From the Church

COVID-19 and the 1918 Spanish influenza: The striking similarities between the Latter-day Saint experience

Emmeline B. Wells, c. 1915

Many of us have heard or read about the comparisons between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, but how did the two pandemics affect Latter-day Saints specifically?

We don’t have to look back very far to remember how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted our lives and Church worship, but what about back in 1918?

The Church Historian’s Press recently published annotated transcripts of many of Emmeline B. Wells’s diary entries online. Church History researcher Brenda Homer set out to explore the life and experiences of the fifth General President of the Relief Society through these primary documents because she wanted to see the similarities between Wells’s experience of the Spanish influenza pandemic and COVID-19.

“As I read through her diary entries, … I felt a true sisterhood with Emmeline. Her attitude toward adversity in general—not just the pandemic—was inspiring,” Homer wrote.

See if these short diary entries from Emmeline B. Wells in 1918 sound like any of the experiences your family may have encountered in 2020 or 2021.

10 October 1918 – Thursday
Annie [Elizabeth Ann Wells, Emmeline’s daughter] was with me nearly all the afternoon and just after she left Katharine [Katherine Cannon McKay, Emmeline’s granddaughter] came in on her way home from the depot. Her school is closed because of the quarentine on account of the influenza.

13 October 1918 – Sunday
There were no meetings to day and I miss them very much especially going to the Tabernacle.

14 October 1918 – Monday
There was not much going on as all meetings are barred. The stake presidents [stake Relief Society presidents] of the city stakes were up stairs sorting linen for the Red Cross.

29 November 1918 – Friday
Hebie [Heber Daniel] Wells died this morning of influenza…The funeral will be Sunday. [Heber Daniel Wells, age 33, died of bronchial pneumonia brought on by influenza.]

Between cancelled events, quarantines, schools being shut down, and young healthy neighbors suddenly becoming ill or passing away, the experiences of this 90-year-old General President of the Relief Society sound strikingly similar to those many of us have encountered over the past two years.

Read more about Homer’s insights and study of Wells’s leadership and experiences throughout the pandemic on the Church History Library’s blog. You can also find Wells’s diary transcriptions for October 1–14, 1918, here and read the rest of her digitized 1918 diary entries here.

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