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1918 vs 2020: 5 Things We Can Learn from 1918 Church Leaders

Crisis is never easy. For most of us, this is probably the hardest thing we’ve ever had to lead through.

While the time we are living in is definitely unique, it is not unprecedented.


spanish1In 1918 during the Spanish Flu epidemic, there was also a time when no churches could meet. In fact, on Monday, October 7, 1918, the Governor of Alabama, Charles Henderson, ordered the closing of ALL churches, schools, and theaters to avoid the spread of the virus that eventually killed about 675,000 Americans.


So how did church leaders in 1918 respond to such a crisis? And what can we learn from them?

They Innovated.
While it might not sound like out of the box thinking today, the Church of 1918 innovated out of necessity. Some churches met outside. Many printed sermons in the local newspapers, and mailed sermons out to their parishioners using ‘snail-mail’ (a phrase they most certainly wouldn’t understand today). One church used Boy Scouts to deliver Sunday sermons. Since they couldn't meet together in large groups indoors, they used the technology of the day whenever they could to inform and shepherd their people in the best way they could.

They Paused.
While they were busy trying to figure out how to minister to people that they couldn't be physically around, they took the time to learn what God might be telling them. And they encouraged others to do the same. Like Pastor Fletcher Parrish from Eleventh Avenue Methodist Church, who said:

"Meditation is very profitable for the soul, but the rush of the world is so great at present that very little time is given to cogitation and reflection. Men think they have no time to walk out in the fields for contemplation, or to sit quietly by the fireside and muse. However, we have a God-given opportunity for this helpful indulgence by reason of this unique Sabbath which has dawned upon us. Out of necessity our churches are closed, and all public gatherings must be discontinued. We cannot go motoring, and we would not go to business if we could, and even the fields are dangerous lest we should come in contact with goldenrod and ragweed and take influenza. But we can sit by the fire and give ourselves to thought and reflection which will bring great profit to us."

They Reevaluated.
As they paused, they also reevaluated what was really important. Pastor S. O. Cox from Handley Memorial Presbyterian Church shared some of what he was learning in a written sermon to his congregation:

"Necessarily we shall be kept in our homes many hours that would otherwise be spent in recreation and amusement. Perhaps this circumstance will serve to remind us that in these sacred home-circles there is to be found the very finest of fellowship and the sweetest and most wholesome of all influences. And certainly, if we should improve these hours by prayer and meditation, the seeming curse of this scourge would not be unmixed with blessing."

They Pivoted.
Spoken sermons went to print form. Some churches, like Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburg were modified into makeshift hospitals, utilizing their facilities however possible. Churches did what they could to 'be the Church' when the world needed it most.

They Argued.
Even during a time of great crisis, not everyone agreed on how the Church should respond to the epidemic. Some wanted the church to re-open (or never close) quickly. Others felt the government orders to restrict public gatherings was totally justified for a longer period of time. But as time went on, more and more pastors and church leaders spoke openly about tension of whether to meet or not to meet in-person.

This is the stage we are currently finding ourselves in. As I write this, a few thousand churches in California have announced their plans to re-open their services well ahead of their Governor's recommendation. They are demanding that the church be considered an 'essential service' and should be able to meet freely.

But this is not a new idea. Pastor C. H. Watson wrote in 1918: "Don't you think in time of sickness and distress is the time for us to manifest our faith in God? Don't you think in such times as these instead of closing the churches it would be well to open them daily that the people might at their convenient hours assemble therein and pray to God, the great Physician, to help the doctors to remove this disease?"

They Persisted.
1918 was a horrible time. Besides losing nearly 700,000 people to a pandemic, World War I had ravaged our country. (The war would end just one month after Governor Henderson's 'do not meet' proclamation). The war itself cost over 116,000 additional lives.

The country was hurting. But the church persisted and survived. In fact, many flourished.

The same will be true today.

I love how Eugene Peterson paraphrases Matthew 17 in The Message. Jesus says 'I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out.'

That is what we are seeing today.

Expansive energy.

Confusion, Excitement, Tension. And expansive energy.

Crisis is never easy. For most of us, this is probably the hardest thing we’ve ever had to lead through.

We can learn from our previous brothers and sisters. We will get through this. And while it may be bumpy, we will emerge on the other side smarter, leaner, and more dedicated to reaching people who need the Gospel than ever before.

Need help navigating this season when it comes to staff, leadership, or structure? Let’s talk. I’d love to hear more about your church and how Chemistry might be able to help bring clarity to you and your team during this time. I am here to serve your church however I can during this time.



P.S. Much of the information for this writing came from here and here. I think you'd enjoy reading more! 

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Todd Rhoades

Todd Rhoades

Todd has invested over 30 years in serving churches, having served as a worship pastor for over 15 years, a church elder for more than a decade, and in various ministry leadership roles in both the business and non-profit sectors. As the original founder and developer of ChurchStaffing.com, Todd fundamentally changed the way thousands of churches search for pastors and staff on the internet. Todd is a graduate of Cedarville University, and lives in Bryan, OH with his wife, Dawn.

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