After the worst of the Spanish Flu, with millions dead worldwide, churches began to regather. Francis Grimké, pastor of Fifteenth Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., delivered a talk called “Some Reflections, Growing Out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza That Afflicted Our City: A Discourse.”
Grimké’s address, given after churches resumed gatherings but before the end of the outbreak, provides a model for addressing our own churches as we start to regather.
We Now Know
Reading about plagues used to seem removed from our reality. Not anymore.
“We know now, perhaps, as we have never known before the meaning of the terms pestilence, plague, epidemic.” Nobody’s exempt. “Every part of the land has felt its deadly touch—North, South, East, and West—in the Army, in the Navy, among civilians, among all classes and conditions, rich and poor, high and low, white and black.”
Many of us have struggled to understand some of the cleanliness laws of Hebrew Scripture, or what it would have been like to live through one of the many plagues that have taken place throughout history. Now we have some idea.
We Recognize Our Limits
If we’re wise, a pandemic can teach us our limits. No matter how many medical advancements we make, or how hard we work, we’re not in control.
“I have been impressed with the ease with which large portions of the population may be wiped out in spite of the skill of man, of all the resources of science. Suddenly this epidemic came upon our city and country, and though every physician has been employed and every available nurse has been at work day and night, thousands have died, the awful death toll continued.”
“How easy it would be for God to wipe out the whole human race, in this way, if he wanted to,” Grimké continues, “for these terrible epidemics, plagues, the mighty forces of nature, all are at his command, all are his agents.”
We Don’t Understand
Early on, I was asked about the promises of Psalm 91, which seem to promise protection for believers against plagues. Why doesn’t this seem to match our experience?
I stumbled and provided a somewhat inadequate answer, although I’ve since found some resources that help. But it’s okay to admit that we don’t understand.
“What this means I do not know. How far we may expect immunity under such circumstances, I do not know,” Grimké said. “These words cannot mean that all good people will escape, and that only the bad will be smitten: for, as a matter of fact, we know that during every epidemic some very good people are smitten, and some, not very good people, escape. And, therefore, I say, I do not know what is meant by the promise contained in this ninety-first Psalm.”
Let’s keep digging into Scripture, but it’s also okay to admit that we don’t always have all the answers.
We May Not Agree on Government Restrictions
I have friends who are outraged that the government ever tried to restrict churches from meeting. That’s not new. “There has been considerable grumbling, I know, on the part of some, particularly in regard to the closing of the churches.”
Grimké, though, wasn’t too concerned. “It seems to me, however, in a matter like this it is always wise to submit to such restrictions for the time being … If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger, and expect God to protect us.”
Although eager to resume meeting again, he worked at remaining patient. “I said to myself, why worry? God knows what He is doing. His work is not going to suffer. It will rather be a help to it in the end. Out of it, I believe, great good is coming. All the churches, as well as the community at large, are going to be the stronger and better for this season of distress through which we have been passing.”
The Pandemic Surfaces Racial Issues
“In this terrible epidemic, which has afflicted not only this city but the whole country, there is a great lesson for the white man to learn. It is the folly of his stupid color prejudice,” says Grimké. “It calls attention to the fact that he is acting on a principle that God utterly repudiates, as he has shown during this epidemic scourge, and, as he will show him when He comes to deal with him in the judgment of the great day of solemn account. The lesson taught is clear and distinct, but will he learn it, will he lay it to heart, will he profit by it and seek to mend his evil ways?”
Grimké taught clearly what Scripture teaches against racism, and expressed hope that the pandemic would serve as a needed wakeup call.
We Are People of Hope
Even when we face sickness, uncertainty, and death, we have confidence in God and his care for us.
“While the plague was raging, while thousands were dying, what a comfort it was to feel that we were in the hands of a loving Father who was looking out for us, who had given us the great assurance that all things should work together for our good. And, therefore, that come what would—whether we were smitten with the epidemic or not, or whether being smitten, we survived or perished, we knew it would be well with us, that there was no reason to be alarmed. Even if death came, we knew it was all right.”
“What are all of life’s trials, sufferings, disappointments? They only tend to work out for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
“Let us all draw near to God in simple faith. Let us re-consecrate ourselves, all of us, to him; let us all make up our minds to be better Christians,” Grimké concludes.
I’m amazed at how many of Grimké’s reflections fit our current situation. I pray we’ll learn from him, and that we’ll be able to pass on similar reflections as we start to gather again.