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How NZ Baptist churches responded during the 1918 influenza outbreak

These are unprecedented times for families and churches – none of us have never experienced anything like the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in living memory.

Yet at the close of World War I, as armistice celebrations took place throughout New Zealand, a deadly virus was also on the loose. The 1918 influenza epidemic (dubbed the “Spanish flu”, though its origin is still debated) infected 500 million people worldwide, killed millions, and took 9000 Kiwi lives between October and December that year.

So how did Baptist churches respond? Here’s an unfiltered glance, thanks to the 1918 and 1919 issues of the New Zealand Baptist (available as part of the Digital Baptist archives here). I’ve edited lightly for language and brevity.

Outbreak described

“The arrival of the great epidemic coincided roughly with the arrival of Peace. The cup of rejoicing was dashed rudely from our lips. Auckland was silenced quite by the great fear. Christchurch rejoiced with circumspection, for the evil was not yet in full blast. The other towns managed rather better. But everywhere for the nonce [meanwhile] theatres and churches, and other places where men most do congregate, are shut by authority. A gloom lies on the land, such as has never before been known. Some of us have been reading De Foe’s “Journal of the Plague Year” for a parallel. The death roll was heavy, and includes many well-known people …

Unexampled efforts to meet the need have been made. The organisation of relief in our cities has been wonderful. There can be no doubt that the disease had its origin in the shambles of Europe. Sanitation saved us from the Black Death. It could not save us wholly. Wireless makes the world one by its magic. But there is a magic in Nature that can race man’s crafts. “Like warp, and woof all destinies are woven fast.” …

…The great thing for Christian people is the peaceful heart. There is no better specific. The 91st Psalm talks of the absolute immunity of men who dwell under God’s shadow. The New Testament does not encourage us to expect to escape the human lot. Let us, as followers of Him who evaded nothing, minister fearlessly and gladly for His sake.

– “The Influenza”, NZ Baptist (December 1918), 179.

News from Baptist churches: November 1918

AUCKLAND TABERNACLE: “…As the influenza epidemic has just set in, the congregation was below the average. Since that time we have been holding brief Sunday morning services only; no evening services, and no meetings during the week. The city has been linked up in a great fellowship of suffering. The Pastor has given his whole time for close on three weeks to visiting, and assisting those in need and bereavement, and a large number of volunteer helpers from the Tabernacle have been working under his direction. The Church and Sunday School officers offered the local authorities the School Hall for use as a temporary hospital, if required.”

EPSOM: “…At present all Church work is at a standstill, owing to the epidemic of influenza which prevails, and the S.S. anniversary, which was to be held on November 10th. is postponed indefinitely.”

MT EDEN: “… In compliance with the request of the Public Health Officer, only morning services (conducted by Mr. F. Cade), have been held in the church the last two Sunday mornings.”

NEW PLYMOUTH: “…We have not escaped the influenza epidemic, so on Sunday, November 17th, we held the morning service in the grounds adjoining the Church.”

GONVILLE: “We have held no services or meetings recently on account of the prevailing epidemic… We pray for God’s healing hand on the community, and for His comforting Spirit to those who have suffered the loss of loved ones.”

PETONE: “…For the first time in our Church history no Sunday services were held on November 16th, owing to the serious influenza epidemic. A united service was held in the Recreation Grounds, when the Presbyterian and the Methodist ministers conducted the service.”

RICHMOND: “…Owing to the influenza epidemic, all Church services are being held in the open-air.”

NELSON: “For three Sundays in November the services were held in the grounds opposite the church, the weather, fortunately. being fine and mild, so that the attendance was not interfered with. It was noticed that several passers-by stood and listened, so it has been decided to hold a short open-air meeting prior to the service each Sunday evening, in the hope that some people may thereby be induced to come into the church.”

OXFORD: “During the epidemic we held open-air services in the Church ground, and missed no service. The attendance was very encouraging …” “On November 13th, in common with the other Churches in the district, we held a special Thanksgiving service in the Church [for the end of the war], when in spite of the influenza there was a capital congregation. The service throughout was most hearty, and hymns suitable for the occasion were sung. At the close a collection was taken up in aid of the Armenian Relief Fund.”

SPREYDON: “We have just celebrated the fifty-second anniversary of our Church, with a happy and successful series of gatherings… The severe epidemic that is passing through the country is interfering with all our meetings. We held one service last Sun- day, in the morning, on the lawn.”

GREENDALE: “Unfortunately, influenza had many of us in its grip, while still others were only in the convalescent stage, so that the congregations suffered severely, as regards numbers… We are glad to report that Mr. C. Adams, our Sunday School Superintendent, who has been seriously ill with the prevailing malady, with complications, is making satisfactory progress.”

ASHBURTON: “Services were not held on the last two Sundays in November, or during the weeks, owing to the influenza epidemic, which has taken rather severe toll in our town and district.”

GORE: “All gatherings of Church find Sunday School have for the present been suspended, at the request of the health authorities.”

– “News of the Churches”, NZ Baptist Vol. 35 (Dec 1918), 189-92; NZ Baptist Vol. 36 (Jan 1918), 15.

News from Baptist churches: December 1918 – January 1919

AUCKLAND TABERNACLE: “We were glad to resume our Sunday evening services after the interdict resulting from the epidemic. November was a strange, sad month. We are glad to say that the health of the city is now good, and most of our members and workers are back in their old places. A number of our Tabernacle people gave splendid help as voluntary workers, and one of our Wednesday evening services was given up to a Conference with a view to ascertaining how to continue our ministry to the poor, the sick and the needy of the neighbourhood, so many of whom had been visited during the past weeks. Mr. Kempton [the Pastor] spoke on Sunday morning, December 15th, on “The Church’s New Opportunity”, and the practical points he brought forward will be followed up by the officers [ministry leaders]…”

NEW PLYMOUTH: “In common with all Churches in the Dominion we closed our building during the epidemic. On two of the Sunday mornings we held a service in the grounds adjoining the church, and had real spiritual blessings. Amongst those who gathered with us were members from nearly all the Free Churches. Truly it was the time to wait upon God for His help. The Church re-opened for public worship on Sunday, December 8th […] On Sunday, December 15th, our Pastor was sufficiently recovered to occupy the place where we love to see him […] All our Church organisations are again in full swing, and we trust there will be no more epidemics to stop their activity.”

WANGANUI: “On account of the influenza epidemic, our Church and Sunday School services were suspended for several weeks, open-air services being held on Sunday mornings. Many of our people were laid aside for a time by the sickness, but we are pleased to report that all have recovered. During the epidemic our Pastor laboured untiringly among the sick folk of our town. Our Church services were resumed on December 8th, and it was, indeed, with hearts full of gratitude to God that we again attended His house. Our pastor’s message at the re-opening service was based on the words of the Psalmist, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.”

PALMERSTON NORTH: “Sorrow and rejoicing seem to go hand in hand in these strange times. We rejoice that thus far, although we have had much sickness with the influenza epidemic, most of our friends are quite well again. This is indeed worthy of thanksgiving. Our sympathies, however, are with Mrs. J. W. Stedman in the death of her husband…”

VIVIAN ST: “Owing to the influenza epidemic and the restrictions of the Health Department, our Church work has been practically at a standstill during the past month. We have cause for great gratitude to God in that while many of our members have been ill, the lives of all have been spared.”

BROOKLYN – “During the influenza epidemic, a strong local committee was formed, and the suburb divided into four districts, with one of the local clergymen in charge of each. All the Churches are proud of the way their ministers and members united with each other and with men and women of no religious professions, and worked for the common good. Mr. Rollings and his brother ministers visited all day, and far into the night. Mrs. Rollings, when the shortage of doctors was acute, rose from a sick bed, and devoted her medical knowledge and nursing skill to the alleviation of suffering and the saving of life, working with great success until she too fell a victim to the epidemic. (We are pleased to say she is making a good recovery.)”

SYDENHAM: “After having our church closed for three weeks on account of the epidemic, we were very glad to meet again for service on December 8th.”

[HANOVER STREET, DUNEDIN]: “For the past six weeks the most anxious and harried man in the Dominion has been the Rev. R. S. Gray. […] While the “flue” was ravaging in Dunedin, and his church [was] turned into a hospital…”

“News of the Churches”, NZ Baptist Vol. 36 (Jan 1918), 14-15; “A Diplomat”, NZ Baptist Vol. 36 (Jan 1919), 1.