After World War II, Methodism struggled with racial relations and segregation, both within the church and within America. The 1939 reunification of the northern and southern churches had created a special “Central Jurisdiction” for ‘black’ congregations, with its own bishops and annual conferences. The segregated Central Jurisdiction formed in 1939 during the merger of three Wesleyan denominations…the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church…thus The Methodist Church. It was dissolved when The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren merged to form The United Methodist Church in 1968. The segregated Central Jurisdiction’s annual conferences were absorbed into the regional annual conferences and their corresponding jurisdictions. Today, The United Methodist Church in the United States is divided into five regional jurisdictions: the Western Jurisdiction, the North Central Jurisdiction, the Northeastern Jurisdiction, the South Central Jurisdiction, and the Southeastern Jurisdiction. These five jurisdictions are divided into some 63 annual conferences. I thought it important before moving forward in a discussion of politics in the church that the church organization be understood.
Many whites and blacks increasingly protested this church segregation. “If Catholics are able to worship together under one roof when desired, why can’t we?” asked a South Carolina pastor in 1945. “This is a clear indication that custom must not dictate to the Church, but the Church to custom, so long as it is right.” [“South Carolina Pastor Scores Church Jurisdictional Plans”, Pittsburgh Courier (April 7, 1945) Page 10]. In many ways, Methodism more easily condemned societal segregation than did it address its own.
Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam…not one to shy away from politics in the church…was typically outspoken against segregation. “There is more Christianity in riding on busses equally with Negroes than in reading about Christianity,” he remarked in 1945. “To me the whole argument of segregation is un-Christian.” But even Bishop Oxnam, outspokenly liberal, was cautious about how quickly integration could happen, emphasizing “economic equality” for blacks first. (I use the term ‘blacks’ because that is the term used then. I do not like to categorize a person because of the color of their skin. I would much rather use the ‘color of their character’…honest, industrious, faithful, loving, responsible, etc.) “Once the Negro is given the right opportunity, and once he achieves an improved economic status he will begin to solve this problem on his own.” He commended first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and a young North Carolina preacher named “Frank Graham” for their racial work. [“The Church Faces Color”, Chicago Defender (December 8, 1945) Page 13].
Frequently Methodist groups debated whether to meet in segregated facilities. In 1946, the Women’s Division for Social Service reluctantly sent delegates to an ecumenical gathering in segregated Washington, DC, despite its policy of “holding its national meetings only where all members of its group can be entertained together without any form of discrimination because of race.” [“Methodist Women Bow to Jim Crow”, New York Amsterdam News (December 21, 1946) Page 16]. In 1947, the church women’s group, representing 1.3 million members, urged, as it would continually for many years, the end of racial segregation within the church. [“Methodist Racial Divisions Fought”, Los Angeles Times (December 9, 1947) Page 8].
More boldly, in 1947, the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA)…the same organization that in the early 50’s would be accused of having communist leanings…called for strengthened civil rights laws, especially in Washington, DC, while also opposing all racial discrimination at Methodist hospitals and schools. [“Methodist Group Backs Labor, Blasts Reaction”, Chicago Defender (January 11, 1947) Page 5]. That same year, an interracial group protested the prohibition of blacks at the cafeteria of the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Amid policemen, the group threatened a passive resistance sit-down if discrimination continued. Four black youths were consequently admitted to the cafeteria, which ended its racial policy. [“Anti-Bias Campaign in DC Successful”, Atlanta Daily World (July 30, 1947) Page 1].
In 1946, famed evangelical pastor and radio preacher “Fighting” Bob Shuler led a conference social problems committee in urging an end for the segregated Central Jurisdiction. [“Moral Trend Envisioned”, Los Angeles Times (June 28, 1946) Page A1]. Also, in 1947, the Northern California Conference convened its first interracial event in San Francisco to discuss race relations and urge inviting blacks to white churches as a first step. [“Methodist Hold Interracial Meet”, New Journal and Guide (November 8, 1947)]. After all these years of professing the Word of God in the Bible, the church was finally coming around to acknowledging that we are all created in the image of God.
I have spent the past 23 weeks in “Politics and the Church” discussing the hypocrisy that is found in many churches. By this I mean not only hypocrisy displayed by church leadership but by church membership. Recently I ran across as story that well illustrates the dangers and long term negative impact of hypocrisy either in the church or by its members. The damage can have a long term impact on society and the world. I shall end this week by taking a slight detour and showing how hypocrisy can have a serious impact:
Years ago in Germany there was a young Jewish boy who had a profound sense of admiration for his father. The life of the family centered on the acts of piety and devotion prescribed in their religion. The father was zealous in attending worship and instruction and demanded the same from his children. When the boy was a teenager, the family had to move to another town in Germany. There was no synagogue in the new location, and the pillars of the community all belonged to the Lutheran church. Suddenly the father announced to the family that they were going to abandon their Jewish traditions and join the Lutheran church. When the stunned family asked why, the father explained that it was necessary to help his business. The young teenage boy was bewildered and confused. His deep disappointment soon gave way to anger and a kind of intense bitterness that plagued him throughout his life. He left Germany and went to England to study. He sat daily at the British Museum formulating his ideas and composing a book. In that book, he conceived of a movement that was designed to change the world, and he described religion as an “opiate for the masses” that could be explained totally in terms of economics. Today billions of people live under the system invented by this embittered young man. The name of his book Communist Manifesto and his name Karl Marx. From his father he got the message loud and clear that religion wasn’t about loving and serving God, it was about staying connected to the right people for economic reasons. His father’s religion was just a pose. The influence of his father’s hypocrisy is still being felt around the world. [R.C. Sproul, Objection Answered (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1978) Page 84]. Yes, hypocrisy can have very long term effects.
Next week we will continue to look at the hypocrisy of race being fought in the Methodist Church by well meaning leadership.
– Bob Munsey
“Though we may detest our present situation, we still resist the necessary adjustments because, frankly, they hurt.” Dan Schaeffer