Aimee Semple McPherson and the Spanish Influenza In Tulsa

In conducting my earlier research on Pentecostals and the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919 (that has since gone viral around the world through Influence Magazine ), I had wondered if there was anything about the epidemic tied to Tulsa. At that point, my searches had come up empty. However, I decided to look back on some early Pentecostal magazine articles that I had saved that mentioned Tulsa. What  I found is amazing.

Right in the middle of the ‘Spanish Influenza’ epidemic, around January 1919, a young up-and-coming evangelist by the name of Aimee Semple McPherson came to Tulsa. She was invited by  S. A. Jamieson, the pastor of 5th and Peoria Assembly, to come to Tulsa on her way to Los Angeles to conduct a meeting.

The sudden onset of the influenza in Tulsa prompted Jamieson to try to postpone the meeting since Tulsa city officials closed all public meetings. But, McPherson testified that the Spirit urged her to come to Tulsa anyway and “Start immediately,”   Turns out, the same day she arrived the ban on church gatherings was lifted and immediately she started holding services!

Report from Bridal Call, January 1919

The meeting went 22 days and was wildly successful as the Assembly of God church doubled in size. McPherson was a rising star in the Pentecostal circles and her ministry lived up to her reputation. Many came to the Lord and were healed.  One of McPherson’s strategies was to drive her “Gospel Car” around town in between meetings to pass out tracts and minister to people.

According to her own account, while she was in Tulsa, she traveled the streets ministering to “epidemic victims.” Afternoons and evenings, McPherson and her band of workers would roll through the streets and stop to minister to people on the street corners. Men and women came to Christ right on the sidewalk, as many as 20 at a time.

Throughout her two weeks in Tulsa, she testifies the that the calls to come minister to those who were sick with the influenza were “ceaseless.” She says,

“The epidemic still raging, and many having been weakened and afflicted, we stood hours at a time praying of the sick, and Jesus helped those who came to him.”

While there were no testimonies of healing reported, the fact that McPherson ministered to so many in Tulsa is a great delight to discover.

From Tulsa, McPherson stopped in Stroud and Oklahoma City on her way back to LA.  McPherson agreed to return to Tulsa in May of 1919 to hold another revival. This time she would return to a packed 3000 seat Tulsa Convention Center. This became one of the most important meetings that built the Pentecostal community in Tulsa.

As I said in my last blog, I think it is right for churches to close and to obey current regulations to protect people.  However, I am also thankful that McPherson listened to the Spirit to come, not knowing what would happen. Turns out the Spirit’s timing was perfect.   Had she not listened and the epidemic deterred her from coming in January of 1919, Tulsa may have missed out on one the of the greatest events that established the Pentecostal community in Tulsa.

 

 

How Pentecostals Responded to the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic

(Note: This blog was also published in Influence Magazine and can be viewed on their website https://influencemagazine.com)

Hear a podcast about this topic with Steve Strang of Charisma Magazine.


 

Right now the whole world is feeling the effects of the Covid-19 Pandemic.  It seems like every institution in our society is closing down to protect people from the spread of this virus. Many people have been commenting on the church’s response to this current crisis from different angles. Yet, every day, more and more churches are deciding to close down and provide services online. How should people of faith and who believe in healing handle this crisis? Should we cancel church? Should we stop ministry in the midst of a pandemic?

What is interesting about this current pandemic is that it is just over 100 years ago that the world was overtaken by the Spanish Influenza. During 1918-1919, an estimated 500 million people contracted the virus and 50 million died as a result. Knowing that this was in the early days of Pentecostalism, I decided to look back to how Pentecostal believers in the Assemblies of God reacted to the Spanish Flu pandemic. Turns out, Pentecostals had a lot to say about the topic.

Beginning in 1918, tales of influenza and the Spanish flu filled the pages of the AG’s newspaper, The Christian Evangel (later known as the Pentecostal Evangel). In Springfield, Missouri, where the AG and Pentecostal Evangel headquarters had recently re-located, a great outbreak took place. The paper recorded all the Assemblies were closed.

It is interesting to note that Churches and ministers  complied with Health Department mandates to close their meetings and quarantine this who are sick. They recognized that they needed to protect people in the cities they lived in.  On several occasions, revivals had to be canceled as the Influenza was spreading across the town. Some saw it as the direct resistance to the great work God was doing. Even so, they viewed the painful reality of human mortality as a greater impulse to reach the loss.

Yet, these believers also went to the homes of those who were sick to pray and saw many answers to prayer. They weren’t afraid to pray for the sick. In some cases, they ministered to them even in death, as is illustrated below.

The paper had many accounts from ministers, but also included on the last page of the paper a list of prayer requests, many of which were of people asking for prayer for themselves or their children because of the virus. Sadly, I am sure many of these died.

Yet, there were also stories of triumph of Pentecostal saint who made it through. One particularly important testimony was that of E.N. Bell’s wife, who contracted the Spanish Flu but was healed. She testified, “The Spirit Himself interceded for me” and she made it through.

On another occasion, the notable early leader, Robert Craig of San Francisco, shared this testimony that although many died in the city, not one in their mission died from the influenza.

Some of the hardest hit areas were global, particularly India. Accounts of the tragic loss of life filled the paper. One in particular article even describes the progression of the sickness, recording that a person would die in as little as three days.

Sadly, many missionaries also died from the Spanish Flu.  One in particular, named Nellie Andrews Norton, died because of her ministry to people with the Spanish Flu.  The tribute records, “When the Influenza came into our midst last month, she did not spare herself, but worked night and day caring for the sick until she herself came down with the disease.”  But accounts like these always acknowledged that for the believer, death was a “promotion” to heaven for sacrificing their life here on earth.

How Should Spirit-empowered Believers Respond Today?

As believers (particularly as Spirit-empowered believers) are considering how we should response to the current crisis, I think there is a couple things to take away  from this example. First, Early Pentecostals endured the worst pandemic of the flu to that point in history. Although they believed in healing, they didn’t promise that their faith in God would protect them from the disease. Many people caught it; many people died. Yet, they also testified that God was also a healer and many were preserved through it or were healed from it. In either case, it was their faith in God and prayer that got them through.

Second, their worship and ministry was interrupted by the crisis. Missions were closed. Revivals were canceled. Even the paper was delayed in being printed. Yet, they followed the guidelines of the city or health department and closed their churches and missions when instructed to. They were not careless with the lives of people during the pandemic. They were willing to stay home and pray, knowing that that was just as valuable in the crisis.

I don’t know how long churches will be canceled, stores will be closed, or people will suffer with this virus. But I know that people of faith have endured in the past and made it through. There may be tragic losses, but there may also be dramatic testimonies of healing as well. What I do know is we need to pray for one another. We need to encourage one another. We may even need to visit one another if God leads us.  But most of all, I think churches need to follow the example of those who went before us to keep safe, keep praying, and obey the guidelines that keep others safe. If we can do this, I know we will make it through.