1918 vs. 2020: LDS worship during a pandemic

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The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1920. From left: Charles W. Penrose, Heber J. Grant and Anthon Lund. The First Presidency of the Church in 2020. Dallin H. Oaks, left, Russell M. Nelson, middle and Henry B. Eyring. (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

Latter-day Saints will watch October’s General Conference exclusively from their homes. Because of COVID-19, no one has the option to attend in person, as was the case in April 2020.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took a lot of similar approaches as it did almost 100 years ago.

The flu pandemic of 1918 started in March and lasted until near the end of 1919, about an 18-month period. At this time, church meetings were canceled, temples were closed and a session of General Conference even had to be postponed.

According to Ryan Saltzgiver, a historian with the Church History department, one of the main similarities in how the Church handled the flu outbreak back in 1918 is that they followed the counsel and advice of public health officials.

General Conference

Latter-day Saints will watch this October’s General Conference exclusively from their homes. No one has the option to attend in person because of COVID-19, as was the case in April 2020.

Saltzgiver said one of the main differences he’s noticed between the pandemic of 1918 and the coronavirus pandemic has a lot to do with technology. “The church opted for postponements of major meetings rather than going digital,” Saltzgiver said about the 1918 pandemic. Because of this, the April General Conference in 1919 was postponed until June 1919.

Announcement in the Millennial Star saying the April 1919 General Conference was being postponed. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections)

“It does not appear that any attempt was made to limit attendance, rather they assumed that the worst of the pandemic had passed in Utah,” Saltzgiver said about the June 1919 General Conference. “The postponement was necessitated by the public health mandates, but the business of that conference (sustaining a new president of the Church) was too important to cancel the meeting entirely.”

Saltzgiver said the two most significant things of that General Conference, besides its postponement, were that Heber J. Grant was sustained as the prophet and the fact that Grant made mention of all the members of the Church who had passed away from the flu.

It wasn’t uncommon at the time for the president of the Church to announce how many people had died since the last General Conference, according to Saltzgiver. “But for him to highlight the fact that a certain number of them had died specifically of the flu was significant,” Saltzgiver said.

Saltzgiver said the October 1919 General Conference was held as normal.

Church meetings

According to Saltzgiver, there was a point during the flu pandemic where all church meetings were supposed to be canceled, but the challenge was getting the news out to members.

The Deseret News was the only way Church leaders had to announce the cancellation of Church meetings, according to Saltzgiver. “So if people don’t get the Deseret News for a while, then they don’t they don’t hear about that,” Saltzgiver said.

Saltzgiver said he’s not sure if Church members were able to have sacrament meeting in their homes like what has been done in 2020, but he does know they were encouraged to have some type of devotional in place of church meetings.

Another thing Saltzgiver mentioned that changed during the 1918 pandemic was how the sacrament was passed.

An Ensign article titled, “The Church is More than a Meetinghouse” says, “earlier generations of Latter-day Saints had passed around a common cup, but in the wake of the pandemic many wards raised funds to purchase sacrament sets with individual cups.” Saltzgiver said the individual cups started because of public health concerns.

Temples

In 1918 there were only four operating temples, all of them in Utah: Salt Lake, St. George, Manti and Logan. “The temples were closed when officials directed them to end public gatherings and reopened when they were told they could resume,” Saltzgiver said. Saltzgiver said he doesn’t know of the temples opening in any type of phases like they are today.

Missionary work

Missionaries were only serving in the United States, Canada, parts of the Pacific (Tonga, Samoa, Australia, French Polynesia, New Zealand and Hawaii), Japan, and South Africa in 1918.

“Those missionaries and mission presidents whose journals I have reviewed make it clear that they transitioned from normal proselytizing activities to working to support healthcare workers and minister to the sick,” Saltzgiver said.

Saltzgiver said the Church tried to keep the missionaries where they were at. He said the mission president in New Zealand attempted to keep things the way that they were, but started sending missionaries home when an Elder from Salt Lake who was serving in New Zealand died of the flu.

BYU

Saltzgiver said he doesn’t know much detail about what happened on the BYU campus in 1918, but he did see a photo published in BYU Magazine where BYU students were sitting shoulder to shoulder wearing masks, so he doesn’t know of any social distancing guidelines.

In January 1919 BYU students sat shoulder to shoulder wearing masks, but there is no sign of social distancing. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections)

“In the end the flu pandemic closed campus until January 1919, canceling three months of classes, athletic events, dances, debates and theater productions,” said a BYU Magazine article titled “Lessons from 1918.” “As BYU students returned for winter 1919 classes, many restrictions on activities remained in place, and they found it difficult to recognize friends through flu masks.”

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