News from the Tennessee Valley Religion

Polio scare closed churches
Disease canceled local gatherings in '36; officials say pandemic threat remains

By Melanie B. Smith 340-2468

Newspapers and other media warn of an epidemic. Then the Health Department issues an order: large public gatherings are canceled. Even churches close.

Health officers might use such strategy today to stop a fast-spreading disease like the Avian flu. Despite dire warnings and preparations to handle such a pandemic, it fortunately hasn't happened.

But in 1936, a health scare did close churches, theaters and other gathering places in North Alabama.

The Decatur Daily reported in July and August 1936 that churches cooperated with health departments to cancel meetings. They started first with children's Sunday school classes but within a few weeks were not holding worship.

A singing school in Eva was postponed. The Hartselle Holiness Association announced it would not have a camp meeting for the first time in 36 years.

The scare grew as children and young adults died. In one week that July, The Daily reported deaths in Morgan County of a 2-year-old boy, an 8-year-old girl and a 21-year old man. After the third death report, the paper said "practically all gatherings of any nature that are not absolutely necessary have been abandoned in every section of the county." Churches in Athens and Moulton also closed.

What happened then is not so different from threats today. The state health officer has the authority to shut down entities or to quarantine areas if a health threat warrants it, said Dr. Jim McVay of the Alabama Department of Public Health. Alabama has had other instances of closings like the one in Morgan County in 1936, said McVay, director of health promotion and chronic disease.

In explaining the need for closings in August 1936, Dr. L.R. Murphree, Morgan County's health officer, singled out religious gatherings.

"Usually August has been the month when ... rural people meet the most in revivals, singing schools, picnics, etc., and usually more (polio) cases have occurred in August than any other month ...," he said.

Murphree said the board was anxious especially for churches to reopen but had to be mindful of its duty to "stamp out the crippler of our babies and children." An easily spread virus causes polio; vaccination prevents the disease today.

On July 18, 1936, Decatur ministers joined to offer radio broadcasts instead of public worship. The pastor of Central United Methodist Church, the Rev. Ira Hawkins, spoke for the ministerial association on July 24 to say churches were closing to cooperate with health authorities. Several closed churches stationed leaders at buildings to receive offerings at set times. By July 29, Morgan County had 30 cases of infantile paralysis.


By early August, The Daily was reporting fewer new cases. On Aug. 6 The Daily reported only two new cases of polio in Alabama but 13 in Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia. The four states reported a total of 412 cases with 29 deaths, according to the paper. Murphree said cooperation had helped check the disease locally.

On Aug. 7, the Morgan County Board of Health stated that infantile paralysis was sufficiently checked, and it was safe for people to gather again.

"We believe that the greatest danger is past and now it is reasonably safe for people to go to church and otherwise go about their business as usual," Murphree said.

The ban's lifting was obviously a relief. The ministers' association announced that all churches would resume services. The Daily noted an immediate stimulation of community life and a surge in retail business.

Some pastors evidently stopped by the newspaper to specifically remind congregates to return to church. The Rev. W.B. Campbell, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church, and First Methodist Church's pastor, the Rev. L.D. Patterson, issued statements that churches would meet on the following Sunday.

A recent history of First Baptist Church in Decatur noted the closing.

What to do?

McVay said the state Health Department has met recently with some religious groups to help them plan for emergencies. He suggested setting up phone conferencing for Sunday school classes and prayer via e-mail.

The idea of not gathering for worship seems foreign to most Alabamians, he said, but if schools are asked to close because of an epidemic, it only makes sense for churches to do the same.

An online guide about pandemics from the Health Department asks churches and other organizations to prepare backup plans in case gatherings like worship services are canceled.

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