My Grandfather, Mr. Bill, known to the family as “Pop,” never attended church. This was highly unusual since everyone else in the family had to go to church unless you were sick-in-the-bed and even then you were expected to listen to the service on the radio. (I didn’t, I now confess.)
I often wondered about Grandfather’s lack of church attendance. I asked my mother. “He’s a Methodist,” she explained. Yet as I got older and wiser the idea that my grandfather didn’t have to go to church because he was a Methodist began to wane. That couldn’t be it. There had to be a better reason. But what was it? Only thirty-five years later did I finally learn the truth.
My older brother, Will, clued me in during a rambling conversation about the family we were having a few years back. “Pop told me he didn’t go to church because during the Spanish flu epidemic, people were told not to congregate in public places.”
Given the little that was known about the Spanish flu in 1919, that was sound advice. Don’t spit. Don’t congregate in public places. Wash your hands. “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases,” said the US Public Health Service, which urged Americans to cover their noses and mouths when coughing. (Something I wish people would have the courtesy to do now.)
My Grandfather was a civic leader. Certainly he wanted to be a good example to others and not spread germs. So I’m sure he washed his hands, covered his nose and mouth when he sneezed, and he stayed away from public places which included church on Sundays.
Yet he told Will this in 1969. The Spanish flu epidemic had occurred in 1919, more than fifty years before. This is the reason Grandfather would not attend divine service? Does this strike you as odd? I mean, after the epidemic waned, were people supposed to avoid attending church for the next fifty years? Didn’t the US Public Health Service advise people they could go back into public places, including church, after the Spanish Influenza finally stopped? Certainly they must have, don’t you think?
But maybe not. Grandfather gave out that he was dubious that the all-clear had been sounded as far as church was concerned. While he didn’t avoid any other place of public gathering, he avoided the Methodist Church up on Center Street like the plague — even in 1969. Presumably he thought the place so contaminated with germs that a sane person dare not venture in. Those foolish enough to have done so must have come reeling out of the sanctuary so afflicted with tuberculosis and St. Vitus dance as to expire immediately on the church steps. No wonder the Methodists built a new church in 1970 and moved.
Said my brother, Will, of Pop’s reasoning, “that excuse worked for him in 1919 and he just kept using it.”