The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918

Justin Bray, Church History Specialist
14 January 2019

In this post, historian Justin Bray describes the history of the communal sacrament cup and its connection to the flu epidemic of 1918 with research from the library’s collections.

On a Sunday evening in the 1880s, a young Latter-day Saint named Margaret Williams traveled with her mother from their home in Samaria, Idaho, to a sacrament meeting in the Bear Lake Stake Tabernacle in Paris, Idaho. Williams later wrote that she and her mother “sat in the gallery on the south side of the tabernacle balcony close to the stand.” The mother and daughter were almost certainly running late for the service, to settle for such an undesirable area of the meetinghouse. This was a time before individual sacrament cups—a time in which churchgoers all sipped from the same shared goblet—and where Williams and her mother were sitting, they were all but guaranteed to be among the last to drink. In a stunning reversal from 21st-century Latter-day Saint sacrament meetings, the front rows of the meetinghouse were the most coveted seats in the 19th century because by the time the cup reached the back of the room and into the gallery, some reported that it contained all kinds of debris, hair, and foul smells. You can imagine the look of horror on Williams’s face when the older man next to her, in her words, “took a sip and his red mustache was floating on top of the water.” Though feeling a bit squeamish, Williams dutifully took her turn and renewed her baptismal covenants. “I have always been delicate in my stomach,” she later wrote. “That day was no exception. It rolled completely over.”1

From its organization in 1830 until the early 1900s, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints administered the sacrament in a common cup, a practice that early Latter-day Saints had adopted from their Protestant backgrounds. The use of a single cup was believed to have been grounded in the New Testament, in which Jesus commanded His disciples to drink from “the cup” during the Last Supper (Matthew 26:27). There was also a beautiful kind of symbolism behind sharing a cup, as all churchgoers sipped from the same goblet regardless of race, class, gender, and age. One might argue that the common cup reflected a sense of union, accord, and equality among those in the body of Christ. But beyond religious settings, sharing a cup was a common practice in 19th-century America. Drinking fountains in public schools, parks, and railroad cars often came with a chained cup or dipper on which everyone placed their lips.

The use of a common cup in public spaces, including communion services, began to decline in the late 19th century as part of a Progressive Era movement toward improved sanitation and personal hygiene. Led by an alliance of medical professionals, public health officials, and journalists, Americans increasingly accepted theories about the spread of disease through germs and began adopting more sanitary practices, such as hand washing, teeth brushing, proper garbage disposal, and preventative vaccinations.2 One by one, different states passed legislation banning common cups from schools, parks, and railroad cars to aid in the national effort to limit the spread of disease. These laws stopped short of mandating a change to individual cups in churches, but most faiths voluntarily switched. The Latter-day Saints gradually joined the movement. Since pioneer times, some had harbored ambivalent attitudes toward professional medicine. Many believed the priesthood blessing on the sacrament water was enough to thwart the transmission of germs, even if the cup was used by multiple people.3

Eventually, in 1912, a Utah State Board of Health ordinance, combined with a growing consensus among Latter-day Saints to abandon the common cup, led to the adoption of individual sacrament cups in the Church. On March 21, 1912, the First Presidency issued a letter to stake presidents with a directive to make the change.4 Yet because members of the Church at the local level were expected to raise the funds for new sacrament sets, the transition to individual sacrament cups was gradual at first and took place mostly in wards in the Salt Lake City area. The Church History Library houses a petition created by members of the Murray 1st Ward that exemplifies some of these fundraising efforts at the time.5

The transition to individual sacrament cups was accelerated several years later by the influenza epidemic of 1918. Near the end of World War I, servicemen from around the world returned home and spread what became known as the Spanish flu, whose symptoms included a raspy cough, severe headache, intense chills, thick brown spots on the cheeks, and a high fever. The Spanish flu was highly contagious, and the disease eventually killed somewhere between 20 and 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 Americans—many more than World War I itself. The disease effectively shut down the United States, including the Beehive State. The Utah State Board of Health banned all public gatherings, beginning on October 11, 1918. Entire cities were quarantined.6 Beulah Leona Andrus, a Latter-day Saint in Ucon, Idaho, later described how Church meetings were canceled on Sundays: “I remember, too, during the flu epidemic of 1918, of our having Sacrament service in the home. I recall so well the lessons and the bearing of testimony.”7 Despite the efforts of the Board of Health, however, the Spanish flu spread in Utah, reaching 1,500 cases and 117 deaths in just four weeks, even after the ban on public meetings. On November 19, 1918, Joseph F. Smith, President of the Church, died of pneumonia, and because of the epidemic, no public funeral was held. Heber J. Grant was not sustained as President of the Church until June 1919, as April general conference was postponed because of the ban.

The influenza epidemic of 1918 created a sense of urgency for Latter-day Saints to make the switch to individual sacrament cups. Members of local Relief Society, Mutual Improvement Association, and Primary organizations planned and executed all kinds of plays, dances, and other entertainments to raise funds for new individual sacrament sets. Among many examples were the young women of the Venice Ward in Sevier County, Utah, who performed a dramatic play for the community and held an ice cream sale to raise the necessary funds to purchase a new set of sacrament cups.8 Another indicator of the accelerated and widespread use of individual sacrament cups is the increase in advertisements for them in Church-owned magazines. Competing companies in and around Salt Lake City vied for space inside the front and back covers of the Relief Society Magazine, Improvement Era, and Juvenile Instructor. From Daynes Jewelry Company to the Deseret Sunday School Union Bookstore to the Information Bureau on Temple Square, each organization had its own unique design and selling points, including one that could empty and refill 144 cups at once. “Is your Ward Up-to-Date?” read one ad in the Juvenile Instructor.9 “All progressive Wards are buying,” another claimed.10 “Because it is Positively Sanitary,” declared another.11 These first individual cups were made of glass and metal, and while they were a much more sanitary means of partaking of the sacrament, it would be decades until disposable paper and plastic cups were produced.

Although the type of sacrament cup used is a small procedural aspect of a rich and sacred ordinance, it is interesting to see adjustments in the administration of the ordinance over time....from sharing a goblet in the 19th century to using individual cups just before, and even more so after, the 1918 influenza epidemic. No longer do Church members need to worry about the floating red mustache in the sacrament cup or “the fumes of … tobacco in the water,” as George Q. Cannon put it.12 We can all take the sacrament with peace of mind, thinking of the Savior rather than worrying about who has brushed their teeth.