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The Mission in Pandemic Times

Sister Clara Zenker and Hanna Quisdorp and pupils in Laguboti, Indonesia;

Missionary Finke together with his family (1921, Indonesia);

The mission school Tulbagh Road; Photos: © AMS

History does not repeat itself. And yet, sometimes, for people in two different eras, the trials and the pictures look the same.

Exactly one hundred years ago, a group of congregations – some of them quite new – faced their own pandemic. These congregations would later become the member churches of the UEM. The “Spanish flu” spread around the world. Around 500 million people are thought to have fallen ill, and up to 50 million died from being infected with the virus.

Between 1918 and 1921, the disease claimed many lives in Germany, Europe, and beyond. The disease also spread to the former mission areas of the Rhenish Mission Society and the Bethel Mission in Africa and Asia. Whether in Namibia, Tanzania, or Indonesia, the new Christian congregations had to face the challenges and deal with the effects of this pandemic.

We have taken the current situation as an opportunity to investigate, using the files and reports in the Archives and Museum Foundation of the UEM to see how the situation was reported at the time.

The following excerpts, from reports that reached Germany from Indonesia, Namibia, South Africa and Rwanda in these years sometimes give the impression of having been written in the past few days and weeks – not only in their descriptions of the fear and suffering that confronted congregation members, their missionaries, and their Sisters, but also in terms of the energetic aid that, given the crisis, was given to all of those who needed it most urgently, wherever possible.

Sister Clara Zenker reports from the school in Laguboti, Sumatra, 1919:

“We thought we would be able to work in more favourable circumstances in August and September, but it got worse. The Spanish disease arrived. It was very mild the first time it appeared, but the natives have so little protection against the night cold in their houses. Their thin clothes are of little use, because the miserable fabrics that are now coming onto the market often fall off of them in tatters after the first wash. So the disease usually dragged on for ages. Walking from village to village was a picture of misery, one after another. At first it seemed to be getting a little better in October, but then the disease came back even worse and took on increasingly dangerous forms. How often we would hear, when a child came back to school after a long while: ‘Little brother dead, mother dead, little sister sick, I myself sick.’ The narrow, almost white cheeks and the deep-set eyes confirmed the truth all too emphatically. Nevertheless, we were able to hold our group together until the end of January and still celebrate a worthy graduation.”

From the Padang coast, the missionary Finke writes:

“The past year has been full of suffering. How many times I sighed under all the grief that influenza brought here, too. Scarcely a day passed without people coming to me for medicine, but usually it was already too late. Here in Padang, forty to fifty people died from the terrible disease every day, mostly Malays and Chinese. But often people were themselves to blame for the sad outcome of the disease. As soon as the fever subsided, they would go into the river to bathe, which caused a relapse, accompanied by pneumonia; within a few hours, the patient would be dead. I worked to educate the Niassians, forbade them to bathe, wrapped them in woolen towels, and gave them asperin [sic]. After a week, people were back on their feet again. My evangelist in Padang was suffered greatly from the influenza. It took him a very long time to recover, but he is now quite well again. No one from the local congregation has died of influenza, and only four people at the Goengei boeloe branch. Praise and thanks to the merciful Lord for his help.”

This report came from the north of Namibia in the same year:

“In Tsumeb, missionary Lang and wife died of the flu overnight between 1st and 2nd November. The flu has raged terribly in Southwest Africa and has claimed many victims. Several of the Rhenish missionaries are also seriously ill, but with the exception of missionary Lang and wife, have recovered.“

By contrast, the missionary Skär writes from the south of Namibia (Lüderitzbucht):

“All of us are still healthy, always had what we needed to live and much lovely work as well. In this year (1918) I was able to baptize 605 Ovambo. When they left, over 1,500 of them got certificates that they had attended lessons.”

Missionary Holzapfel reports from South Africa:

“In the Cape Colony, where the flu has caused particularly severe devastation, it has died down again. […] Missionary Holzapfel in Tulbagh writes the following about the period of disease in his congregation and family: It has been very difficult here of late. A severe influenza epidemic has been underway since early October. It hit intensely here in Tulbagh as well. Most of the members of my congregation have taken ill. Only a few families have been spared. In the past six weeks, some thirty people in the congregation have died, apart from many others who do not belong to the congregation. I went from house to house and from grave to grave. Finally the disease came to my house as well. There are twelve people in my family, including the servants. Ten of them fell ill, and almost all at the same time. On top of this, one of the children got a broken left arm. Thank God I stayed healthy myself, save for a little discomfort that was over in a few days. I was able to look after my loved ones and helped a lot in the congregation as well. We have set up soup kitchens in Tulbagh and Steintal to cook for the poorest. Everyone in my house has since recovered. My wife can run the household again, and the children are back in school. The congregation is also doing better, although the disease has not yet died out.

Congregational life suffered a lot during this period, of course. The Sunday morning worship services were very poorly attended, and the evening worship services were all discontinued. The schools were closed for six weeks. We only started again last Monday. The holy Eucharist could not be held in October, but we hope to be able to celebrate it in the next few weeks. May the hard times of the congregation only have been an eternal blessing! On every occasion I have pointed out the solemn voice and the strong arm of God. 2. Sam. 24, Ps. 91, Jerm. 30, Rev. 6 and 9 offered appropriate texts.”

The mission areas of the Bethel Mission were also affected. As late as 1921, the Kirinda mission station was reporting from Rwanda:

 “Then [after the First World War] came the hunger, the flu, and smallpox besides.”


Christoph Schwab, Archives and Museum Foundation of the UEM,


Des Meisters Ruf, various monthly issues, 1919.
Mensching, W.: Religion, Rasse, Kolonien. Ein Beitrag zur Kolonialfrage. Berlin 1929.





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