Voices: A brief history of the church during pandemics

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History is like medication most people won’t reach for until they think it can bring them some comfort. In these uncertain times, we look to stories of the past to help us better understand what we are experiencing today. Pandemics have been a part of the Christian experience throughout the history of the church.

Christians during plagues of the past

In the early days of the church, a plague hit Rome with devastating consequences for the city. The way Christians cared for one another, as well as those outside their faith, made a lasting impression on the inhabitants of Rome and lead to a rapid growth of the church, even in a time of persecution.

During the Renaissance and Reformation, the Black Plague swept back and forth over Europe, killing millions. Churches literally were on the frontlines of these pandemics, often serving as hospitals with many ministers and congregants serving as lay doctors and nurses.

The Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli caught the virus while caring for his church members in 1519. Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, and his wife Katherine ministered among the sick and dying in Wittenberg in 1527.

Texas Baptists in 1918

As the 20th century approached, many denominations—including Texas Baptists—saw a need to care and minister to the sick around them by founding hospitals. When the 1918 flu pandemic swept across the world, hospitals replaced churches as primary caregivers. Institutions like the Texas Baptist Sanitarium in Dallas—now Baylor Medical Center—and trained medical professionals—many of them members of Texas Baptist churches—cared for the sick and dying.

Texas Baptist churches, like churches across the country, continued to meet and pray for an end to the crisis in the early days of the pandemic as it began to sweep across the United States in September 1918. However, when it became apparent social distancing was needed to curb the spread of the virus, churches in major cities like Dallas and Houston were closed for the month of October.

More than 200 children at Buckner Orphans Home became ill; most recovered. The Baptist General Convention of Texas annual meeting was moved from November to December at the last minute in the hope the delay would help stop the spread.

Interestingly, by the time the BGCT met in December, there is almost no mention of the flu pandemic. Although church, state missions and foreign missions offerings had been affected for a brief time, they appear to have recovered quickly.

It is hard to find any mention of the pandemic in Texas Baptist church, associational or state Baptist histories. It seems from evidence from churches around the country, one benefit of the brief loss of Sunday services was a new appreciation for the value of fellowship and Christian community.

Texas Baptists then and now

In 1918, many Texas Baptists went four or five weeks without any type of fellowship with Christian brothers and sisters because they knew it would help protect each other’s lives. More than 100 years later, Texas Baptists once again have been asked to suspend in-person worship for a time. Now, thanks to technology, our fellowship does not have to be stopped, only changed.

When in some future crisis Texas Baptists turn to the events of these days for comfort in how to handle uncertain times, they will find we discovered in 2020 that a church is not a building or even a location but a spirit of connection among fellow believers no matter the distance between them.

Alan Lefever is director of the Texas Baptist Historical Collection.


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