How the Visitor Reported the 1918-1920 Pandemic
By Celeste Ryan Blyden
Columbia Union Visitor archives from 1918-1920 provide a snapshot of life and ministry for members of the fledgling Columbia Union Conference, which was only in its 11th year at the onset of the “Spanish Influenza Pandemic.” During a deadly two-year period, some 50 million people perished globally, including 675,000 in the United States. Conference and school reports in the weekly, eight-page Visitor noted its impact on members, ministry, frontline workers and the community at large.
“If there was ever a time in the history of the world when we needed to offer incense (pray) to God for help it is now. All our churches are closed, and some lines of the work are at a standstill. The plague … is raging everywhere and there are many dead bodies in every place,” wrote West Virginia Conference President T.B. Westbrook in a November 7, 1918, front-page call to prayer.
At the height of the scourge, October 1918, a reported 195,000 Americans died. In her October 31, 1918, update from the East Pennsylvania Conference about the work in Philadelphia, Louise C. Kleuser wrote (pp. 4-5), “The influenza epidemic has visited us with a violence before unknown in our land of sanitation. We can truly say, ‘Death is come up into our windows, and is entered into our palaces, to cut off the children from without, and the young men from the streets,’ (Jer. 9:21). It has been no time for the wise doctors to glory in their wisdom or for the rich to glory in their riches, for death has claimed many from both classes. The Health Department has been brought face to face with a most critical condition, the instructive and pacifying placards in street cars and public buildings tell of the fear and anxiety of the people. ‘We have heard the voice of trembling and of fear, and not of peace’” (Jer. 30:5).
Reflecting on the impact in Philadelphia, where 20,000 people died during the pandemic, she added: “Many of our people are growing fainthearted over the conditions.”
In that same issue, a West Virginia Conference news note revealed, “At this writing, the influenza is still raging in West Virginia. All of our churches are closed. Two of our members have died from the disease and there is no sign of the quarantine being lifted” (Visitor, Oct. 31, 1918, p. 5).
Faithful Seventh-day Adventist members were among those struck by the illness, including Sister Rudolph, a Philadelphia member, survived by “four little ones and a husband” who was not able to care for the children. “Her dying request was that the children be looked after by Adventists” (Visitor, Oct 31, 1918, p. 5).
In that same issue, it was reported that Ohio member Raymond Kraft contracted the flu which developed into pleuro-pneumonia: “The doctor gave him up, but a letter from his mother recently says that he is now able to sit up in bed” (p. 8).
A week later in the November 7, 1918, edition, the Virginia Conference shared sad news of the death of Doris Forshee: “Death came after a brief illness, having had both influenza and pneumonia” (p. 4).
That same issue listed the obituary of Florence Grace Steinbaugh Hall, who, “just one day before her twenty-seventh birthday anniversary, was stricken with the Spanish Influenza, and despite every medical assistance, the disease took that prevalent and fatal turn, developing into compound pneumonia, and the end came peacefully after an illness of twelve days. Mrs. Hall was a faithful member … having been baptized in early girlhood … .” The report goes on to say that she attended Mount Vernon College, married, was an active leader in her church with talents and devotion appreciated by all, and was mother to an eight-month-old baby named Carleen Dorthy, “whose innocent charm was the constant delight of a fond mother.”
In the May 6, 1920, issue, the obituaries on page 5 announced the death of two-year-old Paul Baltimore, the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Felix Baltimore: “He was an active little boy and will be greatly missed by his parents who have hope in Christ to receive their little one at His second coming.”
Despite sickness and death, undeterred members continued to find ways to live and serve: There was a graduation for sisters Leola and Loula Neptune in the parlor of the Medical and Surgical Sanitarium in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Chesapeake Conference held its camp meeting with good attendance. Mount Vernon Academy in Ohio remained open with students continuing to distribute tracts and church magazines and enjoying Saturday night bonfires with marshmallows. Shenandoah Valley Academy in Virginia put the finishing touches on a new dormitory and barn silo and sent students to gather chestnuts on the mountains. The new building at Washington College in Maryland was completed for $65,000, with President B.G. Wilkinson pleased to see enrollment larger than the previous year.
In West Virginia, Sister Welsh of Cumberland exemplifies the commitment by many to continue sharing the message during the pandemic. The October 31, 1918, Visitor reports that she is “unable to do any Bible work, but is busily engaged in caring for the sick. Many not of our faith are calling for her and she is going into their homes ministering to them. She feels that this will open the way for the truth to enter. We know that the Lord will carry forward this message in many ways before the end” (p. 5).
The same issue reported that A.N. Durrant, pastor of the colored churches in the West Pennsylvania Conference, was not able to hold the summer tent meetings due to the pandemic, but gladly baptized eight new members in Pittsburgh, had more Bible studies underway and collected $1,722.25 in tithe, offerings and contributions to the colored work in the South (p. 3).
Church leaders also called for members to continue ingathering, distribute the church’s health outreach magazine and book of remedies, and enroll in special health courses at Washington Sanitarium and Hospital to learn and share the Adventist health message:
“While the epidemic of influenza and other national campaigns have been a drawback to our Harvest Ingathering work, let us as soon as the quarantine is lifted make a special effort to boost this grand work,” wrote H.G. Gauker, Home Missionary secretary for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference in the October 31, 1918, edition.
“Here is an opportunity for service. The Spanish Influenza epidemic is a clarion call for one who can in any way help to alleviate the present situation to do his utmost. The editors of Life and Health have prepared special articles for the December issue, not only telling what treatments are best to give for those stricken with this disease, but give full instructions as to how these treatments can be given” (Visitor, Oct. 31, 1918, p. 2).
General Conference leaders also published a book to promote Adventist health principles, as highlighted in the February 12, 1920, and other issues of the Visitor: “Influenza and flu are on the increase. Chicago reports twelve hundred cases in a day. New York City reports three thousand cases with many deaths. Many of your own neighbors are doubtless sick and now is the time to let them know there is such a book as Epidemics. …” (p. 8). The cost was 25 cents per copy.
In the May 6, 1920, Visitor, a front-page article announced “A Short Course in Nursing,” where, due to the “great need” to help the war wounded and flu sickened throngs, interested members and church employees could take a three-month course in health reform, natural remedies, hygiene and sanitation, healthy cooking, the nature of disease, the laws of health and practical nursing.
A November 7, 1918, report from the New Jersey Conference stated, “Though our offerings wilt be somehow affected by the prevalence of the epidemic, yet we hope that our people will lay aside their weekly offerings, to be given to their church officers as soon as meetings shall again be continued” (p. 3).
A year later, in the October 16, 1919, issue, Columbia Union President F. H. Robbins and Executive Secretary C.C. Pulver provided an impressive progress report. In the first eight months of the year, the 10,000-member union produced a $52,286.10 tithe increase.
Relief in Sight
Though the pandemic hit in waves and the death toll was still mounting, the Chesapeake Conference news notes in the November 7, 1918, Visitor stated: “The members of the various churches in Baltimore were pleased to be able to resume services in the church last Sabbath, owing to the lifting of the ban which has prohibited all public gatherings because of the influenza which has been sweeping the city” (p. 7).
Chesapeake also rejoiced in the recovery of members, including “Brother J.G. Whitaker, who has been ill for some time, is again able to be out and is doing some carpenter work at the office. He is very anxious to get back into his field of labor again” (p. 7).
Further north on Interstate 95, GC President A.G. Daniells “stopped off in Philadelphia, and had the news of the lifting of the quarantine … been received sooner he would have remained over for a visit with some of the churches there. We are looking for a long visit from him soon” (p. 6).
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