More than we could ask or imagine: North Park and the flu pandemic of 1918

by Mark Safstrom

As North Park College President, David Nyvall, prepared to give his report to the Covenant annual meeting in Rockford, Illinois, on June 18, 1919, the church and the school, like the rest of the country, was still reeling from the terrible experience of a global flu pandemic. It had been a time of fear and uncertainty about the future. With the United States engaged in the Great War, government censorship had limited reporting on the pandemic, leaving Americans without adequate information on the health threat that faced them. Instead, the only reporting allowed was on the impact of the flu in Spain, leading to its lasting name, the “Spanish” Influenza. The flu, like the war, was imagined as a foreign phenomenon, a fantasy that proved deadly false. These years were particularly unpleasant for many immigrants. The patriotic effort to rally Americans to fight the Germans had contributed to a backlash against immigrants generally. Other Germanic ethnic groups felt additional pressure to assimilate, including discontinuing religious services in foreign languages. In May of 1918, the governor of Iowa had even taken measures to ban the use of foreign languages in schools, on trains, other public spaces, and even on the telephone. Similar measures were proposed in other states. Meanwhile the flu, being no respecter of national boundaries or ethnicity, ravaged the United States, native born and immigrants alike.

As with other religious groups, Covenant congregations were forced to remain closed during the worst of the epidemic. The fears of the flu, combined with pressures for immigrants to assimilate and the existing economic uncertainties, caused some to have a bleak outlook for North Park, as history professor, Leland Carlson, recounted later in his chronicle of the school’s history. Carlson explains: “The war years brought difficulties of real concern to the officials of the school. Not only was the enrollment dropping, but population throughout the country was being decimated by an influenza epidemic of unprecedented proportions…. many feared that all private school work, particularly that of foreign nationalities, was doomed to extinction. Some asserted pontifically that things Swedish were gone forever. And a few ‘friends’ openly advocated that the school might just as well close its doors now as later.”

At the annual meeting in June of 1918 in Jamestown, New York, the situation had looked so dire that many wondered if an annual meeting could even take place in 1919. Yet, by that time the situation had recovered enough for a meeting to proceed. Covenant President, Erik Gustaf Hjerpe opened his report to the Rockford meeting by quoting from the book of Ephesians 3:20-21: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

Hjerpe then expounded on these verses: “It is a great thing for us to have such a God, whose ears are inclined to the prayers of his children, and that he is not merely capable of accomplishing what they ask for, but rather can accomplish abundantly more than they could ever ask for or imagine.”

Looking back over the previous year, Hjerpe recounted how dire the situation had been. The dark clouds of war still stretched across Europe, young men by the shiploads were being sent to the battlefield, and a recession undermined the economy at home. Hjerpe also named the anxiety many had felt at the prospect of not being able to speak their mother tongue any longer. In short, the war and the influenza epidemic had cast a pall over the activities of the congregations, “just at a time when their work would have been most needed.” Tithing had dropped, jeopardizing the work of the church in the mission fields and at home.

Nevertheless, with a year’s hindsight, Hjerpe now could project optimism. Easter of 1919 had proven to be a turning point, he claimed, when congregations had rallied to meet the goal of matching the previous years’ total offering of $30,000 (equal to over $400,000 in 2020). “The Lord had done far more than what we could have asked for or imagined.”

The report from North Park followed, first with a word from the board, delivered by Carl Peterson, secretary: “The outlook for the school last fall was far from being bright or inspiring hope, and it was with a certain amount of fear and trembling that we looked to the future.” Recounting the pessimism that North Park encountered by those who thought the days of private schools were numbered, he quipped: “The prophets of doom appeared here and there, causing emotions to run wild. Many seemed to be of the opinion that it would be best to ‘throw the ax into the sea,’” that is, to admit defeat. Peterson continued, “During all of this we sought to keep up our courage by praying and waiting upon God to intervene in the prevailing world events. And in our trust in God we did not come to shame. When the distress was at its greatest, help was closest at hand.”

Instead of closing, North Park was now promising to start the new fiscal year without taking on any new debt, despite enrollment being nearly halved during the war years. Financial support continued to roll in; the Covenant Women’s organization had been of special help to the school, as had several individuals who donated Liberty Bonds. Rather than close, as many had feared, Peterson announced two new initiatives of the school: one an ambitious fundraiser to build a $100,000 endowment, and the other, that North Park was finally set to proceed with plans to begin a two-year, co-ed Junior College program.

President David Nyvall’s report then followed: “It is with thankfulness to the Lord that I write this annual report on the Covenant school’s twenty-eighth year of operations. None of us at the beginning of this school year could well have expected that it would conclude on such a hopeful note.” Recalling the bleak outlook of the previous June, and the real possibility that the school might have to close, Nyvall acknowledged that this sense of panic was understandable. The war had taken its toll on the school. “How close this came to our own circle, we soon discovered when the stars on our school banner grew to number seventy, and then three of those changed their color to gold.” Nyvall then addressed the acute pressures felt by immigrants and their institutions: “Suspicion against all so-called foreign languages and customs in certain communities manifested itself as outright persecution against church denominations and individuals, who had previously been protected in their right to use other languages than English in their services and at home, but who now were suspected of being deficient in faithful citizenship.”

Despite the dire start to the year, North Park had cause to celebrate. Nyvall could happily report that enrollment at the school began only slightly less than the previous year, and the enrollment at the seminary, slightly higher. After the armistice in November, enrollment even swelled to surpass that of the previous year. With these hopeful signs and backed by the resolve of the board, Nyvall explained to the annual meeting the details of the new endowment campaign. While the initial plan had been to simply reach out to the school’s alumni and friends, in consultation with the leadership of the church it was decided that this campaign would become a denomination-wide effort. The “Endowment Drive Committee” would be led by three pastors, D. Brunström, C.V. Bowman, and C. F. Sandström, and engage the entire church to double down on their financial support to the school. In the interest of transparency, Nyvall made clear that the money raised would be an interest-generating endowment that would not replace other fundraising efforts already in progress. The interest from the endowment would correspond to the deficit in operating costs that the school had been running in recent years, and which it had desperately requested at previous annual meetings. Deferred maintenance on the school’s buildings would finally be able to be completed.

With this news, Nyvall then reported that North Park would be starting the two-year Junior College program already in the fall of 1919. Planning had begun to start the requisite advertising of this program, as well as securing of an additional teacher. Many additional preparations had been done in the intervening years since 1902, when a previous attempt to start a Junior College program had been tried and failed. Nyvall also noted the enthusiasm of the students themselves, who were pushing the faculty and board to proceed. The students, he said, had “petitioned many times” to move forward with “our life’s calling as a denomination and a Christian school.” Nyvall concluded by thanking several of the school’s teachers each by name, as well as those who helped see the school through this difficult period. “May each and every person who contributed to this victory be blessed a hundredfold.”

Nyvall’s optimism in 1919 may obscure to some degree the challenges that still faced the school. Leland Carlson notes that the endowment campaign did not ultimately reach its $100,000 goal. Furthermore, cultural changes and tensions that had placed stress on the school before the war and the epidemic would remain in play. “Some said North Park was stressing the cultural at the expense of the spiritual; others said that there was too much religious emphasis at the school. Some said that North Park was deviating too much from the course set by the founders; others said the school was failing to keep abreast of contemporary trends. Some said that North Park in comparison with other schools gave too little attention to Biblical subjects in its program of general education; others said that too much time was occupied with courses for which universities hesitated to give transfer credit…. On the one side were mainly the elders; on the other, principally the younger people.”

Yet, the endowment campaign proved to be a rallying moment for the school, and the Junior College successfully started in September of 1919. The $72,060.00 that had been raised in the campaign – equal to well over one million dollars in 2020 – placed the school on a secure footing. Furthermore, as historian Karl A. Olsson explained, the establishment of the Junior College program allowed North Park to not only recover from the precipitous financial position of the war and the influenza epidemic, but strategically positioned the school to weather the coming Depression ten years later. When the city junior colleges in Chicago closed in the 1930s, North Park enrollment more than quadrupled, diversifying the student body by the end of the decade, allowing the hiring of new teachers, and raising the academic caliber of the institution. It is from this vantage point that Carlson could look back on the decisions made during the crisis years of 1918-19 as having been of decisive importance. Carlson concluded his account of this moment in the school’s history by quoting a hopeful word from Isaiah 54:2:

“Enlarge the place of thy tent
And let them stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations:
Spare not:
Lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.”

When current world events invite comparisons with those experienced in the past, we naturally look for lessons and cautionary tales. History does not repeat itself exactly, yet the parallels between 1918 and 2020 are striking: private colleges under strain, discrimination against immigrants, global pandemic, financial recession. When faced with such challenges in 1918, what did the friends of North Park do? They prayed. Then got to work fundraising and continuing to dream and build for the future. And what was accomplished was abundantly more than they could ever ask for or imagine.