Revisiting the horror and hope of 1918


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, April 30th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. 

After weeks of stay-at-home orders in most parts of the country, public announcements like this one from Maysville, Kentucky, don’t really stand out to us anymore:

RASSMUSSEN: The State Board of Health of Kentucky hereby issues its proclamation closing all places of amusement, schools, churches and other places of assembly and advises against, and discourages, all unnecessary travel and social visiting in this commonwealth until the epidemic is over.

But that newspaper story is not recent. It’s from October 7th, 1918.

EICHER: Coming up next, we consider the 19-18 Spanish Flu and the world-wide response. 

WORLD’s history buff Paul Butler has the story.

JENKINS: In similar ways to what we have today. They try and encourage, or demand, the use of masks. 

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Philip Jenkins is professor of history at Baylor University.

JENKINS: They worked very hard to keep public places closed… 

The Pascagoula Mississippi Chronicle ran this story on October 12th, 1918:

PIERCZYNSKI: It is hereby ordered, in connection with the present influenza epidemic, that all moving picture shows, churches, public schools, soda fountains, and pool rooms be closed, and public gatherings of any kind prohibited until further notice.

But even with those restrictions in place, influenza spread rapidly—killing more people than the First World War that preceded it. As Jenkins points out, the war actually led to the greatest spread of the illness. 

JENKINS: Now, here’s the big problem…by definition there are tens of millions of men…in the battlefields of particularly Europe. And no, you can’t have social distancing, if you’re in the middle of a trench. 

The disease thrived in troop barracks, transport ships, and on military installations. 

JENKINS: In fact, the decisive thing and spreading the disease is when millions of American soldiers abroad…and what they bring with them is many weapons, and many, many disease organisms and that’s critical in the fate of the war.

While infected soldiers spread the disease, it was the war information departments controlling the news that ended up putting additional millions at risk. 

JENKINS: You have to remember that it’s a very different world in terms of publicity and transparency before people could become focused on it. If you think of it, this is the middle of a bitter war. Where security and secrecy are all. So there’s a period of a couple of months where the influenza is raging wildly in many countries, and no one can talk about it because it might provide a propaganda tool for the other side. 

In fact, that was one of the reasons it became known as the Spanish Flu.

JENKINS: One of the few countries that is not in the war is Spain. And so then the media report freely on this disease that is hitting their country. And then when other people hear about this, they say, aha, that must be just a Spanish thing…In fact, it’s hitting all the other countries, they’re just not admitting it. 

From January 1918 to December 1920, more than 50 million people died from the Spanish Flu. That, on top of the gruesome war, led some pastors to preach about the end of the world.

JENKINS: They started speaking the language of the, the apocalypse, of the end times. And certainly, by the time you get to 1918, you have all the four horsemen in place. You have, famine, death, war, and of course 1918 brings plague in the form of influenza.

But others in the church rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

RASSMUSSEN: The Fargo Forum. October 19, 1918. The Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorehead, Minnesota, has been converted into a hospital for flu patients. A call was issued for women to act as nurses in caring for influenza patients. 

In light of restricted gatherings, churches were just as creative in 1918 as they’ve been today. 

PIERCZYNSKI: October 19, 1918. On account of the closing order of the board of health…the Second Baptist Church services and auxiliary meetings were discontinued with the exception of the morning services which were held in the open air.  

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, churches published sermons in the paper and encouraged people stuck at home on Sunday morning to read them aloud, along with select Scripture passages and prayers. Women from various churches in Worcester, Massachusetts, took care of “epidemic orphans”—providing food and clothing, as well as recreation and instruction. 

Newspapers from the time featured pastors and priests arguing in articles and columns that churches should be reopened as “essential services”—with mixed results. In Canaan, Connecticut, churches reopened after just four weeks, while the Federated and Christian Churches of Idaho remained closed until January 1919. 

While the Spanish Flu and COVID-19 are very different diseases, Jenkins believes there are still lessons we can learn today from how the world responded to the pandemic of 1918—especially now that the curve is trending downward in some Western countries.

JENKINS: I think we also need to think very hard about a global response. Where we don’t think in terms of, “Well, that’s wonderful. The United States is fine now, Europe is fine now, we can rest in our beds.” Because the disease will likely rage across Africa and Asia for a long time and probably kill a great many people. 

But Jenkins is also hopeful, because history reminds us of the important role diseases have played in human civilization.

JENKINS: For many years, we’ve almost been allowed to forget this, but through history, various plagues and pestilences have been absolutely crucial to driving human civilization, human culture. And I can absolutely bet you that COVID-19 will not be the last.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Paul Butler.


Susan Olasky’s two-part coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Spanish Flu: Part One, Part Two

And an article by Philip Jenkins.


(Photo/Public Ledger)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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