As I write about the hypocrisy of racism in the Methodist Church…or any church on the account…I am still amazed that it was or is even a controversy. How any church can profess God’s Word and entertain racism is beyond me. As I continue my research, I find, though, that it was there and some in the church leadership sought to preserve it.
West Virginia Methodists offered “thanks to God Almighty” for the Supreme Court ruling and urged accelerating the “process of transition from segregated schools to a new pattern of justice and freedom.” [“Church Conference Denounces Segregated Churches, Schools”, Atlanta Daily World (August 4, 1954) Page 2]. The National Conference of Methodist Men urged “active, moral and vocal support in the implementation of this decision, thereby signifying our intention of applying the religion of Jesus Christ in all areas of our lives.” [“Methodist Men Laud Integration Ruling”, New Journal and Guide (July 17, 1954)]. Likewise, Methodism’s General Board of Evangelism hailed the court ruling as the “right direction for a fully integrated Christian society”. [“Church Group Asks Unified Effort to End Segregation”, New Journal and Guide (July, 31, 1954)].
Going back to my original dictum that politics is how we relate as members of society, I cannot help but wonder why it took ‘man’s court’ to wake the church up to one of God’s principles? This is politics of man having to wake the church up to the ‘politics’ of God.
The future of desegregation in the church was not yet going to be ‘smooth sailing’. More cautiously, Louisville Bishop William Watkins predicted: “Given a period of adjustment, the decision of the Supreme Court will be less galling to the South than would have been a reaffirmation of the ‘separate but equal doctrine.'” [“Call Court’s Race Ruling a Milestone”, Christian Advocate (June 3, 1954) Page 15]. The North Carolina Annual Conference supportively declared,”The decision of the Supreme Court with regard to segregation in the public schools has presented all of us with a new situation,” presenting North Carolina with “real difficulties and dangers.” But the conference believed that the ruling was a “true interpretation of our Christian faith and of our American democracy.” [“N.C. Methodist Conference Backs School Integration Rule”, Afro-American (November 13, 1954) Page 18].
However, the question of segregation in the Methodist Church was not over with a Supreme Court decision. More defiantly, the North Alabama Annual Conference defended segregation. “We have not arrived at the day when we are ready for mixed schools,” argued one Alabama minister. “We won’t be ready for some time to come.” He decried “reformers who put their arms around the Negroes and want to bring them into the fold.” The Alabama resolution declared its pride in “Negro” schools and concluded:”It is therefore our honest conviction that it is for the good of both races that separate schools be maintained.” (If I am not mistaken this is politics.) One opposing minister predicted the stance would bring “disrespect” to the conference and pleaded:”I want this great body to be loyal to the Supreme Court of the United States the same as they would be to any other government agency.” (What about the Word of God?) Another minister argued:”I am not proud of the mistreatment of the Negroes at the hands of the whites. We have not given the Negro people anything like equal school facilities.” [“North Alabama Methodists Favor Racial Segregation”, Atlanta Daily World (September 16, 1954)]. Nevertheless, the resolution to support segregation passed by about a 3-to-2 margin. [“Methodists Adopt Bias Resolution”, Chicago Defender (September 25, 1954) Page 19].
This was back in the day when church leadership did not mind offending other church leaders. Speaking at the Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in 1954, Bishop Oxnam saluted the Supreme Court ruling as a “historic utterance” that had “done more to bring back to this beloved land the respect and gratitude of the peoples of the world than any statement since the historic utterances of our leaders that led to the adoption of the United Nations Charter.” He also condemned any resistance to the ruling as “subversive” and doing “more to undermine democratic government than any traitor Communist can do.” [“Oxnam Hits Integration Resistance”, Washington Post (October 7, 1954) Page 17]. (Can you imagine today a bishop implicating another conference as having communist leanings?)
The Council of Bishops, meeting in Chicago in late 1954, also commended the Supreme Court ruling as “keeping with the attitude of the Methodist Church.” (Really?) They pledged Methodism would help implement desegregation, since “one of the foundation stones of our faith is the belief that all men are brothers, equal in the sight of God.” The ruling’s ultimate success, they said, would be decided in the “hearts of the people of the nation.” It was noted that the court realized its ruling enforcement would create “difficulties”, and rightly allowed “sufficient time” for implementation. [“Methodist Bishops Hail School Ruling as Christian Ideal”, Philadelphia Tribune (December 7, 1954) Page 2].
This was not the end of the ‘fight’. A month later, and partly responding to the bishops, about 250 prominent ministers and laymen from throughout the South gathered in Birmingham to oppose integration within Methodism. “We note with exceeding grave concern efforts being made within our church for sudden and drastic changes in the organic structure of our church and in social relationships between the races on the congregational level”, explained the meeting host. [“Methodist in South Favor Segregation”, New York Times (December 15, 1954) Page 33]. (I thought it was God’s church.) The local bishop described the gathering as “unauthorized.” The meeting may have also responded to the local black annual conference, which had recently condemned segregation as “human persecution,” and which cited “segregation in education” as “completely evil.” [“Methodists Target of Pro-Jim-Crow Group”, Afro-American (December 25, 1954) Page 5].
About 100 members of local conference boards of education, including 14 blacks, met in Nashville in early 1955 to strategize against church segregation. “Desegregation cannot be legislated…it is born in fellowship and grows through education and personal understanding,” explained an Indiana minister. A Texas minister pointed out that segregation was not confined to the South. [“Methodist Leaders Discuss Problems of Segregation”, New Journal and Guide (January 8, 1955) Page C12]. The Board of Social and Economic Relations, also meeting in 1955, cited the Supreme Court ruling as “Fraught with difficulty and pain” absent “moral support of Christian people of both the white and colored races.” It expressed confidence that “our people” would “solve these problems in a just and Christian manner.” [“Methodist Urge Segregation End”, New York Times (June 15, 1955) Page 14].
It is comforting to think that ‘good intentions’ will eventually solve the segregation problem within the Methodist Church but that was yet to come as we will see next week there were still those willing to defend segregation, both white and black. And yes, politics will play a part.
– Bob Munsey
“Selflessness that seeks a reward ceases to be selflessness.” Dan Schaeffer