Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 16]

This series was started all over the question of should Christians feel a duty to vote and if so, what principles should inform believers when they cast their ballots.  Should their vote represent strictly political platforms or should that vote apply Biblical principles to moral and political concerns?  As recently as 1947, theologian Carl Henry warned his post-war contemporaries that historic Christianity risked losing influence because of its hesitancy to apply the gospel to “pressing world problems.” [Carl Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1947) Page 65].  In Henry’s day, many evangelicals were tempted to or already had withdrawn from the public square.  As a result, evangelicals were becoming increasingly inarticulate about the social reference of the gospel.  Henry rightly feared that this withdrawal signaled to the world that Christianity could not compete with other ideologies.  Instead of withdrawing, Henry encouraged Christians to apply the fundamentals of their faith to the full range of issues the gospel speaks to, including politics, the foundational arena where people’s public lives are ordered.

     Even before the Second World War the Methodist Church involved itself in world politics.  The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia elicited different reactions among Methodists.  Northern Bishop James Bashford regretted Methodism had not spent more on missions in Russia, ensuring “Russian democracy would have stood firm in the crisis brought about by the revolution.” [“Failure of Russia Blamed on Church”, New York Tribune (February 26, 1918) Page 2].  Northern Methodist pastor George Simons, who had headed Methodist missions in Russia, in 1919 testified before the US Congress against Bolshevism. “Most real Bolshevists have hatred for England and the Allies and affection for Germany”, he said,”although many display a tendency to maintain friendly relations with the United States.” [“Blames Yiddish for Bolshevism”, Evening Public Ledger (February 12, 1919) Page 6].  Simons later declared:”I who have lived under their rule and know the un-Christian, un-American terrorism  and class hatred which is Bolshevism’s soul, cannot discuss this thing calmly.”  He warned against US ties to the “Bolshevik demons.” [“Speaker Accuses President of Condoning Bolshevism”, New York Tribune (March 10, 1919) Page 1].

     Accusations were not limited to politicians.  Methodist Federation for Social Service chief Harry Ward was accused of Bolshevism by fellow Methodist clergy.  One of Ward’s accusers, a minister and Boston University professor, insisted,”Professor Ward is purely and simply a Socialist and agitator.”  He predicted :”The Methodist Church never will follow him in his socialistic propaganda.” [“Bolshevism Charged Against Dr. Ward by Methodist Clergy”, New York Tribune (March 18, 1919) Page 8].

     Harry Ward was not the only Methodist leader to exhibit a positive relationship with Bolshevikism.  Northern Methodist Bishop Edgar Blake, based in Paris, attended a 1923 Soviet church conference even as the Soviets were persecuting the Russian Orthodox Church’s anticommunist Patriarch and had executed a Roman Catholic archbishop. “For the first time in human history a great nation is dedicating itself to do good for the masses of humanity and is striving to attain everything God-given for man”, the bishop gushed to the Soviets. [“Russian Churchmen Unfrock Dr. Tikhon”, New York Times (May 3, 1923) Page 1].  In the wake of the controversy, Blake was recalled to report to the northern Board of Bishops, which publicly disavowed any unauthorized “personal opinion.” [“Bishops Disavow Blake Utterance”, Christian Science Monitor (May 5, 1923) Page 3].  Heading home, Blake stopped in Paris, commenting,”If the Soviet government dealt harshly with certain ecclesiastics it justified itself on the ground that it was fighting for its life.” [“Bishop Praises Soviet Regime”, Los Angeles Times (May 17, 1923) Page 18].  Blake urged Methodist support for the new Soviet-created “Living Church” that would displace traditional Orthodoxy.  He told the bishops that the new communist-sanctioned church, to which he promised $50,000 from US Methodism, was closer to Methodism by discouraging relics, hierarchy and celibate clergy.  “I think we ought to sacrifice our denominationalism to save religion in Russia”, he implored.  “Methodism holds the destiny of Russia in its hands” he claimed. As a follow on Pittsburgh Bishop Francis McConnell supported Blake.  He said ,”His pledge of $50,000 was $50,000 worth of mighty fine gesture.” [“Religion: Methodists and Bolshevists”, TIME (November 26, 1923)].  I can’t help but wonder if the $50,000 came from apportionments?  I cannot imagine in my ‘wildest imagination’ such political discussion in today’s 

Methodist Church.

     Then New York Methodist Frederick Brown Harris…later pastor of Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, DC, and US Senate chaplain…pronounced America as “amazed and puzzled at the spectacle of a Methodist preacher sitting in the circle of those who are applauding the recent execution of a Christian minister and who are eager to betray their own Archbishop into the hands of his enemies.” [“Strife Breaks Out in Moscow Conclave”, New York Times (May 7, 1923) Page 15].  The Christian Advocate, speaking for northern Methodism, lamented Blake’s Russia trip was a “serious error” for implying, in newspaper accounts of “every capital”, that Methodism gave “moral approval to the Russian Red revolution.” [“Bishop Blake’s Acts Sharply Criticized”, Boston Daily Globe (June 8, 1923) Page 17].  An American diplomat lamented Bishop Blake was “fooled shamefully”, was “used as a tool by the Bolshevik Government”, and was “associating his church with the Government that is attacking the only institution organized by the Russian people themselves to protect their own religious interests.”  [“Says Soviets Kill Priests by Hundreds”, Baltimore Sun (May 8, 1923) Page 28].  The 1923 New York Annual Conference recorded its “strongest disapprobation” over the Soviet Union’s “lawless” execution of a Roman Catholic archbishop.” [“Methodists Score Slaying of Prelate”, New York Times April 8, 1923) Page 19].  

     But not to worry, it gets even more unbelievable.  L.O. Hartman, editor of Zion’s Herald, a New England Methodist publication, who accompanied Bishop Blake to Russia, derided the executed Catholic archbishop for committing “treason” by supposedly spying for Poland.  Hartman boasted of visiting Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky and reviewing Soviet troops in Moscow.  “The Soviets inaugurated and are succeeding with the most colossal social experiment in history”, Hartman insisted. “When the truth of it is known it will be rightly appraised.” [“Russia Greatly Misrepresented, Says Dr. Hartman”, Christian Science Monitor (May 29, 1023) Page 1].  Bishop Blake pronounced that the uproar about the executed Roman Catholic archbishop in Russia was due to “vast propaganda” from the Vatican.  He noted that the Soviets had already killed 1,200 Orthodox clergy. [“Blake Assails Vatican”, New York Times (September 23, 1923) Page 8].  It was as if ‘what’s the big deal about executing one Catholic archbishop’?  The Soviet “Living Church”, sustained by $40,000 raised from Methodists (falling short of the original promise), eventually collapsed. [“Living Church in Red Russia Lives No Longer”, Chicago Daily Tribune (February 6, 1925) Page 9].

     Next week we will see how the ‘communist question’ continued to be contested by a church supposedly guided by God’s Word and not afraid to throw politics right into the middle of the discussion.

– Bob Munsey

“Practice faith, not fear”  Gov. Mike Huckabee

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