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Protestantism in America: A Narrative History by Jerald C. Brauer


Jerald C. Brauer is Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor and Professor of History of Christianity, formerly Dean of the Divinity School, University of Chicago. He is also Editor of The Westminster Dictionary of Church History. Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 16: War and the Gay ‘20’s


Carnegie Hall, in New York City, scene of many outstanding musical performances, was in 1905 the scene of a truly momentous event for American Protestantism. Representatives of the thirty leading American Protestant Churches gathered there to discuss possible plans for co-operation and unification. Though America was a country of many different Churches, each competing against the other, it had never lost the vision of the Churches working together in the spirit of unity.

During the nineteenth century there were many organizations that attempted to bridge the differences between the Churches of evangelical persuasion. Among them were the Home and Foreign Missions Societies which received support from several denominations. In 1846 the Evangelical Alliance, a world-wide movement of evangelical churchmen, was founded. At one time it counted members of over fifty Churches engaged in its activities. It embraced primarily England and America but also included other nations.

During the latter part of the century there was a growing appreciation of the union movement. Most groups were not willing to enter a true organic union; rather, they felt that some type of confederation which made possible particular coordinated actions was best. Each denomination was fully independent but agreed to surrender certain prerogatives with regard to general problems such as defense of the faith, spread of the gospel, and moral reform.

As America faced new tasks in religious life, two main problems appeared basic. First was the question of the Churches’ relation to the rising social and economic problems. Would not greater strength be found for meeting this new challenge by pooling the wisdom, energy, and plans of the Churches? Second was the question of unrestricted competition among the Churches. Was this not both un-Christian and very impractical?

At the New York meeting in 1905 a plan of federation was worked out creating the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America. It stated that its purpose was the prosecution of work that could better be done in union than in separation. Each member denomination was to be represented by 4 delegates for every 50,000 communicants. All problems were to be decided by a majority vote of the general delegates.

Among the stated objects of the Federal Council were:

"I. To express the fellowship and catholic unity of the Christian Church.

"II. To bring the Christian bodies of America into united service for Christ and the world.

"III. To encourage devotional fellowship and mutual counsel concerning the spiritual life and religious activities of the Churches.

"IV. To secure a larger combined influence for the Churches of Christ in all matters affecting the moral and social condition of the people, so as to promote the application of the law of Christ in every relation to human life."

Delegates enthusiastically returned to their respective Churches to plead for their participation in the Federal Council. In Philadelphia, in 1908, after a sufficient number. had signified their acceptance, the Federal Council officially came into being. Co-operating in it were both social gospelers and conservatives, modernists, and the strictly orthodox. They had tacitly accepted a truce on theological discussion in order to concentrate on a task in which they were all at one -- action in the spheres of public morality and social evils. It was decided that no group should surrender its integrity on theological beliefs; theology simply would not be discussed.

All groups were firmly united in the belief that the Churches lived in a great age and had a rare opportunity to further the reign of God’s blessed Kingdom. Ahead was an age of peace and plenty if only the Christian forces could be marshaled to strike a deadly blow against the forces of greed, war, and selfishness. Liberal and modernist, conservative and orthodox, all believed that the real need was for "applied Christianity." Ignorance was to be overcome by knowledge, selfishness was to be conquered by service, and war was to be blotted out by fellowship.

How were the Churches to go about their contribution to the coming Kingdom? This was not an age of words but a time for action! Social activity was the mark of the hour. Vast problems had to be attacked. Public morality and general goodness were being corroded by vast waves of "pagan" immigrants, by crime, poverty, and industrial strife. This was the first line of battle.

This concern for the social problems produced by the new economic life in America was clearly expressed by the adoption, in 1908, of the Social Creed of the Churches by the Federal Council. It became the springboard for much pulpit eloquence during the early twentieth century.

"To us it seems that the Churches must stand --

"For equal rights and for complete justice for all men in all stations of life.

"For the right of all men to the opportunity for self-maintenance, a right ever to be wisely and strongly safeguarded against encroachments of every kind.

"For the right of workers to some protection against the hardships often resulting from the swift crisis of industrial change.

"For the principle of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissentions.

"For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational disease, injuries, and mortality.

"For the abolition of child labor.

"For the regulation of the conditions of toil for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.

"For the suppression of the ‘sweating system.’

"For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practicable point, and for that degree of leisure for all which is a condition of the highest human life.

"For a release from employment one day in seven.

"For a living wage as a minimum in every industry and for the highest wage that each industry can afford.

"For the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.

"For suitable provision for the old age of the workers and for those incapacitated by injury.

"For the abatement of poverty."

So the social gospel had won the day. Not all delegates in the Council were in agreement with the above statement; many felt that the real evils faced by workingmen were alcohol and working on the Sabbath, but the principles were approved by most members. This was not a basis for a political program, nor did it favor radicalism. Stress was on education and persuasion with the principles only as the ends toward which society was moving.

In the Federal Council the Churches found the stimulation and the channel through which to discuss and promote their social responsibility. It provided study groups and published findings to clarify major issues facing modern Christianity. It exhibited not only a concern for the rights of the workingmen but also for minority groups in America. Negro Churches were admitted to the Council on equal basis with whites. Again, the Council studied the causes of social conflict and deplored its presence in nation and Churches. In Christ there was neither Negro nor white. It was a sin for Christians to treat their Negro brethren as inferiors. It was the Council that sponsored conferences and literature on this problem.

Meanwhile, there were other pressing problems facing American Christians. Nearly all the major American Protestant Churches -- the exceptions were the Lutherans and Episcopalians -- favored either a drastic reduction of or prohibition of all alcoholic beverages. The Council became a center for the struggle against the liquor trade. While it fought against this, it also carried on a crusade against war. Just as they favored arbitration in industrial strife, so they did in international relations. The teachings of Jesus were to become the basis of settling all international disputes. One of the most important sections of the Federal Council was the Commission on Peace and Arbitration. Active until the war, it slipped for a time into inactivity.

So the Churches of America in the early twentieth century exhibited much the same concern that characterized them before the Civil War. The center of American Protestantism was the denomination with its constant push for more members. In direct competition with all other Churches, it could not forget that it was also one with other Churches. Though the denominations maintained all their historical and theological differences, they were driven together in a spirit of fellowship for action. Reform was still the mark of American Protestantism. Just as Lyman Beecher saw the Churches acting through the tract, Bible, and missions societies of the 1820’s, 1830’s, and 1840’s, so Lyman Abbott saw the Churches declaring a truce in theological strife in order to work through the Federal Council for reform.

In 1914 the world was stunned by the news of world war between the Central European powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary and the Allied powers of England, France, and Russia. Yet nobody should have been taken by surprise. For almost a quarter of a century Europe was teetering on the brink of war. Engaged in a mad scramble for raw materials, markets, and strategic ports, the European nations had divided between themselves the continents of Asia and Africa. It was a bitter rivalry which more than once almost resulted in open warfare.

Of all people in the Western Hemisphere, the Americans were most surprised by the advent of World War I. They too had taken some part in the scramble for colonies, yet their small commitments won from the Spanish War and their constant pressure on South America in no way deeply involved them in the intrigues and race for Asia and Africa.

The immediate reaction of the American people was to remain neutral, and under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, son of a Presbyterian minister, they set out to do so. Their wishes turned out to be only a dream. They could not remain neutral and do business with the warring nations. Yet they insisted on doing business with both sides as Americans had always done in European wars. Profits mounted, but so did the tension.

As the British placed a strict blockade around the German ports, Germany retaliated by extensive submarine warfare. As the war dragged on, the propaganda favoring the Allied cause mounted. Some men within the Churches favored a peace by arbitration as did President Wilson, but others painting the picture of inhuman Germans, the "Huns," demanded their total and complete defeat.

Meanwhile, American preparations went on. Wilson had been re-elected in 1916 on the slogan, "He kept us out of war." Within the nation two great forces were fighting for the future. One was the pacifist and neutrality group which wanted to remain out of the war. The other was the militant pro-war group. Both groups had numerous clergymen as members.

In April, 1917, when Germany reopened unrestricted submarine warfare and when the last peace proposal had been turned down, America entered the war. Large segments of the population were still doubtful about engaging in the war. But the presses and pastors combined to stand behind the nation in order to marshal public opinion.

Suddenly the pacifist movement was all but swept from sight. Ministers stumbled all over themselves to prove their patriotism and to endorse the war. One Christian pastor said: "It is God who has summoned us to this war. It is his war we are fighting. . . . This conflict is indeed a crusade. The greatest in history and the holiest. It is . . . a Holy War."

So the Churches became recruiting centers and propaganda agencies for the nation at war. Cross and flag were united in common service. The General War Time Commission of the Churches was established to get the fullest possible co-operation from all denominations. Even the Liberty Loans were hawked through the Churches, and the temples once more became centers for the money-changers.

Also, the Churches were in the forefront in spreading the so-called atrocity stories about the German nation. Most of these were absolutely false or were doctored versions of true incidents. All these stories were used to bolster the idea that America was fighting to save democracy from Prussian militarism and Christian civilization from the Hun. The Kaiser became the personification of the devil, and the German armies became the minions of hell.

So the American troops marched off singing "Over There" and "I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy," firm in the conviction that they were fighting to save the world for democracy and Christianity. Only one evil force was guilty of starting the war, only one foul foe committed horrible atrocities, and these men and people had to be utterly crushed and punished. There was no difficulty in recruiting sufficient chaplains to accompany the troops. Wherever men fought the Germans -- in idea or by weapon -- the Church was in the forefront.

In November of 1918 the big guns were silenced; peace had come. Americans shouted with exaltation. The barbarous enemy was defeated, civilization was saved, the world was safe for democracy. The Churches rejoiced that God had gotten America the victory. Through it all walked the figure of Woodrow Wilson, who wanted a just and honorable peace with no vindictive treatment of the vanquished and with a guarantee of world peace through a world organization of national powers.

In that spirit Wilson, holding high his fourteen points for a just peace, went to participate in the peace talks. At Versailles he encountered the vindictiveness of the French and the reluctance of the British. He returned home with only the promise of a League of Nations. Secret agreements and revenge buried the hopes and plans of Wilson. A rude awakening was followed by an ill temper on the part of the American people. They had been betrayed!

Isolationism was the normal reaction. After fighting a war at a high emotional pitch, they discovered that all their idealism and good intentions were scoffed at as unrealistic. Why become involved in any more European intrigues? We had gained only graves for American boys and little thanks from our allies. What many an American forgot was the three years of rich trade that none seemed willing to turn down, 1914 -- 1917.

Wilson was repudiated; his ideals were denied. No League of Nations for America; henceforth, Europe could fight its own battles. Democracy had not triumphed -- Communism conquered Russia, and a terrible economic recession gripped Europe. So the nation turned on Wilson and his peace plans and turned to the Republicans and Warren Harding, who promised a return to what he called "normalcy." That is what America wanted, the good old days of 1900-1914. But such days were gone forever.

Meanwhile, the Churches underwent a period of deep repentance. Thoroughly disillusioned by the European peace settlement, many began to question the Church’s share in the war. As historians laid bare the evidence of faked atrocity stories and the smooth operations of the propaganda machines, clergymen were repentant of the extremes to which many Christians went in supporting and spreading war sentiments.

Out of this came a genuine peace movement. Many leading pastors who had supported the war turned against all war and became avowed pacifists. Such outstanding men as Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick and Dr. Sherwood Eddy, and many others, became pacifists. Under the editorship of Charles C. Morrison, the outstanding Protestant journal, The Christian Century, had vigorously supported the war but now took a pacifist stand and called for the clergy never again "to put Christ in khaki or serve as recruiting officers."

During the 1920’s and 1930’s the peace movement grew in the Churches until it embraced most of the great preachers in the big city churches and a host of clergymen in most of the denominations. The liberal theology and social gospel emphasis combined to bring about a new devotion to the Golden Rule and the teachings of Jesus as the "basis of American foreign policy." Along with this was the constant emphasis on America participating in an international league in order to promote arbitration and international righteousness. The Federal Council had special reports published on these basic problems facing Christians.

While part of the nation was busy turning its back on Europe and concentrating on the United States, another part was trying desperately to see to it that war would never again be the policy of a Christian nation. Though they worked from opposite ends, both wanted the same goal -- peace! Both thought the world was entering a new era of Christian achievement.

Little wonder that the nation was possessed with optimism. After a short business recession during 1921-1922, the country hit its economic stride. Onward and upward went prosperity. Business boomed, speculation increased, and almost every phase of economic life showed expansion. Even the population increased seventeen millions between 1920 and 1930. But in spite of tremendous increases in wealth, farmers and laborers did not share fully in the prosperity.

A revolution was taking place in America -- it was but one more stage in the industrial revolution. Completely new industries developed overnight. Though the automobile was invented before the war, it was not until after the war that Henry Ford mass-produced the famous "model T." Soon automobiles were the possession of large numbers of American families. Highways spanned the nation and covered the states. Gas stations, eating stands, garages, and billboards marked the landscape. Once more America was on the move.

Also invented at the turn of the century, the airplane developed as a common and safe means of transportation after the war. Soon it was competing with the railroads and buses for passenger service. Communication had been revolutionized by the radio. Gas lights had been replaced by electricity which also performed a hundred tasks for the housewife. Even recreation was completely changed by the movies. The America of the gay ‘20’s was a brash, new, growing, inventive, optimistic country. It was the nation of local clubs and booster organizations, and of unbounded self-confidence. It was the nation of big business.

The same spirit of hustle and drive bolstered by the latest high-pressure advertising technique invaded the Churches, conservative and liberal alike. Lighted bulletin boards, weekly parish papers, the printed Sunday bulletin, and the use of radio marked the new age. Every gadget and technique was used by the Churches. A sign on the corner announced that First Church was two blocks east, and it held two services each Sunday morning. Out in the country, just before entering town, a billboard in a strategic place announced the location of South Church and invited all to attend "the friendly church."

More and more stress was placed on the growth of the Church as an institution; hence the stress on advertising to persuade the people to come in. Because of this emphasis, much of the advertising was in bad taste and at times somewhat bizarre. Even the calling of the ministry was reconceived. The modern successful minister had to be a go-getter -- a man who knew the name of every person he met, and a man who kept a complete file on every member in the congregation. At a moment’s notice he could flick through the cards and brief himself on the little personal facts of a family or person, the remembering of which made a call seem so personal and thoughtful. A combination psychologist and business executive, the pastor had little time and less inclination to study or produce sermons with theological substance. Theology and doctrine were largely ignored.

But the Churches were growing. More members were brought in, larger and newer buildings were constructed, and income went up. People were urged to join a church for the sake of the community. Did it not teach children the moral rules of life? Furthermore, it was becoming ever more simple to join a church. Indeed, it was often more difficult to get into the local Rotary or Lions Club, to say nothing of the Masonic Order. In fact, the church was just one more organization in the community competing for the loyalties of people who belonged to four or five such clubs or groups. The church had changed a good deal since the early Puritans demanded a satisfactory public profession of faith before the entire congregation for admission to membership. Few Methodist pastors would think of requiring a strict personal examination of an applicant’s faith by the members of a class. But was not the Church prosperous and growing? Just between 1920 and 1930 it had added 5,500,000 members.

Also, the Church was not inactive in doing works of mercy. In a magnificent way it responded to the need of the various Churches and people suffering from the war. Vast sums of money for refugees and the war destitute were raised and distributed by the Churches. In addition to the regular agencies such as Red Cross and Y.M.C.A. the Churches created new centers for giving. The Alliance for World Fellowship was one such group. The Lutherans were particularly active among the Protestants in helping their German brethren.

Another mark of the Church during the postwar years was the increasing pressure toward Church union. Though the Federal Council was only a federation of Churches, its life and work was a constant reminder of the divisions that existed between Protestant Churches and of the possible life in organic union. Many of these groups were drawn closer together by their action in behalf of better social conditions and public morality. Their most successful campaign was that which finally made the use of alcoholic beverages illegal. Prohibition was made official by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, 1919, and was to be enforced under the Volstead Act.

A number of organic unions took place between Church bodies with similar background. Norwegian Lutheran groups united into one body, but a larger union was that of the United Lutheran Church, 1918. Two Evangelical bodies of German Methodist background united into one Church in 1922. So the urge for full fellowship continued.

Several Churches negotiated with each other for organic union, but without success. The Congregationalists carried on discussions with the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Universalists, and finally united with the Christian Church in 1931. The Presbyterians and Episcopalians discussed union, but nothing came of it. The Methodists took steps to unite the Northern and Southern branches which had been split by the war. The Presbyterians did likewise. None of these achieved success in the 1920’s.

The same spirit of mutual discussion and understanding moving toward the fuller realization of the oneness in Christ was strongly expressed by further international Church federations during the 1920’s. There developed a Lutheran World Federation, a Baptist World Alliance, the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion, an International Congregational Council, an Ecumenical Methodist Conference, and a Presbyterian World Alliance. Many of these started in the later nineteenth century. All these groups represented international federations of similar confessions and denominational groupings. The real thrust toward one spirit was found elsewhere.

Shortly before the beginning of the war, a great international missionary conference was held in Edinburgh, in 1910. This was one in a series of conferences in which 269 missionary societies were represented. These meetings grew out of a deep need for mutual discussion among missionary representatives in order to meet common problems on the foreign fields. How could Christians expect to gain converts in India or Africa when the natives of these lands were confronted with thirty or forty groups all claiming to be the true Church? These and other problems commanded the attention of the missionary societies.

During the war it was exceedingly difficult to continue missions. Only the Continuation Committee appointed at Edinburgh and headed by that great Christian leader from the Y.M.C.A., John R. Mott, saved the day. Under his dynamic leadership national councils embracing missionary societies and native churches alike were established. Through these groups contacts were maintained in spite of the war. All this effort for greater co-operation in missions produced the International Missionary Council as the successor to Dr. Mott’s committee. At last an organ for true co-operation was present. In 1928 another great conference was held at Jerusalem and a common message of the Church for the world was accepted.

Meanwhile, the thirst for Christian unity expressed itself through other channels as well. At the Edinburgh conference in 1910, Bishop Charles H. Brent of the Protestant Episcopal Church had keenly felt the need for a full discussion of theological beliefs in order that the Churches might find the proper mutual support in the modern world. Granting certain differences in beliefs, were there not also common beliefs and practices that should be stressed? And should not even the differences be discussed in mutual forbearance so there might be a growth in understanding?

The Protestant Episcopal Church of America then raised a general call to all Churches "which accept Jesus Christ as God and Saviour to join in conference following the general method of the World’s Missionary Conference, for the consideration of all questions pertaining to the Faith and Order of the Church of Christ." Unfortunately the war prevented an immediate meeting, but in 1927 at Lausanne, Switzerland, almost all the major Christian Churches throughout the world, with the exception of the Roman Catholic, were present. Discussion was a definite step toward mutual understanding, and for the first time in Christian history the Church representatives departed, after discussing differences, without excommunicating one another.

While the Churches were seeking common grounds in missionary work and doctrinal discussion, they found an area where they could exert even greater co-operation -- the life of working together in facing the social tasks of the Church. In 1925, Stockholm, Sweden, witnessed the first of the great modern councils of the Church. Under the guidance of the Lutheran primate of Sweden, Archbishop Söderblom, the meeting came into being. Here were discussed the Church’s relation to education, international affairs, social and moral questions, economics, and the problem of co-operation among Churches. Here again differences and similarities were brought to light. The much more active approach of the British and American Churches was quite evident. The social gospel was finding an international outlet, but it was also faced by a thorough Christian critique.

While a steady move toward fuller co-operation and a growing consciousness of the unity of all Churches pervaded the international scene, not all was peace and harmony at home. The gay ‘20’s was not only an age of prosperity and building for the Churches, it was also an age of violent disputes, bizarre sects, and radical shifts in belief.

The optimism and pacifism of the social gospel was dealt a terrible blow by the First World War, and German scholarship had undermined its theological basis on the teachings of Jesus. These teachings were not the program of a twentieth century liberal to bring in the Kingdom of God; rather, they were the absolute demand of the Kingdom itself which Jesus believed would come at any moment. So, argued these scholars, one could not base a social program on them.

In spite of the war’s terrible blow against the advance of the Kingdom and in the face of this new German scholarship, the social gospel held its grip on the gay ‘20’s. The leading pulpits of the cities resounded with the phrases "Fatherhood of God," "the brotherhood of man," "building the Kingdom of God," and "the primacy of love." One of America’s truly great preachers, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, preached such a gospel with outstanding success. One of his sermons of this type was a classic formulation of these beliefs, "The Second Mile."

In addition to the great preachers, the Federal Council of Churches, various social commissions of the denominations, and great theological schools such as Union Theological Seminary in New York, the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, and the Yale Divinity School, all presented forms of the social gospel. The very course of study in the seminaries reflected this interest. Greater time was given to sociology, social missions, social ethics, and, of course, to means of inculcating the teachings of Jesus through graded Sunday school lessons and other techniques of religious education.

But the march of liberalism and the social gospel did not go unchallenged. Some groups such as the Lutherans argued that this made a new law out of the gospel, washed out all real theological concern in favor of sheer action, and was a distortion of the full gospel of judgment and redemption. Others attacked it from another side as being largely sheer do-goodism and sentimentality. They felt that it had avoided the real problems of the day simply by running about doing things. They sought a new philosophical understanding of the Christian faith, and in doing so they seemed to be moving even farther left than the liberals

The real attack came from organized fundamentalism. Its battle lines and creed had been mapped out before the war, but it was not until the 1920’s that it struck its most telling blows. Firmly convinced that the Bible was destroyed by liberalism and that the fundamentals of the faith were not being properly taught in seminaries, the fundamentalists made an organized attempt to win the day.

One of the first groups to feel the effects of this new all-out attack was the Baptist. Several times during the early ‘20’s the fundamentalists tried to force all members in the Northern Baptist Convention to accept a creed similar to the Niagara fundamentals. They were unsuccessful, as the Baptists insisted that no creed could be forced on any Baptist churches.

When Dr. Fosdick, a Baptist holding a Presbyterian pulpit, preached a sermon on the attempts of the fundamentalists to force subscription to a creed and to decry all liberal interpretation of Christianity, he was placed under attack. He was compelled to leave his Presbyterian church, and he became pastor of the magnificent Riverside Church in New York City. But the fundamentalists pressed for victory among the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Disciples. In no group did they win an impressive victory. They did, however, make it exceedingly difficult for sincere men honestly to relate the Christian faith to modern life. So strong was their influence that they succeeded in having laws passed in some Southern states prohibiting the teaching of evolution. America was treated to the spectacle, in 1925, of Clarence Darrow, famous agnostic Chicago attorney, defending a teacher for violating such a law in Tennessee. Against him was the silver-tongued orator of the Platte, William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State under Wilson and great politician of the midwest.

So the battles waxed hot between fundamentalist and liberal with the conservatives generally taking a middle road and hoping to preserve both the peace and the freedom of the Church. Through it all the Church grew in numbers and prosperity. Movements toward co-operation and union were vigorous at home and abroad. With the mounting prosperity in the nation the Church shared in the material well-being.

But what of the spiritual welfare of the nation? This was the age of the speak-easy and bootlegger, the era of Al Capone and the infamous gangsters. It was the era of jazz and raccoon coats. America was disillusioned after the first war and the old appeal of the Churches no longer struck the usual responsive chord. People were still very much interested in Christianity, but somehow they equated the gospel with a general friendliness and brotherhood or with a sober, diligent life of no drinking, no smoking, no swearing, and no dancing. But this was not enough. Where was the gospel of a repentance that went beyond simply certain external moral actions? Where was the fullness of the message of redemption for all of modern life?

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