How should the church carry out its mission during a worldwide pandemic? How can it preach the gospel and protect its religious freedoms at a time when most churches around the country are closed for worship?
This is not the first time that the Adventist Church has faced these difficult questions. It confronted them in 1918 during the worldwide influenza pandemic that infected more than a quarter of the world’s population — almost 500 million people. The pandemic is estimated to have killed anywhere from 20 to 100 million people.
During that period of history, Adventist schools experienced closures; camp meetings and evangelistic meetings were canceled; and churches were organized to help both their members and neighbors deal with the pandemic. Articles in the Lake Union Herald from 1918 reveal that churches and schools were closed at the time for periods of up to two months.1
An article published in the Review and Herald at the height of the pandemic described scenes very like the ones we see on our television screens from Italy, Spain, or New York City. Written by W. A. Ruble, secretary of the General Conference Health Department, it recorded that “gruesome accounts are given on every hand of cemeteries strewn with occupied coffins awaiting diggers to inter them; undertakers with dozens of bodies awaiting caskets; morgues taxed to their capacity, and additional buildings and even tents requisitioned for the overflow.”2
At that time as well, the medical system became overwhelmed and was unable to cope with the vast number of sick, dying, and dead. “Among the living, many are dying unattended by physician or nurses.… Every practical nurse and every other person that could at all minister to the sick has been called into service, and still there is not enough help.”
But rather than dwelling on the suffering and horror, Ruble spent most of his article calling for Adventists to take advantage of this opportunity for service and outreach. “Every Seventh-day Adventist has had ten times as many opportunities for service as he would fill if he had been ready for them. What a chance for missionary endeavor and for practicing that pure religion and undefiled of which James speaks!”
Ruble went on to discuss the desirability of every Adventist church and member re-tooling to serve as a lay medical missionary helper. He saw the crisis as breaking down barriers of race, class, profession, and religion, as people just needed help from wherever it came. “It matters not whether the helper is white or black, Christian or heathen, rich or poor.” Even formal degrees were no longer of great importance. “The doctor and the nurse no longer hold the pre-eminence they have held heretofore. The practical nurse, or anyone who can do things, is in demand.”
In his conclusion, he urged all church members to become knowledgeable about matters of basic health. “After influenza, what? Let every Seventh-day Adventist become a medical missionary.” He saw a role for formal programs at Adventist schools and colleges but wanted churches themselves to become involved in the training. “Let schools of health and first-aid courses be given in every church.”
An Active Church During the Pandemic
Ruble’s urgings were more than mere rhetoric. Adventists were active in the field of practical, natural remedies, and successfully treated many members with them. One such instance was at the Adventist Seminary, based in Hutchinson, Minnesota. At some point in October and November 1918, at the height of the flu epidemic, fully 90 of the 120 students at the Seminary contracted the virus. But not a single one died or became even seriously ill. Other places saw fatality rates as high as 10 percent.
The Hutchinson seminary, under the leadership of Dr. H. E. Larson, a physician on faculty, relied on a combination of isolation of the infected, rest, diet, and hot and cold abdomen, chest, and neck fomentations (hot towels compressed onto the patient, front and back, followed by chilled towels). The Public Health officer of Hutchinson City certified that no other institution in the State of Minnesota had close to such impressive treatment results.3
Today, our medical systems appear threatened by a potential flood of patients, should current predictions hold, as we have already seen happen in Italy, Spain, and now even in America. In Italy and Spain, older patients have been essentially sent home to die because of a lack of space and ventilators. Can we, as Adventists, prepare to aid our neighbors and our members who lack access to hospitals in their time of need? Yes, says John Kelly, Adventist physician and professor, who believes that some of the methods used by the Adventists in 1918 could be implemented today.
Worship During a Pandemic
But what about worship and freedom during this time of crisis?
As Adventists, we believe that the Bible tells us a time will come when the government will interfere with and legislate matters regarding worship. At that time, many of our churches across the country will not be able to meet because of local and state laws. One non-Adventist pastor in Florida was arrested recently for holding church services in violation of local law. Is this a fulfillment of prophecy?4
To answer this question simply, biblically, and memorably, I created, with the help of my graduate student, David Hamstra, the following meme on my Facebook page: “Closing churches to stop coronavirus isn’t yet Revelation 13. It’s Leviticus 13. So act like 1 Corinthians 13, till Romans 13 runs its course!”
What does it mean? I believe that the current restrictions on public gathering that impact churches are, in general, a valid expression of the state’s concern with the health and lives of its citizens. Revelation 13 is about religious discrimination, required worship, and persecution. It predicts a time when the power of the state will be used to promote a certain kind of worship at the expense of religious minorities and their rights of religious freedom and conscience.
But currently, the restrictions on worship gatherings are neutral toward religion. In most states, not only are all churches, mosques, and synagogues closed, but all kinds of other gatherings, whether social, political, or artistic, also are prohibited. Further, worship of any particular kind or creed is not actually prohibited. Instead, it must take place either in small groups or online. These restrictions are reflective of the concerns we find in Leviticus 13, which contains limitations on people suspected of being infected with a plague. They were to be shut up, or quarantined, for seven days, which would include not being at the worship assembly. Some people who became permanent carriers of known contagious diseases, such as leprosy, were permanently put outside the camp (see Leviticus 13:45, 46).
We live in a time when we simply cannot tell who is carrying a virus, which can kill those who are especially vulnerable among us. Unquestionably a basic teaching of love is that in such circumstances, we should avoid social contact for a defined period. This can protect the vulnerable and ourselves. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, urges us that love suffereth long, and is kind. Surely, we can endure the inconvenience and hardship of worshiping from afar and online to keep our vulnerable members and neighbors alive.
Paul also says that love is “not easily provoked,” but that it “beareth all things, … endureth all things.” Yes, social isolation is not easy, and missing in-person worship is difficult and sad. But should we let our lack of patience, or our insistence on our “rights,” jeop
ardize the health and safety of others? Already a number of churches that persisted in worshiping or meeting amidst growing warnings have experienced many infections and several deaths. Despite this, some churches are insisting on their rights to gather to worship.5 This seems an unfortunate and misguided sense of rights that violates the basic principle of love for the vulnerable.
What Prophecy Says
Prophetically, we do believe that at some point, the government will overstep its boundaries and seek to inappropriately curtail and compel worship. But Romans 13 shows us that civil rulers actually have a divine mandate to protect us from evil and to reward the good. Thus, their work at keeping us safe from the coronavirus, and penalizing people who endanger others, even in the name of religion, is divinely ordained. We do need to stay aware, however, and watch carefully the temptation to governmental overreach that always comes with a crisis.
As long as the state restrictions are narrowly constructed to advance the compelling interest of keeping the community safe and alive, they are constitutionally acceptable. When will worship restrictions become constitutionally and biblically problematic? This may depend on the scope and duration of the restrictions. But, at this point, it is too early in the crisis to assume or argue that most social distancing requirements thus far are inappropriately intrusive or limiting.
We have seen hospitals and morgues fill up with bodies in Spain and Italy, and that is now starting in America. Quite extreme measures are justified, as long as they are not targeting religion or religious minorities for inferior treatment compared with other gatherings. Currently, this does not appear to be the case. Our Adventist pioneers in 1918 endured such closings for up to two months. I can find no objections they made to these measures on religious liberty grounds.
But we must maintain our vigilance. As we look at the increasing social, political, and economic challenges of our country, students of the Bible can see that we are on the verge of a time foretold when people will be pleading for governments to support an economic centralization, at both a national and international level. In the financial crisis we are entering prophetically, powers will need the ability to support, control, and manage credit, buying, and selling in a manner never seen in the history of the world.
The early stages of this crisis have been a legitimate exercise of governments in protecting their citizens’ health. What the crisis itself has done, however, is to create an opportunity for the creation of a centralized national and even international economic system, as foretold in Revelation 13.
As we see this shift happening, we have an obligation of love to our neighbors and leaders, under 1 Corinthians 13, to remind them of the limits of lawful government authority. When they begin to stray beyond punishing evil and rewarding good as described in Romans 13, we must bear witness to this violation of conscience and freedom. We will need to be prepared to assert a commitment to be loyal to God rather than man when the two conflict.
May the Lord give us the Spirit of wisdom to know what and when to speak, the Spirit of loving courage to do so, and the zeal to pursue the divine mission of the church during these challenging times.
The original version of this commentary was posted by the Lake Union Herald.
1. Augusta Blosser, “News Notes,” Lake Union Herald, December 18, 1918, p. 6.
2. W. A. Ruble, “After Influenza, What?” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, October 31, 1918, p. 16, https://adventistdigitallibrary.org/adl-352031/advent-review-and-sabbath-herald-october-31-1918.
3. N. P. Nielson, “Seminary Cinches Flu,” Northern Union Reaper, December 17, 1918, p. 2, https://adventistdigitallibrary.org/adl-416204/northern-union-reaper-december-17-1918.
4. Tamara Lush and Chris O'Meara, “Florida megachurch pastor arrested for holding services, defying social distancing orders,” USA Today, March 31, 2020, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/03/31/coronavirus-florida-megachurch-pastor-arrested-church-amid-orders/5093160002/.
5. Richard Read, “A choir decided to go ahead with rehearsal. Now dozens of members have COVID-19 and two are dead,” Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-03-29/coronavirus-choir-outbreak.