Compassion and Resilience: Old First E-pistle 03.06.20

Compassion and Resilience: Old First E-pistle 03.06.20

Pastor’s note: Bob Schneider, one of our archivists, offers some historical perspective… I have grown to trust his voice and his reassurance. When he preached for Anniversary Sunday in 2017, he was explicit: “Our nation has lived through much more turbulent political situations than what we are now facing.” When I have felt myself doubting… foundering since then, I ask him out to lunch, because I need to be reassured again.  

You might be thinking, “Now we do not need more pandemic news right now.” But, folks, we have faced similar (or worse) in generations past and shouldered our way through. But, as Bob adds, “This instance, like yellow fever and the Spanish flu before, are more personal; they are about illness and death–rather than religious prejudice or crazy leaders.” Still, I find some company and confidence in remembering that we are not the first to face such a situation.  

And if it gets so bad we can’t gather for worship for awhile, I bet we can use modern capabilities and figure out alternative, virtual ways to be church supporting one another in perseverance, faithfulness and love…

                                                –MC (who now has no choice but to go down with the ship!) 


You don’t get to be 292 years old without surviving some public health crises, and Old First has seen plenty of them. It has lived through almost three centuries of Philadelphia epidemics and was significantly affected by the yellow fever crises of the 1790s and the “flu” pandemic of 1918.

Always a crossroads of the country and world—and not on the cutting edge of public sanitation—Philadelphia regularly experienced bouts of smallpox in the 18th century and cholera in the 19th. But the most virulent, and well-known, disease was that caused by the mosquito-borne yellow fever virus. 

The first recorded outbreak in 1690, within ten years of the city’s founding, was followed by recurrences in 1741, 1747, and 1762. 

But the worst episode—one of the most severe public health crises in U.S. history—occurred in the fall of 1793, when 10% of the city’s population died. There was chaos: The U.S. Congress and President Washington along with 20% of the population fled what was then the national capital, the medical profession struggled to understand and disagreed about how to respond to the crisis, some members of Old First were ill and the lives of all were disrupted. 

But this congregation has always been rightly proud that its pastors were among the clergy who remained in the stricken city to minister to the sick even though it might cost them their lives. It did for John Herman Winkhaus and the church’s school master in 1793 and for John William Hendel in 1798, in one of the almost annual recurrences of the illness—“he was with the sick; his place was at the house of mourning.”

The spread of the H1N1 influenza virus that emerged in military camps in Europe during the last year of World War I and was brought to Philadelphia by US sailors in September 1918, was one of the deadliest epidemics in human history, with an estimated 30 million deaths worldwide. 

In Philly, despite warnings from medical professionals about the risk of an outbreak of “the Spanish flu,” city health officials declined to cancel a war bond rally that crowded together 200,000 Philadelphians. Days later numerous cases of the flu appeared and in the end a quarter of the population of two million contracted the illness and at least 12,000 people died, one percent of the population and the highest mortality rate in a US city (there were more than 500,000 deaths nationwide).

At Old First in September of 1918, as across the country, the attention was on the war (which, unbeknownst to them, would soon end). In addition to that preoccupation, the congregation of over 300 members was preparing to install its new pastor, Walter Garrett, having moved into its impressive new building at 50th and Locust Streets in West Philadelphia the year before. 

The first official church mention of the “flu” was a “special notice” apparently inserted in the October issue of the church newsletter after it was ready to go to press: 

Owing to the Epidemic Influenza, our church, with all other public places, has been closed indefinitely. No services of any kind will be held during 

the continuation of due ban by the health authorities. Notices will be mailed to every member as soon as the services may be resumed, 

announcing the stated as well as the special Rally Day, Harvest Home, and Communion Services.

The next issue, November’s, included another special notice that “services were resumed October 27, with the exception of the Sunday School.” There had been only three “churchless Sundays.” 

An article described the impact of the local epidemic, noting that the closing of churches was highly unusual but should serve to remind members of the “privileges of the sanctuary” (and perhaps to motivate those who attended infrequently to go more often!). There was also a reflection on the impact of the illness on the congregation, noting that “the fragility and changeability of life are forcefully borne in on us in these days of stress and strain.” Everyone was affected by both war and widespread illness and should, in consequence, “look through the immediate and secular side of like to the enduring spiritual basis of it all” and the reassurance of knowing Christ. 

That issue of the newsletter named four members who had died “of influenza” but then the virus disappeared from public sight. There were other waves of it but Philadelphia had seen its worst and news of the Armistice ending the war, signed on November 11, overshadowed other news.

Then is not now. Among the changes since the 1790s and even 1918 are the massive improvements in public hygiene (hand-washing was not widely promoted until the 1980s!), medical care, awareness, and communication. Philadelphia in 1917, for instance, suffered not only from the lack of modern medicines (no vaccines and no antibiotics to treat secondary infections) but also from a shortage of hospital beds and of medical professionals (a quarter of whom were in Europe with the armed forces); overcrowded wartime factories; overcrowded and substandard housing; late and inept responses by public officials; and limited modes of communication—just print for all and telephones for those who had them—since television, the internet, and even the widespread use of radio were still in the future.

What stands out in Old First’s experience of epidemics is the compassionate response and the resilient community. Caring for the sick did not scare off our pastors and members. The inability to meet for worship—a result of either massive disruption, as in the 1790s, or what we now call enforced “social distancing,” as in 1918—did not in the long run damage this community of faith, then and now a wellspring of hope.

— Bob Schneider, Assistant Archivist