One of Methodism’s first black bishops was Robert Jones, who was elected in 1920, and who spoke on human equality at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta in 1951. “There is no brotherhood unless a brotherhood of equals,” he declared, warning:”We should tread lightly the paths…that seek to establish barriers between men and to erect them in groups of inferior and superior, of worthy and unworthy, of strong and weak, of white and black, of red and brown.” (That is what we see happening in today’s society.) Human equality is as “fundamental as the Divinity of Jesus Christ,” he insisted. “It is poor strategy for America to preach equality and practice inequality,” when “faced with a terrible war for defense of our ideals.” [“Church Dodging Question of Brotherhood, Bishop Jones Says”, Atlanta Daily World (March 7, 1951)].
The 1950 Methodist women’s assembly, meeting in Buck Hill Falls, Pennsylvania, unanimously opposed racial discrimination in church agency hiring or in projects funded by Methodist women. They likewise implored President Truman and other officials to ensure prosecution for the murderer of a black leader in Florida. [“Methodists Adopt Anti-bias Program”, New York Times (January 15, 1952) Page 25]. (This is the church getting involved with politics.) Later in the year, Methodist women’s leaders urged an end to segregation in Washington, DC, complaining that convention goers in the nation’s capital were “housed and convened with difficulty and embarrassment,” thanks to discrimination. [“Methodists Ask Segregation End”, Afro-American (March 22, 1952) Page 22]. Meeting in the Methodist Building, they expressed hope that “visitors from all parts of the world may see democracy in practice in our capital.” [“Methodist Women Urge End of Segregation in Washington”, New York Amsterdam News (March 22, 1952) Page 25].
“To discriminate against a person solely upon the basis of his race is both unfair and unchristian,” declared Bishop Paul Kern of Nashville in the episcopal address from the Council of Bishops to the 1952 General Conference in San Francisco. Kern celebrated,” No race in history has made progress comparable to that of the colored race since its historic emancipation.” His address suggested that the Central Jurisdiction could be abolished among other actions to improve the “welfare of the colored individual in our Church.” (These are Bishop Kern’s words as I do not like to refer to someone by the color of their skin.) Bishop Kern urged patience. “We face the critical adjustment between the absolute Christian ideal and the human level upon which a retarded and hesitating social conscience moves.” He promised,”Christianity holds the answer if we are willing to apply its principles.” [“Methodist Bishops Take High Ground at Conference”, Afro-American (May 3, 1952)]. The General Conference delegates expressed pleasure that “attitudes at variance to basic Christian principles are yielding” while lamenting that “racial discrimination and segregation” persist in both church and society. They largely endorsed the Methodist women’s resolution opposing discrimination in church agency hiring and urging church schools and hospitals to “restudy” their racial policies. A 1949 survey showed that only 48 of 83 responding Methodist schools, out of 118 total colleges, universities, and seminaries, fully accepted black students. Conference delegates also voted that black churches in the Central Jurisdiction could vote to join their local white annual conferences. [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Church (1952) Pages 651-652]. They also urged an end to segregation in Washington, DC. [“Methodists Ask DC to End Segregation”, Washington Post (May 7, 1952)].
Addressing the 1952 New York Annual Conference, Bishop Oxnam insisted:”The hour has come when the church dare not do other than to say, wherever it has influence, that segregation has to go…Some day these un-Christian barriers that lie in segregation and discrimination have to go.” [“Oxnam Bids Church End Race Barriers”, New York Times (May 19, 1953) Page 14]. In a similar vein, a Baltimore-Washington commission warned its 1953 annual conference: “The Christian church cannot speak to the secular world on the evils of racial segregation and discrimination so long as it remains among chief sinners…these evils within the church places the church in the unenviable position of providing ammunition for communism’s ideological guns.” [“Methodists Urged to Face Issues Today”, Washington Post (June 4, 1953)]. Bishop Love admitted to the Boston School of Theology later that year that Methodism lacked “clean hands” on race. “Who can justify segregation within the family of God? Churches are America’s most segregated places”, he said. “And yet, when Christian ministers cry out against it, they are often called Communist, or to say the least, are labeled as ‘pink.'” [“Bishop Love Speaker at Boston University Meet”, New Journal and Guide (December 12, 1953) Page A7A].
Bishop Love, with four other active black bishops, urged the Central Jurisdiction in 1953 to pray for the US Supreme Court, that it would have “divine guidance in reaching their decision on the segregation now in their hands.” After the Court ruled against school segregation in 1954 in “Brown v. Board of Education”, the annual Methodist women’s assembly pledged to “speed the process of transition from segregated schools to a new pattern of justice and freedom.” [“Civil Liberties Stressed”, New York Times (May 29, 1954) Page 16]. Their work also included its “determination to work with greater urgency to eliminate segregation from every part of our community and national life and from the organization and practice of our own church and its agencies and programs.” [“Rejoice ‘ in Supreme Court Ruling” Christian Advocate (June 10, 1954) Page 14]. Georgia Methodist women criticized Governor Herman Talmadge’s plan to abolish public schools to avoid integration. “Attempts to defy or evade the law of the land attack the very foundation of our republic,” the women responded. [“Women’s Group Opposes Gov.’s Proposals”, Atlanta Daily World (November 24, 1953)]. (Just as a side note, this is a church involvement in politics. As we look on further into the future it is too bad they didn’t take up a political stance on the ‘murder’ of unborn humans. Millions of humans have been eradicated for convenience and the church for the most part has been silent.)
A prominent Washington, DC, pastor, after the court ruling, warned:”The Supreme Court is making some decisions, and more are to be made…and not for a single moment can we allow a hate movement to get started.” [“Pastor Hits ‘Hate Movements'”, Washington Post (June 15, 1953) Page 6]. Black Methodists in Georgia , at their 1954 annual conference, hailed the Supreme Court for “strengthening the position of American democracy in the world,” and pledged to “work calmly in the Christian spirit of brotherly love, but resolutely and without compromise to achieve the goals implied in this historic decision.” [“Ga. Methodists Work to Meet Goals Implicit in ‘Decision'”, Atlanta Daily World (June 1,1954) Page 1]. The 1954 Texas Annual Conference also backed the ruling. The 1954 Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference urged cooperation with the Court’s desegregation ruling and complained: “We deplore the fact that the church has all too often trailed behind secular organizations and powers rather than leading them on social usage.” [“Methodists Favor Ending Segregation”, Baltimore Sun (June 6, 1954) Page 40]. The North Georgia Annual Conference also urged compliance while the 1954 Florida Annual Conference similarly supported the court ruling and suggested Florida’s attorney general offer a plan for implementation. [“Methodists Favor Supreme Court Anti-Bias Ruling”, Chicago Defender (June 26, 1954)]. The 1954 Indiana Annual Conference offered support while lamenting some Indiana churches were attempting the “heresy of segregation.” [“Methodists Support High Court Ruling”, Atlanta Daily World (June 23, 1954) Page 1].
One would think that the question of integration in the Methodist Church could be quickly resolved and the church could move on representing God’s Word in treating all people as creations of God and equal. But it turned out to not be so easy as that. Some ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ within the church were still not comfortable with integration and in the background continued to support segregation. More on this next week as we look at the hypocrisy of racism in the church.
– Bob Munsey
“An important part of restoration, our growth and maturity in our faith, is the ability to see God’s love and mercy in the midst of pain.” Dan Schaeffer