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Faith Formation Lessons from the 1918 Flu Epidemic

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Rev. Dr. thom bower, Ed.D

Recent news articles have set me to wondering about the faith formation practices undertaken during the 1918 flu epidemic.

The Great Sunday School Conventions were beginning to wan, although by no means were they at and end. They were mostly non-denominational, leaned theologically toward evangelical and fundamentalist movements with emphasis on personal salvation, and usually prompted by conviction of sinfulness. The hallmark was highly organized schooling, teacher training, and centralized curriculum with prepared lesson plans, handouts, take-home study materials, and tracks to share. Indeed, the early vision was that the entire world could be united by studying the same published materials on the same Sunday, always sharing the core message that God will sustain anyone who relies on God. Anything distracting from such conviction was to be shunned – alcohol, gambling, or over-concern with social “management” such as eradicating poverty and women’s voting. 

The religious education movement was reaching its first peak. Both the Religious Education Association (REA) and the Association of Professors and Researches in Religious Education (APRRE) started in the mid-1900’s. Those groups were aligned politically and theologically with progressivism (think of the Social Gospel movement) and educationally with pragmaticism (John Dewey). At the core was the trusting of God’s transformation as demonstrated when society becomes more just — caring for the most vulnerable, becoming more efficient in providing basic essentials. It is through human work to end poverty, sickness, and prejudice that God’s realm is made immanent. This is an optimistic view of humanity, that we have the tools and resources to improve our society, especially when we appeal to the better part of us all. While promoting the professional religious educator, they also labored to sustain social services such as soup kitchens, public health aid, advocating for safer working conditions, and often engaging in the suffrage movements.

These polarized viewpoints set the scene for disruptions related to the 1918 flu epidemic.

When the government issued limits on public gatherings, church responses mostly fell along two different concepts of faith development. Some voluntarily closed in the interest of public health, while others continued to gather even when threatened with legal action. Some churches sought to get around the restrictions by holding services outside, but this was heavily criticized. There were public rallies calling to restore public gatherings. There are numerous photos of churches converted into hospital annexes. Newspaper articles report church leaders – clergy, professionals, and lay leaders – learning basic nursing skills to supplement medical professionals.

Superseding ideological differences were concerns to remain connected with members. The larger (read “urban”) congregations increased radio broadcasts that consisted mostly of preaching but also provided musical offerings. Sermons and worship outlines were printed, sometimes in local papers. Prayers, meditations, and bible study materials were distributed (often through mail, but sometimes by hand) as “sustaining activities during the prolonged sabbath.” Appeals were made to uphold tithing and pledged giving. Soup kitchens and other food distribution increased, sometimes as much as five-fold. Requests for donated food, magazines, games, and books became commonplace.

Sounds like a familiar social landscape. Of course they did not have the Internet for communicating, informing, and entertaining, yet many of their strategies are familiar.

While I found no specific examples of faith formation during the flu epidemic, I expect that teaching and learning occurred within the numerous practical decisions addressing disrupted patterns and emerging strategies. I’ll keep looking, but I don’t expect to find resources from this time on how to lead in the crisis, for two reasons. First, because they were too busy adapting. And second, because of the time needed for producing new resources, it was anticipated that the epidemic would have passed. 

They, like ourselves, felt overwhelmed, uncertain of the effectiveness of new strategies, disconnected from what had been normal, and were not yet connected to the new normal. Our faith ancestors worked within unexpected, unprecedented situations, engaging faith with the tools they had. And faithfulness continued. One hundred and two years later, we are doing that work.

Rev. Dr. thom bower Ed.D is a transitional interim minister and serves on the AUCE Board of Directors as its Vice Chair.

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