The 1918 Influenza in the BFC
Have you heard about COVID, the novel coronavirus that has spread to every corner of the world? Of course you have. Given the constant dismal coverage, the daily reminders by way of masks and social distancing, and the eternal queue of Zoom meetings on your calendar, perhaps you have heard quite enough. Indeed, in the year 2020 – and now into 2021 – the COVID pandemic has left its mark on all of us. Many have lost family, friends, livelihood, and normalcy. If coronavirus has not touched us personally, we almost all know people who have been affected by it. By the time of this writing, the coronavirus has claimed the lives of over two million worldwide; 435,000 have died in the United States alone. It is, simply put, unlike anything we have ever seen before.
But even so, an illness of this scale is not unprecedented. Almost exactly a century earlier, an epidemic just as deadly swept through the churches of our BFC forebears. The then-called Spanish Influenza’s first wave hit the United States in spring 1918, but a second outbreak, far more virulent and highly contagious, arrived in autumn. Victims died within hours or mere days of showing symptoms. Their skin turned blue. Their lungs filled with fluid. It was noted that in 1918, the average life expectancy in America alone dropped by a dozen years.
At the same time, World War I raged on, adding to that number the lives of many Americans still fighting in France’s trenches. By October 1918, the Spanish Flu had reached Pennsylvania, prompting a state-wide quarantine along with other drastic measures.
The 1918 Mennonite Brethren in Christ Pennsylvania Annual Conference, set to convene October 10, was forced to postpone, but as granted the privilege to hold a business session a month later. They met on November 4, in Reading, PA, the same month when flu fatalities drastically spiked. From the records of the Eastern Gospel Banner (EGB), the briefly published documentation of the Gospel Banner’s work throughout the denomination, we find living history of the epidemic’s devastation in our churches, though not always directly. Obituaries, a regular feature in the EGB, suddenly spanned pages as it reported mounting deaths in the Conference: the October 31, 1918, edition published five obituaries in one issue; the next week’s publication reported 18.
Each obituary, though brief, shared the details of real human cost and loss. In Catasauqua, Sarah L. Shireman, wife of Pastor J. G. Shireman, succumbed in October, and according to the obituary, “on account of the Spanish Influenza epidemic, a private funeral was held at the home of her sister.” Eight more deaths followed in early November, the highest weekly number during that awful time. In Lebanon, 14-year-old Bessie Royer died, followed by her 18-year-old brother Quay only four days later. Their father, Ephraim Royer, mourned the loss alone: his wife Clara died just a few months before.
In Spring City, 31-year-old Pastor Horace A. Kauffman died the day after his 31st birthday, October 22nd, 1918. The obituary adds poignant note, “He was an indefatigable worker, and spent his last days in calling upon the sick of his flocks, until he himself succumbed to his sickness (he having over fifty members of his congregations suffering with influenza at the time of his sickness),for whom he continued in prayer on his death bed, mentioning entire families by name in his prayers.”
The shadow of death fell also upon numerous other congregations, including Philadelphia, Zionsville, and Limestone Valley. Each week the EGB brought grim reports. Still, despite the tragedy, the work of the churches went on. Congregants continued to collect payments for their pastors; they planned and held revival meetings; daily, they prayed for healing.
By Thanksgiving Day, the worst of the epidemic seemed to have passed. The EGB reported no fatalities but shared instead the hearty thanksgiving of its readers. W.F. Heffner wrote from the Nazareth Plainfield circuit, “There are a number of members sick at the time of this writing, while a few have been wonderfully healed by the Lord; and we are looking to the Lord for complete victory.” From Allentown, C.H. Brunner was able to say, “During these weeks of the Spanish Influenza epidemic the Lord has remarkably kept our brothers and sisters. While hundreds died in the city not one of our members was taken and only a very few were even sick.
It is estimated that as many as 50 million people died as a result of the flu that year, with around 675,000 perishing in the United States. Like today, the world as they knew it ground to a halt. But with the grief of loved ones, fellowship and time lost, they also persevered, seeking always to continue the ever-important work of the church.
Earth-shattering epidemics and world wars came and wrought devastation, but these, too, passed. God’s people endured. Once again in the BFC, we wait prayerfully and hopefully for a season of chaos and sickness to pass. None of us can say for sure when or even if it will – but ultimately, our hope does not rest on world events. We turn to the God who remained faithful to His bride one hundred years before, and for every year before and since. We believe that to die is gain, but to live is Christ. And with that imperishable hope, we endure.