SALT LAKE CITY — A wildly contagious flu with no vaccine in sight. Missionaries called home. Temples closed. General conference altered. Members asked to practice social distancing and preventive hygiene. A government edict to shut down all meetings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The year was 1918.
“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,” said Richard Turley, former assistant church historian and author of the new book “Joseph Smith: Teenage Prophet.”
In some ways, it was worse.
Death notices of Latter-day Saint soldiers filled several pages of the Improvement Era every month that fall. The church magazine also carried vivid stories of World War I.
Those features soon were joined by the first list of missionaries killed by the Spanish flu in November and December, published in the January 1919 issue. More followed in the next month’s edition.
Turley and other historians say church history brims with parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic, from a remarkable meeting in the Salt Lake Temple in 1957, when the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles decided to cancel general conference in the face of a flu pandemic, to the closures of temples to stop an outbreak.
They also say today’s church leaders are making informed decisions based on life experience. Several were born in the Great Depression and lived through World War II, the 1957 flu and more. They also have relevant experience leading a global church in which congregations across the world constantly face disruption by violence, famine and disease.
Finally, church history experts say that as the church celebrates the 200th anniversary of the First Vision and what it calls the Restoration of Christ’s ancient church that began with it, that Restoration is a story of overcoming adversity and interruptions.
A history of interruptions
“The church has had disruptions almost from the beginning,” said Turley, who noted the familiar history of persecutions that drove Latter-day Saint pioneers from New York to Ohio and Missouri, and then on to Illinois — where a mob murdered the church’s first prophet and president — and Utah.
The interruptions did not end then. During the Utah War, when a third of the U.S. Army occupied Utah in 1857-58, the church canceled all ward meetings and prohibited sacrament services, said research historian Ardis E. Parshall. Missionaries were called home at that time, too, Turley added.
The church’s second president, Brigham Young, was arrested when the federal government again attempted to disrupt Latter-day Saint leadership in the 1870s, and the faith’s third president, John Taylor, died in exile, Turley said.
Those events may seem distant. The Spanish flu is not. Church President Russell M. Nelson is 95, so he grew up with stories about that pandemic, then lived through the Depression, served in the Army medical corps during the Korean War and experienced the cancellation of general conference during the 1957 pandemic.
Others have similar experience.
“They were born not too many years after the World War I flu pandemic, and they do an amazing job keeping in touch with experts today,” Turley said. “A lot of people don’t know that church leaders are able to tap the knowledge of quite a large network of church members who have good, solid information they can rely on.”
Turley said President Nelson’s recent video message of comfort and hope was rooted in those experiences.
“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,” the historian said. “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.”
At the age of 13, President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, returned home from Sunday School to learn from his mother that Pearl Harbor had been bombed in 1941. He felt panic and a fear of losing everything, the 91-year-old told the Church News this week.
“But that’s not what happened. The people of the free world rallied and freedom prevailed and things resolved themselves,” he said, adding, “From the beginning of history there have been circumstances similar to this one. Somehow they got through them, and we are going to get through this one.”
Turley said the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have unique leadership experiences with global turmoil.
“Church members in Utah in particular and in the United States tend to think of the state of the church as being just what’s happening here locally, but the reality is there have been very few moments in the history of the world during the last couple hundred years since the First Vision when there hasn’t been at least some type of war going on in the world,” he said. “We have sort of an Anglo-centric view of what war and peace are. But now that we’re a global organization, we have church members, almost constantly in some part of the world, whose lives are disrupted by famine, by disease or by violence of one sort or another.”
For example, the church removed all of its missionaries from Liberia last month because of deteriorating economic conditions, church spokesman Daniel Woodruff said.
When those issues arise, the church’s area presidencies report directly to the Quorum of the Twelve.
“The area presidencies become acutely aware of the challenges in their areas, and then they report those to their (contacts in the Quorum), who also travel into those areas on a regular basis,” Turley said. “So, church leaders, who have a global perspective, have long dealt with these types of issues around the world.”
Turley and Elder Marlin K. Jensen, the former church historian and recorder and an emeritus General Authority Seventy, said church leaders have led nimbly and systematically through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They have neither panicked nor ignored the problem,” Turley said.
They have overseen the ongoing dramatic shift of tens of thousands of missionaries back to their home countries over the past several weeks, an event that has touched nearly every one of the church’s 31,000 congregations.
“When you have something that’s as institutionalized in every family’s life as missionary service is, when that’s being upset, disturbed, it’s bound to have an impact on all of us,” Elder Jensen said.
One of his grandsons received a mission call last week. He watched him open it on FaceTime with about 40 others on the video call.
“When I think of the scope of our mission effort,” Elder Jensen said, “every mission with its president, then wife and often family, with our cadre of 100 to 200 missionaries, typically, with the cars that are involved, the apartments that have to be rented, with the key role these missionaries play in the lives of local Latter-day Saints in local units, the cost of getting them there, getting them home, the cost of providing medical care to them while they’re in the field, I mean it’s like the Fifth Army being impacted and even beyond.
“I’ve prayed specifically for those that have responsibility for the missionary work right now because I can’t imagine how taxed they must be, how challenged they must be.”
The Spanish flu created immense challenges, too. The first signs of outbreak in Utah arrived in October 1918, but the church’s fall general conference on Oct. 3-4 happened without concern. In the first session, President Joseph F. Smith announced the vision of the redemption of the dead.
The message was timely. In 1918, the Spanish flu killed 1,054 church members, and 862 died of pneumonia. Another 383 church members died in military service according to the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star.
On Oct. 10, 1918, Utah’s acting health director, T.B. Beatty, took actions similar to those taken again this past month, according to a Deseret News story published last year, 100 years after the flu broke out. Beatty banned all public gatherings. Churches, theaters and schools closed. Still, by early November, the state had more than 1,500 cases of the Spanish flu and 117 people had died.
The Utah State Board of Health published an ad in the Deseret News urging Utahns to avoid public transportation, crowded places and “common towels.” It also advised frequent hand-washing, rest and staying home at the first sign of illness. Utahns wore gauze masks and homes with influenza victims displayed quarantine signs. Hospitals quickly filled and staff ran short. Church buildings in Utah became impromptu infirmaries.
Funeral services also were limited. For example, only a few close family members attended the November 1918 funeral of President Smith, who died not of the flu but of natural causes incident to old age.
The Spanish flu even killed missionaries. The church had returned most missionaries home from overseas at the start of World War I, but others continued to serve, chiefly in the United States and the Pacific islands. Elder Walter Anderson, 21, died in late October 1918 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, according to the Improvement Era’s January 1919 edition.
That issue of the magazine also listed the deaths of four other missionaries: Elder Taylor Giles, 20, died in St. Paul, Minnesota. Sister Margery Stevens, 21, died in Denver, Colorado. Elder John Huskinson, 22, died in Dunham, Kentucky. Elder Henry Rogers, 18, died in New Zealand.
Those who remained in the mission field often served as health care workers during the pandemic. One missionary couple, Ernest and Venus Rossiter, left a riveting description of their service with other missionaries in Tahiti, as reported by Parshall.
“Our Elders ... certainly have acquitted themselves with credit by their fearless & untiring work. Some are night nurses in the hospitals, while others are given districts to care for, where they have been going from house to house, night and day, dispersing medicine, scrubbing out the filthy polluted houses of the helplessly sick, cooking food & feeding it to the patients, caring for orphaned babes and children, bathing the patients, carrying out the dead, digging graves, making coffins, hauling dead to the cemetery (etc.), etc, etc. They say the sights & scenes they have seen & the things they have had to do could hardly be believed if told they were so terrible.”
In another note familiar to Utahns and others suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rossiters served through the Spanish flu pandemic while experiencing an earthquake and numerous aftershocks in Tahiti.
In Utah alone, at least 2,915 people died. Worldwide, the Spanish flu caused infections in one-third of the world’s population and killed 50 million people.
In 1919, the church postponed its April general conference to June, said Jed Woodworth of the Church History Department.
It was an especially important set of meetings. With President Smith’s death, that spring conference included a solemn assembly to sustain President Heber J. Grant as the church’s new leader, Woodworth said.
General conference, interrupted
The church’s semiannual general conferences began in June 1830 with one attended by 27 members of what was then a two-month-old faith. In 1833, one general conference meeting was held on the Big Blue River ferry boat in Missouri, according to church historians.
Many of the general conferences during World War II were limited to leaders only. In 1942, one session was held in the Salt Lake Temple’s assembly room, which holds 1,700 people, church spokesman Sam Penrod said.
In April 1945, the church’s conference report noted that attendance could only be 14% of normal. A month after the final surrender documents were signed on the USS Missouri in September 1945, the church held its first unrestricted conference since the war started, with a solemn assembly held to sustain a new church president, George Albert Smith.
A special meeting in the temple
In 1957, another flu pandemic threatened the church.
The outbreak consumed much of the discussion at the weekly Thursday meeting of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve held in the Salt Lake Temple on Sept. 26, according to Parshall’s research.
During the discussion about whether to hold the imminent general conference the following weekend, the meeting’s recorder reported that the church’s leader, President David O. McKay, felt that “If we contributed in any way to the spread of the flu, and one life were lost, he thought that holding the conference would not be worth it, because we can hold conference again when there is no flu.”
Church leaders paused the meeting to call Utah’s top health official. They asked him to consider the effect general conference might have and call them back at the temple, this, of course, at a time without the expansive worldwide broadcast and internet capabilities that exist today.
When he did, the official said the Asian flu pandemic had reached Utah and was exacerbated by large meetings. He thought, it was recorded, that it “would lessen the spreading of the disease if we saw fit to postpone the conference at this time.”
The church leaders voted unanimously to cancel the conference completely. The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve then issued a letter to the church making the announcement “with deep regret.”
Elder Jensen, Turley and other church members around the world who are posting their feelings on social media said they place their faith in leaders they consider prophets to guide the church through the pandemic.
“When you have someone like President Nelson,” Elder Jensen said, “who has excelled at every stage of his life, and who has been a world traveler, who speaks several languages, who had experiences in his profession, in church leadership, in community leadership, whose raised exceptional family, to have someone like that as our prophet and seer, it just is stunning to me how blessed we are, how fortunate we are to be able to place our confidence, our faith in someone like him.”
He already can see past decisions by church leaders, such as the ministering program, the focus on home-centered, church-supported learning and the “Come, Follow Me” program to have prepared the church for interruptions like COVID-19.
“I think when we look back,” Elder Jensen said, “we’ll see these threads that will intertwine and give us a sense we were uniquely positioned as a church to weather this storm.”