Politics and the Church – The Hypocrisy of Politics in the Church [Part 31]

The 1963 Methodist Human Relations Conference was attended by 1,100 Methodists and featured activist James Meredith, comedian and activist Dick Gregory, and Martin Luther King Jr.  It also sent a Methodist delegation to the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  Seven Methodist bishops likewise attended including Baltimore-Washington Bishop John Wesley Lord, along with Central Jurisdiction Bishop Edgar Love.

     The Council of Bishops in late 1963 declared that the “right to choose a place of residence, to enter school, to secure employment, to vote or join a church should in no way be limited by a person’s race or culture.  Responding to some Mississippi churches that had turned away black worshippers, they said,”We decry, on legal as well as Christian grounds, the denial to any person of any color or race the right of membership or the right to worship in any Methodist church,” and to “arrest any persons attempting to worship is to us an outrage.” [“Methodist Bishops Are Scornful of Churches Showing Racial Bias”, Call and Post (November 30, 1963) Page 10A].  On Easter Sunday 1964, Boston Bishop James Mathews joined with Central Jurisdiction Bishop Charles Golden to attempt to attend white Galloway Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi.  Mathews and Golden were turned away from Galloway Church by the ushers.  They left a prepared note for the congregation stating: “We shall…wonder at those who presume to speak and act for God in turning worshippers away from His House.” Mathews would later preach at the church in 1991. [James Mathews, A Global Odyssey: The Autobiography of James K. Mathews (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000) Pages 272-276].  Later in 1964, Mathews denounced FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s “Slanderous attack” on Martin Luther King Jr., whose criticism of the FBI had prompted Hoover to call the civil rights leader a “notorious liar.” [“Methodist Bishop Bids Hoover Resign”, New York Times (November 21, 1964) Page 8]. If I am not mistaken, this is mixing politics and the church.

     The 1964 General Conference in Pittsburgh denounced “weird” Bible interpretations that sought to justify segregation, insisting,”Prejudice against any person because of color or social status is a sin.”  They warned, “The Church which does not cleanse itself of this sickness brings comfort to the enemies of Christ and betrays the Lord.”  General Conference delegates called for “fair employment practices” and warned against “derogatory epithets.”  They also affirmed full voting rights without “racial barriers,” supported “integrated” public education and neighborhoods and non discrimination in public facilities.  Delegates affirmed “rule of law,” but also recognized “rare instances” of “unjust” laws where Christians must “obey God rather than men.” [Journal of the General Conference, Methodist Church (1964) Pages 685-688].  The General Conference declined to abolish the Central Jurisdiction, instead urging “voluntary” absorption of black congregations into local annual conferences.  About 90 percent of black Methodists, or 370,000, were in the Central Jurisdiction.  In the meantime, demonstrators outside the conference protested ongoing church segregation. [“Methodists Pass ‘Weak’ Plan for Integration”, Los Angeles Times (May 2, 1964) Page 16].  One protester was allowed to address the General Conference delegates inside the arena, declaring: “We now find ourselves in dismay and sorrow at the failure of this conference to provide courageous leadership in removing racial injustice within the household of God.”  Bishops James Mathews and Charles Golden, with two other bishops, joined about 1,400 youth convened off-site for a night long protest against the continued existence of the Central Jurisdiction. [“Methodist Youths Rap Racial Plan”, Los Angeles Times (May 3, 1964) Page F1].  But the General Conference did go so far as to approve financial aid for activists who suffered imprisonment or economic deprivation for protesting segregation.  The Dean of the Candler School of Theology feared the church would be labeled as subversive. [“Methodists Vote to Provide Aid to Those Jailed in Racial Cases”, New York Times (May 8, 1964) Page 37].

     In late  1964, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the Methodist Student Movement, meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska.  “We have a Christian responsibility…in this racial crisis, in this revolution…to reaffirm the essential immorality of racial segregation,” he told the students, who were distressed by the Central Jurisdiction’s persistence. “Racial segregation is sinful and immoral…” King declared.  He commended Methodists for “some strides,” including the appointment of black Bishop James Thomas to lead mostly white churches. [ Martin Luther King Jr., “Methodist Student Leadership Conference Address”, delivered in 1964, American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank, 2001-2011, American Rhetoric:http://americanrhetoric.com/speeches/methodistyouthconference.htm%5D.

     Bishop Edgar Love celebrated Methodism’sracial progress in 1965.  In 1966 the Board of Missions acknowledged the rise of the sometimes militant “black power” movement.  The board noted,”If they choose to speak in terms of power, it is because that is precisely the value by which majority America lives.” [“Methodists Support Statement on ‘Historic’ Distortions of Power”, Afro-American (October 15, 1966) Page 3].  Introducing Martin Luther King Jr. to the 1966 Methodist Bicentennial Celebration in Baltimore, Los Angeles Bishop Donald Tippett hailed him as “The most prophetic voice in all America, yea, in all the world today.”  Having been preceded as a speaker by President Lyndon Johnson, King warned: “Unless America grapples more firmly with the lot of the colored masses in the ghettos, we will see much darker nights of social corruption than in Watts last summer.”  He urged more federal spending on guaranteed incomes, housing for the poor, and more school teachers. [“King Forecasts ‘Hot Summer'” , Afro-American (April 30, 1966) Page 3].  Maybe I’m mistaken but isn’t this politics being bantered around in a church environment?  Isn’t the church supposed to avoid politics? Or is it the pastor who told me that politics did not belong in the church has it wrong?

     A special General Conference met in 1966 to adjudicate Methodism’s merger with the Evangelical United Brethren Church.  Rev. Joseph Lowery, a prominent black civil rights advocate, made a motion for the Central Jurisdiction’s (the all black jurisdiction) eradication by 1972.  The motion failed. But the delegates did approve a slightly less definitive elimination of the Central Jurisdiction targeted for 1972. The Central Jurisdiction’s last meeting was in 1967 in Nashville. [Murray, Crucible of Race, Pages 189-195].

     Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) formed in early 1968 as the church’s first ethnic caucus, with funding from the Women’s Division.  Speakers at their first gathering of 300 black Methodists included James Farmer of the Congress on Racial Equality and the more militant Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.  (What a misnomer of a title)  One BMCR founder was Memphis minister James Lawson, who invited Martin Luther King Jr. to help with the 1968 garbage workers’ strike in Memphis, where King was assassinated. [Murray, Crucible of Race, Pages 201-202].  King had been scheduled to lead “poor people’s march” on Washington, DC, which Baltimore- Washington Bishop John Wesley Lord had endorsed. [“Endorses March’, Chicago Daily Defender (April 13, 1968) Page 26].

     At this point it seems the segregation question in the Methodist was finally coming at least to a tolerant end. Next week we will follow the Methodist into a quasi end of racism and into the church’s next political endeavor that would shape the next generation of Methodist elites.

– Bob Munsey

“Sometimes we look back at our lives in a kind of wonder, seeing how the Lord knit together so many apparently unrelated people and events to compose the quilt of our lives.”  Gary Inrig

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