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Coping with Covid-19 in Dutch Christianity: A Comparison with the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic (Part One)

Date:24 April 2020
De Groene Amsterdammer 1918
De Groene Amsterdammer 1918

One hundred years before Covid-19, the world was faced with the Spanish flu. What does a comparison between religious responses to these pandemics tell us about religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in the Netherlands (past and present)? Dr Tom-Eric Krijger, lecturer at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen, explores this question in a two-piece series.

On March 20, 2020, two weeks after the first confirmed Covid-19 infection in Slovakia, a local Roman Catholic deputy bishop took a relic of the Blood of Christ with him aboard an airplane and flew all across the country to stop the SARS-CoV-2 virus from spreading (Het Nieuwsblad, March 20, 2020). Also in Slovakia, the Orthodox Church resisted the government’s call to close its buildings, because, as one of its spokespersons told the media, distributing the Holy Eucharist “can never be a source of illness or death” (Nederlands Dagblad, March 18, 2020). These actions echo those of the Roman Catholic bishop of Zamora, Antonio Álvaro y Ballano, who urged the faithful in his Spanish diocese to congregate in their churches for nine nights in a row and kiss the relics of Saint Roch, the patron saint of plague victims, during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Coincidentally or not, the death toll in his bishopric was among the highest in Europe.[i]

Amidst the endless stream of news items on the coronavirus, both Slovak cases have been presented in Dutch-language media as “exotic” faits divers, which many will have read while shaking their heads in disapproval or knitting their brows in bewilderment. Meanwhile, the Zamora case has become legendary and is referred to in many studies on the Spanish flu pandemic as a prime example of “irresponsible” or “irrational” behaviour.

 Yet Antonio Álvaro y Ballano was not alone. As we shall see in the first of this two-part blog series, Dutch church life was full of similar responses to this pandemic. Drawing a comparison between responses to the Spanish flu and the current Covid-19 pandemic, it seems that much has changed since 1918. As I argue in the second part of this series, though, it all depends on the perspective one takes. 

Before the global spread of Covid-19, the outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918 was the last pandemic with which Europe was directly confronted. Approximately 500 million of the 1.8 billion people living on earth between 1918 and 1920 were infected with the H1N1 influenza virus that caused the Spanish flu, 50 to 100 million of whom lost their lives. In the Netherlands, which had a population of about 6.7 million at the time, the virus killed at least 30,000 people.[ii]

Dutch church life did not escape the deadly consequences of the Spanish flu. Looking back on the 1918 pandemic at the end of her life, Hendrika Bax-Horjus recounted that her father, a minister in the Reformed Churches the Netherlands (Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, to which I refer with the adjective “neo-Calvinist” further on in this blog post), had a rather macabre way of determining the number of deaths amongst his flock. Every morning, when opening the shutters of his parsonage in the town of Hendrik-Ido-Ambacht, he counted the houses where the shutters remained closed, which was a symbol of a family in mourning. His congregation ultimately lost 21 of its members (Trouw, May 29, 2004).

 By insisting on attendance at church, the bishop of Zamora provoked the provincial authorities, which desperately tried to prevent people from flocking together. Government decrees to close churches and schools were put into effect in places like Turin, Geneva, San Francisco, and Cape Town in late 1918. While the Spanish flu pandemic prompted some Dutch local authorities to temporarily close all schools in their municipalities and several Catholic priests in the province of Brabant to slightly reduce both the number of parishioners at Mass and the duration of Mass itself (e.g. De Standaard, October 22, 1918; Tilburgsche Courant, November 8 and 9, 1918), the forced suspension of church services was highly controversial in the Netherlands.

In late 1918, two neo-Calvinist members of the Groningen city council asked the municipal executive to keep local churches open: “physical contagion” should not go at the expense of “spiritual infection,” against which the churches served as a “prophylactic” (Provinciale Drentsche en Asser Courant, November 16, 1918). In line with his concept of “sphere sovereignty,” according to which both church and state are subordinate only to the Word of God and should not interfere in each other’s internal affairs, the neo-Calvinist theologian and former Dutch prime minister Abraham Kuyper argued that any political restrictions on ecclesial activities went against God’s order and infringed upon freedom of conscience. Under extreme circumstances, civil governments could advocate such restrictions, but church councils should always have the final say (De Heraut, December 8, 1918).

 In the global spread of the Spanish flu, Kuyper heard the echo of the biblical verse Micah 6:9: “hear ye the rod, and who hath appointed it.” In other words, the world had brought the pandemic upon itself. God was punishing humankind for no longer fearing Him. To Kuyper’s horror, even at the height of the pandemic, people continued to trust in science rather than in God’s Word and supreme authority (De Heraut, November 3, 1918). In his line of reasoning, keeping the churches open was thus an absolute necessity: people should continue to have the opportunity to hear the Word of God.

Kuyper was not alone in his opinion, at least among orthodox Calvinists. Using the same metaphor—the pandemic as a “rod”—ministers in such denominations as the Reformed League within the Dutch Reformed Church (Gereformeerde Bond in de Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk), the Christian Reformed Church (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk), and the Reformed Congregations (Gereformeerde Gemeenten) linked the Spanish flu to a general lack of fear of God and the “worldly” lifestyle of those who were Christians “in name only” (e.g. De Wekker, July 11, 1919; De Saambinder, April 9, 1920).

Liberal Protestants, on the other hand, firmly rejected such points of view, arguing either that God would never return evil with evil or that He did not directly intervene in the world at all (De Zondagsbode, January 19, 1919; De Hervorming, June 7, 1919). Such Christians wrote considerably less on the Spanish flu; to them, the pandemic was chiefly a medical rather than spiritual affair.

Contrary to their liberal counterparts, orthodox Protestants did not hesitate to detect the hand of God in world events. In their circles, it was quite common for ministers to reflect on current affairs from a biblical perspective in so-called “epochal sermons” (tijdredes or tijdpreken), which had a particular appeal in the late 1910s, during and immediately after the last phase of the First World War. Although the Netherlands was a neutral country at the time, the Dutch lived under constant threat of war until late 1918. They were also confronted with its consequences. Many young Dutchmen were mobilised to defend the national borders, international traffic and trade were severely restricted, some foodstuffs were rationed, and one million Belgians sought temporary shelter on Dutch soil. Moreover, all over Europe, the masses proved to be susceptible to “immorality,” “bolshevism,” and “materialism.” Among all of these other “signs of the times,” the Spanish flu was certainly not the worst, as some orthodox Protestants (and Roman Catholics) were inclined to believe.[iii]

In their reflections on the Spanish flu, orthodox Protestants tended to draw the same conclusion: both Christians and non-Christians alike should repent of their sins and seek God through His Word. The neo-Calvinist theologian Gerard Wisse delivered a whole series of tijdredes to get this message across. Because the Spanish flu could take anyone’s life, it was a wake-up call, urging people to be ready to face their Creator no matter when. To outsiders, an exhortation such as Wisse’s would have sounded like a fire-and-brimstone sermon. After all, Wisse implied that anyone who died without having known Christ awaited eternal damnation.

Yet, seen from an orthodox Calvinist perspective, Wisse’s message was meant to be comforting rather than intimidating. Those who were assured of their salvation did not have to fear being killed by the Spanish flu: they could find comfort in the prospect of entering heaven.[iv] The neo-Calvinist author J. K. van Eerbeek turned this message into the leitmotiv of his semi-autobiographical 1932 novel The 1918 Batch (Lichting ’18), which focuses on a young soldier who has a crisis of faith, catches the Spanish flu, and is prompted by his illness to trust in God.

Some orthodox Protestant preachers went so far as to consider the Spanish flu pandemic not just as a “sign of the times”—an event of significant societal upheaval that should incite people to reorganise their lives along biblical lines—but a sign of the End Times. Neo-Calvinist ministers generally rejected such chiliastic or millenarian impulses; they stressed that it was futile and arrogant to speculate, since “Christ will return like a thief in the night, when no one, not even of His most loyal servant, expects Him to return” (e.g. De Heraut, June 6, 1918).

However, as the editor of a liberal newspaper noticed, such statements of church officials did not prevent the faithful from viewing the First World War, the Spanish flu, and the revolutionary wave that swept Europe around 1920 as signs of the imminent Second Coming of Christ (Algemeen Handelsblad, November 18, 1921). For example, the lay evangelist Johannes de Heer (nomen est omen), who operated on the fringes of church life under the banner of the Maranatha movement, gained momentum in the aftermath of the First World War. His open-air lectures attracted growing interest, while the chiliastic magazine Het Zoeklicht that he founded in 1919 would reach a circulation of no less than 30,000 by the 1930s.

In accordance with the anti-chiliastic doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, apocalyptic visions were largely absent in Dutch Catholic circles. Using the same argument as the one with which the Orthodox Church in Slovakia recently defended its decision to keep its church buildings open, the Jesuit Hendrikus Padberg argued that the “power of the Eucharist” would counteract the Spanish flu. In his understanding, the Eucharist “reaffirmed” that in Christ’s suffering, death on the cross, and resurrection, life and good have triumphed over death and evil, both of which manifested themselves in the 1918 pandemic.[v]

Many Catholics also relied on the intercessory power of saints. At the height of the pandemic, massive street processions were held all over the Dutch “Catholic South.” The inhabitants of one of the villages in this region, Macharen, had not had a single infection as late as mid-November 1918, which they attributed to the help of Saint Odrada, their patron saint (De Engelbewaarder, December 1918). Those who were unfortunate enough not to live in Macharen could invoke the aforementioned Saint Roch, about whom the Catholic educationalist Cyprianus Andreae composed a hagiography in response to the pandemic.[vi] 

Nourshing such expressions of popular devotion, the Dutch bishops urged the Catholic faithful to persist in prayer. The bishop of Roermond even organised a “day of prayer” in his diocese in early November 1918 (De Maasbode, November 10, 1918). On the Protestant side of Dutch church life, the regional council of The Hague of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands had already called for a “day of penance and prayer” one month beforehand (De Heraut, October 6, 1918).

Prime Minister Charles Ruijs de Beerenbrouck, who had become the very first Roman Catholic to head a Dutch coalition government in September 1918, followed these initiatives by asking all churches to join in a “national day of prayer” (algemene biddag) on November 28 of that same year. By so doing, Ruijs and his cabinet, in which one Catholic and two smaller orthodox Protestant political parties were represented, revived an old tradition. Dutch governments had been accustomed to call for national days of prayer or thanksgiving on the occasion of epidemics, natural disasters, or wars until well into the mid-nineteenth century, when the separation of church and state and a sequence of liberal cabinets caused this practice to fall into disuse.

Referring to, among other events, the Spanish flu pandemic, Ruijs stated that “the troubles of the times, which make themselves felt also in our country, incite us to humble ourselves before God and call on Him for help in particular” (Nederlandsche Staatscourant, November 14, 1918). To his satisfaction, the Catholic minister of Social Affairs, Piet Aalberse, observed that the national day of prayer was picked up enthusiastically all across the country: the churches were “packed,” as he wrote in his diary on November 28.[vii] Fearing a new wave of Spanish flu patients, a letter-writer in a Groningen newspaper, on the other hand, was anything but cheerful: “let us hope,” he sighed in despair, “that the day of prayer has not caused any harm to public health” (Nieuwsblad van het Noorden, December 7, 1918).

Barring urging the Dutch to pray (and slightly increasing the wartime bread ration imposed by the previous government), the Ruijs cabinet did not coordinate any measures to “flatten the curve” during the 1918 pandemic. The same applied to the highest governing bodies of church denominations, which did not give national guidelines on how to deal with the Spanish flu to local congregations. Finally reacting to the pandemic when it was already over, the General Synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands took a minimal step: in 1920, it declared that ministers who were to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in health care institutions might use individual drinking cups to limit the risk of contagion.[viii]

In the second part of our series, we will turn our eyes to today’s world.

Dr Tom-Eric Krijger obtained his PhD at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen in 2017 with a dissertation on the history of liberal Protestantism in the Netherlands. He has previously lectured at Leiden University and returned to the UG in November 2019.

[i] Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World (New York: Public Affairs, 2017), 75-86.

[ii] Simon Rozendaal, Vaccinatie (Amsterdam: AUP, 2014), 62-64.

[iii] E.g.: Alfons Ariëns, Christus, ons Heil (Hengelo: R.K. Propagandaclub Pius X, 1919), 4; Hendrik Laman, Oude gewoonten (Kampen: Kok, 1920), 20.

[iv] E.g.: Gerard Wisse, De ondergang der eerste Wereld (Leiden: Buurman & De Kler, 1918); Gespaard maar Bedreigd (Utrecht: Gebr. Den Hertog, 1918).

[v] Hendrikus Padberg, De Eucharistie, het middelpunt van ons leven (’s-Hertogenbosch: Teulings, 1921), 224.

[vi] Cyprianus Andreae, Leven van den H. Rochus (Leiden: J.W. van Leeuwen, 1921).

[vii] http://resources.huygens.knaw.nl/dagboekenaalberse/Dagboeken/Aantekening/28/11/1918.

[viii] Acta der Generale Synode van de Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland, gehouden te Leeuwarden van 24 augustus – 9 september 1920 (Kampen: Kok, 1920), art. 25, 31-32.

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