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

When the 1950s are viewed in terms of the periods that came before and after, that era looks relatively tranquil. The fighting in Korea ended in 1953 with an uneasy but successful truce. The Cold War continued but, with the exception of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, it was a kind of long-term crisis which people came to accept as something with which they had to live.

For Methodism the period 1952-1960 was a time of optimism. Church leaders recognized that they faced critical and complex issues. However, as one reads the material from this period, there is the sense that church leaders felt spiritual forces would prevail and the problems, however difficult, would be managed. The optimism may have been cautious, but it was optimism nevertheless.

The 1950s were a time of membership growth for Methodism. When the 1952 General Conference met, membership stood at 9,065,727; by the end of the decade it had increased to 9,910,741, a gain of 9.3 percent. This was also a period in which approximately 165 new congregations were being organized annually in the developing suburbs across America. The 2.2 percent net decrease in the total number of congregations from 39,906 to 39,008 did not dampen the optimism with which Methodists viewed their church and its role in society.

The denomination turned its attention to issues that were to a large extent internal and domestic. In addition to organizing new congregations and erecting new church buildings, an increasing amount of attention was given to the inner-city communities of the metropolitan centers. The civil rights movement was beginning to take shape. The Montgomery bus boycott had already occurred, and the Greensboro sit-ins took place just before the 1960 General Conference.

The tone was set in the 1952 Episcopal Address. Speaking for the bishops, Paul A. Kems, after describing the problems faced by the church and society, called for "an awakened Church, touched with fearless prophetic fervor and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. May Methodism find its place in this divine drama of a new world order."1

The 1950s saw the Methodist Church continue much the same policies regarding peace, communism, relief, foreign aid and the United Nations. There were no drastic shifts during this period.


The 1952 General Conference affirmed what by then had become the denomination's traditional stand on peace. Christianity and war were perceived to be utterly opposed. The individual, when faced with the dilenum of whether or not to participate in war, must make his own decision, but it was clear that the pacifist stance was preferred. The church stated, "What the Christian citizen may not do is obey, men rather than God, . . .or gloss over the sinfulness of war."2

Attitudes of individuals were seen as the conditions which could create peace, The claims of each state to individual sovereignty, the failure to apply the rule of law to international relations, self-righteousness, economic self-interest, deliberate falsehood and reliance on military force were the causes of war. The Christian gospel was perceived to be the answer to these evils. The General Conference noted that the church can be an agency of great power for the establishment of a world community.

Similar resolutions passed by the General Conference of 1956 and 1960 stated that the attitudes which resulted in war could be changed by spiritual forces inherent in the church. Religion could provide the bonds of community which could transcend national boundaries. Christians were seen as being in a strategic position "to make the Gospel articulate in world affairs to the end that peace may become real and dynamic."3

Throughout this period the Methodist Church continued to call for universal disarmament and for utilization of resources expended on the military for constructive and peaceful purposes. In 1960 the General Conference called for all governments to declare as their goal complete, universal and enforceable disarmament. In 1960 the church also called for the cessation of all nuclear tests, an agreement that outer space and atomic energy would be used for only peaceful purposes.

Military Service

The Methodist Church continued to take a strong position against universal military training and urged that the United States give bold leadership which would result in a United Nations' abolition of peacetime conscription.

The church took the position early that it was more desirable for an individual faced with military service to become a conscientious objector. The denomination assured this person of full support. Furthermore the church urged that persons who wanted to be conscientious objectors on other than religious grounds be granted that status.

However, the church recognized that Methodist youth would serve in the armed forces. These persons were to receive pre-induction counseling and be provided with material on the wise use of leisure time and the challenge of Christlike living during their military service.

The General Conferences of 1956 and 1960 took a strong stand against ROTC programs in both state schools and church-related colleges. The denomination was urged to increase support for church schools that lost revenue by discontinuing ROTC.

Support for the United Nations

Methodist support for the United Nations continued through the 1950s and into the 1960s. Ile major difference from the earlier period was that world government received less emphasis. Neither the 1956 nor the 1960 Discipline contained a statement on world government. More attention was given to specific methods for strengthening and utilizing the United Nations. Methodists seemed to be developing a more realistic view of what that organization could and could not do. The denomination's continued support for the UN was expressed in a 1952-1956 quadrennial program, the Crusade forworld Order. This was a denomination-wide educational program which, among other goals, was to mobilize public support for the UN.

Statements of support were made by various groups within the church. In 1956 the General Conference added a section on international cooperation to the Social Creed. This stated that "We believe that the United Nations, as the agency and symbol of international cooperation, should be given our support. . . "4 The 1960 Social Creed also expressed Methodism's faith in the international body, "The United Nations provides our most hopeful avenue leading to peace and world order. . . ."5

The Council of Bishops added its endorsement of the United Nations, stating in 1954 that "The United Nations. . .serves to remind us that there is another kinship besides the brotherhood of faith - it is the brotherhood of universal need and yearning. . . .The United Nations is our best hope for world peace."6 Methodist support for the United Nations has been a prominent part of the denomination's policy since the end of World War II. This support has continued to be expressed in official statements, in educational programs promoting awareness of and support for the UN and specific lobbying efforts on behalf of that organization.

The quadrennial General Conferences have officially continued to place the church on record as supporting the United Nations and other international agencies. The General Conference in 1980 included the following statement in Social Principles.

Believing that international justice requires the participation of all peoples, we endorse the United Nations and its related bodies and the international Court of Justice as the best instruments now in existence to achieve a world of justice and law.7

In 1961 the United Nations suffered a severe financial crisis. An intense lobbying effort was undertaken by the Division of Peace of the Board of Christian Social Relations in support of the UN. Communications were sent to some seven thousand persons who had been organized as Methodist Peace Covenanters and to certain annual conference officials urging that they support the purchase of a UN bond by the United States. Particular effort was made to have persons contact undecided legislators. While it is impossible to measure the impact of the lobbying effort, Congress eventually approved the plan favored by the church.

In September 1963 a twelve-story building from the United Nations in New York was consecrated. The building was erected by the Board of Church and Society with substantial subsidy from the Women's Division of the Board of Global Ministries. In 1982 this building was purchased by the Women's Division for two million dollars plus the cancellation of 3.2 million dollars indebtedness. The structure, called the Church Center at the United Nations, houses offices of several denominations. It serves as a place where Methodists fro across the country come to be briefed on international issues and to learn about the UN. Several thousand persons continue to participate in such activities annually.

Confidence in the United Nations and other international organizations as the best way to secure peace and justice has been an accepted part of the Methodist social faith for almost half a century. There are no indications that this is likely to change.


Throughout the 1950s the Methodist Church continued to take a strong position against Communism. This was most evident in the messages of the Council of Bishops. After a decade in which this group did not issue any statements, seven were made between 1952 and 1958.

Responding to the charges of disloyalty among the Protestant clergy, which were Prevalent during the McCarthy Era, the bishops in 1952 asserted,

We are unalterably opposed to communism, but we know that the alternative to communism is not an American brand of fascism. . . Victory over communism belongs to the triumph of spiritual idealism. . .8

The ruthless suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 brought a strong response from the Council of Bishops who condemned the Soviet action. The bishops stated, "The Soviet structure of armed power rests upon foundations of materialistic atheism. It is destitute of moral scruple and devoid of moral principle."9 The bishops' solutions adopted by the General Conference of 1960 did not include anything dealing with communism, but it did state that the Christian religion stands in direct opposition to materialistic ideologies prevalent in many Parts of the world. Presumably, Communism would have been included in this category.

As the Period Ended

As the decade came to a close, two trends were beginning to emerge which were to be of increasing significance in the following period. The first was church awareness of the struggle toward self-government taking place in many of the colonial territories of the world. The 1960 General Conference indicated its support of struggles for self-government and urged aid for the people involved.

The second trend was the decrease in the optimism that had been evident as the period opened. This can be illustrated by a message from the Council of Bishops which in 1958 called for reappraisal of international policy and contemporary theology.10 They felt that America had lost the initiative and was responding to the action of others. The restless millions of the world were seen as awaiting positive proposals that would express American idealism and programs that would establish peace, economic justice and racial brotherhood.

Events of the 1960s were to prove that the bishops' concern was justified. They seemed to indicate that both the nation and the church had lost the initiative. Serious theological. differences were to rock the church. The nation and the church were to experience a resurgence of radicalism which would have a long term impact on both.

Web Site Designed and Maintained by JCN

|| Home || Introduction || Stewardship Report || The Unofficial Confessing Movement || Lifewatch ||
|| Independent Committee on Alcohol and Drugs || News Update || Advisory Board ||
|| Case Studies || Testimonies || Interconnection into the United Methodist Church ||