In the 1950s in the USA, the Methodist church was a powerhouse. Though beginning as a church of the poor and working class, in the almost 100 years between the end of the Civil War and the 1950s, the church had steadily moved from the periphery to the center. Yet, in reading the national Methodist publication the Christian Advocate and the publication the Social Questions Bulletin (SQB) (now The
I chose to look at 1951-1953 to cover the General Conference of 1952 in which MFSA was instructed to change its name and move out of Methodist offices and to cover the HUAC hearings of both Rev. Jack McMichael of MFSA and Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam. The media I chose to look at were the Christian Advocate (the national publication out of New York) and the SQB. The Christian Advocate was a much more widely read as well as much more politically moderate publication than was the SQB. I wanted to compare coverage in these publications to understand what it was Methodists understood a Christian economy to be and how they were affected by the hysteria surrounding communism.
What I found, though, was a church so afraid of splitting that prophetic voices were silenced by the mainstream church.
Christianity and the Isms
There was close to one article a week, or one article every other week in the Christian Advocate that centers around some aspect of communism--- which alone indicates the great anxiety that came with the Cold War. However, I was surprised at the multiple opinions and nuanced opinions published by the Advocate in this period, having expected to see much more conservative and univocal articles on the topic. Perhaps the best overview of what
But ultimately, the most important part of this article is at the end. He writes, "Socialism asks of people a maturity of spirit that can pass judgments on facts, free from unreasonable bitterness and blinding emotion."7 This is important because it foreshadows the coverage of the HUAC hearings.
The last installment was "Christianity and Communism" by Clarence Seidenspinner.9 The article on communism basically argues that Christianity and Communism are completely incompatible because both are evangelistic religions:
The Christian can never be happy until the words of Jesus are fulfilled, "Go ye therefore, and teach the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The Communists can never be happy until the words are fulfilled which were set forth in the Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels back in 1848: "The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. The openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries unite!"10This is the basic argument throughout the three years I looked at: Christianity and Communism are by definition incompatible. And those articles like this one that are more anxious about it also have an urgency to them--- that if Christians don't evangelize more and soon, they will lose.
All in all, I think my surprise at these say more about my prejudices than about life for Methodists in the 1950s. However, with these articles, we have a foundation for not only the different arguments, but we also see how
Of course, the Advocate's message against the hysteria of the HUAC makes sense given the fact that freedom of the press would be important to a weekly publication. But the anti-hysteria message is important because it becomes
"Can't We Leave Jesus Out?"14
While the SQB certainly agreed with the Advocate in terms of opposing the anti-communist hysteria, what I found most striking about the way economic systems are discussed in the SQB was the Jesus-language used. By Jesus-language, I mean that everything MFSA published was underscored with scripture, particularly the Gospel.15 Part of the reason for this constant use of the Gospel and scripture is that it is a defensive tactic. Everywhere we see assurances that MFSA's message is Gospel-rooted.1617 For this reason, their discussion on economics is one not that says we must be open to see positives and negatives in capitalism, as publications of Christianity and the Isms seemed to say, nor is it one that focuses primarily on fighting against the anti-communist hysteria as the Advocate messages, but rather the SBQ's message is praxis based, saying that it is the responsibility of Christians to find alternatives to Capitalism and Communism.18
And while the anti-hysteria expressed in
These articles place the work of MFSA directly in the sandals of Jesus himself. They even draw a parallel between the crucifixion and the HUAC under the heading "Jesus and the UnRoman Activities Committee": "Have we forgotten the stand taken by Jesus when quizzed as to his alleged UnRoman activities by investigators and courts in his day who were bent on sending him to death on a cross?"20 Those are powerful words with which to scold the HUAC, and distinctly places MFSA as direct inheritors of Jesus' work.
The 1952 General Conference
So we come to the 1952 General Conference with the understanding of the gospel-rooted message of MFSA and the multivocal economic opinions of
In May of 1952, we read that MFSA is responsible for a breach between lay and clergy.22 The editorial about social action and General Conference was triumphant:
The Conference's expected rebuke to the Methodist Federation for Social Action was based on the unrepresentative character of this group that had often been thought to be speaking for The Methodist Church when it actually was doing no such thing. So the majority report, which was adopted by a large vote, requested the federation "to remove the word 'Methodist' from its name" and "to terminate its occupancy" of the building at 150 Fifth avenue, New York, N.Y.23This particularly quotation is edifying in its naming of the Advocate's problem with MFSA: they do not want MFSA's message to be confused with that of the whole church. But, as the SQB points out, the MFSA had its name before the Methodist church even had its present name.24 Similarly the SQB points out that MFSA is specifically targeted in ways that conservative papers like One (Methodist) Voice is not. Why are the facts not talked about in
The Social Questions Bulletin recounts the ruling in this way:
In retrospect, there is a striking thing about the General Conference debate. Federation opponents admit that their majority-adopted proposals (requesting the Federation to change its name and office location) can only be implemented by Methodist Federation for Social Action members themselves...and only when and as Federation members determine...From such considerations many at General Conference concluded that the most vigorous Federation opponents were not primarily concerned with the Federation's name or its office location, but rather with telling constituents (stirred up by secular and other misrepresentations)--- that the 45-year-old Federation had been properly spanked.25It is very interesting that despite the care with which
Covering Rev. Jack McMichael's Hearing
|Jack McMichael in seminary|
|An older Rev. McMichael|
I argue here, that this can represent the beginning of the effects of the limits of tolerance. Certainly, the Advocate itself in the early 1950s seems to learn more left than right, but even with that lean, it does an impressive job at including voices for and against capitalism in ways that could be subversive. However, their demonization of MFSA to me is an early example of today's construction of a general public that does not include anyone who engages in radical political advocacy, or, in church language, a general public that ignores the prophetic voice. I am referring here to the work of Janet R. Jakobson and Ann Pellegrini in Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance. They argue that tolerance, listening to both sides of the story without evaluation, "sets up a political culture in which extremism, rather than injustice, is the major problem to be addressed in public life."29
Thus, in this case, the Advocate presents MFSA as threatening to Methodism because of their unapologetic position on the Left. It positions itself for this particular issue as existing above politicization, offended that MFSA chooses sides. But this positioning is also necessary in these early years after the 1939 Methodist merger when the north and south (which split just before the Civil War) became one church again. There was still a strong memory of that split in the 1950s. Taking the side of MFSA could alienate conservative church members and cause a split there, which was unacceptable for the Methodist church then and today. Unity, it seems, is everything.
Perhaps there is a place for such tolerance of both sides. I did appreciate the range of views the Advocate offered on economic systems throughout 1951-1953. However, demonizing MFSA seemed completely unnecessary to holding that position of "neutrality" because in demonizing MFSA,
And what about this "fear-infested time" we live in today?
I have been interested in the anti-communist, anti-leftist sentiment expressed particularly in the 1950s because I see some similarities with the hysteria and fear I have seen in my own lifetime as I was born in the 1980s, during the backlash against the political activism of the 1960s and 1970s, and I became an adult post 9/11, in this only-getting-worse anti-terrorist hysteria.
Today, we are influenced by media that is incapable of analyzing the ethics of the politically active. And our church allows itself to be bullied for fear of being labeled as too politically active, and especially as too Left. Just this past October, the General Board of Church and Society withdrew its participation from the One Nation Working Together rally in Washington, DC, citing the fact that they did not want to be part of an event that was divisive, and since the August Glenn Back rally, it had came to be seen as the anti-
After receiving angry messages from Methodist
|MFSA at the One Nation Rally|
Fortunately there continue to be prophetic voices speaking loudly within the church when even the General Board of Church and Society caves in fear of division. They remind us, as was published in preparation for the 1952 General Conference in the Social Questions Bulletin, that "Some who whip up the great hysteria in America today do not really fear capture of this country by the small Communist minority. They do fear dissent, free and independent thinking, and prophetic religion and action--- for all of which the Methodist Federation for Social Action has stood for 43 [now 103] significant years. They were never more needed than today."32
1The title comes from "Are Methodists Being Duped?" Editorial, The Christian Advocate 128.22 (May 28 1953): 684.
2"Christianity and the Isms," Editorial, The Christian Advocate 126 (May 3, 1951): 575.
3Charles M. Crowe, "Christianity and Capitalism," The Christian Advocate 126 (April 19, 1951): beginning on 504.
5Edgar N. Jackson, "Christianity and Socialism, The Christian Advocate 126 (April 26, 1951): beginning on 536.
6Ibid.: 559, 563.
8Mailbag, The Christian Advocate 126 (May 31, 1951): 694-695.
9Clarence Seidenspinner, "Christianity and Communism," The Christian Advocate 126 (May 3, 1951): beginning on 569.
10Ibid.: 569, 587.
11L. Harold DeWolf, "Christians and Subversive Fronts," The Christian Advocate 126 (August 30, 1951): 1057.
12For example, see: G. Bromley Oxnam, "Velde Committee File Dissected," The Christian Advocate 128.20 (May 14, 1953): beginning on 613, reprinted from The
13But there are others they cite. For instance, in a piece by Bishop
14"In 1953 [Rev. Jack] McMichael [of the Methodist Federation for Social Action] appeared before the HUAC and challenged its accusations of Communist subversion with such telling references to the
15This struck me for two reasons: 1. it was much more prevalent than in the Christian Advocate articles, which would mention Jesus, but to a much lesser extent; 2. I grew up in a liberal Christian tradition and so am not used to hearing such blatant Jesus-language in these political contexts (though now it is coming up more for me in
16Francis McConnell, "To All Loyal Federationists--- A Message from Bishop McConnell," The Social Questions Bulletin 41.4 (April 1951): 13.
17"As for MFSA, we support Methodism's Social Creed...We stand upon the single principle of testing every such proposal in light of the teachings of Jesus." Jack McMichael, "How Fare Our Democratic Rights?" The Social Questions Bulletin 41.3 (March 1951): 12.
18"It is the responsibility of groups of Christians such as the MFSA to point the way towards a world of prosperity and peace for all by presenting specific recommendations for the solution of the problems of poverty and riches." From "The Evanston Program--- Towards Peace and Democracy," The Social Questions Bulletin 41.7 (October 1951): 26.
19Jack McMichael, "How Fare Our Democratic Rights?" The Social Questions Bulletin 41.3 (March 1951): 12.
20"In the Battle for Civil Liberties," The Social Questions Bulletin 43.3 (March 1953): 11.
21For instance, as early as March, the editors write about the HUAC and MFSA, expressing disappointment. When I began reading the article, I thought it would discuss, as Bishop Oxnam and another editorial later do in detail their disappointment with the unprofessionalism of the HUAC and their demonization of church leaders and organization. But no. The editoral ends: "The attitudes of The Christian Advocate on the Methodist Federation for Social Action are well known. We believe that the name "Methodist" should be dropped voluntarily; we think that the federation should withdraw from the Methodist building in New York; and we are convinced that Methodist should adopt plans for an official federation that can speak with authority and responsibility. But we have made all these suggestions before. The review of the House Committee on Un-American Activities adds nothing, and we are sorely disappointed. We had a right to expect more." Rather than a critique of the HUAC, this editorial suggests that the HUAC should have uncovered something on MFSA so they can get rid of it in favor of an official body."Sadly Disappointed," Editorial, The Christian Advocate 127 (March 6, 1952): 299-300.
22"Shall We have and OFFICIAL Organization on Social Action?" The Christian Advocate 127 (April 3, 1952): 460-462, specifically the section by A. J. Shorey on 462. Also "Officially, Social Action," Editorial, The Christian Advocate 127 (April 3, 1952): 463.
23"The General Conference and Social Action," Editorial, The Christian Advocate 127 (May 22, 1952): 687.
24Definitely in preparation for General Conference: "The Federation now asks, without rancor on its part, that record and the facts be consulted. In the first place, the Federation has its present name before the Methodist Church has its present name! Three churches united--- none of them previously calling itself The Methodist Church Exercising their freedom, they appropriately selected as the name of the united church a nomenclature popularized for nearly forty years by The Methodist Federation for Social Action. But the Federation has not haggled over this detail. It has for years 'safeguarded' the Church by invariably specifying in all its literature that it is 'unofficial.' Nor has it ignored recent agitation for its name to be changed." "The Federation Speaks for Itself," The Social Questions Bulletin 42.1 (January 1952): 3.
25"General Conference Action on M.F.S.A.--- And Analysis," The Social Questions Bulletin 42.5 (May 1952): 20.
26"Congressional Hearing: McMichael Says No," News of the World Parish, The Christian Advocate 128.33 (August 13, 1953): 97.
28Jack R. McMichael, "The House Committee Hearing," The Social Questions Bulletin 43.6 (Summer 1953): 23-24.
29Janet R. Jakobson and Ann Pellegrini, Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance,(Boston: Beacon Press, 2004) 58.
30Jim Winkler, "GBCS Withdraws Endorsement of 'One Nation Working Together' Rally," General Board of Church and Society October 1, 2010, http://www.umc-gbcs.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=frLJK2PKLqF&b=3455813&ct=8736619¬oc=1.
32"Friendly reply to our critics," The Social Questions Bulletin 42.1 (January 1952): 4, a reprint from an editorial in the bulletin in Oct 1950.