The 1958 Council of Bishops were especially “disturbed by a growing disregard of law evidenced by the bombing of synagogues, churches, schools, and even private dwellings.” They urged “our people to treat obedience to and respect for law as a Christian moral obligation.” [“Appeal by Protestants”, New York Times (November 14, 1958) Page 1].
A Methodist layman’s group arose in Alabama to resist church integration. Its manifesto asserted: “The bald question facing the General Conference is whether it is any more a sin for the white families in the South to be concerned to avoid down breeding for their children and grandchildren as would be a farmer for down breeding of cattle.” (These are the opinions of supposedly Christian men.) When asked about the caucus group, Birmingham Bishop Bachman Hodge told a reporter:”I am in favor of the jurisdictional structure as we now have it. That’s all I have to say, sir.” [“Once Divided by Slavery, Methodism Faces New Cataclysm over Race Issue”, Washington Post (September 29, 1959) Page A14]. A 1959 poll of Methodists showed 52 percent favored equal opportunity for all races but favored gradual social change, while 23 percent supported segregation and 19 percent favored abolishing all segregation. [“Racial Views Polled”, New York Times (November 7, 1959) Page 13]. (Quite frankly I am appalled by such numbers coming from supposed Christians.)
In 1960, a Methodist Women’s Division official denounced unofficial groups “trying to preserve the segregated structure of the Church” as well as “propagandists who try to pin the Communist label on any who work for racial integration.” Cited as “among the most disturbing elements” the impact on the “freedom of the pulpit,” as some ministers had been silenced by segregationists. [“Methodist Assails Integration Foes”, New York Times (January 13, 1960) Page 12].
At the 1960 General Conference in Denver, the bishops celebrated in their episcopal address that the “pattern of relations between the races, based upon any theory of superiority-inferiority, has been shattered beyond reassertion both in secular life and in the Church.” (Except for those who find it necessary to ‘play the race card’ for political purposes.) They noted that “walls of massive resistance and nullification are crumbling faster than some attackers or defenders know,” while rejoicing over Methodism’s “inclusive” and “interracial character.” (These are walls that never should have been in any Christian church.) But they also admitted that “where racial tensions are acute, the prophetic courage and forthrightness of preachers and laymen have all to often been muted; though not without many notable and at least a few heroic exceptions.” (Somethings just don’t change. Today the fear of offending has captured many pastors and kept them from preaching the truth.) They commended all who had “spoken and acted in the name of Christ…in the face of danger and to their own personal cost.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Church (1960) Pages 205-206].
Delegates at the General Conference approved a statement on race that affirmed:”We join other people of good will around the world in moving toward a day when all races shall share richly without discrimination or enforced segregation in the good things of life.” But the segregated Central Jurisdiction (all black) as recommended by a study commission, would continue. [“Methodist Social Commission Mandatory”, New York Amsterdam News (May 21, 1960) Page 9]. (I see this as a ‘church cop out’. Either do the Christian thing and integrate or quit pretending.)
Black Methodists at their 1960 Alabama Annual Conference affirmed young sit-in demonstrators for “acting in the finest American tradition.” They called “upon all Southerners, white and black alike, to put aside the traditional fears and bitterness which have led to so much conflict and suffering.” They regretted that “one group seeks to restrict and exclude the other from full participation in the Church.” [“Methodist Group Calls for Racial Harmony”, Chicago Defender (July 16, 1960) Page 10]. Black Bishop Edgar Love and white Bishop John Wesley Lord jointly appealed to President Eisenhower in 1961 on behalf of black sharecroppers in Tennessee, evicted because they sought voter registration
A conference of 300 Methodist missionaries in 1961 decried attacks on anti segregation Methodist clergy and implored that the “church must back its ministers as long as they are morally right.” They also condemned segregation as a “crime against God.” [“300 Missionaries Decry Church’s Stance on JC”, Afro-American (July 1, 1961) Page 17]. A short time later, in 1962, retired black Bishop Alexander Shaw wrote for a Methodist journal:”If Negroes were invited to join white churches all over America, the Negro church would remain the most desirable to Negro people…but there should be no law or custom to prevent any believer from joining any Christian church…coercion of any kind should be avoided.” [“Negroes Desire Own Church, Says Methodist”, Chicago Daily Defender (May 7, 1962) Page 7].
The 1962 North Carolina Conference opposed “discrimination and segregation as the scandal of religion in America.” [“Segregation Described as ‘Scandal of Religion'”, New Journal and Guide (June 30, 1962) Page D19]. In 1963, 28 Mississippi ministers publically broke with the pro segregationist stance of their region. “Forced segregation is wrong,” declared William Selah, who pastored the state’s largest Methodist church. Rev. Selah left his church for another state after it refused admittance to black visitors. “I love all of you, but I know in conscience, there can be no color bar in a Christian Church,” he told the congregation. [“Miss. Pastor Quits Post Over Segregation Issue”, Chicago Daily Defender (June 24, 1963) Page 13]. (Sometimes our conscience requires us to make decisions we don’t want to make but must make when a church situation is out of step with the Word of God.)
In 1963, the Methodist Women’s Division applauded President John Kennedy for appointing mediators to help resolve a racial crisis in Birmingham, AL, where four children were killed when a black church was bombed. (I guess these women had not yet been told that they had no business in politics.) “The guilt and responsibility for this murder of children must rest upon the conscience of the whole nation as well as upon the shoulders of public officials in Alabama…” [“Methodist Women Back JFK Action”, Afro-American (October 5, 1963) Page 19]. (Too bad the same responsibility doesn’t rest upon the shoulders today of those who take and approve of the ‘murder’ of millions of unborn humans.) Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested earlier in the year for organizing civil disobedience against segregation in Birmingham. His famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” criticized prominent moderate white clergy who had opposed his campaign’s timing and methods. One of the targets of King’s letter was interim bishop of the Methodist North Alabama Conference, Bishop Nolan Harmon. Later that year at the North Alabama Annual Conference, Harmon condemned Alabama Governor George Wallace’s attempts to block integration at the University of Alabama as a “moral mistake.” In September of that year, President Kennedy hosted Harmon and five other prominent Birmingham clergy at the White House to discuss how to defuse racial tensions in their city. In spite of this a Methodist Human Relations Conference organized by the Methodist General Board of Christian Social Concerns portrayed Harmon and another Methodist bishop as “obstacles to all justice and freedom” in an act of “deplorable irresponsibility.” [Nolan B. Harmon, Ninety Years and Counting (Nashville, The Upper Room, 1983) Page 299].
Satan had sowed the seeds of racism and segregation well in the church and there was still going to be a fight to eliminate it. While the churches would preach God’s Word, the exercise of it was another thing. We will see how it was not until the mid 1970’s that the church was able to finally deal with the subject, and you can bet that politics was involved.
– Bob Munsey
“While we may fear that God will not appreciate our honesty, we must remember that He already knows our thoughts and feelings. Honesty is required for us, not for Him.”