Who Determines Denominational Policy?

Methodism in Postwar America

The Interlude of the 1950s

The Re-emergence of Radicalism

Radical Consolidation

Reaction to Radicalism

Questions for United Methodism

Endnotes and Bibliography

On September 2, 1945, Japan surrendered in a ceremony on the battleship Missouri, and the postwar era began. The late 1940s was a period when the world was forced to adjust to a wide range of new realities. People had to cope with the disillusionment that followed the realization that cessation of hostilities did not produce the kind of world portrayed in wartime propaganda.

The United States also found itself in a vastly different position of world leadership than had been the case in 1941. This is how the Methodist Church reacted to American foreign policy during the years 1945 through 1952.

War and Pacifism

Pacifist sentiment increased within Methodism in the, years following World War I. Two organizations that attempted to educate the membership on issues related to peace were the Methodist Federation for Social Service and the Commission on World Peace. Albert E. Day, Bishop Francis J. McConnell and Ernest Fremont Tittle were prominent leaders of these groups. As the threat of war increased in Europe in the late 1930s, Methodist sentiment, like that of the nation was divided. When the General Conference met in 1940 America was not yet at war. This body again affirmed what had by then become an official anti-war position.

The entrance of the United States into World War II created a new set of circumstances for the church. Meeting immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Council of Bishops issued a Wartime Message to the churches which stated, "In this crisis, as in all previous crises in our history, the Methodists of America will support our President and our nation."1

The strength of continued pacifist sentiment among Methodist leaders was evidenced in the General Conference of 1944, which met in Kansas City a few weeks before the allied forces landed on the beaches at Normandy. The Committee on the State of the Church prepared a report which contained many of the traditional pacifist positions, i.e. establishment of international organizations, limitations of national sovereignty, support of conscientious objectors, etc. The report omitted any statement affirming America's participation in the war.

A minority report supporting America's war effort was brought before the General Conference by a lay delegate, attorney Charles Parlin.

We repudiate the theory, that a State, even though imperfect in itself, must not fight against intolerable wrongs. . .We are well within the Christian position when we assert the necessity of the use of military forees to resist an aggression which would overthrow every right which is held sacred by civilized men.2

The lay delegates voted to accept the minority report 203 to 119. However, the ministerial delegates approved the minority report by a majority of only one vote, 170 to 169. The number of lay and clergy delegates voting the statement supporting the war indicates the pacifist sentiment held by a substantial proportion of the elite.

The difference between the denominational leadership and the Methodist people regarding peace and war is clear. While the official stance of Methodism became increasingly anti-war during the 1920s and 1930s, the overwhebming majority of Methodist people supported the war effort after the United States had entered the conflict. More than a million Methodists served in the armed forces.

Still, the church continued its support for conscientious objectors. Somewhat in excess of nine hundred Methodist youth served in the Civilian Public Service Camps which were financed by the historic peace churches. At the end of the war the Methodist Church paid $425,000 to the peace churches as its share of the cost of maintaining the camps for conscientious objectors.

With the conclusion of World War II Methodism again officially affirmed a more pacifist stance. The Commission on World Peace, which subsequently became the Board of World Peace, continued to bring the pacifist position before the denomination. Since its inception this agency has prepared the statements that the General Conferences have usually passed.

Throughout the period under study a clear difference can be noted between the messages and other statements of the Council of Bishops and those of the boards and agencies not only on war but also on other issues. The bishops have a greater sensitivity to the Methodist constituency than have the agencies. There has also been a greater degree of realism in the bishops' statements than in the pronouncements of the boards. This is probably because, as administrators of regional judicatories, the bishops have greater contact with and sensitivity to the grassroots level of the church than do the general agencies.

International Cooperation

At the end of World War II the Methodist Church put its faith in an international organization as the best method of assuring peace. This was translated into support for the United Nations. In the December 12, 1941, Wartime Message to the church, the bishops were already looking to the establishment of an international organization that would maintain the peace - even though America's participation in the war was less than a week old.

More than ever should we focus the attention of our people on the coming days of peace, education them through studies and discussions on the necessary bases of a just and enduring peace: exhorting them to prepare intellectuatlly and spiritually for the major part which should be theirs in creating and maintaining the agencies and machinery necessary to establish international justice, and pledging them to persevere with the same loyalty and sacrifice, after victories in war, for greater victories in the days of enduring peace.3

The bishops went on to say that international peace must be based on such factors as the limitation of sovereignty, international institutions, colonial policy and the equality of economic opportunity, all of which required unselfishness and goodwill.

In 1944 while the war was still in progress, the Methodist Church expressed its commitment to an international organization through a program called the Crusade for a New World Order. This consisted of a number of phases including mass meetings, special services in local churches, preparation and distribution of literature, house-to-house visitation and writing letters to public officials. The Crusade had its origin in the Council of Bishops which designed and provided leadership for the The Crusade platform stated,

The members of the Methodist Church, as citizent, desire such action by the United States Government, as will insure full participation in, and continuing cooperation with, such international organizsations in the political, economic and other fields as may be necesary to end war, to establish world law and order, economic and racial justice, and to guarantee the freedom of the individual.4

A large number of Methodist people in all parts of the country participated in this program. While the precise influence of the Crusade for a New World Order cannot be measured, it probably contributed to the American public's acceptance of the United Nations, which was organized a year later.

Methodist faith in the United Nations continued even after it became apparent the organization was not going to be as effective in solving problems as had been hoped. The 1948 General Conference passed a resolution which approved the formation of the United Nations and urged increased financial support for that body. It went beyond the United Nation by stating that, "Believing that permanent peace requires the taking of steps toward a federated form of world government, we look beyond the United Nations to the development of world government.5

Four years later the 1952 General Conference said, "Our best political hope of peace lies in the United Nations."6 The body went on to call for the revision of the UN Charter so that it might become a kind of world government.

Foreign Aid

The Methodist Church responded to the devastation wrought by World War II by mobilizing the denomination to raise funds for relief and rehabilitation. This program, called the Crusade for Christ, raised vast sums for a variety of of causes around the world. However, the magnitude of the problem made it clear that private institutions could not meet the need, so the Methodist Church called for government involvemnt in relief efforts. The 1948 General Conference stated "There must be large scale government appropriations on a non-partisan basis, given for the welfare of the recipients."7

Throughout the entire period since Word War II Methodism has urged government-supported relief efforts and has preferred relief that was channeled through international organizations. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation has been given unqualified support.

In the immediate postwar period, the church supported the European Recovery Act (known as the Marshall Plan), although there was concern that it might result in American military, economic or cultural imperialism. The church also gave its enndorsement to the technical assistance program of the United States Government. It supported programs for aid to displaced persons and advocated legislation that would increase the number admitted to the United States.

Methodism was to continue to support private and govemment aid programs. It has insisted that such aid be provided on the basis of the recipients' needs, and it has deplored making such aid contingent on the adoption of courses of action favorable to the United States. The church has been opposed to the predominance of military aid in some parts of the world and has officially reaffmned this position to the present day.

The Korean War

The Korean War presented the Methodist Church with a now and difficult dilemma. It was first a war under the auspices of the United Nations, an organization the church strongly supported. Second, it was a limited war sometimes called a "police action." Third, as a resort to military form, it brought about opposition from the pacifist segment of the church. Finally, the existence of the atom bomb introduced a new and unknown factor, the potential for destruction on a scale not known before.

The conflict between Mothodism's commitment to United Nattioiis and its devotion to pacifism made the problem more acute. The UN had officially called upon its member nations to resist the invasion of South Korea. Could the church oppose the war and support the United Nations? The result was an ambiguous and confused response.

The Commission on World Peace issued a particularly biguous statement five months after the outbreak of hostilities. It urged that force be kept to a minimum. Communist aggression was deemed unjustified, but it was seen as part of a long series of events in which national self-interest governed national policies. These events included the division of Korea, the Yalta agreements and inadequate concern by Western nations for the economic health and security of Oriental peoples.

The bishops were more supportive of the war. Shortly after the conflict began they urged prayer for the nation's leaders and for those doing the fighting. The Episcopal Address to the 1952 General Conference affirmed the action of the United States in defending the Republic of Korea against Comrqunist aggression and paid tribute to those who had been killed.8

The General Conference of 1952 avoided dealing specifically with the Korean War. It reaffirmed support for the United Nations, stating that, "Long before it took action to resist aggression in Korea, it had proved its usefulness for peace-making in such troubled areas as Palestine, Kashmir, and Indonesia."9 The conference did receive a message of greeting from the Korean president, Syhgman Rhee, a Methodist who had been a lay delegate in 1912.

The ambiguity Methodist leaders felt about the Korean War was even more pronounced a decade later when the nation became involved in the Vietnam conflict.


Probably no subject had a greaterimpact on life in the United States in the immediate post-World War II period than the American reaction to communism. This was not a new development, but the conflict probably reached its greatest intensity in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Methodist Church did not escape the controversy. The denomination had its critics on the far right who were convinced that the liberals were out and out communists. It also had its left-wing radicals whose statements and actions so paralleled the Russian stance that even liberal church leaders became concerned.

To understand the position of the Methodist Church two factors must be taken into consideration. First, the denomination was strongly opposed to communism. This was the official stand of the church and represented the leadership as well as the rink and file clergy and laity. The position of the church was clearly stated in official pronouncements. The Episcopal Address delivered to the 1948 General Conference by Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam said, "We reject communism, its use of dictatorship, its fallacious economics and its false theory of social development."10

Four years later in 1952 the bishops asserted, "The communist threat must be met; to surrender to it or to be overcome by it is to forfeit the supreme values underlying our highest culture and our Christian gospel."11 The 1952 General Conference made its position clear by passing legislation which stated,

There can be no condoning the ideology or practice of communism.... Its atheistic totalitarianism and its tendency to infiltration, clever deception, ruthless violence make it the major foe of Christianity and freedom in the world today.12

The second factor was the tendency for Methodist leaders to separate communism as a philosophy from its embodiment in the Soviet Union. Communism was perceived as a rival faith which was challenging Christianity. They did not believe the communist challenge should be met with superior armed might but by following two courses of action concurrently.

The first was to create such a good example of democracy in the United States that the rest of the world would want to adopt it for itself. The assumption was made that if America achieved racial and social equality and adequately provided for the needs of its citizens, it would present an example which other peoples would not be able to resist. This concept was stated in the 1948 Episcopal Address: "The most certain way to destroy dictatorship abroad is to establish democracy at home."13

The second course of action was to alleviate the sources of social discontent that caused people to accept communism. The 1952 Episcopal Address, in addressing Christianity and communism, said,

Our basic problem is world revolution....Hundreds of millions of human beings living in abject misery, oppressed, underprivileged and disillusioned, are rising to demand release from squalor, poverty, famine, discrimination and exploitation....Our problem turns out not to be communism but revolution, and communism is a perverted and godless way of directing revolution to its own evil ends.14

Methodist people were reminded that the world situation was, at least in part, due to the failure of the church. They were urged to put forth the effort and make the sacrifices to eliminate the conditions which made connnunism viable. Such a call did not take into consideration the nature of international power, the historical development in the countries involved and the sociocultural variations that influenced political situations indifferent areas of the world. This perspective represented an overly optimistic view of the institutional power of the church to direct social change.

These two assumptions are important because they provide a basis for understanding subsequent Methodist actions. When the United States was unable to create the society that would be an irresistible example to the rest of the world, some church leaders became increasingly disillusioned and hostile toward America. When other nations - for many complex reasons ranging from over-population to the lack of natural resources - were unable to progress toward a higher standard of living, the United States and its institutions, such as the multi-national corporations, were blamed. Thus the theory of how society should develop was allowed to remain intact while reasons for its unworkability were found elsewhere.

The Methodist Federation for Social Action

In any study of the Methodist position on social issues and its reaction to communism in the postwar period, the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) looms large. Founded as the Methodist Federation for Social Service in 1907, this small and unofficial organization had greatly influenced denominational policy for more than forty years. Among its founders were such church leaders as Herbert Welch (later bishop), Edgar J. Helms (founder of Goodwill Industries) and Frank Mason North (Mission Executive). The federation was recognized by the General Conference of 1908 and given smi@-official status.

Through its first forty-three years the NTSA had among its leaders some of Methodism's most prominent churchmen. Its status may have been unofficial but its leadership assured that its impact on denominational policy would be great. Prominent among its leaders were Harry F. Ward, who became secretary-treasurer at the organizational meeting in 1907, and Bishop Francis J. McConnell, who became president in 1912. Both men held these offices until 1944.

The MFSA was to fulfill a significant role in Methodism until the early 1950s. For more than four decades it provided the forum for the development of Methodist positions on social and economic issues. The increasing move toward a radical left stance ultimately resulted in the resignation of many prominent church leaders and the withdrawal of some local chapters, events from which the MFSA never recovered. While it continues to exist and publishes a bulletin, it is largely ignored. It gets little notice in the church press; most United Methodists today an probably unaware of its existence.

However, in its early days the then Methodist Federation for Social Service was a source of constant controversy. It brought to the church's attention a wide range of social and economic problems and issues which it sought to correct. It reported to the General Conference and had an impact on the formulation of what frequently became the denomination's official positions.

Two events in the early 1930s had a significant effect on the direction of the MFSA. The first was a visit to Russia in 1932 by Harry Ward. Ward was favorably impressed with the progress being made toward a new social order in contrast to the economic situation in the Western world. The second event was the near-financial collapse of the federation in 1933 - because of the Depression members could not provide their usual support. Out of these experiences grew the organization's decision to give its all to the abolition of what was perceived to be a dying capitalism. This emphasis was illustrated by a statement adopted by the general membership in 1934 and subsequently carried on the masthead of Social Question Bulletin. This described the federation as "An organization which seeks to dolish the profit system and develop the glassless society based upon the obligation of mutual service."15

The coming of the Great Depression completed the change of direction for the Methodist Federation for Social Service. From its beginning through 1920 the federation had attempted to persuade local churches to provide more social services to persons in their communities. In the 1920s the emphasis begin shifting toward working for social justice in the larger society. With the coming of the Depression, the federation adopted the goal of transforming the entire society, an emphasis which it continued through the 1930s and 1940s.

Harry Ward and Bishop McConnell resigned in 1944, ending an era in federation leadership. Ward was replaced by his former student at Union Theological Seminary, Jack R. McMichael. The new executive had a history of affiliation with radical organizations, and soon the MFSA was embroiled in intense conflict. While the organization had been consistently under attack by groups within Methodism, the matter was now taken up by the secular press and the U.S. Congress. The validity and the documentation of the charges varied, but the attention of Methodists and of the general public was drawn to the Methodist Federation for Social Action. The 1947 meeting of the MFSA in Kansas City was covered by reporter Frederick Woltman. The first of his articles in the Scripps-Floward newspapers was entitled, "Minority Group Gives Reds Sounding Board for Their Party Line."

Church leaders rallied indignantly to the federation's defense and unsuccessfully demanded that Woltman's Pulitzer Prize be revoked. The MFSA had most recently been endorsed by the General Conference in 1944, and a group of bishops, pastors and lay persons prepared a statement endorsing the federation and asked that the commendation be repeated. But no official action was taken by the 1948 General Conference; the MFSA had survived the attacks thus far.

The most resounding attack came in February 1950 when Reader's Digest published an article entitled "Methodism's Pink Fringe."16 The author was Stanley High, a Presbyterian layman who had graduated from the Boston University School of Theology and who had been active in identifying communists and persons with communist leanings in the churches. The article dealt mainly with the statements by the MFSA and by denominational leaders who were also officials of the MFSA. While the story did not - and could not - have represented the stance of the approximately five thousand MFSA members, it did represent that of the radical leadership of the organization.

The reaction to the article within the Methodist Church was explosive. Some denominational leaders again rushed to the defense of the MFSA. A rebuttal was printed in pamphlet form and circulated widely. Church members may have been shocked by the information, but leaders insisted that they were the victims of a smear campaign.

The MFSA had for many years advocated drastic changes in American society. One such alteration was the replacement of an economy based on the profit motive with socioeconomic planning that would develop a classless society. Under the leadership of Jack McMichael, the MFSA moved toward an even more radical stance, on political and economic issues and increasingly provided a platform for apologists for the Soviet Union. Liberal Methodist leaders, including many affiliated with the MFSA, were not connnunists. However, they and the MFSA had long been under attack by right-wing extremists, and they rallied to the defense of the MFSA when the Reader's Digest article appeared. They had good mason to fear negative consequences to the, church of such an article, especially one appearing in a respected magazine with a large circulation. So Reader's Digest was accused of conducting a smear campaign. It is probably safe to say that at least part of Methodism has never forgiven the Reader's Digest. Still, some Methodists were indignant over what the MFSA was doing and took action to correct what they believed to be an intolerable situation. The bishop in Houston appointed a clergy and lay Committee for the Preservation of Methodism to study the situation. In 1951 this group published a book entitled, Is There a Pink Fring in the Methodist Church?, which had a circulation of 50,000.17 They also prepared a memorial (petition) to the 1952 General Conference asking that the MFSA and its sympathizers be repudiated.

The Reader's Digest article was not an unfair account of what the radical element in the MFSA was doing and saying. It did not deal with the ongoing conflicts between the moderates and radicals within the federation, but it accurately portrayed a certain group in the MFSA.

The Reader's Digest article did bring the radical's activities to the attention of the Methodist constituency and the general public. Many Methodists were shocked; most were embarrassed. However, the article did not spur the decline of the MFSA, which had already moved farther left than the liberal church leaders were willing to go. Despite their spirited defense of the church and MFSA from attacks from within and without, some prominent Methodists had already left the federation. Others were to follow. This probably would have happened even without the publication of "Methodism's Pink Fringe."

Resignations which spelled the end of the influence of the MFSA included Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam's in 1947 and Ralph Diefendorfer's (head of the Division of World Missions) in 1948. When a 1951 attempt to force McMichael to modify his position or resign failed, other prominent Methodists resigned. These included Bishop L.O. Hartman, Dean Walter G. Muelder of the Boston University School of Theology and theologian L. Harold DeWolf. The radicals maintained control, but the organization was permanently disabled.

The resignations of so many prominent Methodists and the withdrawal of a number of local chapters were followed by a request from the Methodist Board of Publications that the federation terminate its occupancy of offices in the Methodist Building in New York. The final blow came when the 1952 General Conference repudiated the MFSA. This body took action stating that only the General Conference could speak for the church, that the Methodist Church did not approve of many of the statements and policies of the MFSA, that the NESA did not speak for the church, that the word "Methodist" be removed from the tide and that the General Conference approved the Board of Publications' action evicting the federation from its building.

The word Methodist was not removed from the tide, which remained the Methodist Federation for Social Action (unofficially). But from that point on the MFSA ceased to exert a significant influence in Methodism. Although some denominational leaders were later attacked for being pro-communist, and Bishop Oxnam's exoneration by the House Unamerican Affairs Committee was still to come, the General Conference of 1952 was the formal turning point in Methodism's move toward the radical left. While a church as large as the Methodist Church will inevitably encompass persons on the extremist fringe, by the action of 1952 the liberal leadership of the denomination backed away from the radical left.

The End of An Era

In the late 1940s the Methodist Church returned to its official prewar pacifist stance that had been modified during World War II. It had taken a strong position favoring international cooperation and support for the United Nations. Foreign aid by both private agencies and government had been, and would continue to be, supported. Communism was seen as a rival faith to be opposed, but as an ideological position it was somehow separated from daily life in the Soviet Union. The turmoil over the official position of the church on these matters had become focused on the bitter controversy over the Methodist Federation for Social Action.

The General Conference of 1952 was a watershed in Methodism. It repudiated the Methodist Federation for Social Action (unofficial) which had virtually been abandoned by the denominational mainstream. The McCarthy era had not quite run its course, but its end was rapidly approaching. The fighting still continued in Korea, but negotiations were underway and it would end the following year.

The Methodist Church in 1952 established a Board of Social and Economic Relations, an agency which paralleled the Board of World Peace and the Board of Temperance. Henceforth a broad range of social and economic questions and world affairs would be assigned to official agencies responsible to and funded by the General Conference. The remaining eight years of the 1950s in many ways were very different from the immediate post-World War II period. It was to be a time of membership growth and institutional expansion, of optimism about the future of both the church and society.

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