Spanish flu pandemic: How did the Church respond?

A timeline of the global outbreak's impact on Seventh-day Adventists in the South Pacific.

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Emergency hospital during Spanish influenza epidemic. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

November 1918

Visiting steamers introduce Spanish Influenza to Samoa. It spread rapidly among the population. It is estimated one in every third person died, approximately 14,000 in total. Mass burials were common, with Seventh-day Adventists among the dead. Some, rather than being buried, were simply cremated as their homes were set alight (Joseph Steed, “The Influenza in Samoa,” Australasian Record, May 26, 1919, 5).

January 18, 1919

On Sabbath morning, New Zealander John Paap, former teacher at Avondale, but at that time principal of Lodi Academy, California, died with the disease, despite his strong constitution (“A Well Known Teacher Has Fallen,” Pacific Union Recorder, February 6, 1919, 1-2).

February 10, 1919

Adventist nurse Alice McGuinness fell victim while nursing flu patients in Melbourne’s Wirth’s Park Hospital (JH Woods, “Alice McGuinness,” Australasian Record, March 3, 1919, 7).

February 13, 1919

Victorian Conference president Walter Westerman reported a slump in attendance numbers at Melbourne’s evangelistic crusade (“Pastor Westerman, the president . . . ” Australasian Record, March 3, 1919, 8).

March 14, 1919

Missionary Pearl Tolhurst died with the disease at the isolated outpost of Falaloa, Tonga. Her husband, Hubert, also contracted the disease, but recovered (CH Pretyman, “The Death of Sister Pearl Tolhurst,” Australasian Record, May 26, 1919, 8).

March to August 1919

Government travel restrictions caused a drop in Avondale College enrolment numbers (H Kirk, “Australasian Missionary College,” Australasian Record, June 9, 1919, 4). Wanda Niebuhr, among other students, contracted the disease and was quarantined in Bethel Hall with bedsheets dipped in antiseptic phenyl and hung in the doorways. All recovered (interview with Wanda Niebuhr, May 7, 1996, at Cooranbong). Church services at Avondale village church temporarily ceased, leading to the organisation of the College church for students and staff on August 9, 1919, a campus quarantine measure that became permanent (FL Sharp, “A New Church at Avondale,” Australasian Record, September 15, 1919, 8).

April 1919

Annual South Australian camp meeting cancelled (AW Anderson, “South Australian Conference,” Australasian Record, May 12, 1919, 6).

May 1919

Natural remedies for treating influenza were demonstrated in the Melbourne evangelism tent. The treatments were not performed on known cases and therefore there was no objective evidence that the treatments were useful for the current viral strain. (JL Smith, “Influenza and its Treatment,” Australasian Record, May 26, 1919, 8). New South Wales Conference delays Appeal for Missions, but other conferences urge members to collect despite the dangers (CK Meyers, “Appeal for Missions,” Australasian Record, June 9, 1919, 6-7).

August 1919

Report of Melbourne tram services completely shut down and train services curtailed, adversely affecting attendance at public crusade in Prahran Town Hall (WJ Westerman, “Victorian Notes,” Australasian Record, August 18, 1919, 7).

September 1919

A troop ship with approximately 1200 ANZACs returning from World War I called at Pitcairn Island. Despite the dangers some islanders boarded the vessel and distributed copies of Signs of the Times and Review and Herald (“A troopship with eleven or twelve hundred . . .” Australasian Record, October 27, 1919, 8).