and health of the community.[xiii]
Just as congregations during the Covid-19 Pandemic cancelled in-person gatherings for the health and safety of their congregations, many houses of worship did the same in 1918 to protect their community from influenza. While modern technological innovation allowed for virtual services in 2020, churches in 1918 utilized the technologies available to them at the time like the telephone and local newspapers. The internet provided a means for individuals to transcend their geographic location and attend congregations all across the country. The 1918 pandemic called for greater local cooperation among pastors of different denominational perspectives to plan worship services for homebound congregants through newspapers. The length of closure for many congregations throughout the Influenza Pandemic lasted no more than seven or eight weeks, and some churches had to close again as third and fourth waves of infection battered the United States. Although a century separates these two pandemics, understanding the parallels between them provides a helpful lens for thinking about and anticipating what lingering changes there might be to church life in the years ahead.