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The British saints and the influenza epidemic of 1918–1920
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The British Saints and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918–1920

By the winter of 1918-19, the Great War had ended, and British Latter-day Saints were keen to rebuild their lives and return to normality, but it would be a while. After spending four years fighting in a global war, the Saints soon found themselves battling an invisible enemy. Around January 1918, an outbreak of influenza, known as the Spanish flu, spread across the world causing heartache and misery for several years. (The origins of the outbreak are hotly contested and there are no definitive conclusions as to where it began.1) With the cessation of hostilities, demobilising soldiers and military personnel returned to their homes, with many transmitting the virus to those around them.

Towns and cities across the British Isles were struck swiftly and violently, often catching officials off guard. In moments of crisis, schools closed, tram services were reduced, and other public institutions closed.2 Since 1889, reported one contemporary account, influenza had broken out in some part of the United Kingdom, but this 1918-19 outbreak was unprecedented in its impact on a global scale.3 Young and old alike were vulnerable. The poor conditions in which many people lived only made the situation worse as it ripped through communities.

The winter of 1918-19 proved particularly devastating. The chief medical officer for London County Council stated:

“I am afraid one cannot say at the present moment that there is any sign of a substantial diminution in the number of cases. That is the conclusion arrived at after receiving the daily returns from the schools throughout the London district. The schools are still very seriously affected, and there are a number of cases both among teachers and children. It has been necessary at some schools to close several departments, but that is for administrative reasons owing to shortage of staff, and not in pursuance of a policy for dealing with the epidemic. The staff in some schools is seriously depleted. We are not closing the schools generally. We are still of opinion that the children are no more likely to fall victims of the illness in well-ventilated schools than they are running about the streets or packed together in picture-theatres.”4

The tragic lessons of the 1918-1920 influenza epidemic significantly shaped public health policy in subsequent years, but at the time there was much that was unknown. There were different approaches across the country.5 Where ministers of different faiths contracted influenza, church services were cancelled.6 As ever, there were attempts to sell products to deal with the infection. “Milton,” declared one advert, “will effectively prevent the infection of influenza. You cannot catch influenza if you use Milton according to instructions.”7 Across the country, dubious products were dubbed miraculous and guaranteed to prevent death from influenza; misinformation and opportunities to benefit from the emergency abounded. ‘Influenza masks’ were produced and distributed around the country to protect those coming into contact with those who were ill.8

The pandemic of 1918-1920 brought heartache to a nation and people that had already suffered the loss of many loved ones from the Great War. For many Latter-day Saints, it was an additional way that they could show their faith and service, by supporting and ministering to the afflicted. During this time, Latter-day Saint women across the country served as lady missionaries, giving both spiritual and physical aid.

Of course, influenza recognised no status or position of authority among its victims. George F. Richards, an Apostle and president of the British Mission, was also affected by the outbreak of influenza; he tried to stay in contact with loved ones in America. He wrote, “The influenza is virtually a plague in this country.”9 While his children, who were living with him in Liverpool, were stricken by influenza, his extended family back home were being ravaged by it. (In the present COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 we are blessed to have a far better understanding of how such illnesses are transmitted and have identified practices that can help protect members and missionaries the world over.)

For the Saints of the early twentieth century, these were indeed trying times — first the Great War, then the death of President Joseph F. Smith, and now a global pandemic. What did this all mean for a Latter-day Saint? Church leaders tried to teach members that there were lessons that could be learnt from the many catastrophes that were befalling the inhabitants of the earth. It was a time for repentance and turning to the Lord, said one Apostle at the April 1919 general conference. Importantly, it was an opportunity to serve others and to demonstrate faith in the plan of salvation.

The pandemic had a prolonged impact on economies and the ways of life for many people. It was killing millions across the world and drastically affected communities that were already hurting. The Church’s April 1919 general conference was delayed; members had been anticipating sustaining Heber J. Grant as the new President of the Church and didn’t want to be without a prophet. The Millennial Star reported, “It is perhaps the first time in the history of the Church when it has become necessary to postpone the opening of one of the general conferences, on account of an epidemic of disease. It was hoped that the prevailing malady had been brought under control, and upon the recent resumption of meetings in Salt Lake City that no further restrictions should be necessary. But this insidious, frightful contagion is difficult to root out and continues in various places to reap its dreadful toll of human life.”10

Thousands of Church members died from influenza, far more than died during military service. Of the 5,752 Church members who died in 1918, 1,054 died from influenza and a further 862 from pneumonia. In contrast, 383 church members died while on military service.11 Each one is a sad and potent story of loss and grief.

Several British men returning from armed service developed health complications and died during the pandemic. George Bradley was baptised a Latter-day Saint at age eight and had been valiant in his Church service throughout his youth, as well as during his military service. While returning from active duty in France, he became ill and passed away on 2 February 1918.12 A well-attended military funeral was held for the twenty-eight-year-old, who had been serving as the president of the Derby branch at the time of his death.13 George had enlisted in the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) in 1916 and left his young widow, family, and friends behind. Many people followed his elm casket, covered with the Union Jack, as he was carried by fellow soldiers from the RGA. In addition to his local congregation, friends from the Nottingham branch and other member friends sent flowers to his family as a token of respect and sympathy.14

Towards the end of the Great War, the small group of North American missionaries that remained in the British Mission had much to deal with. Restrictions on their movement, the banning of street meetings, religious apathy amongst the general public, bombings, and shortages, challenged their ability to effectively share their message.15 And now, members and missionaries were falling prey to the ravages of influenza.

While pneumonia often came as a complication of influenza, it wasn’t always the case. Herman Kerr Danielsen had just been honourably released from his missionary service in Belfast, and then passed away on 8 March 1919. He was preparing to return home when he contracted pneumonia. The physician noted that influenza did not precede the death, “as so often is the case at the present time.” It was a tragedy; the energetic missionary was known for being fearless and was “always ready to bear his testimony to the truth, and he made sincere friends wherever he went.”16 For his loved ones it was noted that:

“It should be consoling to those who are called upon to mourn his death in a foreign land, so far away from home and friends, to know that he performed a good mission; that his labours were acceptable to the servants of the Lord; that he was loved by the saints who knew him. and that, undoubtedly, he was called home for a wise purpose, which will be made plain in the due time of the Lord.”

The Saints in the Liverpool, Newcastle, and Irish conferences held him dear in their memories and treasured their associations with him.

While missionaries were particularly vulnerable to catching illnesses on account of their daily activities, members of all walks of life were victims of influenza and pneumonia during the period 1918–1920. More than 170 members of the Church died in the British Isles, many from influenza and pneumonia. Of course, other illnesses and circumstances stalked the British membership. Tuberculosis and consumption stole lives prematurely and horrible accidents involving trains and cars took others. Heart conditions and bronchitis also caused Saints to pass to the other side of the veil.

Henrietta Briggs, a faithful member of the South Shields branch, was well known for her love and care of the children of the branch. Like many others, she contracted influenza, but she was unable to survive it, leaving her husband and five children. Her testimony was strong, and she endured to the end in her faith. Across the country, while members contracted influenza and pneumonia, many survived but some did not. War had ravaged the brothers of the priesthood and now disease killed many of the sisters who had valiantly kept families, the Church, and the country functioning during the war.

While deaths at any time are heartbreaking, the timings of deaths during the crisis of 1918-1920 were sometimes tragic in themselves. In February 1919, John Diston, a native of Sunderland, was faithfully discharged from the British Royal Navy and rushed home to be with his young wife, Beatrice, in Portsmouth. The couple had only been married six months and many of the family were sick with influenza and pneumonia. John finally made it home to Beatrice’s bedside, but he only had five hours with her before she passed away. As they prepared for the funeral, other family members continued to struggle with illness. On the day of Beatrice’s funeral, her adopted brother, George, also passed away. The double tragedy was hard to bear. Of Beatrice’s seven siblings, only one survived to old age.17

Of course, for members of the Church, it was difficult for those who were ill to call on the aid of nonmember neighbours; and the great distances between some members made it more difficult to weather the challenges. In October 1918, David Owen was serving in the Leeds area when he received a letter from the Whitehouse family who lived in Penistone, Yorkshire. He travelled about 30 miles to check on and administer to the family, most of whom were ill with influenza. “No one will help them,” wrote David, “because they are Mormons.”18 (We are certainly fortunate in our current age in which prejudices are largely dissipated, and technology offers the ability to minister and comfort from a distance.)

Each of these stories and incidents is tragic; each refers to human suffering and people being continually refined by hardships. But those who survived the series of challenging events remained true to their faith. When the pandemic was over, members sought to rebuild their lives and to share the gospel with family and friends. It was a time to heal and nothing was better to do that than the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The British Saints made it through the crisis of 1918–1920. Although some died and the illness would constantly reoccur, important lessons were learnt, and lasting changes were made in the Church. Communal sacrament cups were no longer used, being replaced by individual glass cups held in a tray that could then be cleaned and reused (today we use paper or plastic cups that can be recycled).19 Information and educational articles began to be published in mission periodicals giving advice on the importance of living the Word of Wisdom and taking preventative steps with respect to avoiding influenza.

As the British Saints made it through the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, we can make it through the current 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and turn to our faith to strengthen us during difficult times.

For information on how to protect against the Coronavirus/COVID-19, please see the NHS website: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/

Notes

  1. Mark O. Humphries, “Paths of Infection: The First World War and the Origins of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” War in History, Vol. 21, No. 1 [2014], 55–81. See also G. Dennis Shanks, “No Evidence of 1918 Influenza Pandemic Origin in Chinese Laborers/Soldiers in France,” Journal of the Chinese Medical Association, Vol. 79, No. 1 [2016], pp. 46–48.

  2. A good example of this can be found in Northampton in October 1918. See Northampton Mercury, 25 October 1918, ‘Influenza’.

  3. “The dangers of infection.” Illustrated London News, 16 March 1918.

  4. “The Influenza,” Westminster Gazette, 24 October 1918,.

  5. For example, in some places, schools were kept open at all costs whereas others shut schools to prevent infection. ‘Markinch’ Leven Advertiser & Wemyss Gazette, 21 November 1918.

  6. “No Church Services at Dudle,” Morpeth Herald, 6 December 1918.

  7. “Ravages of Influenza,” Londonderry Sentinel, 3 December 1918.

  8. “An Influenza Mask,” Yorkshire Evening Post, 10 February 1919.

  9. George F. Richards journal, 24 October 1918.

  10. J. F. W., ‘April Conference Postponed’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 81, No. 17 [1919], 264.

  11. ‘Eighty-Ninth General Conference’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 81, No. 28 [1919], 437.

  12. “Deaths,” Derby Daily Telegraph, 16 February 1918,.

  13. “Deaths,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 80, No. 8 (1918), p. 126.

  14. Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal, 15 February 1918, ‘The late Gunner Bradley’.

  15. Walton Edwin Bodily Life History, p. 5.

  16. J. M. S., ‘Herman K. Danielson’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 81, No. 12 (1919), pp. 186–187.

  17. ‘Died’, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, Vol. 81, No. 12 (1919, p. 192.

  18. David Albert Owen, missionary journal, 23 October 1918.

  19. Justin Bray, ‘The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918’, 14 January 2019, available at: https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/blog/sacrament-cup-influenza-epidemic-1918?lang=eng, [accessed: 21 March 2020].