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Epidemics and Christian faith: The story of 1918 pandemic and the Church

by Church Times



Moses Oludele Idowu

Most parts of the world are currently on lockdown due to the outbreak of Coronavirus, COVID- 19. I saw a video yesterday posted by Dr. Olanrewaju where a lone priest traversed an entire street virtually deserted preaching the Word of God. Under normal circumstances he might have been arrested for disturbing public peace. There is panic everywhere. The once untouchable are now afraid and the pride if man is coming low. Years ago He told us: ” Let no one brag or be proud because the Lord is coming to put an end to all arrogance.”


I wrote the biography of Sophie Odunlami Ajayi, Nigeria’s first prophetess in 2016. During my research I had to study the 1918 Influenza Pandemic since it was pivotal to the raising of Sophie ( she herself was struck by the epidemic and overcame) and the Faith Tabernacle. Then it was impressed on me to write on the Pandemic and to show how Christians of that era overcame the plague.
I was to release the book to coincide with the 100 Year Anniversary in 2018. I believe the hunch was from God, now I know. I immediately set out since i already had the materials from previous research. The Title was to be: THE STORY OF THE GREAT INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC OF 1918: How a Band of  Christians Confronted It and Launched the Apostolic Movement in Nigeria
 I had even itemised the chapters and the notes, just to lock myself for weeks and do the book. Alas, I never wrote that book. Why? Well, I was discouraged. After all, I had written several manuscripts that are still waiting to be published due to shortage of funds, why add another one?
   However today as I searched my archive and seeing the notes and records I felt really sorry not writing that book which would have helped many people. It would have been prophetic. Now I realized it was the Voice of Heaven speaking to me nudging me to do it and not my imagination or sense of vanity.
 Many people look at me as a successful writer and author and some actually hate me and envy me for it. Do you know what? I am a successful failure. If you know the gifts and talents God has given me I should have written over a hundred books by now and stirred this nation – this much abused, longsuffering nation – on the path of a powerful spiritual awakening.
  Certain things particularly disturb me going through the papers and my notes. The similarities between then and now and the recurrence of the same names popping up.
  This is why History matters.


 Today I want to examine 5 excellent papers on the 1918 Pandemic and review them emphasising their major points with the ultimate aims of drawing out their useful lessons for us all.
  These are drawn from some of the materials I intended using for that book which is now overtaken  by events – the very events it was designed by Heaven to warn us against.
  The 5 papers I will be using in this Review are:
* Adam Mohr, Capitalism, Chaos and Christian Healing: Faith Tabernacle Congregation in Southern Colonial Ghana, 1918- 1926. ( Journal of African History, 2011)
* ________, Out of Zion Into Philadelphia and West Africa: Faith Tabernacle  ingredients, 1897- 1925 ( Pneuma, 2010).
* K.D.Patterson & G.F.Pyle, The Geography and Mortality of 1918 Influenza Pandemic.
* K.D.Patterson, The Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19 in the Gold Coast (Journal of African History, 1983)
* Ralph Schram, A History of Nigerian Health Services ( IUP, 1971) Chapters 11-13.
Because of space and time and battery constraints i will be very brief just stating the major issues.
Although previous studies show that the “origin is shrouded in obscurity” (Jordan, 1927) it is now believed that the origin is known due to available data.
  This would shock you.
Humpres (2013) using a multidisciplinary approach/ perspective combined with new research in British and Canada archives cite China as the origin in the winter of 1917-18 diffusing across the world as previously isolated population came into contact with one another in the battlefield of Europe”
  He has also noted that a new and deadly virus first appeared in China and then discussed around the globe with the mobilization of Chinese labour corps. (CLC) ( p.58)
 The Chinese origins has gained new support from researchers like Langford, Petit, Bailie etc who uncovered evidence of respiratory illness circulating in interior of China during the winter of 1917-18.( Langford, 2005)
There were two strains/ mutations of the Epidemic coming in two successive waves. The first began in late Dec, 1916 peaking in Jan and Feb.1917.
  The second wave occurred in March and April 1917 at Aldershot barracks, southwest London, according to Lancet, the British Journal of Medicine. Those who died in 1917 showered same symptoms as those of 1918. Many regions who were not attacked during the first wave caved in to the second wave whereas the first nations that were attacked survive the second wave because they had developed an immunity an antibody against its new strain.
  The Lesson: African nations should not yet rejoice or lower their guards because they are not affected in this first wave; they may be in the second. That was exactly what happened in 1918. So it is not yet over till it is over.
So far as available records show 1918 was the worst epidemic in history. Scholars are not agreed but a reasonable estimate range between 50 – 100 million people, lost their lives to the Pandemic. Patterson paper shows the figures per continent. For Africa between 1.9-2.3 million people died and this figure is understated because due to lack of access to facilities people were buried in mass graves without documentation.
  Compare this figure with Asia with larger population and where it originated, 19-33  million.
  However, Death per thousand for Africa is 14.2-17.7, which is also understated since all Africans do not go to hospitals. This is the highest second only to Asia of 19.7-34.2.
Europe’s death per thousand is the lowest, 4.8 and America is 5.3.
 So why is Africa highest? POVERTY. The Plague destroyed more poor people than rich due to uncongenial living conditions which helped the virus to spread. The rich can stay at home and eat good food which builds immunity but the poor live together thus infecting one another and death. In Maori, New Zealand there was 1130 deaths for 22.6 deaths per thousand because it is poor. In Australia the poor Aborigines suffered heavier casualties than rich white people and in U.S. deaths among Indians was four times more than whites ( Patterson p.17)
Within two months this epidemic spread round the whole world at a speed that was frightening.
  In many countries closer to the coast the infection spread.
   In Nigeria communities closer to the coast like Ijebus, Onitsha etc took a direct hit. For weeks many Ijebu towns look like sites of mourning. Ogere that now thrives with life as a Toll Gate town was like a ghost town in 1918.
  “People died from secondary pneumonia infection which caused people to turn blue from lack of oxygen and cough up purulent, bloody sputum. It was a strange and terrifying epidemic.”( Crosby 1989)
The Epidemic brought certain things to the fore which we should know. Some of them would be covered now, some later since the same pattern is emerging.
 7 Things Happened which I want you to see.
People were struck as with an arrow. And death was witnessed everywhere. White colonial officers died enmasse as the blacks they were oppressing. Doctors died like herbalists. In 1918 the Plague did not spare any group except One – those who had Faith in the Living God and in the Atonement of His Son, Jesus Christ. I will quote the scholars themselves so that you can see it is not just someone promoting religion. It is fact. Death is real. 1918 made it clear to everybody.
In 1918 in Ghana families turned against each other when the Plague came. People threw away their relatives when they caught the plague lest they too should be infected. Friends threw away their colleagues out in the open once they caught the plague to protect themselves.
   It was everyone to himself and the good Lord over us all. Human love failed. Children deserted their parents and family threw away loved ones. ” You are going to die anyway, there is no need taking us with you”- that sort of things.
  Only Agape Love in Christ survived. Christians went everywhere praying for people, that is those of Faith Tabernacle, an American fellowship that had reached Africa, product of Alexander Dowie and Asuza Revival.
Roles changed in 1918. Many men died that women had to take over some manly responsibilities. Do you know why many Igbo women are farmers? Do you know why, till today many Igbo women are more aggressive than even their males?
  It was 1918 that caused it.
  Many Igbo men died that women had to start going to farm or starve with their children. That is why today most old women in Igbo land, children of the survivors of 1918 are still farmers today.
   Staple also changed. Before pounded yam was the real food. But after 1918 cassava became the food because of human labor now in short supply.
Hospitals failed in 1918. Doctors died as patients. Medical science failed those who put their trust in it. Read Adam Mohr papers of the situation in Ghana to see actual accounts.
  It was clear medical science had no answer.
  Today most people believe hospitals are the alpha and omega. In 1918 doctors could not save even their parents who were struck. They could only administer pain reliever but could not stop the death.
  Only among the Christians, the Faith Tabernacle in both Ghana and Nigeria was a concerted effort made to combat the epidemic by spiritual violence using prayer and fasting, faith etc
A new form of Christianity was born in 1918 not only in Nigeria but in different parts of the world, which was better adapted  to meet the challenges that older forms of Christianity had not done. The Faith Tabernacle became the origin of what we know today as Apostolic churches, which in their original forms was an authentic form of Christianity.
  More on this later.
All these foretell of what may also happen soon. A more authentic form of Christianity and a new Apostolic Messenger are what you may expect, soon. A new Movement out of the Old.
© Moses Oludele Idowu
      March 28, 2020
    All Rights Reserved

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