'Everyone is sick’ — A look back at when Spanish flu delayed LDS General Conference

(Photo courtesy of Library of Congress) Nurses are seen at Red Cross influenza center in Salt Lake City during the 1919 outbreak.

Alarming as it may be that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints canceled public attendance at the coming General Conference, it’s hardly the first time public health concerns have shut down events at Temple Square.

Spring came late in 1919 — so, too, would April’s General Conference for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After the outbreak of “Spanish influenza” the previous October fall, Utahns were just beginning to breathe easier as the infection and death rate gradually declined. Everyone hoped the worst was over.

Although many public gatherings had been closed down on Oct. 9, the church had gone ahead with its General Conference a few days earlier. An ailing 79-year-old Joseph F. Smith, the faith’s sixth president and a nephew of church founder Joseph Smith, made an appearance, lifting the hopes of the saints.

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But hopes had been dashed before. While the disease had already killed millions worldwide, and hundreds in Utah, by the latter part of October 1918 it was believed locally to have been contained.

Residents remained skittish, many continuing to wear masks, avoiding public gatherings, and keeping their children home from school. In downtown Salt Lake City, police walked almost deserted beats.

Then came Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918. News of the surrender of Germany and the end of more than four years of unparalleled bloodletting, caused many Utahns to throw caution — and their still deadly germs — to the wind. Thousands abandoned quarantined areas and practices to gather for celebrations.

(Edward A. "Doc" Rogers/Library of Congress via AP) In this 1918 photo made available by the Library of Congress, volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tend to influenza patients in the Oakland Municipal Auditorium, used as a temporary hospital.

Prayers of thanksgiving were one thing; offering them in congregations something else entirely. The number of influenza cases in Salt Lake City spiked. Hundreds of infections were reported, and the death toll grimly and steadily climbed.

The virus was no respecter of prominence. Joseph F. Smith, suffering from poor health for most of the year, died of pneumonia on Nov. 19, 1918. Because of the pandemic, his funeral was privately held.

(Courtesy | Utah Historical Society) General authorities from 1898-1901. Back row, left to right: Anthon H. Lund, John W. Taylor, John Henry Smith, Heber J. Grant, Francis M. Lyman, George Teasdale, Marriner W. Merrill. Second row: Brigham Young Jr., George Q. Cannon, President Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith, and Franklin D. Richards. In front: Matthias Cowley and A. Owen Woodruff. Rudger Clawson is missing from this photo.

Meanwhile, the flu continued to hold sway over Salt Lake City and the rest of Utah. But it wasn’t only Utah that the church cared about. Congregations from distant parts of the globe suffered far more.

From Samoa, Elder John Q. Adams, of Riverside in Box Elder County, wrote to a former missionary associate.

“A year ago, there were 29 elders laboring in the Samoan mission. At present there are 10 … three that I know of are just getting better from the influenza.”

Worse hit were the locals.

“Everyone is sick, with scarcely any left to bury the dead or prepare food,” Adams added. “…We have lost nearly all our older men and women. I have had to help bury five myself. We just dug holes outside the houses and dragged the corpses into them.”

While the church did its best to help, at least part of the problem may have been caused by the church — specifically the long-standing practice of congregants drinking from a common goblet for Communion.

“Joseph F. Smith and his counselors in the First Presidency had been reluctant to abandon the use of the common goblet for the sacramental water,” historian Justin R. Bray wrote in the Journal of Mormon History. “They allowed the use of individual cups for six years (1912-18) but did not strongly encourage it, and the use of individual cups seems to have been mostly confined to the Salt Lake Valley.”

Smith’s successor, senior apostle Heber J. Grant, was more hygienically minded.

Not only was he slated to become the faith’s next “prophet, seer and revelator,” Grant served on the Utah Public Health Association’s board of directors. He understood that the pandemic wasn’t finished with Utah and that only extreme measures would prevent greater spread.

(Tribune file photo) Heber J. Grant, seventh president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

On March 20, 1919, at the regular weekly meeting of the church’s governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the leaders unanimously decided that the spring General Conference, scheduled for April 4-6, should be postponed due to a recurrence of the flu pandemic.

The First Presidency was quick to remind members that regular Sunday services being held in Salt Lake City and other parts of Utah where epidemic conditions did not exist would be held as usual.

So the “spring” conference was punted until nearly summer, in early June. Newspapers reported 20,000 people gathered on Temple Square.

Grant, the newly sustained church president, spoke in the Tabernacle on the state of the church, acknowledging it as a less than happy one.

“During the year 1918, there were 14,761 baptisms and 15,963 children were blessed,” he said. “There were 5,752 deaths, which is the largest number on record for any year. Of this number, 1,054 died of influenza, and 862 died of pneumonia.”

The flu gradually abated and restrictions were eased but, by that time, the dreaded disease had killed millions worldwide and thousands in Utah. Particularly hard hit was the military. More Utah soldiers died of the flu than did on the battlefields of France.

Although the pandemic was referred to as the “Spanish flu,” historians believe the name was applied because Spain, which was neutral during World War I, wasn’t subject to military censorship and thus was the first to report flu deaths in its newspapers. To this day, the precise origins of the flu are still debated.

The spring conference of 1919 was not the last time the annual gathering would be canceled or postponed.

Another pandemic — the Asian flu of 1957 — caused then-President David O. McKay to forgo the October sessions. Lessons had been learned from the Spanish flu, namely that innovations in travel had helped spread the disease.

Travel was also a factor in closing conferences during World War II. Owing to wartime gasoline rationing, attendance was limited to church leaders. The Tabernacle was closed, and church leaders met in the smaller Assembly Hall.

The 89th Annual General Conference closed in June with an address by the faith’s new leader.

Grant made no mention of the millions of deaths caused by the virus.

Instead, he voiced his concern regarding a letter he had received from a German woman asking if he hated Germans because of the war that had just ended. He expressed love for the good and honest Germans who did not subscribe to the principles of the warlords.