Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 11]

Pacifism took root in northern Methodist seminaries starting in the 1890’s.  Its disciples attained Methodist leadership by the 1920’s, politically strengthened by the horrors of WW I.  Contrasting with strong official Methodist support for WW I, both northern and southern Methodism moved toward renouncing all war.  As Nazism, fascism, and Japanese militarism expanded and conquered, official Methodism became increasingly pacifist.

Seattle Bishop Richard Cooke in 1922 predicted a “terrific and crushing blow” directed by the “keen and German-like duplicity of Japan.”  He perceived the Treaty of Versailles had “so fixed the boundary lines of Europe” as to make war all but certain. [“Sees Peril of New World War”, Los Angeles Times (February 23, 1921: Page  10). Several years earlier, southern Bishop John Kilgo, after visiting the Far East, had issued similar warnings about the inevitable threat from Japan. [“‘Yellow Peril’ Stern Reality”, Charlotte Observer (November 22, 1917) Page 3].

Nonetheless, northern Methodism was “determined to outlaw the whole war system.”  America “should lead the way,” it implored.  “Selfish nationalism, economic imperialism, and militarism must cease.”  Delegates demanded arms control and U.S. entrance into the League of Nations, a move the U.S. Senate had rejected. [General Conference Reports and Resolutions, Methodist Episcopal Church (1924), Pages 527-573].  A stronger pacifist stance was defeated.  When pacifist delegates threatened to leave, most of their demands were met, including that capital and labor be equally drafted in wartime.  A New York minister decried:”If the Government comes to my parsonage door and takes my two sons, sends them to foreign lands to fight in the mud and give their lives, I am not going to stand aside and see the laymen of Wealth and the lay of Labor profit.” [“Religion: Methodists”, TIME (June 2, 1924)].  Chicago Bishop Edwin Hughes announced:”Now we go forward to bear our testimony against all offensive war and to proclaim that the Hebrew prophets were not misguided fanatics when they foretold the swordless and spearless day of God.  God has given us here the vision of a warless world. Lord, we go; and as we go, we preach.” [“Religion: In Springfield”, TIME (June 9, 1925)].  It looked as though the northern Methodists were not going to let religion get in the way of their politics.

The southern Methodist bishops, in the episcopal address to their 1922 General Conference, did not criticize  the US government for not entering the League of Nations but commended America for working on peace and disarmament for relief from the “liability of war.”  They declared: “A permanent peace based on justice cannot come till the sword is taken out of the heart of mankind.”  Only the church can turn men away from the “despotic” and “pagan” and towards the “democratic” and “Christian.”  Only the “crucified and risen Christ” can save a “race ruined by sin”, the bishops concluded. [Journal of the Nineteenth General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1922), Pages 338-339].  The same general conference declared: “We must loath war and hate war, and strip it of all its falseness and glamour and let it stand forth in its unveiled hideousness”, while refusing to denounce war as ‘murder’.  It urged cooperation with the League of Nations. [Journal of the Twentieth General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1922), Pages 300-301].

Southern Bishop James Cannon asked the Federal Council of Churches in 1924 to back the League of Nations, whose meetings he had attended for five years.  The US government had declined to ratify the League of Nations.  He surmised:”Surely, when all the world is struggling to put an end to war, the great Christian forces of America cannot sit quietly by.” [“Asks Church to Back League’s Protocol”, New York Times (October 11, 1924) Page 3].  The southern bishops, in the episcopal address to their 1926 General Conference, urged the “abolition of aggressive war” and “peaceful” settlement of international disputes. [Journal of the Twentieth General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1926), page 322].

A delegation of northern Methodist bishops visited President Calvin Coolidge in the White House in 1926.  Bishop Joseph Berry told the president:”…we should, nevertheless, give that inspirational leadership which is so essential to the social and spiritual regeneration of the world in a day like this.”  The president responded “from the days of Asbury…your bishops have been consecrated, upstanding men, fighting for the cause of righteousness, justice and humanity.” [“Methodist Bishops Call on President: Praise His Policies”, Washington Post (May 7, 1926) Page 2].

The 1924 northern General Conference had established a World Peace Commission, chaired by Bishop William McDowell.  This group asked the 1928 General Conference to “oppose war as a method of settling disputes among nations and groups, as contrary to the spirit and principles of Jesus Christ, and should declare that it will not as a Church sanction war.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1928), Page 1687].  (I can’t help but wonder how such a policy would have worked with Hitler or Tojo?)  Delegates wanted the military to be used only as a ‘police power’.  They insisted that church agencies not serve in “preparation for war” and urged the US President to seek “drastic reduction in armaments.” [General Conference Reports and Resolutions, Methodist Episcopal Church (1928) Page 599].  (We see how such a policy worked in the 1930’s.)  The northern bishops further in their episcopal address implored that Methodism “stand with unstained hands if war is suffered to reappear.”  They opposed compulsory military training in schools.  They thought that barbarism could be mastered by civilization and encouraged “complete disarmament of nations.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Episcopal Church (1928) Pages 191-192].

Headed by Alvin C. Goddard as executive secretary, the World Peace Commission of northern Methodism included noted Methodist clergy and seminary faculty, plus future bishop G. Bromley Oxnan. A skeptic of pacifism who served on the commission was prominent evangelical New Jersey pastor Harold Paul Sloan.  He told Goddard that should war occur as an act of violence or an invasion on a peaceful nation, under such circumstances defense would not be a crime and it would be the Church’s duty to support the state.  He cited the action when Great Britain intervened when the Turks were “massacring Armenians.”  To do nothing is “worse than the crime of war.”  [Harold Paul Sloan letter to Alvin C. Goddard, February 11, 1929, Sloan Papers, United Methodist Archives Center, Drew University].  Not persuaded, Goddard told Sloan: “There are, theoretically speaking, situations in which it would seem that war is the easiest way out, but it is my conviction, and I think the conviction of most of the Commission, that civilization has now reached the place, where, by education and enlightenment, as well as the practical application of the Gospel of Christ and brotherly love, international disputes and misunderstandings can be settled in a better way than by war.” [Alvin C. Goddard letter to Harold Paul Sloan, February 14, 1929, Sloan Papers, United Methodist Archives Center, Drew University].  In 1930, Goddard assured President Hoover that the Methodist World Peace Commission “represents millions of our membership” in opposing construction of a new US battleship. [Western Union cable from Alvin C. Goddard to President Hoover, February 14, 1930, Sloan Papers, United Methodist Archives Center, Drew University].  In the meantime powers and principalities in Europe and Asia were coming up with their plans for world denomination and the Methodist Church continued to to try to influence politics in the United States.

Next week we will see how that effort by both the Church and the politics in Europe and Asia were only setting the world up for the next world war.  From what I have found in my research maybe politics doesn’t belong in the Church but it was there and almost got the United States into a ‘world of hurt’.

– Bob Munsey

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