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Easter 1919: A story of joy and praise amid adversity a century ago

Easter services are promoted at the beginning of World War I. Two years later, York County celebrated Easter with a sense of relief that the war was over and the deadly Spanish flu had waned. From the York Daily, April 9, 1917.

Editor’s note: Retired York Daily Record editor Jim McClure originally penned this editorial on April 12, 2009, tying themes of Easter with world events in those difficult times. It’s relevant 10 years later and presented here lightly edited and updated. McClure wrote York Daily Record/York Sunday News editorials on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas for 30 years. 

A York newspaper story headlined “Joyful Observance of Easter Festival” on Saturday, April 19, 1919, set the stage for services the next day.

It was full of meaning to post-World War I readers of The Gazette and Daily.

And for York Daily Record/Sunday News readers a century later, in 2019.

In the spring of 1919, World War I had ended. A fledgling League of Nations promised to preserve that accord.
And because of the peace, the newspaper observed, Easter would be observed more joyfully the next day than for the past several years.
That bright Sunday would not be dulled by the death of a patriotic hero from the Great War. An elaborate memorial service would honor Pvt. George E. Strausbaugh of Jackson Township, who had died of pneumonia six months earlier in France.
The moment, indeed, was cause for light hearts, considering the heavy burden the world had endured.
America’s short action in intense World War I fighting was consuming — and deadly.
In fact, the day after Easter 1919, The Gazette and Daily published a special section in honor of the more than 6,000 men and women who had served and the 195 or more who did not come back.
Many of the military dead did not succumb on the battlefield.
The viral Spanish flu — often compared with the Black Plague of the Middle Ages — had ravaged the world and hit men and women of military age the hardest. The flu often led to deadly pneumonia, and Strausbaugh probably was such a virus victim.
That pandemic, of course, went far beyond military camps.
The first York-area case was diagnosed on Oct. 1, 1918, according Carl E. Hatch and Joseph Hicks’ “World War I: York, Pennsylvania’s Response.”
A month later, more than 4,200 cases were diagnosed in York City alone. The York Fair was canceled, and a tent hospital sprang up on its grounds.
Everything was shut down. Churches, too.
The flu wiped out whole families.
“So many were dying in York,” Hatch and Hicks wrote, “that undertakers were running out of caskets.”
So a lesson for today is that as beleaguered as Americans feel about world turmoil and political gridlock, our ancestors persevered through much worse.
No wonder the church members that Easter of 1919 were joyous. They could at least open their church doors.
But there’s another lesson, a crucial message linked to Easter.
Those basing their joy on world peace and other positive developments of the day will have only short-lived contentment.
The newspaper’s suggestion that the Easter of 1919 would be more joyful because of improving conditions in the world was understandable but off key.
The hope of nations leagued in friendship would not last. The League of Nations was no more effective in staving off the madmen in Germany and Japan than its successor, the United Nations, has been in handling Hitler’s ideological heir in, say, North Korea.
Many Christians believe that the joy of Easter should not be dictated by the reality of world conditions, but by the observance of — and hope from — the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the strife-wracked Middle East of his day.
The service for Strausbaugh, indeed, took place at Jackson Township’s Pleasant Hill meeting house that Easter.
Friends and relatives and at least four preachers, messages in hand, squeezed into the meeting house.
Those attending learned the lesson of Easter.
This young serviceman had died a patriotic but excruciating death, and they were there to observe the end of a promising life on this day of the celebration of life.
So, there was sadness on that joyous day.
But there was more.
There was hope.

This clip from The (York, Pa.) Gazette and Daily observes what happened on the war front “over there” in World War I. It shows part of a roll call of the 195 or more York countians who died,

Background posts: Easter stories of sacrifice & selflessness and Pre-World War II Thanksgiving holds lessons for York countians today and Henry Laurens’ Christmas in York Town: ‘I will not quit my post, although I … fear that I may perish on it’.