Beacon Street Diary blog

One Little Message

As we smile and wave to our neighbors from a respectable 6 foot’s distance before returning home to furiously wash our hands and anxiously wait for the next press conference, it may be comforting to remember that social distancing to brace ourselves against the spread of a global pandemic is nothing new.

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918, otherwise known as the Spanish flu1, was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. It infected 27% of the world’s population and resulted in the deaths of 50 million people. To slow the spread of the virus, public gatherings were discouraged. Schools, theatres and even churches were closed.

Across the country, churches closed either voluntarily or by order of the local government to contain the spread of the disease and, to use more modern parlance, “flatten the curve”. Some congregations refused to comply until police intervened while others moved services outdoors so church-goers could keep their distance. In the Congregational Library’s collection we have Seven Little Messages: Written during the Churchless Sundays of the influenza, for Utahns, through the Salt Lake Tribune by the Rev. Peter A. Simpkin of Phillips Congregational Church. Initially these messages, stand-ins for a regular sermon, were circulated weekly in the newspaper while churches were closed in the Fall of 1918.

On the topic of social distancing, Rev. Simpkin offers these thoughts: “That scourge that dims today the altar lights and closes the doors of God’s house offers to us a singular opportunity. In the midst of the home peace, where the dear ones gather, the compulsory apartness should be a thing of blessedness. Out of the quiet should rise to bless every home in the city some truths alike for comfort and consecration.”

He is speaking explicitly about the coming end of World War I and the hope that some time for quiet contemplation will allow people to feel grateful for peace and the sacrifices made to make it possible. Our present moment is not quite the same, and it might be difficult to feel blessed when your neighbors have hoarded all of the toilet paper in a 10 mile radius.

At this moment, it feels like a very fine line to walk between entertaining and informative and dismissive of the justified fear and uncertainty so many people are experiencing right now. The existence of this pamphlet is proof of the lengths people will go to reach out to one another in the face of isolation. These efforts towards connection may look quite different today--in neighbors coordinating sing-alongs from their windows or houses of worship live-streaming their weekly services--but the impulse is the same.

The staff at the library are grateful we are able to continue much of our work remotely. We’re here to answer your questions and we very much hope you reach out.


It became known as the Spanish flu because the earliest reports of the infection came from Spain. Spain had remained neutral during World War I which allowed them to report on the spread of the infection unencumbered by the wartime censorship in place in other countries.