Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Religion scholar David Bains, a former colleague of mine, has linked on his excellent blog ("Chasing Churches") to this article about the public-health orders closing DC churches during October 1918, the deadliest spell of the 1918-19 pandemic.
When churches were ordered closed, after several other categories of entities had been closed, the association of mainline Protestant clergy adopted a resolution "cheerfully complying with the request of the Commissioners." The tone of that resolution, I suspect, reflects that that particular group of churches in that era was less suspicious of civil government, because more comfortable with their own place in the culture, than a number of Protestant churches are today (although today too, the vast majority of houses of worship have not only compiled with but have refrained from criticizing closing orders).
Churches did, however, move to outdoor services, although there was some controversy about that. And once the deaths began to decline, and the authorities began allowing other entities to open, clergy began to protest that they should be too, for various reasons:
- the closings were "a certain infringement in spirit and effect of the free exercise of religious liberty";
- "[b]ecause the purposes of church assemblages are such as to entitle them to be the very last to be absolutely forbidden by the civil authorities"; and
- "In the influence of the churches upon the minds and souls of men, in quieting through strengthened faith in God the panic and fear in which epidemic thrives, the churches are potential anti-influenza workers, fit to co-operate helpfully with our doctors and our nurses."
The arguments have a more Protestant-Establishment vibe to them, as you might expect, but they overlap in concrete ways with arguments being made today.