Previously on Five Minutes in Church History we were in the sixteenth century talking about Martin Luther. This time we’re going back about a hundred years or so, to 1918, to learn about Francis Grimké. He was born in the American South in 1850 as a slave. He was emancipated at the age of fifteen at the end of the Civil War. He made his way north, studied in Pennsylvania, and then he went to New Jersey and was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1875 to 1878. The importance of those three years is that they were the last three years that Charles Hodge taught at Princeton, so Grimké was one of the last students of Princeton to have Charles Hodge for all three years of the theology curriculum. Grimké spent most of his ministry as pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. He died in 1937.
Grimké lived through the Spanish flu of 1918, and he preached and then published a sermon titled “Some Reflections Growing out of the Recent Epidemic of Influenza That Afflicted Our City.” It was preached on November 3, 1918. It is full of all sorts of insight on how a Christian can respond to a plague, but I will focus on two issues. First, Grimké writes:
“Another thing has impressed me during this epidemic. It has brought out in a way that is very gratifying, the high estimation in which the Christian church is held in the community—the large place which it really occupies in the thought of the people. The fact that for several weeks we have been shut out from the privileges of the sanctuary has brought home to us as never before what the church has really meant to us. We hadn’t thought, perhaps, very much of the privilege while it lasted, but the moment it was taken away, we saw at once how much it meant to us. One of the gratifying things to me during this scourge has been the sincere regrets that I have heard expressed all over the city by numbers of people at the closing of the churches. The theater goers, of course, have regretted the closing the theaters. I do not know whether the children or the teachers have regretted the closing of the schools or not.”
I’ll interject here that they didn’t have online classes to move toward—school just simply shut down. So my hunch is students and teachers probably didn’t mind much. Grimké goes on to say,
“But I do know that large numbers of people have regretted the closing of the churches. I hope that now that they are opened again, that we will all show our appreciation of their value by attending regularly upon their services. It would be a great calamity to any community to be without the public ministrations of the sanctuary.”
There he is saying one of the things he learned is the preciousness of, as he goes on to say, Sabbath keeping, and joining together in fellowship with God’s people in God’s house. During the Spanish flu, the churches were shut down and people couldn’t worship together, and we’re experiencing that today.
Second, as Grimké makes his way to the end of the sermon, he talks about faith:
“If faith is to help us; if it is to put its great strong arms under us; if we are to feel its sustaining power under such distressing circumstances, it must be a real living faith in God. . . . It is a good time for those of us who are Christians to examine ourselves to see exactly how it is with us, whether the foundation upon which we are building is a rock foundation—whether our faith is really resting upon Christ, the solid Rock, or not.”
There is Francis Grimké reminding a congregation in 1918 of faith in times of plague. And those are good words for us today.