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What the Church’s Response to the 1918 Spanish Flu Can Teach Us Today

by | Apr. 01, 2020

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, you might catch yourself wondering, “Is this really happening?” It almost seems surreal that we are all quarantining ourselves, missionaries are being called home, temples are closed, and general conference is altered.

But in a recent article, Deseret News reported that these monumental events parallel another time in history. In 1918, the Spanish flu outbreak caused similar shutdowns and modifications to members’ lives.

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“You look at the Spanish flu and what it does to the Church at that time, and it’s the closest analog to the present situation,” Richard Turley, former assistant Church historian, told Deseret News.

The Spanish flu spread worldwide and killed over a thousand Church members, including several missionaries. Missionaries that remained in the mission field often served as health care workers. The following year, April general conference was postponed to June due to the pandemic.

Though the Spanish flu pandemic was over a hundred years ago, many Church leaders, including President Russell M. Nelson, were born not many years after the outbreak. Deseret News noted that President Nelson grew up with stories about the pandemic, and these stories might be influencing his perspective in dealing with the current virus.

Deseret News also spoke with Turley concerning President Nelson’s recent video message of hope, “I think the note of optimism sounded by President Nelson is based on his almost century of perspective, when he has seen terrible events come and go.”

He continued, “I think he and all the senior Church leaders recognize that critical moments exist in the history of the world, events that sometimes lead to terrible results, but that if we move forward without panicking in a spirit of hope and helping one another, we can get through this.”

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no stranger to disruptions like the one we are currently experiencing. Church history brims with parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic, including during the early days of the Restoration, both World Wars, and the flu pandemic of 1957.

Read the rest of this story as well as other stories from Church history paralleling the COVID-19 pandemic at Deseret News.

Lead image: Wikimedia Commons
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Greyson Gurley

A Georgia native, Greyson Gurley is the current editorial intern for LDS Living. She is a graduate of Southern Virginia University, where she studied English and was a member of the badminton club. Her life goals include actually learning French, saving the environment, and finding the perfect chocolate croissant.

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com