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 18: The Problem of Renewal
At the very height of external success a few prophetic voices were to be heard reminding the Christian community that all was not well in the life of Protestantism. It is common knowledge that external health in an institution is a good thing, but it does not necessarily follow that the institution is essentially sound and strong within. This is particularly true of the Christian Church; for wealth, though necessary to carry on its work, is its greatest temptation. Large numbers of people in the Church are always better than empty churches, but the real question is the intensity of spiritual devotion and of commitment of those within the Churches. Was the Christian message having a genuine impact on the totality of American life? Or were American art, literature, newspapers, television, and radio in any way influenced by Christian insights concerning life? Was there any impact of the Christian vision of life on American politics?
Viewed from this perspective, Christianity was indeed in a doubtful state. The values that determined mid-twentieth-century life in America were at their best only faintly Christian. Many Christian theologians began to speak of the "post-Christian age." They argued that Christianity had reached its maximal external influence on American life during the nineteenth century and that the most recent religious revival of the early 1950ís was, in reality, only a temporary outbreak of a particular kind of vitality that did not deal with the fundamental issues of contemporary life. Christianity was now to be seen as a minority movement within a society and culture that was thoroughly secularized. That is, the Christian faith was no longer the formative influence that shaped the mores and aspirations of the American people. It was but one force among many competing forces that helped to determine and shape American life.
Nobody denied the fact that Protestant institutions were more numerous and larger than ever before in history. It was pointed out that these institutions were really irrelevant. Interestingly enough, this view was shared both by the conservative and by the so-called progressive or liberal theologians in the American scene. Dr. Carl Henry, of Christianity Today, a postwar conservative theological journal, and Professor Martin Marty, of The University of Chicago, found themselves in agreement as to the extent of Christianityís impact on modern culture. They disagreed, however, on the reason why the situation had come about and what ought to be done by the Christian community within the new situation. The more conservative strain of Protestants called for a return to the "old-fashioned gospel" or a movement of repristination of the basic literal Biblical insights. To be sure, they were now much more sophisticated and more theologically learned. Large numbers of churchmen, theologians, and laymen remained dissatisfied with the idea of repristination or of a more faithful literal reiteration of the Biblical message. They called for reinterpretation in order to promote renewal in the life of the Christian community.
In this situation the theological analysis of Professor Paul Tillich took on special significance for the American context. As a theology professor in Germany, he had raised the prophetic question of the possible end of the Protestant era. After his forcible removal to America in the early 1930ís, it was some years before his impact was felt through the publication of his monumental Systematic Theology and a series of provocative sermons and essays. He exercised greater influence on the American intellectual community than any other theologian in the mid-1950ís and in the 1960ís, and his full impact may yet remain to be made. His call for the reinterpretation of the insights of the gospel into contemporary concepts, his insistence on a true dialectical relationship between manís basic questions and the deepest insights of the Biblical faith, and his ability to draw from and interrelate vast areas of modern manís creativity in art, literature, philosophy, psychiatry, and sociology caught the imagination of the American intellectual community. Also, he provided the Christian community with one possible way to deal responsibly and realistically with radical shifts both in the thought patterns and the Institutions of the modern world.
While Paul Tillich was engaged in the task of constructing a new systematic theology for the modern situation, a group of younger theologians arose in the mid-1960ís to proclaim that for many modern men and for the modern human spirit itself the possibility of God is gone forever. They declared, echoing Nietzsche, that God is dead! They argued that this did not mean the end of theology but a fresh beginning for Christian theology. This represented the most radical way of saying that the Christian community must refashion its thoughts and reconstruct its institutions if it is to carry out its role in contemporary life. Old thought patterns and concepts will not suffice for the Space Age. They argued that such concepts are not of the essence of Christianity or necessary for its survival. They were symbolic of the crisis of theological renewal within the Protestant community in America. They felt that they were calling for a reformation as necessary and yet more radical than that of the sixteenth century. At the same time, they felt they stood faithfully within the Christian tradition and, in fact, that they alone prophetically represented that tradition in the 1960ís.
The struggle of the Christian community to adjust itself to the new situation in the American scene is clearly illustrated by the emergence of the Church-State issue in a radical form after World War II. The problem first emerged in special form during the war. The President had appointed a "personal representative" to the Vatican in order to expedite certain matters arising from the war. Most Protestants were very unhappy about this and worked for his recall. They argued that to appoint an official representative to the pope was to give official recognition or preference to one religion above all others. This was against the spirit of the Constitution.
For a short time excitement died down after the representative returned, but in 1951 President Truman proposed to appoint an ambassador to the Vatican. There was such an outburst of indignation and protest from both Protestants and non-Christians that he was forced to abandon the proposal. Yet the issue did not die.
Meanwhile, the real problem was emerging in the field of public education. With the large influx of immigrants from Roman Catholic sections of Europe, the Roman Catholic Church had succeeded in winning many of them into the churches in America. By the late nineteenth century it found itself to be a powerful and large Church. Roman Catholics firmly believed that their children should be instructed in their faith as well as in general educational subjects, and in the 1870ís they started a program of parochial schools. Immediately after the First World War they expanded and speeded up this entire plan.
It was here that the trouble began. They felt that they should have a just share of the taxes that they paid to support public schools. Also, they argued against any prayer or Bible-reading in the public schools unless it was according to their beliefs. The fact was that many state schools had Bible-reading or school prayers at the opening of each school day. Under the constant pressure of Roman Catholics and non-Christians during the nineteenth century, most religious emphasis was gradually forced out of the public schools. Now the Protestants were worried. Does not education that ignores religion tend to influence the pupils to believe that religion is really not important? What then is to be done?
Under these conditions a whole series of problems faced American Protestants. They agreed in the separation of Church and State, but they felt that schools should not be hostile or indifferent to religion. Of one thing they were certain -- public funds should not be used to support parochial schools or sectarian religious training in the public schools. Thus the problem was twofold.
Many Protestants were suspicious not only of direct aid to parochial schools but also of any indirect aid such as providing pupils with transportation or textbooks. Some states argued that it was wrong; others, that it was right. Some Protestants claimed that public schools were just as available as public beaches for all, and if any wished to use private beaches or private schools, they had to pay their own way. In fact, large numbers of Protestants agreed with strict secularists that even Horace Mannís ideal of training in basic Christian beliefs in nonsectarian fashion was wrong. What actually prevailed in public education was either indifference or hostility, veiled or outright, against all religious beliefs. This was, in fact, a form of faith that denied the relevance of the Judeo-Christian tradition for modern life by denying it any place in the study program.
But opposition to public support, direct or indirect, to any religious school did not satisfy a positive need for Protestants. How would their children receive religious instruction along with their regular training? Instruction in school appeared impossible and Sunday school instruction was obviously not enough. Many states continued to allow simple Bible-reading with no comment; others objected.
One of the solutions tried was that of released time for religious instruction. Students were released from classes to attend religious instruction of their choice taught either at a church or synagogue or by teachers who came to the school for that purpose. In 1948 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that such a program as conducted in Champaign, Illinois, where school classrooms were used for instruction, was unconstitutional. The argument was that tax-supported property in the form of the schools was used as the place for religious instruction. For a while this appeared to threaten the released-time program, but in 1952 the Supreme Court ruled that such a program was permissible if public property was not used for the instruction.
Apparently this was an opportunity for the Churches to supply a greatly felt need in the education of American children; but could competent teachers, an effective program, and adequate texts be supplied? Furthermore, by removing the training from the regular program of the student, released-time training seemed to emphasize the lack of a genuine relationship between religious beliefs and practices and all the other educational pursuits. Certainly this would strengthen the idea that the religious life was something apart from and unconnected with such other areas of life as politics, economics, art, literature, or science. Here was a basic problem facing American Protestantism in the mid-twentieth century.
The agitation on the Church-State issue continued throughout the 1950ís and mounted in intensity during the 1960ís. It involved the problem of free public transportation for students attending parochial schools, and it also involved the possibility of parochial students receiving various forms of Federal subsidy for such things as school lunches and textbooks. The Supreme Court ruled affirmatively on both questions. The issue that aroused the greatest public interest and a good deal of irrational zeal on both sides involved the problem of Bible-reading and the saying of prayers in public schools. In 1962 the Supreme Court ruled that specific forms of public prayer could not be required by public schools. Many Churches responded to this ruling with indignation and fury. They felt that an entire American tradition had been betrayed. It had been customary to pray or to read the Bible in public schools in many states throughout the Union from the founding days of the nation. To reject these practices appeared to many a godless attempt to subvert the Government and to kill off Christianity. Other churchmen and laymen felt that the decision was poorly timed in relation to current practice in American society, but that it was essentially a fair decision and would in no way undercut the significance or the role of Christianity within American culture.
The agitation on the Church-State issue during the late 1950ís and early 1960ís appeared to be but the first phase of an ongoing shift in practice in the American context. Suits were brought against the tax-exempt status of ecclesiastical organizations. Several were lost, but this does not mean that action has ceased in this area. Already some question the involvement of religious social welfare agencies in various Federal programs. Some men contend that no governmental funds, local or Federal, ought to be expended by religious organizations in such welfare activities as homes for the aged, child care, orphanages, and hospitals. The issue has only begun to be faced. The outcome is difficult to predict. One thing is clear. American society today is so diverse and pluralistic that religion can no longer play the role it once played. American culture will have to find a new basis for unity to replace that formerly provided by Protestantism. That Protestantism and other religions will and ought to play a role in the creation of this new reality in American life would be argued for by most Christians; however, both the way this is to be done and the content of what should be done would be interpreted differently by various denominations.
The dilemma of the Protestant Churches in America as they seek to serve the American people and American society is most clearly revealed in the civil rights struggle since World War II. On the one hand, the Protestant Christian Churches remained a bulwark of segregation in American life. Few if any Churches welcomed Negro members or sought to understand the problems and difficulties of the Negro people in American life. The Churches appeared more fully devoted to maintaining the status quo or a certain "way of life" than they did to proclaiming the brotherhood of all men in Jesus Christ. The Southern states were particularly remiss with regard to the Negro people. Negroes were completely segregated in all social activities, and they were frequently denied the basic rights of American citizenship. In many places they could not vote. By and large they received a poor education and they were not allowed to use the same public facilities as a white man. In short, they were second-class citizens. Whatever problems the Negro had in the North -- and he had problems -- he could exercise the franchise and by the late 1950ís he could use a large number of public facilities in northern cities.
In 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled, in a historical decision, that separate but equal facilities in education was not constitutional. The first positive step since the late nineteenth century had been taken to redress the injustices committed against the Negro people. The consequences were electrifying. As Negro students attempted to enroll in various high schools and universities, riots resulted, and Federal troops and marshals had to be called out. In 1957, Federal troops had to be employed by President Eisenhower to maintain peace while Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was integrated. A riot resulted at Oxford, Mississippi, in 1962 when a single Negro student attempted to enroll. In both cases the governors of the respective states fought the Federal order and defied the Supreme Court of the United States. In both cases the governors lost.
Meanwhile, a very effective grass roots movement among the Negro people was started in the South. In 1956, under the leadership of a young Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Negroes of Montgomery, Alabama, triumphed in their struggle to break down segregation in public buses. It was a long, bitter, drawn-out struggle, but the nonviolent beliefs and tactics employed under the leadership of Dr. King finally won the day. Out of the experience of that struggle there emerged the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founded in 1957, and Martin Luther King became its first president. He demonstrated a remarkable combination of courage, patience, and political acumen as he led the movement for equality in behalf of the Negro people. Only nonviolent means were to be employed, not for the sake of strategy, but out of deep principle and belief. The civil rights movement under the leadership of Dr. King and his followers finds its center in the Christian community. Through nonviolent boycotts and sit-ins, it slowly but surely desegregated buses in many cities and desegregated restaurants and places of public accommodation. Progress was slow but steady. Next, attention was turned to the problem of voting rights.
An exceedingly small percentage of Negroes were registered to vote in the Southern states. From the time of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, Southern states had found one means after another to deny Negroes the possibility of voting. Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were not alone in their struggle to win equal rights for Negroes. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had long been at work in this difficult and trying field. The Urban League had done yeoman-like work in the Northern cities. Other groups developed, activistic strenuous movements, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Both of these organizations drew their memberships heavily from Northern college students both white and Negro. Members of SNCC and CORE frequently did the initial work in behalf of voter registration in many of the Southern communities. The struggle of the Negro people for equality caught the imagination and the urge for dedication on the part of many young American collegians. Under the combined efforts of the various groups mentioned, plus the activity of the National Council of Churches, these students flocked to summer training sessions to prepare themselves to participate in teaching programs, in health programs, and in demonstration programs wherever they were needed.
The years 1964 and 1965 saw a rapid escalation of activity and of violence in the area of civil rights. In the summer of 1964, three young civil rights workers were brutally murdered in Mississippi. To this day their murderers have not been found and convicted. Violence was piled on violence as Southerners reacted to those who wished to win equality for Negroes in American life. Riots erupted in Harlem, in Rochester, New York, and in other American cities in the hot summer of 1964, and in Los Angeles in 1965. It was evident that a new page had been turned in American history, and Negroes would no longer be satisfied simply to wait another hundred years, to say nothing of fifty years or even of ten years. It is fortunate for the American people that responsible men such as Dr. King deeply believed in nonviolence as the only way to achieve their goals.
The culmination of the violence was reached on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. As a peaceful group set out to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to demonstrate for redress of grievance against the state government for denying them the right to register to vote, they were brutally set upon and beaten by Alabama state troopers and local possemen. Many people were hospitalized. The entire American nation was shocked by this act of violence and savagery. Dr. King appealed to American clergymen to come to the aid of their brethren in Selma. Hundreds of clergymen -- Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish -- responded to his appeal. Priests, ministers, and rabbis all marched arm in arm to protest against the brutality and to demonstrate for the right of Negroes to vote. Undoubtedly the Selma incident was instrumental in speeding up the passage of a Federal right-to-vote law that was signed by President Johnson in August, 1965.
The role of the Churches in the civil rights struggle has been peculiar. On the whole, officials of the great Protestant denominations have been very much involved in behalf of Negro rights, but local ministers frequently reflect the concerns and interests of their own parishioners. However, it must be pointed out that courageous local ministers frequently suffer as they seek justice for their Negro brethren. To be sure, these men are very much in the minority in the South, but they stand firm even when their own lives and the lives of their families are in danger. It is unfortunate that the Southern Baptist Churches have not provided greater leadership for their people in working through this exceedingly complex and difficult issue. The Christian Churches ought to have been in the forefront of the battle for civil rights, but they have only recently been drawn in. However, it cannot be denied that the movement itself, particularly under the leadership of Dr. King, has been and remains essentially a religious movement. Its songs, its dedication, its piety, even its ritual of preparation for a demonstration, all are taken from the life of the Negro Churches. The contribution of the Negro Churches to American civil rights may well be one of their major contributions to Protestantism and to American culture.
As the civil rights movement pressed with vigor for its goals, it ran afoul of the resurgence of the anti-Communist hysteria of the early 1950ís. The condemnation of some of Senator McCarthyís activities in 1954 did not spell the end of the right-wing movement. To be sure, it quieted down for a short time; however, a movement called the John Birch Society, founded by an Eastern businessman, Robert Welch, picked up where McCarthyism left off and organized a national movement. In the 1960ís, the American public was confronted with the revival of right-wing extremism. The extremists of the right were thoroughly convinced that there was a vast Communist conspiracy to overthrow the American form of government, a conspiracy operating primarily from within the United States of America. Some of the Birch literature called for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren and spoke of President Eisenhower as a "dupe" of the Communists. Any clergyman within the Church, and any organization of the Church concerned with civil rights or with questions of justice, was looked upon by the right-wing movement not only with suspicion but with hatred.
Singled out for special attack was the National Council of Churches because of its concern for international justice, for peace, and for civil rights. An active campaign was started by various right-wing organizations to persuade individual congregations to withdraw that proportion of their benevolence marked by their denomination for support of the National Council of Churches. Local ministers were frequently attacked by right-wing members within their congregations. The entire civil rights movement was branded as a Communist Party front fostering discord and discontent in the United States. The mid-1960ís saw the right-wing movement more firmly established than it had ever been in recent American history. In fact, it appeared similar to the activity of the right-wing movements in earlier American Protestantism. It was very well financed, thoroughly organized, and determined to play a continuing role in American life. However, the Churches were prepared to cope with this irresponsible movement and would not be bullied or threatened into surrendering the responsibility of the Church for justice in all facets of life.
Nowhere was the challenge to renewal felt more fully than in the vast changes that had come to dominate American social and industrial life. By 1960, 69.9 per cent of all the people in America lived in urban centers. Automation was already making vast strides in industry with a consequent displacement of thousands of workers. Just as the computer made possible automation in industry, so it made possible the entry of the first human beings into outer space in 1961. The Protestant Churches had long been ruled by the rural mentality and institutional form. They now are confronted with the necessity of living in urban centers. They were ill prepared for this shift. Until World War II the full implications of urbanization had not yet struck the Church. Institutionally, the Church continued to live as if it were ministering to a rural culture. All that was changed after the Second World War.
Thousands of Protestant churches in America were disrupted or uprooted as their parishioners moved out of the inner city into the suburbs. They found themselves cut off from the center of decision-making and from the pulsating life of metropolitan communities. In the suburbs churches tended to become centers for privatized piety and of little or no consequence in the day-to-day lives of their people. Meanwhile, vast segments of American life were left untouched by the Churches. Churches tended to pull out of those areas which could not afford to sustain them. For a while Protestant Churches appeared more willing to support missions overseas than they were to support missions in American slums or in the declining inner-city areas. It took almost two decades for the Churches to revolutionize their methods of home missions in order to minister in creative new ways to a different situation. As early as 1948, a group of three theological students started a new type of parish in East Harlem, New York City. As they looked at the degradation and human misery of people caught in a cold, merciless, big city, they determined to bring the gospel in a fresh way. They opened a storefront church and went to live in the same area with the people. They formed a group ministry under common discipline in every phase of their lives -- economic as well as religious. They worked with the everyday problems of these people -- the terrible exploitation and high rent, the cruelty and inequality of law enforcement, the problem of jobs, dope addiction, and alcoholism. They attempted to find new ways of making real and meaningful Godís redemptive love in Christ. They were convinced that the conventional congregational or conversion-type storefront church did not answer the needs of the dispossessed of the big cities. They developed a church in the form of a neighborhood parish administered not by a minister and his assistant or associate but by a large staff consisting entirely of specialists in a wide variety of areas all under a common discipline or in a group ministry. This type of parish spread to other cities. Industrial missions were founded in Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and other cities in the 1950ís. They were an attempt to minister to workers and to management in the industrial plant itself.
One thing was clear. The old-fashioned neighborhood church on the corner was not an adequate instrument for ministering in the inner-city situation. The storefront church was one answer, group ministry was another answer, but still new ways had to be discovered. Above all, the Church had to become involved in the power politics of the big city. This was unavoidable if the Church wished to minister to the basic needs of the dispossessed within the cities. In 1964 the Urban Training Center was founded in Chicago. Twelve denominations co-operated in its founding and development. Its special task is to do what no single denomination can do for itself. It seeks to serve as a middle institution between the denominations, the theological schools, and the local inner-city situation. It provides a training ground for experimentation and for active participation in order to learn. It is actively engaged in the central problems of the big city, not in order to be engaged in activism, but in order to train churchmen and theological students to minister in such situations. It deals with such specific issues as school dropouts, the community school issues, unemployment, and community organizations. It was symbolic of a growing concern on the part of the Churches to discover more adequate means of ministering to the inner-city situation.
The churches in the suburbs continue to flourish and to grow at an amazing rate. Whatever is to be done in the inner city cannot be done apart from what is in the suburbs and vice versa. The problem is to co-ordinate the life of the church in the suburbs with that of the church in the inner city in order that both together might minister to the total urban setting. However much division there once was between suburbs and inner city, that distinction is rapidly passing as the problems envelop and control both. As old forms of ministry and congregation continue and are modified, there must be room for the emergence of new forms and new activities. This is the primary challenge confronting Christianity today.
The challenges to renewal confronting the Church have not escaped making an impact on theological education. If the Church is deeply engaged in the civil rights movement, if it is struggling against right-wing misrepresentation of Christianity and of civil life, if it finds itself in a new phase of the Church-State relationship, if it is deeply involved in urbanization and in the passing of previous forms that once marked the so-called Christian epoch, then all these factors must have a profound impact upon theological education and the preparation of men for the ministry. The reorganization of the American Association of Theological Schools in 1956 was symbolic of the change taking place in theological education itself. There was a new concern for co-operation, for mutual planning, and for facing fundamental issues that embraced all theological institutions. The divinity schools of The University of Chicago, Harvard University, and Yale University, along with New Yorkís Union Theological Seminary, continue to provide leadership in theological research and scholarship for the American Churches. However, certain denominational schools have taken the step of appointing men primarily on the basis of their academic competence rather than their denominational affiliation. Even the strictly denominational schools are moving in the direction of ecumenicity through appointment procedures.
The major question agitating theological institutions, along with the perennial question of systematic theology, was the question of the nature of professional education for ministry. The urbanization of the church, the changing social and institutional structures of the church, and the new demands upon the minister, all combined to pose acutely the question of the nature of the training of men for ministry. This involved nothing less than a review of the content and method of BD. education itself. In 1956 a special study of American theological education was published by the late Professor H. Richard Niebuhr and Daniel Williams. Some of the questions posed therein, and many additional questions, continue to agitate theological institutions. The questions are not only practical as to how long the program should be or what the degree should be called; the questions are much more fundamental. What is the nature and purpose of theological education for ministry? In the light of that, what is the content and method to be?
In 1957 the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies was founded at Cranbrook House, Michigan, by Professor Reuel Howe. Eight years of experience with special training programs for men who have been in the ministry at least five years have provided a vast amount of evidence as to the basic problems confronting Christian ministers today. The problem is grounded in the situation in which they are called to minister, in the nature of the theological education they have received, and the failure to have adequate continuing education as they proceed in their ministry. It is evident that theological education must be rethought to the same degree and with the same precision as was true for medical education after the Flexner Report in 1910. Basic in the rethinking of theological education is the role and importance of correlation with such disciplines as psychology, sociology, modern science, and contemporary literature. These are no longer to be thought of as helpful resources for sermon hints, but as necessary disciplines to be related not only to theological construction but also to the practice of ministry itself.
Protestantism is not forced to seek renewal by the circumstances in which it finds itself. It has long been engaged in an internal effort at renewal evidenced by the ecumenical movement itself. This movement, at its best, has represented an attempt within the life of the Christian community to find the bedrock of its faith and action in order that the entire Church might be one and thus more faithfully fulfill its mission and responsibility to the world. Hence, renewal has always been one of the primary objectives of the ecumenical movement.
Within Protestantism itself, the urge, for unity has continued unabated and has grown in strength and activity during the 1950ís and 1960ís. The earlier efforts among the Lutherans to unite were further enhanced when in 1960 The Evangelical Lutheran Church (Norwegian), the American Lutheran Church, and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church united to form The American Lutheran Church, the third largest group of Lutherans in the United States. At a constituting convention in 1962 the United Lutheran Church in America, the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church, the American Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church (Suomi Synod) united to form the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. Supposedly these were not to be final unions but were to be a step on the way to uniting all Lutheran bodies in the United States. Co-operation between the Lutherans will be greatly enhanced with the formation of a new body, not a Church, but a council of co-operation involving three large Lutheran bodies in the United States, the Lutheran Church in America, The American Lutheran Church, and The Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod.
Other discussions and mergers were under way in the late 1950ís and 1960ís. The most important of these was that involving the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. In 1957 these two Churches merged to form a new denomination, the United Church of Christ. It represented the union of Churches out of a different theological tradition as well as a different tradition of polity. It combined congregational and presbyterian polity with Reformed, Lutheran, and English Puritan theological antecedents. It represented a unique experiment in ecumenicity in the American scene.
In 1961, Eugene Carson Blake, of The United Presbyterian Church U.S.A., supported by Bishop James Pike, of the Protestant Episcopal Church, presented a proposal appealing for Christian unity among the major Protestant denominations. It included an invitation to such diverse groups as the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, United Church of Christ, Disciples, American Baptists, and others. The appeal was to set aside temporarily theological and liturgical differences and arrive at a commonly accepted basis for union, dealing with the divisive issues at a later point. Out of the appeal has come a series of discussions between these various denominations. Not part of the original proposal, the Lutherans and Presbyterians have been carrying on theological discussions. In addition, various groups involved in the Blake-Pike proposal have engaged in conversations concerning the basic problems of Church unity. Thus, ecumenicity in the United States is proceeding at a more rapid pace than at any period in recent history.
The World Council of Churches continued and expanded its activities. In 1954, its second assembly was held in Evanston in the United States, and in 1961 its third assembly was held at New Delhi, India. At both of these, progress was made in defining the intent and purpose of the World Council and in preparing various statements on key problems involving ecumenicity and the responsibility of the Church.
The participation of Protestant Churches in America in the World Council continued undiminished. Key positions in the organization were held by American churchmen. Dr. Franklin Clark Fry remained as chairman of the Central Committee over a lengthy period of time. American theological scholars are deeply involved in the various theological commissions of the organization. The assembly at Evanston brought home firsthand to the American Churches the meaning and significance of the World Council of Churches. However, all was not peace and light within Protestantism in relation to the Council. A counterorganization of exceedingly conservative Protestants, entitled The American Council of Christian Churches, was formed to counteract the influence of the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches. Vitriolic attacks were leveled against both organizations and against the godless and so-called pro-Communist activities of these organizations. Fortunately, these attacks on the activities of the World Council represented a minority segment within Protestantism. The World Council had more success in bridging the gap between the Churches of a more conservative theological orientation and those of a more liberal orientation than had any previous pan-Protestant organization.
Within the United States, Roman Catholicism was beginning to play a new and creative role. It had made vast gains through immigration in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and had consolidated its gains with its outstanding organizational and administrative work. Efforts had long been under way among certain Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders to understand and co-operate with each other in certain key areas. The symbol of the new relationship between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and also of the role of Roman Catholics within American culture, was provided by the election of the first Roman Catholic President, John F. Kennedy, in 1960. His running for office provided the American people a splendid opportunity for discussion of the Church-State issue and also presented them with a specific opportunity for determining the role of Roman Catholicism in American culture and life. Although he was bitterly fought by some Protestants, he was vociferously supported by many outstanding Protestant clergy and laymen. His assassination in November of 1963 saw the entire nation, religious and secular, mourn together the untimely death of an outstanding young leader. The entire nation watched and listened as Mass was said by Richard Cardinal Cushing, of Boston. Roman Catholicism had arrived at a new position in American life.
Before the full implications of the friendly exchange and growing confidence between Roman Catholics and Protestantism could be realized, a change in attitude throughout the Roman Catholic Church and in Protestantism was required. The initiative for the new level of understanding and co-operation was taken by Roman Catholicism. When Pope John XXIII called for an ecumenical council to be held in Rome in 1962, few people understood the implications and significance of that act. The Second Vatican Council was to prove itself the most significant religious event of the twentieth century and perhaps one of the most important in Christian history since the Reformation itself.
John XXIII wanted, as he stated, to "throw the windows open to the world" in order that the Church might renew itself for a more faithful ministry to the entire world. His gracious spirit, his kindliness, and his sense of humor expressed themselves in a high quality of charismatic leadership. He saw to it that Protestant and Orthodox representatives were invited from all over the world to sit as official observers at the Second Vatican Council. He was deeply concerned that Christians come to know, to love, and to understand one another at a new level in order that the Holy Spirit might lead all to unity in his own good time.
Roman Catholic bishops from the United States played an important role in the Council. In the first session they were quiescent as they attempted to feel their way through the major issues and to understand what the intent and true goal of the Council was to be. In the second session they began to exercise more leadership and the majority gradually aligned themselves with the progressive wing of the Council. The American bishops were deeply interested in two important issues, although they were interested in all the major issues under discussion. The two primary issues for them were the statement on religious liberty and the statement on the Jews. Because of their long participation in a pluralistic culture and their friendly relations with the Jewish people and with Protestants, they were perhaps better equipped than Roman Catholics from any other part of the world to understand the significance and the importance of these two issues. In the third session leadership was provided by Albert Cardinal Meyer, of Chicago, Joseph Cardinal Ritter, of St. Louis, and the outstanding Roman Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J. It was in the third session that the leadership and ability of Cardinal Meyer came to the foreground and that the full weight of the American bishops was felt for the first time.
For Protestantism, the Second Vatican Council ushered in a new stage in American Church history to be known as the age of dialogue. It meant that for the first time serious discussion would take place between Roman Catholics and Protestants over a wide variety of topics. After the liturgical reforms, and the statements on ecumenism and the Church, it was possible for Roman Catholics and Protestants to worship together under limited conditions, to engage in disciplined and continual theological discussion, and to seek cooperation in a wide variety of areas. It also meant that the way for dialogue was open at a new level between Christians and Jews. Thus the importance of the Vatican Council for Protestantism in America was incalculable. Only the future will indicate its true significance.
Meanwhile the Protestant Churches in America. had moved into a new level of discussion and understanding and respect for their Roman Catholic brethren. Roman Catholic theological students were to be found in Protestant theological schools and Protestant students were beginning to attend Roman Catholic institutions. Regular discussions took place between Roman Catholic and Protestant theological students. In late 1963, Cardinal Bea, of the Secretariat for Unity, visited the United States and participated in a special theological conference at Harvard Divinity School. In 1964, Leon-Josef Cardinal Suenens, primate of Belgium, one of the four Cardinal moderators of Vatican II, delivered lectures and participated in special conferences at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Professorships are now held by Roman Catholics in key Protestant institutions. It is no longer possible for Protestant theologians to write their theologies as if Roman Catholicism did not exist or as if it were a straw man to be destroyed through theological dexterity. The same fact holds true with regard to Roman Catholic theologians. The new age of dialogue has dawned and no one can predict its outcome or results.
Thus the Church faces the future. The two major themes that bound together Protestantism in American life found themselves still active, but in new form. The contemporary intellectual and sociological scene compelled them to look once again at the profound insights of the Biblical message. The loyalty to the Bible that marked early Protestantism found representation both in the older literalistic approach and in the new attempt to find creative ways to bring the Biblical vision of life to bear in American society. Even the "God is dead" movement of the younger theologians claims Biblical sanction for its insights. Paul Tillichís theology is but an attempt to find a new and more adequate expression to make meaningful the significance of the New Being encountered in Christ in the Biblical message. The dialogue between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism has driven both groups back to a fresh appraisal and study of Biblical themes and of Scripture itself. It is interesting that the initial contact between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in the American scene was provided by Bible scholars and that a good deal of the leadership in the Vatican Council also came from Bible scholars.
At the same time, the experimentation that marked early Protestantism continues at a higher level and in radically new forms. Even the dialogue between Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Protestantism represents a new experiment within Protestantism which seeks to find more relevant ways for the Church to serve the world. The experimentation that marks home missions work and theological education is but symptomatic of the continuing determination of the Protestant Churches in America to find fresh and vital ways to minister to contemporary life. New forms of ministry and experimentation in organizational structures are well under way. The Church is open to greater self-criticism than perhaps at any other time in American history. The Protestant Churches realize that they cannot go on ministering in the same old way if they wish to be responsible to their heritage and to contemporary life. Thus the Church faces the future! From the Pilgrims to the present century, it has sought a fuller, richer understanding of the gospel for each epoch. At times it has failed, at times it has been eminently successful. In the 1950ís and 1960ís Christianity faced one of its greatest crises in the American scene. In some lands it was under the cross enduring persecution. In America it was so prosperous that it appeared to become flabby. Could it face these multiple threats? In an atomic age, destruction might come at any moment. But on the other hand, atomic science appeared ready to usher in a new age of comfort and progress through automation. In either case, the task of the Church remained constant -- to preach Godís judgment against all pretension, pride, and malice and to proclaim Godís creative, forgiving, and accepting love. Only in this way could modern man have a full understanding of his nature and his destiny in an age of violent extremes. The Church rests secure in the faith that God has more truth and light yet to break forth from his Holy Word and produce ever more exciting experiments and attempts to make it meaningful for modern man.