Déjà vu: Epidemics and Canadian Baptist Life

By Gord Heath
Reposted from www.gordonlheath.com.

​The leadership of the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec (CBOQ)[1] recently announced it was postponing its annual Assembly. There is a sense of déjà vu around the decision, for this was not the first time such a decision was made.[2]

Just over one hundred years ago, Canadians – and indeed the world – faced the terrors of a global influenza epidemic (the “Spanish Flu”) that killed up to 50 million people between 1918-1920. Locals churches and denominations struggled with how to respond with faith, charity, and wisdom in the face of a deadly virus.

The pages of the Canadian Baptist, the weekly CBOQ denominational paper, provide a glimpse of the impact of the epidemic on church life. The announcement of postponement was made in October 1918,[3] with notice that the meeting would be held at Jarvis Street Baptist, Toronto, in January 1919.[4] It was a matter of social distancing to curtail the spread of the disease.

In the midst of suffering, many churches responded to the needs of communities. Consider the following November report from a local church in Niagara that provides a sense of the church’s sacrifice as well as the risks associated with ministering in the midst of a highly contagious and deadly disease:

“Niagara Falls, Jepson Street, (Rev. Owen C. Gray, Pastor.) Sunday. Nov. 10th, We reopened our church, closed for four Sundays because of the influenza epidemic. Through the suggestion of our pastor, our trustees offered the use of our church building to the Board of Health as an emergency hospital. It was gratefully accepted and proved a boon to the city, saving many lives through these weeks. Our pastor and his wife were indefatigable in visiting the sick of our membership and assisting in the hospital work. Both were taken down with the sickness, but are now recovered, and our pastor was able to take the services.”[5]

In the same issue the obituary section had eight deaths reported, five of which were due to what was called the “malignant scourge, Spanish Influenza.”[6]As an aside, the same issue also had an advertisement for an influenza cure called “Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills.”[7]

Churches grappling with how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic can gain some wisdom and even inspiration by looking back to similar times. They can also act confidently knowing that there are helpful precedents to draw upon during difficult times. A sense of déjà vu can also provide some hope, for the church has seen this before and survived.

[1] One hundred years ago the denomination was called Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec.
[2]For a look at the Maritime Baptist experience, see Taylor Murray’s blog at the Canadian Baptist Historical Society website..
[3] “Convention Postponed,” Canadian Baptist,” 17 October 1918; “A Distinct Loss,” Canadian Baptist, 24 October 1918.
[4] “Convention in January,” Canadian Baptist, 14 November 1918
[5] “From the Churches,” Canadian Baptist, 21 November 1918.
[6] “Obituaries,” Canadian Baptist, 21 November 1918.
[7] “The After Effects of Dreaded La Grippe,” Canadian Baptist, 21 November 1918.

Gord Heath is a Professor of Christian History and Centenary Chair in World Christianity at McMaster Divinity College (MDC). Besides teaching at MDC, he also serves as Director of the Canadian Baptist Archives, the official archives of the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec (CBOQ).

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