Race, Religion, and the 1918 Epidemic, Reflections by Francis J. Grimké

Over a month ago, when the closing of churches for the Covid-19 was first discussed, a Washington, D.C.-based colleague drew my attention to a well-researched post by Caleb Morell, “How DC Churches Responded When the Government Banned Public Gatherings During the Spanish Flu of 1918.” Morell is a pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church and a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Besides his thorough recounting of pastoral opinion on church closings then, I was struck by the fact that he essay paid no regard to the color line that then so strictly marked D.C. life.

White pastors Randolph H. McKim of the Church of the Epiphany (Episcopal) and Samuel H. Green of Calvary Baptist were cited by Morell along side the African American clergy J. Milton Waldron of Shiloh Baptist and Francis J. Grimké of Fifteenth Street Presbyterian. Morell quotes Grimké in his conclusion

the fact the churches were places of religious gathering, and the others not, would not affect in the least the health question involved. If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger, and expect God to protect us.

That kind of rational thought struck me as characteristic of Grimké, the well-read, urbane pastor of a congregation that was predominately from the “upper-class” within the African American community. Grimké was the son of a white slave owner, Henry Grimké, and the slave Nancy Weston and was taught to read by his mother and father. The abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimké were his half-sisters. He was a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I wondered how his experience as an African American leader informed his approach to the closing of the church during the pandemic.

A post today on Twitter by Mark Dever, the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist, reminded me of Morell’s essay and pointed me to the text of Grimké’s sermon which was published in the Spring 2019 issue of Blackbird: An Online Journal of Literature and the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University. There it is part of a collection of documents about the 1918 epidemic. Reading the sermon, I discovered that Grimké connected the epidemic directly to the story of racial equality.

Another thing that has impressed me in connection with this epidemic is how completely it has shattered the theory, so dear to the heart of the white man in this country, that a white skin entitles its possessor to better treatment than one who possesses a dark skin.  . . . Of what value has a white skin been during these weeks of suffering and death? What possible advantage has accrued to any one because of the whiteness of his skin?

Francis, J. Grimké Some Reflections: Growing Out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza that Afflicted Our City, November 3, 1918.

Grimké’s extended remarks on this subject where he expresses his hope that whites would learn from the epidemic to put aside race prejudice and racial superiority are worth reading.

In the present pandemic, as many sources have reported, African Americans are dying from Covid-19 in disproportionate numbers. Many factors appear to be influencing this, including misinformation, higher rates of obesity, and higher rates of high blood pressure. As Dr. Anthony Faucci said on April 7, “Health disparities have always existed for the African-American community” and the Covid-19 crisis is “shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is.” The lesson from this is not, of course, that Grimké was wrong and whites are entitled to better treatment, but that our society has not yet learned the lesson Grimké hoped the 1918 epidemic would teach.

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