How did Christian Scientists respond to the 1918–1919 Spanish flu?

April 9, 2020

The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 claimed the lives of 50 million around the world, including over 675,000 Americans. It tested the ability of governments, medical professionals, churches, and social institutions to respond to a widespread crisis. It also challenged a world emerging from the ravages of World War I; military personnel were the disease’s first casualties.1

Christian Scientists were not untouched. How did they respond to a complex situation, the cause and extent of which were reported and debated in the press? How did their practice of spiritual healing contribute to alleviating the crisis? Several aspects of their response stand out.

The Christian Science Monitor covered the pandemic closely and editorialized on it. In 1919 the newspaper made this observation:

If…the press could be induced to advertise courage instead of circulating fear, an enormous improvement would be rapidly manifested. The effect of the mere corralling of fear would be inestimable. The greatest service any paper, any doctor, any human being can perform for the human race is to teach it to think aright.2

The Christian Science religious periodicals also shared reports pointing to the deleterious effects of collective fear, to medical tests that called into question popular assumptions, and to acts of unselfishness and courage. For example, the April 12, 1919, Christian Science Sentinel reprinted this from California’s Oakland Enquirer:

The experiments made at Goat Island [California] by Navy doctors in an effort to learn something about the influenza germ, carry a lesson that every person should study and understand. Fifty young sailors volunteered to become influenza victims, that the doctors might study the disease more carefully. These young men had no fear of the disease; they willingly offered themselves. They were placed with flu patients; they were given jars of flu germs, which they breathed into their lungs; they had flu germs injected into their bodies….

But no cases developed among these fifty sailors! These men had been inoculated; they had been exposed to the disease in every manner; they had breathed in the germs and eaten and slept with flu victims, and not one of them became infected! The medical men confessed themselves baffled. All their ideas of the disease were turned topsy-turvy…. The doctors are still wondering. The explanation, however, is simplicity itself, for it was proved by each one of these fifty young men.

These fifty young men volunteered to act as subjects upon which to be experimented. This showed clearly that they did not fear the disease….3

Referencing the Goat Island experiment, the Journal of the American Medical Association offered a frank observation: 

Dr. McCoy, who with Dr. Richey, did a similar series of experiments on Goat Island, San Francisco, used volunteers, who, so far as known, had not been exposed to the outbreak at all, also had negative results, that is, they were unable to reproduce the disease. Perhaps there are factors, or a factor, in the transmission of influenza that we do not know.4

During the pandemic, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders debated government orders to close places of worship. Some believed that their ministry was needed more than ever, and that their doors should remain open.5 Christian Scientists participated in this debate; at least one branch church tried to challenge a closure order, but its suit was refused.6 But a physician in Des Moines, Iowa, commented: “In my work in infected communities, I have always found [Christian] Scientists the first to respond to the slightest suggestion of unsanitary conditions, and the first to comply with fundamental health measures.”7

Details of Christian Scientists’ responses to the epidemic come mainly from two sources: the book Christian Science Wartime Activities, published in 1922, and reports of healing published in the Christian Science periodicals.

Christian Scientist volunteer workers regularly reported on their activities during this period. One wrote:

There were many calls for help for all sorts of diseases—Spanish influenza, dysentery, drunkenness, sensuality, smoking, rheumatism, men who had been gassed, those who had been wounded and were in the hospital, etc. In many cases the men were directed to the use of the Concordances [to the Bible and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy]. One case of influenza was healed in this way and the young man told me afterwards that he had had a fear of tuberculosis for many years, which had left him at this time.8

Another account noted:

… during those weeks of stress and fear, Christian Scientists everywhere were grateful for a knowledge of God’s goodness and for a calm assurance of protection, and through this understanding they were able to be of immeasurable help to those who were suffering …. [In some areas] our Workers being told that the entire district was under quarantine and if they entered they would be obliged to stay in the camp, elected to follow this course, entered and remained inside, bringing healing and comfort to many.9

There were also reports from enlisted men who were Christian Scientists:

One of the things for which we are most grateful is the fact that our boys were able to help the others during the recent epidemic. One of them had charge of thirty-six others. The first night he went to each patient and tried to allay his fear and to reassure him. The doctors soon began to turn to him and he was put into a position of considerable responsibility and usefulness. Another boy read the 91st Psalm to his patients, and although only a beginner in Science, through using what he knew of the truth, was able to overcome a very high fever for one of the boys. 

Similarly, a soldier writing from England says: “I was placed in a hospital unit and sent overseas. This took place while the fear of the… influenza was on…. If you will remember I am just a beginner in Science, and so I held to the truth as best I could during that season. I did not use any preventives or medicine as did my associates. I had no fear and felt it my duty to serve instead of being served.”10 

A hospital medical officer at Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, wrote to a Christian Scientist volunteer:

I take the means of this letter to express to you as best I can, my appreciation of your help and assistance during this trying situation in camp. When you offered your services in the beginning of this critical situation, we needed help upon whom we could depend. We were a little surprised at your offer, not at all on account of the man from whom it came, but we did not know how your people’s views were along the lines of such humanitarian work as you have done here. I felt that everything was as it should be in my absence with you as Ward Master. One thing I want to say to you, a thing that I appreciate, while your position as Ward Master would have safeguarded you against any orderly duties of the hospital,—the thing necessary to be done, was the thing you did. Again thanking you for your faithful and fearless work during this serious time, I am, Your friend.11

Another letter recognized the efforts of a group of Christian Scientists in Minnesota:

The Surgeon desires to thank Mr. G. and the members of the Christian Science Welfare League [sic] for their great kindness and thoughtfulness in caring for the men sick in our hospital during the recent epidemic. The care and trouble taken in providing for the comfort and welfare of the patients have been very much appreciated. You cannot realize how much such helpful, practical service as yours has meant to the patients. Your splendid cooperation and ready, willing service throughout the very trying emergency have meant much more than can be expressed. The medical officers are extremely grateful to you, and are very appreciative of all that you have done.12

Individual Christian Scientists all over the world faced their own challenges during the epidemic. Many testimonies published after 1919 in the Sentinel and The Christian Science Journal, and in the French and German editions of The Herald of Christian Science, mentioned healings of Spanish flu.13 For example, Marie Louise Field, of Ketchikan, Alaska, wrote this:

Two years ago, when Spanish influenza first broke out on the Pacific coast, I was attending college. I knew at this time that a student of Christian Science had nothing to fear, so after I had declared the truth as we understand it in Christian Science, I dismissed the thought of Spanish influenza and went about my college work as usual. Toward the end of the first week, when the number of cases had greatly increased, the rumor went abroad that it would be necessary to quarantine the campus. I had been spending all of my weekends away from college and I looked forward to those weekly vacations with keen anticipation. I resented the idea of being quarantined on the campus and expressed myself against the injustice and foolishness of such a proceeding.

That afternoon I seemed to manifest some of the symptoms of influenza; toward night the signs were unmistakable. I was rather alarmed at first because I had considered my work complete. I went to my room and decided to solve the problem if it took all night. I opened our textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, and read. It was not until the real meaning of the word quarantine was unfolded that the healing was accomplished. I realized that man was always alone with God and that the only thing that he could possibly be kept from was evil; that I had associated with nothing but good, consequently I could only manifest good, God. At three o’clock in the morning the case was met. I arose at the usual time perfectly well and ready to attend my classes. When Friday came I was free to leave the campus and there was no quarantine during the epidemic.14

For more on this topic, listen to Episode 41 of our Seekers and Scholars podcast series, Religion and public health during the 1918–1919 Spanish flu.

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  1. “1918 Pandemic (H1N1 Virus), Center for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html accessed 3/30/2020.
  2. “Architects of Disease,” The Christian Science Monitor, 13 August 1919, 16.
  3. Christian Science Sentinel, 12 April 1919, 637.
  4. Rosenau, Milton J., “Experiments to Determine Mode of Spread of Influenza,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 73, no. 5, 313. The article also mentions an experiment at the U.S. Naval Hospital, Chelsea, Massachusetts, with similar results.
  5. “Signs of the Times,” Sentinel, 30 November 1918, 258.
  6. “Habeas Corpus Writ is Refused,” Monitor, 9 November 1918, 9.
  7. “Campaign Against Fear Is Advocated,” Monitor, 22 October 1918, 6.
  8. Christian Science Wartime Activities (Boston: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 1922), 163.
  9. Christian Science Wartime Activities, 341.
  10. Christian Science Wartime Activities, 341–342.
  11. Christian Science Wartime Activities, 343.
  12. Christian Science Wartime Activities, 342–343.
  13. See the database jshonline.com for these testimonies.
  14. The Christian Science Journal, February 1921, 633–634.