How Baptists Assessed Hitler
by William Loyd Allen
Mr. Allen teaches church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is a doctoral candidate. He is pastor of Rolling Fork Baptist Church in Gleanings. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 1-8, 1982, p. 890. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Crossing the border was a dreaded experience. After all I had read in American and foreign newspapers I was prepared for a tense atmosphere. The impression lingered around me that police would be everywhere; spies would be listening to our talk; danger lurked around the corner; and many similar kinds of bogies. Then, besides, it was the day following the assassination of Chancellor Dollfuss in Vienna. Really I dreaded a repetition of August 1914 [Watchman. Examiner XXII 34 (August 23, 1934)].
As he entered the hall, Bradbury saw a huge painting of historic Baptist figures William Carey, J. G. Oncken and Charles H. Spurgeon standing at the foot of a cross. Alongside this trinity hung an equally imposing flag of the Third Reich -- a vivid reminder of the bloody June purge of many of Hitler’s former friends and the repression of the Jews.
Most delegates, like Bradbury, entered Berlin with a spirit of opposition and a feeling of apprehension. Despite their fears, most Baptists in Berlin spoke boldly against the racism, nationalism and militarism so prevalent in the Germany of 1934. Louis D. Newton of Atlanta moved that the Alliance accept strongly worded commission reports against nationalism and anti-Semitism. George W. Truett of Texas introduced a hotly debated peace resolution which urged governments to surrender whatever national sovereignty necessary to establish an international authority for peace in the world. The Baptist World Alliance also passed a strong resolution on the separation of church and state. Some delegates empathized with the plight of the German Baptists. John R. Sampey, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, wrote:
While everywhere the Baptists from other lands were treated with marked courtesy, some of us felt that our German Baptist brethren were uncertain and disturbed concerning their future. They talked little, but the atmosphere seemed to some of us charged with uneasiness and fear. . . . Our Baptist brethren in Germany face a very grave crisis. They will find it difficult to be loyal both to Hitler and the Lord Jesus [Western Recorder CVIII 34 (September 6, 1934)].
Unfortunately, not all Baptist delegates to Berlin interpreted the tragedy of the German situation as perceptively as Sampey did. Some responded favorably to Hitler’s fascism. “Quite a number of correspondents of our Southern Baptist papers writing about the BWA seemed to have a kindly feeling and a good word for Hitler and his regime,” Wrote R. H. Pitt in Religious Herald, singling out one variety of Baptists who seemed particularly vulnerable to German propaganda. Victor I. Masters of the Western Recorder went even further, writing, “Most of the testimony we have from our brethren who went to the Baptist World Alliance in Berlin has seemed with great spontaneity and readiness to accept the opinion that all is well in Germany -- especially in regard to religious liberty.” Even Dr. Bradbury, the Boston pastor who dreaded crossing the German border, changed his mind about the Nazis.
Why the about-face? Knowing now the depth of the violence which was beginning to grip Berlin in 1934, we wonder why some Baptists, particularly Americans, were susceptible to Hitler’s propaganda. What in their appraisal of foreign affairs allowed them to be seduced by Nazism? How could they support a regime so incompatible with peace and justice?
For one thing, Baptist delegates tended to assess larger social issues through the narrow gauge of a simplistic personal ethic. The Alliance noted, “It is reported that Chancellor Adolf Hitler gives to the temperance movement the prestige of his personal example since he neither uses intoxicants nor smokes” (Official Report of the Fifth Baptist World Congress). Even Dr. Sampey, wary of the Nazis, cautioned against too-hasty judgment of a leader who had stopped German women from smoking cigarettes and wearing red lipstick in public. After being so afraid to enter Germany, Dr. Bradbury, once there, found himself delighted with the forced morality of the fascists. He wrote:
It was a great relief to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold; where putrid motion pictures and gangster films cannot be shown. The new Germany has burned great masses of corrupting books and magazines along with its bonfires of Jewish and communistic libraries (Watchman-Examiner XXII 37 (September 13, 1934).
Surely a leader who does not smoke or drink, who wants women to be modest, and who is against pornography cannot be all bad, or so the reasoning went. As M. E. Aubrey of England observed in the Baptist Times, Hitler had “brought almost a new Puritanism, which makes its appeal to our Baptist friends, and for the sake of which they can overlook much that cuts across their natural desires.” Baptists from the United States ignored the fact that interpreters were barred from even rendering the word “democracy” in Aubrey’s speech. Priority was placed on personal habits, to the detriment of larger, more vital issues.
One broad issue that interested many Baptists was an otherworldly evangelism. F. M. McConnell, editor of the Baptist Standard in Texas, complained:
The Alliance in Berlin had a program in which too much attention was designated to economic and social and political matters. . . . While it was exceedingly important that Europe, especially Germany, Austria, France and Italy, should get the Baptist viewpoint of social relations and the functions, powers and limitations of governments, it was far more important that the people of those countries should get our reasons for world-wide evangelism [Baptist Standard XLVI 34 (August 23, 1934)].
What he meant was that evangelism has little or nothing to do with the larger fabric of the economic, social and political scene. Charles F. Leek, a delegate from Montgomery, said it more plainly:
Evangelical Christianity transcends all political and social systems and finds its own manner of expression regardless. Without compromising precepts and principles it may accommodate its means and methods to shifting conditions [Alabama Baptist XCIX 36 (September 6, 1934)].
Some Baptists believed that evangelism and the world order existed on separate planes that never intersected, and that the church belonged only on the evangelistic plane. As long as governments like Hitler’s did not interfere with soul-saving, they could be tolerated.
Such a separation of spheres of reality opened the way for a militaristic and racist nationalism. Beginning with the statement “The order of redemption is effective in the Church, but does not shape the world as a whole,” Paul Schmidt, editor of the German Baptist paper Wahrheitszeuge, argued (as reported in the Official Report of the congress) that vigorous races overcoming weaker ones by force is an expression of natural law. Stating that “we must recognize the facts,” he urged the congress to stop expecting “developments that the Church cannot affect and that Jesus clearly would not bring about.” These arguments, based on an anti-Semitic motive, must have sounded familiar to Baptists of the American South. They used some of the same rationalizations to justify discrimination against blacks.
Racial pride was a strong factor. While on page three of the Alabama Baptist the editor was praising an association for having “the purest Nordic blood among a larger proportion of its people than in any other county in the state,” on page six of the same issue M. E. Dodd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was giving a lengthy defense of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. While Jews “were not to be blamed for the intelligence and strength, so characteristic of their race, which put them forward,” Dodd said that they were using influential positions gained by these characteristics “for self-aggrandizement to the injury of the German people.” Baptists of America, North and South, might well identify with talk of restraining a race that was “‘destructive by nature,” according to a German Baptist quoted by Charles Clayton Morrison in The Christian Century (August 22, 1934).
A final reason for Baptist vulnerability to Hitler’s 1934 policies was a single-issue criterion for appraising foreign governments: anticommunism. In 1934, if a government was anticommunist, it deserved recognition and support. Dr. Leek wrote:
Our observation is, that while Hitlerism is doubtless not the ultimate end, for Germany directly or Europe indirectly, it is for Germany a safe step in the right direction. Nazism has at least been a bar to the universal boast of Bolshevism [Alabama Baptist XCIX 36 (September 6, 1934)].
Dr. Dodd used the “outside agitator” cliché to defend Nazi persecution of the Jews; even in 1934, communism was considered the root of all evil. Dr. Dodd explained Jewish persecution by noting, “Since the war some 200,000 Jews from Russia and other Eastern places had come into Germany. Most of these were Communist agitators against the government” (Alabama Baptist). Hitler was not perfect, but at least he was anticommunist. That one factor was sufficient to gain him support from some Baptists in America.
Fortunately, most Baptists in 1934 took a different route, supporting soul liberty, the kinship of all persons and the separation of church and state. Still, all Christians today need to remember which paths in 1934 led some to embarrassing dead ends. Contemporary Baptists have in their midst groups supporting peace, such as the publishers of the Baptist Peacemaker at Deer Park Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and groups confronting the vital issue of world hunger, such as the publishers of Seeds at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
Will Baptists choose to follow these traditional Baptist principles of peace and justice or pluck the bitter fruit of violence, whose seeds were planted by a minority 48 years ago? The numbers, wealth and fervor of Baptists in America make an answer to this question important to all Christians.