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 17: Depression, War, and Aftermath
The summer of 1929 witnessed the peak of prosperity. President Hoover talked about two chickens in every pot and a car in every garage. Wall Street was bursting with activity as trade and speculation went dizzy with speed. Business was making profits at an unheard of rate. Everything was expanding. People talked about a new age where prosperity would wipe out destitution. There would be no poor. To be sure, not all shared alike in the booming prosperity. Farmers, never fully recovered from the 1921 depression, and laborers, though much better off, still had not won the respect of the whole community and the basic right to their unions. But these were merely little clouds lost in the endless horizon of increasing prosperity.
Suddenly the blow struck! In October of 1929 a terrible crash on the stock market resounded throughout the world. Overnight fortunes were wiped out. Within a few weeks the value of some Investments was nil, and the stocks had taken an average loss of forty per cent. The sudden plunge became a steady decline in all of American economic life.
Industry and agriculture were both hard hit. Manufacturing plants began to close down. Farm products piled up, spoiling in the fields and warehouses -- there was nobody with money enough to buy them. Slowly the railroads and other means of transportation ground to a halt. By 1932 industrial output was down one half. Banks were failing. Farm mortgages went unpaid, and the farms were seized. But there was nobody to buy them.
As great financial houses and local banks were forced to close their doors, people became panicky and started to rush to the banks to withdraw their money. Hoarding replaced banking. By 1931 nearly one billion dollars had been withdrawn. Wealthy men, made poor overnight, committed suicide. Long lines of discontented men were forming in the cities and towns as they murmured their distress and hatred. In 1929 there were 1,000,000 unemployed, but by 1933 this had grown to 12,000,000 or 13,000,000.
What was to be done? President Hoover insisted that this was but a temporary situation, and the nation would soon pull out of it. Many a politician said, "Prosperity is just around the corner." But 1929 passed on to 1930, then 1931, and finally 1932. Things got steadily worse. Many people felt that the Government was not taking drastic enough action to alleviate the distress of the poor or to overcome the economic collapse of the nation.
In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to the Presidency in the hope that he could do something. As soon as he had taken office, steps were taken to curb bank failure and hoarding; he worked out a program designed to help farmers, developed a nationwide system of relief, instituted a public works program to give the unemployed some work, attempted to develop a national recovery program for industry, and set up agencies to help home owners save their homes and businesses and their investments. Slowly but surely the nation began to recover. Much to the anger of many Church people, the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages, was repealed.
The depression had a devastating effect on the Churches as well as on the nation. In the optimistic flush of the Ď20ís many congregations had built new edifices far too large and expensive. When the depression hit, they found themselves unable to pay. Most carried their huge debts; a few rejected their obligation, thus bringing shame on the Christian Church. Colleges and publishing houses, missionary enterprises, and the social work of the Churches were all hard hit by the depression. Many an institution of the Church lost its endowment in the financial crash and had to close or had to drastically cut back its activities.
But the physical effects of the depression were only part of its devastation. It left deep spiritual and mental wounds. It destroyed the utter self-confidence of the Ď20ís, and it gave birth to a despair and lack of confidence. What an opportunity for the Churches to interpret the meaning of this event! Yet, the Churches profited little in terms of growth. There was no surge of a repentant people to the Churches. There was no appreciable increase in the numbers of churches. There was no great revival which swept the nation.
Perhaps that was good. The Churches did not lose members because of the catastrophe; neither did they make great gains. They did seem to grow in their depth of understanding the meaning of suffering and sacrifice in the Christian life. This was no time for an emotional outburst that would sweep millions into the Church. It was a time for sober reappraisal of the kind of message the Church had preached and of its relevance for modern life.
While the larger Protestant denominations were busy with their reappraisal and their ministering to the spiritual needs of the nation, there was one segment of Protestantism that profited greatly by the depression. This was the group of Churches usually called "sects." They stressed the radical, emotional conversion of the sinner and the new life lived in all holiness. They stressed the presence of the operation of Godís Holy Spirit and the rebirth through him; thus, they were called Pentecostals. Some of them spoke with strange, unintelligible utterances, most practiced faith healing, and all advocated a rigorous moral life. Among these were such groups as the Nazarenes, the Assemblies of God, and the Holiness or Pentecostal Churches.
Another type of Christianity that had wide appeal at this time of dire national distress was the adventists. It believed in the immediate return of the Lord Jesus Christ, just as William Miller had in the 1840ís. One of the most rapidly growing of such groups was that called Jehovahís Witnesses. Founded by Charles Taze Russell at the beginning of the century, it professed to be no Church and had no ministers. The leadership was later in the hands of " Judge" Rutherford, who, like Russell, turned out thousands of pamphlets and tracts.
Witnesses were to be found on every street corner passing out their paper, The Watchtower. Nobody is certain how many members they have, for they will never release figures. However, their message of the immediate coming of Godís judgment met with great appeal in an age disillusioned with the disappointments of life. It gave many faith, courage, and hope. Their slogan, "Millions now living will never die," had great appeal. Even though life was very hard, it would soon be ended, the evil would be punished, and the saints would be blessed. They refused to fight in any wars or to salute any flags. Their only loyalty was to Christ, and for him alone they were prepared to fight. Because of this, they were always under suspicion in most communities. Nevertheless, they grew.
Though the Protestant Churches did not experience a large increase in membership, except for the extreme sectarian groups, they too went through a profound and invaluable experience as a result of the depression. For too long they had preached and taught a rather shallow message which was a watering down of the full insights of the gospel. No age perfectly comprehends Godís message of judgment and redemption, but some ages become so smug in their interpretation of that message that they fail to stand under it. They often pick that side of it which justifies their own wellbeing and earthly possessions.
Though liberal theology and the social gospel contained many valuable elements necessary for their age, they also played into the hands of the age by their emphasis. People of the Ď20ís were convinced that Christianity meant literally following the Golden Rule -- doing to others as one would wish to be treated; that it stood for the gradual building of the Kingdom on earth by men of good will if only men would exert enough good will; and that through friendliness and kindness that Kingdom was slowly being built in America.
Suddenly the Protestant Churches were confronted with the stark reality of the failure of their dreams. Under all the supposed goodness and friendliness of the prosperous Ď20ís were to be found greed and pride. Man suddenly was shown to be no higher on the moral scale, no less selfish than his medieval brethren. In place of a new stage in the Kingdom of God men had arrived at a shattered economy. The consequence was a new look at some old Protestant doctrines that had been largely ignored -- sin, faith, and justification were once more relevant.
A short time before the depression struck, a young pastor left his parish in Detroit and went to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Reinhold Niebuhr had come from the bosom of liberalism, yet he had been bred in a church of Lutheran and Reformed traditions. Furthermore, in his living through the momentous events of war, Versailles, depression, and the rise of Fascism he was forced to rethink the relevance of Christianity to these events.
He attacked the illusory faith of modern man in man as an idolatry. The twentieth century believed in manís essential goodness, in his power to subdue the forces of nature and so to overcome that which holds back progress, and it believed in the presence of God at work within man and nature, bringing through manís actions ever higher stages of progress until Godís Kingdom would be established.
Niebuhr decried this naïve faith in manís ability and goodness. Man was not only good; he was also a sinner. He used his powers to make a god of himself, to pretend perfection and fulfillment in the face of his self-centeredness and disbelief. Man stood in need of repentance and faith in his Creator and Redeemer. He was not his own creator, he was a creature made in the image of God. Man could not overcome social and political problems simply by good will and by the application of the teachings of Jesus. He is not bringing in the Kingdom of God.
The social gospel was not thereby stifled. Rather, it was transformed. Professor Niebuhr had an even deeper concern for social justice and the relation of the Christian faith to economic and social problems. He insisted that two things were lacking in the old social gospel. It did not see the depth and complexity of evil in the social situation, nor did it understand that justice or the Kingdom of God could never be fully achieved by man in history.
The evils arising out of economic equality could not be solved by a simple application of the teachings of Jesus. These teachings were never intended to be used that way. The point was never reached where perfectly good men on both sides could transform a social problem into a perfect situation. Evil and selfishness could not be eradicated either from the system or the individuals, it could only be checked and made better. Thus perfection was never to be expected. Only God was perfect. Each age, each situation, had to face Godís judgment and demands. As the Christian faced this he had to seek a tolerably just solution which did not pretend to be perfect and so was always open to a new adjustment. Moving between judgment and forgiveness and not by a direct application of Jesusí teachings was the way to face social evils.
Between the Ď20ís and the opening of the Second World War there was a general shift in both the pulpit and the theological schools of America. Reinhold Niebuhr was a symbol of, and the outstanding leader of, that change. It was directly related to the change that had taken place in Europe, particularly among German theologians. It marked the return of American Protestantism to one of its genuine roots -- a deeper concern for the beliefs and theology that underlie action. Over twenty outstanding preachers and teachers wrote short articles in The Christian Century explaining how their minds had changed in the period 1930-1940. Truly a great change had come. Its full significance cannot be assessed yet.
Most liberal American pastors and theologians were not willing to change their liberalism and also retained their social concern. Of course, large numbers, particularly in the South and in the rural districts, had never accepted such a point of view. But some who had adopted liberalism wished to retain its good points while rejecting some of its false emphasis. This was a difficult thing to do and was made doubly difficult by those liberals who saw no need for a change. Nevertheless, progress was made.
Once more American pulpits spoke of manís sin and selfishness, not just as some temporary condition stemming from physical needs but as a basic pride and perversion in the very center of his will. No longer did one hear so much about the inevitable progress in goodness and the gradual building of Godís Kingdom. God was at work in history, yet also high and mighty, lifted up, beyond history -- the Creator and Redeemer. Rather than emphasis on man good will and good deeds as the basis of manís action, stress was placed on the forgiveness of sins through God in Christ, the centrality of the cross revealing Godís creative love to which man responded in trust and obedience.
So a shift occurred in American theology and preaching. This was reflected in magazine articles, in books, and in seminary curriculums. Once more, as in the past, theology was becoming the center of the training for the pastor. This really did not get under way until during and after the Second World War, but even in the late Ď30ís there was a move in that direction. What a man believes, that he will do. What are the basic beliefs of the Christian faith? How are they related to modern life? Are they relevant? If so, how can they be presented to modern man? These are not questions of techniques. They are questions of the wellsprings of life; they are theological questions.
Still another new development during the Ď30ís and Ď40ís was that of pastoral counseling. At the same time, religious education stressing movies, group discussions, and class lessons based on the latest psychological research reached its peak in the first half of the 1930ís. But it worked largely on the assumption of the basic goodness of man and the need to provide an outlet through discussion and education to release that goodness. This was in direct opposition to the new theological temper critical of liberalism; so religious education continued to rely on a theological position that no longer held the field. It too faced the necessity of rethinking its basic beliefs, and it is still engaged in that task.
The new currents in pastoral counseling arose out of the new discoveries in psychology and psychiatry and the emotional breakdown of modern man. Under the stress of complex modern life, with its speed, mechanics, and disregard for personal relationships, man found it difficult to make adjustments and to find a meaningful life. Pastors were confronted by growing numbers of mentally ill. Research indicated a close correlation between spiritual and physical health. The pastor could co-operate with the physician and psychiatrist in bringing mental health to the patient. How?
It was to answer this question that the whole field of religion and personality developed. Under the direction of the Federal Council of Churches, a Committee on Religion and Health was founded. It held conferences, published reports, sponsored lectures, and encouraged research and activity in that general area. It called for better training of modern pastors so they could play their part in ministering more fully to both the physically and the mentally ill. Seminaries undertook to train men by instruction and clinical practice. Simple conversion was not an automatic solution for all the ills of modern man.
Meanwhile, the entire world was passing through a grave economic crisis. England and France, Germany and Italy, were stricken. Russia had gone through a bloody revolution that slaughtered off the Czar and Russian nobility and placed a dictatorship of Communists in control. In the depth of their despondency Germany and Italy turned willingly to the siren ways of Fascism which extolled the glory of race and fatherland. Hitler and Mussolini took control of the destiny of Europe.
The League of Nations was powerless to stop the rise of these evil forces because it had neither the will nor the power to do so. America had turned its back on the world and said, "Let it go its own way." England and France used the League as a means of punishing Germany and of upholding their own interests. Thus, when Japan wantonly invaded China in the early 1930ís, nobody in the League was willing to take real action.
In 1934, Italy, feeling proud and strong under Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia with the blessings of the pope. America was indifferent, and the best the League could do was to impose some economic sanctions. But in 1938 Europe again had a rude shock. Germany under Adolf Hitler was on the march. First came the sellout of Czechoslovakia at Munich as fearful nations attempted to appease the German wrath. Within Germany, Hitler carried on a ruthless and bloody campaign against Jewish people treating them as social inferiors. Again America remained largely indifferent.
In September of 1939, Hitlerís armies struck Poland. The Second World War was on. Soon France, England, Russia, Italy, and all the lesser nations of Europe were drawn in. This time the United States was determined to stay aloof, yet in comparison with the First World War they were in far more danger morally and physically in the second war. This was the age of airplanes and flying rocket bombs. All indecision on the part of the nation was blasted by the Japanese bombs that fell on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. America was again at war, this time on two fronts -- east and west.
The Churches responded in this war in a fashion entirely different from that of 1917-1918. During the Ď30ís and right up to Pearl Harbor the pacifist group was the most articulate group in the Church. Through outstanding pulpits, through major religious journals such as The Christian Century, and through the Federal Council, the cry for neutrality and peace was heard. The Church had taken part in one misguided crusade; it did not wish to err again. Numerous denominations had passed resolutions condemning all resort to war and crying for peace. Yet some men, through journals such as Christianity and Crisis, edited by Reinhold Niebuhr, condemned pacifism as a denial of moral responsibility in the face of gross Nazi injustice and tyranny.
When war finally came, the Churches quietly took their stand beside the Government. This time there was little hysteria and name calling. There was a fuller recognition of the sin of war yet of its necessity. Preachers did not compete with each other, as during the First World War, to produce the most vile denunciations of the enemy. There was a sober sense of the judgment of the hour and of the role of the Church as a resource to hold back bitterness and to tap the reservoir of a genuine concern for a just and lasting peace.
The Churches participated in the war by sending thousands of chaplains to accompany the troops on the land, on the sea, and in the air. They placed service flags in the sanctuaries with a blue star for each boy in service and a gold one for each who died. They carried the grief of the nation before God in prayer. They ministered to a determined yet saddened and often bewildered people. As our troops liberated sections of conquered nations they sent food, clothing, and medicine to the needy. They established canteens and recreation centers for the troops. They supported mission fields left penniless by the war.
Thus their work was different in the second war. They were not recruiting centers for the armed services, nor were they headquarters for selling war bonds; the pulpits were not used primarily to fan the hatred and the emotions of the people against their enemies. The greater share of the American Christian activity during the second great war was that of service, consolation, and interpretation. They served both troops and conquered peoples with works of mercy. They consoled the bereaved. And above all they interpreted the war to their people as something necessary to put down a terrible tyranny and yet as something for which America too was responsible and for which the people must repent. Although certain that their cause was a righteous cause, the Churches, this time, had no illusion that they knew perfectly the will of God and were, through America, his chosen instrument.
In 1945 the whole world was stunned by the explosion of the first atom bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. Thousands of people were killed and an entire city was put out of operation by one great blast. A new era had dawned! Was it to be an age of atomic destruction or was it to be a new constructive era based on atomic energy? The latest scientific advance of man put him at the crossroads of destruction or co-operation. Under the threat of the atom bomb, Japan went the route of Germany and in August, 1945, surrendered.
What would be the shape of the new world? What would peace bring? The Allies had supposedly fought to gain basic freedoms for all peoples everywhere. Throughout the war the Churches had insisted on a just and lasting peace. In San Francisco, early in 1945, all of the great and most of the small nations of the world, with the exception of the defeated powers, signed the charter creating the United Nations. America was now committed not to turn its back on the question of injustice in any part of the world. Most of the Protestant Churches rejoiced to see the formation of this great organization to carry on discussion for world peace. Here was something worth fighting for.
Meanwhile, the Churches had been far ahead of the world movement for a United Nations; they progressed toward closer co-operation and mutual understanding all through the troubled years of the 1930ís. In fact, not even the war could really separate some of the Churches. More than one Christian prayed for his brother Christian against whom his nation was fighting. From whence came this new spirit which was largely absent during the First World War? It came from the advance of the ecumenical movement during the Ď30ís.
In 1937, another impressive meeting of all the major Christian Churches, except the Roman Catholic, was held in Oxford, England. The topic for study and discussion was to be the life and work of the Church, but so related was this problem to theology that a basic theological discussion was necessary. It was soon discovered that before one could discuss the relation of the Church to various social problems one had to have some conception of the nature of the Church. Much work was done on this before the conference met in 1937.
At the conference itself five commissions dealt with such major questions as Church and Community, Church and State, Church and Economic Order, Church and Education, the Universal Church, and the World of Nations. Here was evidence that the Christian Church was vitally aware of the major crisis facing Western civilization. In the face of Nazi Fascist and Russian Communist threat in the form of a totalitarian state, they dared to discuss the relation of the Church to the State and to raise the problem of the relation of the Church to all the nations of the world. This was a grand demonstration of the unity of the Church in the face of national differences.
The spirit of Oxford was expressed in the statement, "The first duty of the Church, and its greatest service to the world, is that it be in very deed the Church -- confessing the true faith, committed to the fulfillment of the will of Christ, its only Lord, and united to him in the fellowship of service and love."
At Oxford, American churchmen were made fully aware of the challenge to the Christian faith by the two great forms of state absolutism. They saw the handwriting on the wall, and they were led to sympathize with and understand the plight of their fellow Christians in those lands. They were also made aware of the danger of idolizing their own state. This is one reason why American Protestantism did not become hysterical with patriotism during the Second World War.
The world conference on faith and order so ably headed by the American Episcopal bishop, Dr. Brent, also continued its activity. After the death of Brent, Archbishop William Temple, of England, became the new leader of the movement. In 1937 they too held a great world conference, at Edinburgh, Scotland. There a full, frank, and open discussion of basic Christian beliefs took place. Though full unanimity was not reached, a minimal mutual understanding was. Furthermore, it was again agreed by all that in spite of the difference and because of certain common beliefs it was possible to co-operate on many practical matters. At the conclusion, the conference recommended that they should seek to join with the life and work group of Oxford to form the World Council of Churches.
The International Missionary Conference born of the Edinburgh and Jerusalem meetings had created national missionary councils in a large number of countries. In 1938, when they held another great international council, they met in Madras, India. Though war between China and Japan had been going on for several years, both the younger Churches were well represented. Two basic questions were discussed. The first concerned the relationship of the gospel to other faiths. New faiths such as Communism, national socialism, and forms of nationalism were as potent competitors as Buddhism or Hinduism. The other problem was the relation of Christian faith to reform within the Church itself. The newer Churches wanted the external Church to reform some of the jealousies and divisions and to show a greater actuality of unity.
Out of all these meetings of world Christianity came the World Council of Churches. Archbishop Temple, of England, gathered a group of Christians to discuss bringing the three international groups into one body. At an important meeting at Utrecht, Holland, in 1938, a constitution was drawn up for the World Council providing for goals and representation. At adjournment the members looked forward to the first great World Council within three years, but within one year the world was plunged into war.
In spite of the war the provisional committee continued to function and make preparations. During the war the Council was a constant reminder to Protestant Christians that they were brothers even though caught in war. This was the only visible Protestant organization larger than the nation, the only group claiming a loyalty above and beyond the nation. In Christ there was no German, no Frenchman, no Englishman, no American, no Japanese. The Churches were all faithful to their nations but their conscience had a higher and final loyalty to God in Christ.
In 1948 after the pain and bloodshed of the war, the first World Council meeting was held in Amsterdam. Christians came from every major nation, every race, every great Church but the Russian Orthodox, which was faithful to the patriarch of Moscow who could not attend for political reasons, and the Roman Catholic, which was faithful to the pope of Rome. As a topic they chose a problem faced by the world struggling for peace -- " Manís Disorder and Godís Design."
The world was given the opportunity of seeing the Church tackle the most vexing problems facing modern civilization. The representatives did not equivocate. Where blame fell on the Christians, they placed such blame and called on Christians to repent of it. With a sensitive probing they uncovered the idols of modern man and showed the judgment of God against them. They decried unrestricted capitalism which led to unjust inequalities and Marxist Communism which produced tyranny. They faced up to the increasing tension between East and West, between the Western democracies and Russian Communistic nations. Once more they asserted the judgment and redemptive powers of Godís Word against all forms of modern idolatry in the political, economic, and social realms.
Within the United States this same drive toward mutual understanding and unity expressed itself in a series of organic unions and finally in a great federation of co-operating Church bodies. In 1930 three independent German Lutheran synods united to form the American Lutheran Church. In 1930 this body joined with two Norwegian and Augustana Swedish Lutheran Churches to form the American Lutheran Conference. Along with the two larger Lutheran groups, the United Lutheran Church and the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, they made large gains in membership. During the first war there developed co-operation among all groups but the Missouri Church and affiliates until under the National Lutheran Council they founded a joint organ for co-operating on world relief, missions, student work, and other activities.
While the Lutherans were learning to get along among themselves, the German Reformed and Evangelical Churches united into an organic Church in 1934. But the most important union was that which occurred in 1939. At that time the Methodist Protestant Church and the two great Methodist Churches, North and South, which had split at the time of the Civil War, reunited. This was a great day for Methodism, making it the largest single Protestant Church in America, though there were more Baptists divided into several groups.
The effort to achieve further unification among various Protestant Churches did not cease with the successes of the 1930ís. The Congregational and Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church carried on conversations that culminated in a concrete plan of organic union. A clear majority, in both groups, favored the plan; however, some within the Congregationalists argued that the union would destroy the autonomy of local congregations and thus deny the historical Congregational view of the Church. The majority agreed that this was not the case but, rather, was in keeping with the highest Congregational traditions. The unification was stopped only by a court action obtained by its opponents in 1950. But this did not mean the end of the attempt at unification. Meanwhile, the three major Presbyterian denominations continued their discussions of organic union and in 1953 referred specific proposals for a plan of union to their ministers and churches for study.
The peace of 1945 brought no genuine peace to the world. Nazi tyranny was subdued but Communism under Russian direction arose to trouble the world. The United Nations struggled valiantly with the increasing tensions. In June, 1950, the United States, faithful to its pledge to the United Nations, went to the aid of South Korea to repel the Communist invaders from the north. Peace was an uneasy, torturous thing requiring patience as well as courage.
Under such tension a great meeting was held in Cleveland late in 1950. Four hundred and seventy-five delegates attended the formal founding of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. This was a great federation of co-operating agencies and Churches in America. It was not a new organic Church but a council or agency of co-operating Churches uniting on a common profession of Jesus Christ as divine Lord and Saviour, in order to carry on co-operative activities and discussions in such things as home missions problems, Christian education, foreign missions, and other activities. Thus it took up into itself the various co-operative agencies such as the Federal Council of Churches, the Foreign Missions and Home Missions Conferences of America, the International Council of Religious Education, and others. In the fall of 1952 the National Council released a new translation of the Bible, the Revised Standard Version. Millions of Protestants attended mass celebrations in honor of the new translation, and the entire stock of the first printing was quickly sold out. Already the coordinating role of the Council was in evidence.
The trend toward steady growth continued after the war. All the major denominations expanded their home mission work in an attempt to follow people into new areas. Concentrated programs In evangelism were carried out under able national direction. Laymen were pressed into campaigns and became evermore active within the churches. At the same time that a greater effort was concentrated on home missions, the foreign fields were not overlooked. On the contrary, many felt that a fuller foreign mission program was the best guarantee against the spread of communism and the possibility of a third world war; thus, the motivation for mission found a somewhat different basis from its earlier history among the American Churches. This was not the case with most denominational leaders nor with the majority of Christian laity; however, a considerable number of Protestant laity and some clergy felt that the political advantages of missions ought not to be overlooked. Fortunately, higher motives than these were primarily responsible for stepped-up mission efforts. The American Churches shouldered anew their responsibility of providing the major share of funds and personnel for foreign missions.
In addition to these new attempts to win people to the Christian faith, American Protestantism in the late 1940ís and the 1950ís witnessed a resurgence of the mass revival meetings. Once again large segments of Protestantism turned to the "old-time religion" as a means of extending the Christian faith. In the 1940ís there were held a series of mass youth rallies featuring conversion preaching, gospel hymn singing, and entertainment. In 1945 an official organization was founded, Youth for Christ International. Under its direction, great mass meetings throughout the nation were held, and gospel teams invaded England and Europe. Foremost among the leaders were Torrey Johnson and Billy Graham. Within one year, rallies in America gathered millions into their audiences. Following the Moody pattern, an attempt was made to strengthen backsliders, to convert unbelievers, and to get these people to join local churches.
Youth for Christ probably had more impact on people over thirty and forty than it did on those in their teens. In any case, it was the answer of conservative fundamentalist Christians to the challenge of the hour. It was, in fact, an attempt on the part of this segment of Protestantism to adopt the methods and approaches of modern communication in order to make their message more effective. Out of this came an outstanding new revival preacher, Billy Graham. Every modern medium of communication was used by Graham to spread his message. Radio, television, newspapers, and magazines were channels for this modern Moody. He created a superb organization that equaled anything produced by Madison Avenueís advertising industry. He systematically worked through the major American cities in his attempt to bring his understanding of the gospel to the American people. His message was essentially the same as that of Moody, Billy Sunday, and the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century revivalists, but somehow the appeal did not appear as great. To be sure, millions had heard and attended his meetings, but there was no evidence that his impact on Protestantism was either as permanent or as deep as was that of Moody. In fact, his influence was confined largely to fundamentalist and conservative groups, especially in the South. Moodyís impact was felt in all the Protestant denominations and left a permanent legacy in the American scene. Thus even a resurgence of revivalism no longer was the dominant force in large segments of those churches where it once ruled supreme -- in the Presbyterian, the Methodist, the Baptist, and Disciples churches in the North. Was the world facing its doom, or was the world on the threshold of a new, rich epoch? That was the question on all lips in the mid-twentieth century. Those who always saw the bright side of things were full of confidence and hope. Others who saw all the dire consequences in life were pointing the finger at doom and destruction, and that was the road taken by the contemporary revivalists. America was filled with both kinds of men, but the majority of Christians in America still appeared hopeful.
While the Churches were busy keeping pace with or even exceeding the population growth of the nation, they also found the energy to engage in huge financial campaigns to strengthen their institutional facilities. Colleges and theological seminaries were two of the foremost contributions of Protestantism to American culture. After the war, the Churches found that many of these institutions were in need of new buildings, research equipment, and general renovation. Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, and other large denominations developed multimillion-dollar campaigns to provide for the needs of their various institutions. Meanwhile, the world relief program for war-ravaged Europe and Asia went on undiminished. Not only did the Churches continue to grow and to strengthen themselves through vast additions to their physical plants, they did not relent in their aid to the European and Asian homeless, needy, and orphaned. Large numbers of displaced people were brought to America, jobs were found for them, homes were furnished -- all under the care of the Churches. Food and clothing continued to flow into Europe and Asia. In ten years the Lutherans alone contributed over $30,000,000 to such relief work. Thus the Churches did not forget the responsibility to their needy Christian brethren throughout the world while they were busily engaged adding to their own facilities in America.
By the end of 1952 over 53,000,000 Americans claimed affiliation with the Protestant Churches. The Baptists remained the largest denomination, with nearly 17,000,000 members, and they were followed by the Methodists, who claimed nearly 12,000,000 adherents. Lutherans were the third largest group with more than 6,500,000 members, whereas the Presbyterians had 3,500,000 and the Episcopalians more than 2,500,000 members. The Disciples of Christ embraced nearly 2,000,000 members, the Mormons had just under 1,500,000, and the Congregationalists were only slightly less than the Mormons.
The churches were full. More than fifty per cent of the American people thus claimed membership in them. If one included people who had occasional contacts through baptism, marriage, and burials, the percentage would have been much higher, probably seventy or seventy-five per cent. This was by far the largest percentage of church membership in American history. At the time of the nationís founding, only eight to ten per cent of the population were directly connected with churches. Apparently, America was going to church more and supporting the denominations more vigorously than ever before in history. Not only were more people in the churches, there was also greater financial material wealth in them than ever before. Building mortgages were paid, new structures for worship went up, and numerous beautiful new parish houses were constructed. All the Churchesí many institutions were in better financial condition than they had been since the 1920ís. Hospitals and houses of mercy had improved their facilities and paid off old debts, colleges had added large numbers of students and almost doubled their physical capacities. Thus from the outside, the denominations appeared to be in excellent condition.
Not all was as peaceful and serene, however, as it appeared on the surface during the early 1950ís. At the very moment that the Churches seemed most successful there was an alarming outbreak of literature that attempted to speak to the conscious and subconscious insecurity of the church-going population. All religious groups in America seemed possessed by the drive to find "peace of mind." The foremost Protestant exponent of the search for techniques to produce peace of mind on the part of parishioners was a nationally syndicated minister of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, Norman Vincent Peale. His most famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking, remained on the best-seller list in American bookstores for more than one year. This was followed by numerous other books and a stream of articles syndicated throughout newspapers and magazines in the United States. The titles indicate the content of concern: "The Art of Living" and "The Guide to Confident Living." Underneath the wealth, drive, ambition, and optimism of the American people there was obviously a deep sense of insecurity that Christian theology was not meeting. Dr. Peale applied the latest techniques of psychology with practical means of controlling oneís fear and insecurities. This was the new gospel as preached by thousands of American ministers who followed in the footsteps of Dr. Peale. His counterpart in Roman Catholicism was Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen; but it was the Jewish rabbi, Joshua Loth Liebman, who wrote the first best seller in this category, Peace of Mind.
The uneasiness and insecurity that underlay the façade of optimism and wealth in the American Churches was further demonstrated by the almost hysterical outburst of anti-Communist sentiment in large segments of the American public. It was not easy for Americans and for Christians in particular to live side by side with Communists in the modern world. This was particularly difficult for Americans who in the past could simply ignore their enemies or quickly defeat them. In the new situation enemies appeared to be here to stay; in an atomic age it appeared impossible to defeat them without mutual annihilation. There were those in Protestantism who tended to identify the will of God with America and the activities of the devil with world Communism. Therefore, anybody or any group attempting to pronounce a word of judgment against any form or injustice within American life was identified as pro-Communist or anti-God. There was constant pressure from within and without the Churches to eulogize everything in American life and to decry all criticism of existing society. Agencies of social concern in the Churches were attacked as exceeding their authority in publishing statements on such problems as race relations or economic inequality. In the summer of 1952 the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches was forced to take a vote on the propriety of the activities of its Council for Social Action. Fortunately, the right of the council was upheld. This was but symptomatic of the uneasiness in many denominations over the social concern and actions of the various boards. This attack on social concern was not sporadic and unorganized. On the contrary, it came from strongly organized centers that were well financed. Under the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy, of Wisconsin, and certain other members of Congress, a national Communist hunt was carried on and extended into almost every facet of American life. The Protestant Churches came in for more than their share of vilification. In spite of attempts to paint a vast plot on the part of world Communism to take over and dominate the American Protestant Churches, the best evidence that could be produced pointed to a handful of well-intentioned but sometimes naïve clergy who had at times been used by Communist-front organizations or by the party itself. It was not until Senator McCarthy was "condemned" by his colleagues in the United States Senate in 1954 that anti-Communist hysteria was brought into control.
The early 1950ís appeared almost totally contradictory. On the one hand, Protestantism and religion in America appeared to be in the midst of a great revival. Religious books were avidly read, millions of people attended revivals, a popular TV program was that of Monsignor Sheen, prayer breakfasts were held by President Eisenhower and by Congressmen in Washington. University and college campuses regularly held religious emphasis week. Larger numbers of students were attending theological institutions than at any period in American history. At the same time, in spite of all the attention paid to religion, Americans seemed more insecure and less sure of themselves than they had in the days when not so many of them were present within the Churches. Many feared that Communists were about to take over the nation and that the Churches were rapidly becoming a fifth-column agency to aid and abet the enemy. Others looked to the Churches to give them a sense of personal security and some measure of peace in a world of turmoil. They did not wish the Church to prick the conscience at the same time that it sought to bring a profound sense of forgiveness and release from the burdens of the guilt of modern man.