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

In the 1960s three factors demanded the attention of Methodist people. The first was the civil rights movement with its accompanying turmoil. The sit-ins at Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, occurred shortly before the 1960 General Conference. The decade experienced the civil rights struggle and the destructive urban riots in the Watts Districts if Los Angeles, Newark, Detroit and a score of other cities across the nation. Meanwhile the Methodists struggled with what to do about the Central Jurisdiction, the branch of the denomination consisting of only black congregations. The racial issue was the most prominent and controversial matter confronting Methodists in that decade.

The second factor was the Methodist-Evangelical United Brethren merger which took place in 1968. A great deal of the time and energy of church leaders was given to preparing for this event. The merger required two adjourned (extra) sessions of the General Conference, one in 1966 and another in 1970. Futhermore, reorgnization of the denominational boards and agencies was set in motion in 1968 and completed in 1972. This also occupied a great deal of the church's time and energy.

A third factor was the escalation of the war in Vietnam. As the 1960s progressed American involvement in the war and conflict over this involvement increased. As the decade drew to a close Methodists were sharply divided over this issue.

Caucuses and Alliances

Caucus groups within Methodism emerged in the 1960s. There have of course always been special interest groups formed to achieve certain goals. Some, like the Methodist Federation for Social Action, had for a time quasi-official status in that it made reports to the General Conference and had among its leaders many prominent church officials. What was different in the 1960s was the increase in the number and importance of caucus groups. These organizations embraced a variety of diverse causes and were at times in direct conflict with each other as well as with certain official bodies. They contributed to the politicization and polarization of Methodism, a condition which continues to exist.

The caucus groups emerged as like-minded persons joined together to support what they felt were desirable goals, to oppose undesirable actions or, as was usually the case, to engage in some combination of the two. Some caucuses were short-lived while others have become permanent features in the United Methodist landscape. Some have been entirely self supporting, raising their funds from their members. Others have received substantial subsidies from official church agencies. The former are groups that are working for goals shared by the agencies. A caucus, because of its independence, can take more extreme positions than can a church agency. The caucus can do things which the official agency, because of its accountability to the denomination, cannot. Thus a board or agency can sub-contract its more radical agenda to a caucus.

Some of the caucuses represent ethnic and language constituencies such as Hispanics, American Indians and Asian Americans. Black Methodists for Church Renewal also continues to be a large organization. Those ethnic caucuses tidvo received substantial subsidies from the denominational agencies.

A large and well-organized group, the Good News movement, represents the evangelical wing of Methodism. This organization is self-supporting and is probably the largest of the caucuses. Out of the Good News movement came the Evangelical Missions Council which was organized by evangelical missionaries and was absorbed into the Mission Society for United Methodists. Affirmation is a caucus of homosexual persons which by church law cannot receive funds from the denomination.

The caucus groups within United Methodism are ever changing so that any statement concerning them would immediately be out of date. Their activity increases as General Conference approaches.

In addition to the in-house caucuses which give attention to internal matters, the church boards and agencies enter into alliances with a wide range of secular groups. Such alliances do not necessarily mean joint programming and often have virtually no visibility. They often consist of grants to the group from some unit in the denominational bureaucracy. However, the aliance may include staff services or even joint sponsorship of programs. Most clergy and laity are unaware that this occurs. The purpose of many of the organizations receiving funds is to influence some aspect of American public policy. Non-church groups are more likely to be involved with international affairs than are the denominational caucuses.

The funds given by the denominations to secular groups serve two purposes. The first is to support the organization. Any group working for a particular cause needs all the money it can secure. Second, and perhaps more important than the money itself, is that support by a church legitimizes the goals of the organization. Receiving money from a denominational agency effectually says that the organization and the causes for which it works have the approval of the church and are right and just. This is of particular importance if the group's goal is to influence public policy.

Providing funds to secular groups is a method by which denominational bureaucrats can support radical goals. Such persons are employed by church boards and agencies whose funds come from the members. Thus a church agency is under some constraints and cannot take too extreme a position without running the risk of alienating its constituency and endangering its own support. However, any bureaucrat worth his or her salary can avoid such constraints by transferring funds to an organization which may engage in activities disapproved of by the people who provide the money. Few persons will even be aware of this delegation of authority.

If this process seems less than forthright and honest, it is because it is. Nevertheless it is a technique used by board and agency staffs to support radical causes which the vast majority of their constituents would probably oppose.


When the General Conference of 1964 met in Pittsburgh, domestic and internal issues headed the agenda. A major study of the episcopacy had been completed, and proposals for changes required action. The Board of Missions was to be reorganized for the first time in a quarter of a century. But the most important issue was race and what to do about the Central Jurisdiction, the all-black branch of the church.

The 1964 General Conference affirmed its traditional stand on peace but continued to state this in broad temis. The Episcopal Address reminded Methodists that salvation is in God, not in material might and military defense. The bishops affirmed the absolute necessity of disarmament and stated that while there will never be a safe world, "the risks of disarmament are as nothing compared with the risks of the continuation of the arms race."1

The General Conference did adopt a resolution brought by the Christian Social Concerns Committee which dealt with many aspects of peace. Like the Episcopal Address this resolution was in general terms and did not address specific international conflicts. The resolution began with a statement on the danger of nuclear destruction, said that the resources expended on armament and called attention to the futility of civil defense. The resolution stated,

We encourage the leaders of all nations to seek out programs that can be executed on their own initiative, often without international agreements, which could encourage conciliatory attitudes in others.2

In only one matter did this General Conference make a specific foreign policy recommendation. It urged a re-examination of the policy of isolation toward mainland China and Cuba. Such a policy was perceived to be increasing the bitterness and hostility of these countries and to be inconsistent with the reconciliation inherent in Christian gospel.

The Christian Social Concerns Committee also approved a resolution on Southern Africa, although it specifically said it was not for publication in the Discipline. This resolution condemned apartheid in South Africa, the intransigence of Portugal in regard to Angola and Mozambique and the restrictive legislation imposed on the black majority by the white government of Southern Rhodesia.

The United Nations

The support for the United Nations continued through the 1960s although the optimism about what that organization could actually accomplish seemed on the decline. Faith in the UN remained high in 1964. The General Conference adopted a resolution which urged that all nations be included in the UN, that the member nations provide adequate financial support and commended the UN for its success in reconciling differences, promoting human rights, improving the levels of health, education and welfare, and advancing self-government. The conference also urged the ratification of the conventions of genocide, abolition of slavery, the political rights of women, the stateless person and the abolition of forced labor.

Four years later an abbreviated version of the same resolution was passed by the General Conference. Much of the language is identical. It conveys the impression that nothing significant involving the UN happened between 1964 and 1968. However, the Methodist Church continued to be favorably disposed toward that body, so the previous resolution was apparently taken out of the file, edited slightly and resubmitted to the General Conference.

The Vietnam War

Throughout the latter half of the 1960s, controversy over the Vietnam War permeated the church as it did the entire society. Methodist people were divided over the conflict. As the decade progressed feelings about it became more intense and the controversy more bitter.

To understand the position of the Methodist Church on the Vietnam War, three factors must be noted. First, the official pacifist position, in place since the 1920s, was still firmly held by many prominent church leaders. This had survived World War II and the generalized anti-war sentiment was of course focused on the unpopular conflict in Vietnam.

Second, the church was preoccupied with the turmoil in the United States. Sections of many American cities were literally being burned down. The student rebellion was threatening the existence of institutions of higher learning. While the war in Vietnam and the civil violence were linked, the church could more readily respond to events at home. For example, the Episcopal Address to the General Conference of 1968 devoted nine pages to the crisis in the American city and three to matters relating to war and peace. This General Conference authorized a special twenty-two-million-dollar campaign, the Fund for Reconciliation, to be used for a wide range of programs in the cities.

Third, the war was so divisive that throughout the 1960s it was impossible for the church as a whole to take a decisive stand, even though some leaders took an anti-war position. The resolutions passed by some church organizations at times took an anti-war position critical of American involvement or expressed a desire that the conflict end with neither side gaining an advantage; they favored ending the conflict in a way that there would be no winners or losers. Meanwhile, there were many Methodists (probably the majority) who supported the war in spite of personal misgivings. While the church deplored war, no specific and clear official Methodist position emerged. Not until 1972 was the General Conference able to pass a resolution clearly condemning American participation in the Vietnam War. To have attempted to arrive at one earlier would have been destructively divisive. It was a rare community in which there was not at least one Methodist family with a member directly involved in the war. Nevertheless, a sufficient number of the leadership elite opposed American involvement in Vietnam, and enough anti-war resolutions were passed by church groups to convey the impression that this was the official Methodist position.

The bishops were the first group to speak. In November 1967 the Council of Bishops issued a statement on Vietnam. They commended the President of the United States for continuing to call for negotiations, said they were appalled by the suffering which the war had already caused and expressed concern about the effect of the conflict on the international situation. They proposed that the governments of the United States and South Vietnam declare a cease fire and maintain their positions. They also suggested that a team of negotiators be sent to a neutral place to meet with all parties under the auspices of the United Nations or the Geneva Convention. The bishops urged that the United States affirm that "the purpose of the negotiations should be to establish the right of self-determination for the people of South Vietnam and . . .the phased withdrawal of all foreign troops. . ."3

When the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren delegates met in Dallas in 1968 to unite the denominations, the country was in turmoil. The worst urban riots in the country's history had occurred. Campus violence was increasing; the student rebellion at Columbia University actually took place while the General Conference was in session. The Vietnam War was at its height, although discussions about peace talks had been initiated.

The issue of war and peace took on a very specific character. The Episcopal Address condemned war as a method of settling international disputes. It stated that force carried within itself the venom of its own destruction. The bishops made it clear that they felt American policy regarding military activity was self-destructive. They were specific in their illustrations.

It may be true that in war we have never wounded an enemy in the same degree in which we have wounded ourselves. Is it possible to murder without becoming a murderer? Can individuals or nations lie without becoming liars? Need we note the U-2 incident, the Bay of Pigs event, the Dominican Republic accident, the Gulf of Tonkin happening, the most recent pueblo embarrassment? Can we embrace chicanery and savagery without becoming contaminated?4

It is noteworthy that the Episcopal Address contained references to the U-2 incident and the Bay of Pigs. These events had actually occurred seven and eight years earlier but were not mentioned in the 1964 addresses. The use of these pre-Vietnam illustrations reflected the degree of anti-military sentiment among these church leaders.

While Methodist people deplored the war, there was no consensus as to what course of action the government should take. Because of this, the issue was potentially divisive. Support of the war for some meant loyalty to one's country, standing with those persons who were fighting and dying and obeying the laws of the land. For others the war was perceived as a monstrous evil that should be resisted and avoided at all costs.

The lack of consensus on what should be done about Vietnam was illustrated by an incident at the conclusion of the morning session of the second day of the 1968 General Conference. A delegate who was a prominent pastor secured an extension of tim to make what he described as a non-controversial motion.

We commend the President of the United States for his recent move to enter into negotiations with North Vietnam, and call upon the government of the United States to fulfill its repeatedly expressed offer to send a representative anywhere, anytime to make such talks possible.5

The debate that followed made it clear that for the assembled delegates this issue was anything but non-controversial. The argument against the motion held that the church was telling the government how to proceed and was thus giving direction in an area in which it had no competence. Time ran out and the conference refused to extend the session. The body dealt with the issue by simply letting the matter die.

The 1968 General Conference ended without taking an official position on the Vietnam War. The sentiment of the delegates, like that of most of the country, was that the conflict should be brought to an end. The United Methodists, of course, did not know how to accomplish this. However, they could and did discuss related issues. One of these was the matter of civil disobedience. Did an individual, because of his opposition to the war, have the moral obligation to resist even if it meant breaking the law? Should the church support such persons? This issue was almost as divisive as the war itself.

Because the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren Churches united in 1968, the General Conference called for an adjourned special session to be held two years later to make any needed adjustments in the denominational machinery resulting from the merger. It soon became apparent that the extra session was not needed, but once a General Conference decides to meet again there is no authority in the church to overrule that decision. Thus what was referred to as the "General Conference that nobody wanted" convened in April 1970 in St. Louis. Because it was an adjourned session of the 1968 General Conference, the body was made up of the same persons who had met in Dallas two years earlier.

Between 1968 and 1970, the anti-war movement had grown. Campus violence was at its peak. Radical elements within the church were at the height of their activity. An organized group disrupted a worship service at Centenary United Methodist resulting in several arrests. A group of radical students Church who called themselves the "Submarine Church" were present to protest and disrupt the proceedings. At one meeting an elderlv bishop was knocked down by protestors. The General Conference lasted one week. On the final day it adjourned earlier than anticipated when it was discovered that a quorum did not exist because so many delegates had left. So ended what was the most chaotic General Conference in modern times.

By 1970 more church leaders were outspoken in their opposition to the Vietnam War. The bishops set the tone in the Episcopal Address.

We deplore the present war in Vietnam. What began ten years ago as an effort to assist a friendly nation on a modest scale has become a fiasco which presently is impossible to justify. . .
We urge the upgrading of the Paris peace talks so they will quickly become effective. We commend the plans to urge the acceleration of the withdrawal schedule as rapidly as possible without jeopardizing the safety and welfare of civilians and armed forces in Vietnam and of all nearby nations.6

This General Conference did not refrain from making specific suggestions on the Vietnam issue. One resolution recommended that the United States arrange a conference of all nations involved in the Vietnam War. The purpose of this proposed conference was to "consider and recommend the establishment of a broadly based government or coalition in South Vietnam."7

The strongest anti-Vietnam War statement of the 1970 General Conference was made in a devotional address by Bishop A. James Armstrong. Using quotations from a variety of sources to make his points, Bishop Armstrong declared that the United States was becoming a society dominated by the military, characterized the South Vietnam government as a "corrupt police state," quoted a former State Department official as saying that "the central activity of our government is planning and carrying out wars" and used illustrations to show that Americans killed in Vietnam had died needlessly in an immoral and unjust war.8

The bishop made his anti-war position synonymous with being Christian.

And Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God". . .We don't have to accept the ethical imperatives of a new covenant if we don't want to. If we choose to reject love and justice and peace, well and good. We have the right. But we must bear in mind what else and Who else we are rejecting in the process.9

While this statement was a devotional address, it also represented the viewpoint of the more radical anti-war church persons. It is important to note that this view clearly expressed distrust of the United States government. This attitude expanded include other American institutions. Such distrust continues be evident in certain groups within United Methodism.

When the special session of the General Conference of 1970 ended because it lacked a quorum, there were many who breathed a sigh of relief. Bishop John Wesley Lord made a closing statement in which he tried to put the best interpretation on the conference.

The Conference that no one wanted became the Conference in which God has spoken to his people. . .The church has declared war on racism, poverty, pollution, and indeed on war itself, as an instrument of national policy. We have declared that love is now. . .10

When the newly elected delegates to the General Conference met in Atlanta in the spring of 1972 the Vietnam War had not yet been brought to an end. Although the fighting was still going on, the number of American troops was being reduced and the peace talks were continuing. Nine more months would pass before a peace treaty would be signed, and three more years would elapse before South Vietnam would fall before an invasion by North Vietnam.

The Episcopal Address in 1972 did not mention the Vietnam War. However, a resolution on Indochina was brought before the conference which not only condemned the war but affirmed America's responsibility and guilt. This resolution read,

We who are American delegates to the 1972 General Conference. . .are therefore moved to confess our complicity in this violence and death. We have sinned against our brothers and sisters, against the earth and our Creator. We have paid our taxes without protest; we have closed our eyes to the horror of our deeds; . . .We are exposed for caring more for the lives of Americans than for Asians. . .We call upon the leadership of the United States to confess that what we have done in Indochina has been a crime against humanity. . .11

The resolution concluded with seven specific recommendations for ending the war. One was that the United States should declare its intention to pay reparations to the victims.

As would be expected there was substantial opposition to substitute this resolution. A minority report was offered as a which expressed the church's desire that the war be ended quickly. It stated, "This body does not attempt to fix blame on either side."12 However, it called attention to Hanoi's failure to abide by the Geneva Convention for the Protection of Prisoners of War, which it had signed in 1957, and other actions of North Vietnam which were prolonging the war. There was a less anti-American tone to this resolution than in the original. The minority report lost by a vote of 534 to 405.

When the General Conference rejected the minority report, the delegates from South Korea walked out in protest. Later in the day they had a statement read which said in part,

If the United Nations forces did not help our Nation during the Korean War, there could not be Christians and Christian Churches and freedom for all in the Republic of Korea. . . If the North Vietnamese did not invade South Vietnam and other adjoining countries, there would be no war in Southeast Asia. . .13

Thus the General Conference passed the resolution which put the United Methodist Church officially on record as saying that the United States bore the responsibility and guilt of the Vietnam War and had acted immorally in regard to Indochina. The General Conference permitted those who voted against this resolution to have that fact made part of the record. Ninety-four delegates went on record as voting against the resolution.

The General Conference considered two other matters related to the Vietnam War. The first dealt with prisoners of war and directed the Board of Christian Social Concerns to work with appropriate groups to ease the plight of the prisoners and their families. The other dealt with amnesty for the draft resisters. The resolution called for a general no-questions-asked amnesty. A minority report called for granting paroles to persons imprisoned for refusing to be inducted into the armed services and requested that the government consider leniency in prosecuting draft resisters and deserters. However, the more radical original resolution calling for a general no-questions-asked amnesty was adopted.

In 1972 the General Conference declared America's guilt for the Vietnam War and the Methodist people's share of it. The church finally stated clearly that it viewed the war as immoral and that those who had been killed had died in vain. This extreme anti-war position in all probability contributed to the adjustment difficulties of those who fought in Vietnam and to the anguish of the families and friends of those who were casualties. While the anti-war resolutions tended to express a concern for the participants and the families of the casualties, it was clear that the church's official sympathy was with those who refused to take part. The returning veterans not only endured the trauma of war but were also told by religious leaders that their efforts and sacrifices had been immoral and in vain. This made a difficult situation even more burdensome for those who had done the fighting.

The Legacy of the Sixties

The events of the 1960s made an impact on the United Methodist Church which has continued to the present. The first long-term effect was the shattering of the church's self-confidence and optimism about the effect it was having on the improvement of society. The advocates of the social gospel had for more than half a century been working to make life better for all. The urban riots by the poor on one extreme, and the campus violence and destruction by the privileged on the other, were clear signals that the assumptions that the church had made about its role in society were incorrect. Methodist leaders responded by making the expressed needs of certain groups in society the basis for their actions rather than the tenets of the gospel and the Christian tradition. Relevance became the key word. The phrase among certain leaders was "Let the world set the agenda."

A second impact of the 1960s was the loss of confidence in American institutions by some religious leaders. The Vietnam conflict had been defined as an immoral war for which the United States was responsible. Therefore political leaders were not to be trusted. This anti-government sentiment was extended into a general anti-establishment attitude. "The establishment" was an inclusive term which encompassed a wide range of social and economic institutions. The increasingly negative attitudes toward the American capitalist economic system in general and the multi-national corporations in particular are one of the products of this era.

In some respects the 1960s were, reminiscent of the 1930s. When the economic system seemed to break down during the Great Depression, church leaders looked for an alternative theory. Some found it in Marxism. When American foreign policy failed to achieve the desired results in Indochina, some church leaders looked for an alternate form of government and foreign policy. They found it in Marxism. With the upheavals of the 1960s and the unsuccessful Vietnam War as evidence of the failure of American institutions, some persons became enamored with the only other missionary-type faith available, that based on the Marxist-Socialist model.

A third legacy of the 1960s was the creation of specialized agencies, and the redefinition of the task of existing agencies, to deal with the problems in society. Methodism, like many other denominations, appropriated substantial sums of money and created specialized bureaucracies to respond to social crises. This had two results. The first was to increase the power and sense of importance of the national church boards and agencies. These organizations after all were perceived to be carrying on the work of greatest significance. Second, it decreased the importance of the local churches. These were necessary to provide funds to support the bureaucracy, but other than that, they were seen more as it part of the problem than a part of the solution to the ills of society.

A fourth result of the 1960s was a challenge to authority. The decade was a time when authority at all levels of society came under attack, and the church was no exception. However, once an authority system breaks down, it cannot be put back together again. The impact of the breakdown during this period can be seen by the number of groups which are attempting to gain power in the denomination. The present confusion over authority is to a significant degree the result of events in the 1960s. It has yet to be resolved and appears to be an issue with which the denomination will struggle in the period ahead.

The turmoil of the 1960s provided the context for the re-emergence of radical leadership in the denomination. The Vietnam War ended, and the racial turmoil and violence in the denomination subsided. United Methodism turned its attention inward to reorganizing the denomination, and an attempt was made to change the direction of the church by changing the direction of the national boards and agencies. The struggles came over internal issues as groups vied for control of the church.

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