“A year ago influenza was raging [here],” The Asheville Citizen reminded its readers on Oct. 25, 1919. And while new cases of the virus were appearing outside the region, city residents were “practically immune from the disease,” the editorial claimed.
Despite Asheville’s clean bill of health and the paper’s wildly optimistic outlook, readers were still advised to remain vigilant. “The people should … consistently and rigidly practice all those rules for health and freedom from infection that were learned last year,” the editorial continued.
For a period, the message appeared to work. But when six new cases emerged in late January, city officials stepped in. “While there is said to be no cause for alarm here, the city health officer thinks the people should not hold unnecessary meetings for awhile,” The Asheville Citizen reported on Jan. 25, 1920.
Five days later, on Jan. 30, the causal recommendation became an official declaration. That day, the paper reported 232 new cases within a 24-hour period. In response, the city ordered a shutdown, closing all schools, theaters and nonessential businesses — just as it had in 1918. Meanwhile, according to the resolution, all churches and religious institutions were “respectfully requested to suspend all gatherings of any kind[.]”
Most local churches obliged. In one case, reported by The Asheville Citizen on Feb. 1, 1920, the Rev. Anton VerHulst of Montreat went so far as to mail “a special sermon” to the members of his congregation to remain in compliance with the city’s request.
But a few religious leaders resisted the appeal. On Feb. 5, 1920, The Asheville Citizen wrote that the Rev. J.O. Ervin intended to hold a service that Sunday at Bethel Methodist Church. In a statement provided by the pastor, Ervin asserted that “the great business of encouraging and restocking of the inestimable treasures of faith, hope and love” could not be denied. Further, the pastor argued, “people who regularly attend the house of worship are, as a class, the most sane, sanitary and saintly people of the community,” and thus “the safest aggregation of individuals with whom it is possible to mingle with.”
Not everyone was convinced. In a letter to the editor published on Feb. 6, 1920, former Bethel Methodist member George A. Shuford implored current congregants to “allow Bro. Ervin to hold his services all by himself[.]”
The paper’s editorial board also expressed its disapproval. “To say that religion and worship cease when the church closes is to deny the omnipresence of God,” it wrote on Feb. 12, 1920.
But in the same day’s paper, in a letter to the editor, Willis G. Clark, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, came to Ervin’s defense. Clark, like Ervin, was among the minority of religious leaders still holding sessions. “This was not done in defiance of any law nor to be ‘contrary’ to any request of the health or civic authorities,” Clark wrote. “[B]ut to bear witness to the fact that God’s House must not be looked upon as a place of danger in the time of need of Divine Power[.]”
Church leaders were not alone in challenging the order. Early on, county teachers had also insisted that their schools remain open, pointing to the fact that rural areas experienced no new influenza cases. Though their initial protests failed, county schools did reopen on Feb. 14, three weeks before city schools welcomed back their students on March 3.
Most restrictions, however, were lifted on Feb. 29, 1920, following a steady decline in infection rates. Weary of flare-ups, The Asheville Citizen implored residents to remain cautious in that day’s editorial:
“A year ago more than one flare-up of influenza occurred here, due, so far as science could determine, to unrestricted mingling of the people. Caution and restraint may spare the city the trouble, sickness and death that may be expected to accompany such fresh outbreak of the epidemic.”
According to contemporaneous news reports, the city experienced more than 2,000 cases of influenza and 31 deaths over a five-week period starting Jan. 25, 1920.
Editor’s note: This is an ongoing series that examines the impact of the 1918 influenza. Previous articles can be read at the following links: avl.mx/73d, avl.mx/73e, avl.mx/73f, avl.mx/73g and avl.mx/74e. Spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.