In 1948 the Methodist Church was still dealing with the question of racism and segregation within the church. In that year 10,000 young people, including 500 “Negro” delegates, gathered at the global Methodist Youth Conference in Cleveland in integrated facilities. They were addressed by one black bishop, Robert Brooks of New Orleans, who was also president of the Methodist Federation for Social Action…the same organization that in a few years would be accused of communist activity and asked to leave the Methodist building in Washington, DC. [“Race Segregation Absent at Methodist Conference”, Cleveland Call and Post (January 10, 1948)].
In the episcopal address to the 1948 General Conference meeting in Boston, Bishop Oxnam asked: “Does brotherhood, does Christianity, within the freedom of democracy justify restricting the vote to the white man while denying it to the red man, the black man? Does the declaration that every human being is of infinite worth as a son of God permit us to deny civil liberty to the American Negro?” He questioned whether segregation could coexist with the Lord’s Prayer and also wondered what Christians must do about “unpunished murderers” participating in racial lynch mobs. [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Church (1948) Page 180].
Only for the second time in Methodist history, a black bishop, Alexander Shaw of Baltimore, presided over the General Conference (Bishop Robert Jones of New Orleans had been the first in 1940). Shaw was one of five black Methodist bishops in 1948 and taking his gavel excited prolonged applause. A report to the General Conference decried racial division as “acute and tragic”, and insisted that “strong statements” would not suffice. “There must be definite action to bring the Christian Church in line with its accepted professions”, it implored. [“Shaw Presides Over Session of Methodist Meet”, Atlanta Daily World (May 8, 1948) Page 6]. The General Conference adopted a resolution endorsing the church’s gradual integration. “The unwillingness of laymen and the church to stick their necks out in the name of Christ is defeating the purpose of the church“, declared Illinois minister Ernest Fremont Tittle. (In some churches today this problem still exist.) Emory University theologian and future Bishop William Cannon warned this action “would cause trouble in the South.” (Here we go worrying about offending a group with truth and righteousness.) He supported it “only as long as it did not mean complete abolishment of segregation.” (What a cowardly stance!) [“Methodists to End Segregation in Time”, Washington Post (May 9, 1941) Page M9]. Despite these words of warning, the church’s Social Principles renounced racial discrimination as “unchristian” and “evil”. They also asked the Methodist schools and hospitals to “restudy” any racial discrimination policy and endorsed “complete equality of accommodations for all races” at church meetings. A stance from the 1944 General Conference was cited, which declared,”We look to the ultimate elimination of racial discrimination within The Methodist Church.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Church (1948) Pages 601-602]. Quite honestly, before I started researching information for this portion of “Politics and the Church” I had no idea that the Methodist Church had ever practiced discrimination. As I have previously stated, politics is not just ‘something’ exercised in Washington by politicians, but is the system by which we relate to each other.
Some were unhappy with the slow pace of Methodist desegregation. “How can the church on one hand champion the rights of colored people, while on the other hand, it condones the very practice which divest them of those rights?” asked a Michigan Christian Advocate editorial in 1949. It also decried that “too many colored Methodists were playing politics” by seeking “personal privileges” under the segregated Central Jurisdiction. [“Racial Separation in Church Scored”, Afro-American (April 2, 1949) Page A2].
That same year, Bishop Oxnam addressed historically black Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta. “The time has come for us in the church to march together on the matters of social injustice, racial discrimination, and segregation,” he said. Admitting that racial segregation also existed in the North, he urged,”We must enlarge our horizon to include all, and to give a full measure of equality and justice for all.” [“Bishop Oxnam Calls on Church to March Together to Justice”, Atlanta Daily World (October 4, 1949) Page 1]. A 1949 survey showed that only 48 of 83 responding Methodist schools, out of 118 total colleges, universities and seminaries, fully accepted black students. And while “quite a few” denied discrimination, “some of these would prove very difficult for a Negro to enter.” [“Methodists Study Own Segregation”, New York Times (November 22, 1949) Page 38].
Some Southern Methodists openly condemned Methodism’s gradual opposition to segregation. In 1950, a Charleston, South Carolina, men’s Bible class denounced the bishops’ stance and declared they failed to represent the “wishes, desire, beliefs or opinions of a large segment of Methodist laymen.” [“Bishops’ Fight on Bias Attacked”, New York Times (January 31, 1950) Page 16]. The 1950 North Alabama Annual Conference similarly affirmed “justice for all races” but urged continued “segregation in church and society”, while criticizing anti-segregation church publications. [“Church Committed to Segregation”, Atlanta Daily World (October 24, 1950) Page 3]. The 1950 South Georgia Annual Conference passed a similar resolution. [“South Georgia Methodists Endorse Separate Church for White and Negro”, Christian Science Monitor (June 15, 1950) Page 10]. Is this hypocrisy or what?
Then as I looked further on the subject of segregation in the Methodist Church I ran across an interesting bit of information. Some blacks opposed ending the segregated Central Jurisdiction, explaining in a 1950 Methodist Women’s Society of Christian Service assembly that its elimination would limit their chance for higher positions. Another black delegate responded:”We are not interested in having Negro churches in white conferences only, but in the elimination of all racial discrimination within the church.” A white woman delegate denounced “segregation in the Methodist Church as inconsistent with Christianity.” She warned:”By sidestepping this issue we will dash the hopes of many men and women who are watching us and this meeting.” The assembly backed the church’s complete integration. [“Methodist Women Vote to Integrate Negro Churches”, Atlanta Daily World (April 27, 1950) Page 2].
A Methodist missions board conference for black pastors meeting in Houston in 1951 assailed church segregation. “It is charged by many white leaders of the church that we Negroes are satisfied with the jurisdictional arrangement and with the segregated church society,” one missions staffer complained. “We should get the record straight here now.” [“Leaders Assail Segregation in the Methodist Church”, New Journal and Guide (February 17, 1951) Page 24].
The battle over segregation/desegregation was far from over in the Methodist Church. Next week we will move on to the battles of the 1950’s. It is difficult to understand how such a basic Christian principle as ‘all are created equal’ could continue to engender controversy.
– Bob Munsey
“The secret to success in life is learning to love the right things.” Wally Norling