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The Theological Discussion Group and Its Impact on American and Ecumenical Theology, 1920–1945

  • Heather A. Warren (a1)

Extract

Discussion about theological developments in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s has focused on the influence of European “crisis theology” and Reinhold Niebuhr. This approach, however, has overlooked the cooperative work carried out by the theologians and churchmen who pushed American Protestant thought towards neo-orthodoxy. At the core of this movement stood a group of young theologians who shared a generational identity, having known each other as student leaders in the YMCA, Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM), and the World's Student Christian Federation (WSCF). Among them were men and women who later held academic positions at America's most prestigious Protestant seminaries: Henry P. Van Dusen, John C. Bennett, the Niebuhr brothers, Walter M. Horton, Edwin E. Aubrey, Georgia Harkness, Robert L. Calhoun, John Mackay, Samuel McCrea Cavert, and the layman Francis P. Miller.

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1. Ahlstrom, Sydney E., A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn., reprint 1973), pp. 932948;Fox, Richard Wrightman, “The Niebuhr Brothers and the Liberal Protestant Heritage,” in Religion and Twentieth-Century American Intellectual Life, ed. Lacey, Michael J. (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 94115;Meyer, Donald, The Protestant Search for Political Realism, 1919–1941, 2nd ed. (Middletown, Conn., 1988);Hutchison, William R., The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge, Mass., 1976), pp. 288311.Though Hutchison argued that neo-orthodox anthropology found its clearest expression in Niebuhr's writings, he acknowledged similar change in the thought of Niebuhr's peers, theologians such as John C. Bennett, Wilhelm Pauck, and Walter M. Horton.

2. Hutchison and Robert Schneider have both argued that to gain a clearer picture of American Protestantism in the twentieth century, historians must investigate the informal relationships among leaders as well as their work in churches, interdenominational organizations and conferences.Hutchison, William R., “Protestantism as Establishment,” and Schneider, Robert A., “Voice of Many Waters: Church Federation in the Twentieth Century,” in Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1919–1939, ed. Hutchison, William R. (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 318, 95–121.

3. Scholars identify Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr, Francis P. Miller, Walter M. Horton as neo-orthodox, and Henry P. Van Dusen, John C. Bennett, and Georgia Harkness as neo-liberal.See Fackre, Gabriel, “Theology: Ephemeral, Conjunctural, and Perennial,” in Altered Landscapes: Christianity in America, 1935–1985 (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1989), pp. 248249;Hutchison, , The Modernist Impulse, pp. 288–311;Cauthen, Kenneth, The Impact of American Religious Liberalism (New York, 1962), pp. 228255.American neo-orthodox theologians who did not belong to this core group included Edwin Lewis of Drew University and George Richards of Lancaster Seminary. See Voskuil, Dennis, “Neo-Orthodoxy,” in Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience: Studies of Traditions and Movements, ed. Lippy, Charles H. and Williams, Peter W., 3 vols. (New York, 1988), 2: 11471157.

4. Hutchison, , The Modernist Impulse, pp. 185–225.

5. Wilder, Robert P., “A Retrospective—Five Year Report by the General Secretary to the Executive Committee [of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions],” 27 September 1924, Archives of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, MS. Group 42, Special Collections, Yale Divinity School Library (hereafter, SVM Archives).

6. Coe, George A., “New Social Horizons,” The Intercollegian 37:5 (02 1920): 3;New Lessons in Democracy,” The Intercollegian 37:7 (04 1920): 2;Student Volunteer Council Meets,” The Intercollegian 37:8 (05 1920): 9.This fit a pattern described by Mannheim, Karl in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Kecskemeti, Paul (New York, 1952).

7. Hopkins, C. Howard, John R. Molt, 1865–1955: A Biography (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1979), p. 568.

8. Blanchard, Leslie, “Impressions of the Federation Meeting,” The Intercollegian 38:1 (10 1920): 4.

9. Inter-racial Problems and Christian Duty—An Editorial,” The Student World 14:3 (07 1921): 109113;Public Announcements,” The Federation News Sheet no. 7 (10 1921);Miller, Francis, “The Task of Federation,” The Student World 16:1 (01 1923): 2429.

10. Miller, Francis P., Man from the Valley, Memoirs of a 20th-century Virginian (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1971).

11. Ibid., p. 58.

12. Editorial,” The Student World 14:3 (07 1922): 86.

13. Coston, Herbert Reece Jr, “The World's Student Christian Federation as an Ecumenical Training Ground” (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1963), pp. 1110.

14. Cauthen, , The Impact of American Religious Liberalism, pp. 228–255;Hutchison, , The Modernist Impulse, pp. 289–290;Voskuil, , “Neo-Orthodoxy,” pp. 1148, 1154–1155;Brown, William Adams, “The Homeless Liberal,” Religious Education 22:1 (01 1927): 12.

15. Walter Horton to John C. Bennett, 11 November 1933, John C. Bennett Papers, “Correspondence,” Special Collections, The Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary (hereafter Bennett Correspondence); “Evanston,” The Intercollegian no. 5 (02 1926): 148, 150.

16. News from the Field,” The Intercollegian 42:4 (01 1925): 141;‘Eddy & Co.’ in the East,” The Intercollegian 42:5 (02 1925): 171;Miller, Francis P., ed., Religion on the Campus. Report of the Milwaukee National Student Conference (New York, 1927), pp. ix, 197–198.

17. Miller, Francis P., ed., The Church and the World (New York, 1926).

18. Van Dusen, Henry P., In Quest of Life's Meaning: Hints Toward a Christian Philosophy of Life for Students (New York, 1926).

19. After Milwaukee—What?,” The Intercollegian 44:4 (01 1927): 98.

20. Niebuhr, Reinhold, Does Civilization Need Religion?: A Study in the Social Resource of Religion in Modern Life (New York, 1927; reprint 1928);Fox, Richard Wightman, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (San Francisco, 1985; reprint 1987), pp. 100101.

21. Barth, Karl, “The Inward Man,” The Student World 21:3 (07 1928): 309315.

22. Brunner, H. Emil, The Theology of Crisis (New York, 1930), pp. ix–x.

23. For example, Oldham, J. H., in “Review of Books,” International Review of Missions 19:74 (04 1930): 280;Wilson, Jesse R., “Reviews,” Far Horizons 11:7 (04 1931): 31. Far Horizons was a new version of the Student Volunteer Movement Bulletin.

24. Niebuhr, Reinhold, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York, 1932; reprint 1960).

25. Van Dusen, Henry P., The Plain Man Seeks for God (New York, 1933).

26. Bennett, John C., “After Liberalism—What?,” The Christian Century 8 (8 11 1933): 14031406.

27. German Protestantism Maintains Its Independence,” Federal Council Bulletin 16:6 (06 1933): 45;Maury, Pierre, The Student World 26:4 (10 1933): 363367;Federal Council Considers German Problems,” Federal Council Bulletin 16:9–10 (1112 1933): 10;Churches Support Protesting Group in Germany,” Federal Council Bulletin 17:3 (03 1934): 9.

28. “Proposed Conference—Retreats of Younger Christian Thinkers,” “Theological Discussion Group” notebooks, Van Dusen, Henry P. Papers, Special Collections, The Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary (hereafter Van Dusen Papers, TDG); Henry P. Van Dusen to John C. Bennett, 30 10 1933, Bennett Correspondence.

29. Wilhelm, and Pauck, Marion, Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought. Volume I: Life (New York, 1976) 1:186190.

30. Van Dusen, Henry P. to the Members of the Retreat of February 2–4, 12 January 1934, Archives of the Theological Discussion Group, MS. Group 43, Special Collections, Yale Divinity School Library (hereafter TDG-YDS); agendas and records in Van Dusen Papers, TDG.

31. Van Dusen, Henry P. to Oldham, J. H., 9 03 1935, Archives of the World Council of Churches in Formation, “Life and Work,” Special Collections, The Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary (hereafter WCC-LW).For more about the centrality of Van Dusen in the ecumenical movement see Thompson, Dean Keith, “Henry Pitney Van Dusen: Ecumenical Statesman” (Ph.D. diss., Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, 1974).

32. Van Dusen, Henry P. to The Theological Discussion Group, 14 12 1935, Van Dusen Papers, TDG.

33. “Preparation for a World Conference on the Church, the State and the Community,” enclosed with Van Dusen, Henry P. to the Theological Discussion Group, 14 12 1935, Van Dusen Papers, TDG.

34. Calhoun, R.L., “Aspects of the Church's Thought about Man: A Historical Outline”;Vlastos, Gregory, “A Brief Analysis of Human Nature”;Niebuhr, H. Richard, “Man the Sinner”;Pauck, Wilhelm, “Man as Saved,” TDG-YDS;Van Dusen, Henry P. to J. H. Oldham, 13 02 1935, WCC-LW.

35. Van Dusen, Henry P. to The Theological Discussion Group, 5 03 1935;Van Dusen, Henry P. to The Theological Discussion Group, 18 10 1935;Horton, Walter M., “Revelation”;Bainton, Roland H., “Authority and Religious Knowledge”;Moore, John M., “Scientific Method and Religious Knowledge”;Steere, Douglas Van, “The Role of the Mystical Experience in Religion and Morality,” TDG-YDS.

36. Van Dusen, Henry P. to The Members of the Theological Discussion Group, 11 12 1935;Thomas, George F., “Can We Believe in Progress?”;Mackay, John, “Historical and Superhistorical Elements in Christianity”;Niebuhr, H. Richard, “Reflections on the Christian Theory of History”;Tillich, Paul, “The Marxist View of History,” TDG-YDS.

37. Van Dusen, Henry P. to The Members of the Theological Discussion Group, 9 10 1935, TDG-YDS. Henry P. Van Dusen to J. H. Oldham, 15 10 1936, WCC-LW.Pauck, Wilhelm, “The Church Idea in Christian History”;McGregor, Daniel A., “The Holy Catholic Church”;Miller, Francis P., “The Church as World Community”;Van Dusen, Henry P., “The Church,” TDG-YDS.

38. Van Dusen, Henry P. to the Members of the Theological Discussion Group, 8 12 1936;Cavert, Samuel McCrea, “Distinctive Issues in the Relation of the Church and State Arising from American History”;Tillich, Paul, “What Strategy Should the Church Adopt with Reference to Communism?”;Kruse, Cornelius, “What Strategy Should the Church Adopt with Reference to Fascism?”;Harkness, Georgia, “What Strategy Should the Church Adopt with Reference to Democracy?” TDG-YDS.

39. For more about Cavert's role in the formation of the World Council see: Schmidt, William J., Architect of Unity: A Biography of Samuel McCrea Cavert (New York, 1978).

40. Van Dusen, Henry P. to J. H. Oldham, 3 03 1937, WCC-LW.

41. Bennett, John C. to Henry P. Van Dusen, 20 03 1937, Archives of the World Council of Churches in Formation, “Correspondence of Henry P. Van Dusen,” Special Collections, The Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary (hereafter WCC-HPVD).

42. “Additional Report of the Section on Church and Community,” The Oxford Conference (Official Report) (Chicago, 1937), pp. 180181, 192–193.

43. See the essays by these contributors in the preparatory study volumes: The Universal Church and the World of Nations, Church and Community, The Christian Faith and the Common Life, The Christian Understanding of Man, and The Kingdom of God and History (London, 1937).

44. “A Message from the Oxford Conference to the Christian Churches,” The Oxford Conference (Official Report), p. 47.

45. Secretary's Report for the Period August, 1939—October, 1941 (Washington, and Connecticut: the Secretary, 1941), Pamphlet no. 96, Series 1, pp. 3, 7–8;Report of the American Section of the Commission on Intercommunion (Washington, Connecticut,: Office of the Associate Secretary for America, 1942), Pamphlet no. 98, Series 1;Secretary's Report, 1942–43 (11 1943), Pamphlet no. 97, Series 1, 3.

46. The ‘Life and Work’ Study Program,” Christendom 9:2 (Spring 1944): 310–;Gaines, David P., The World Council of Churches: A Study of Its Background and History (Peterborough, N.H., 1966), p. 179.

47. Bennett, John C. to Collaborators for the Study Department in the United States, 6 03 1940, WCC-HPVD.

48. Bennett, John C., “Results of an Ecumenical Study,” Christendom 9:2 (Spring 1944): 142.

49. Bennett, John C. to those who received the Chicago memorandum, n.d., attached to Bennett, John C. to Prof. Brightman, E. S., 24 04 1941, WCC-HPVD.

50. Ibid.; Bennett, John C., “The Study Committee at Toronto,” Christendom 6:4 (Autumn 1940): 633;Bennett, John C., “Results of an Ecumenical Study,” pp. 143–144;Thomas, George F., “Corpus Christi and Corpus Christianum,” Christendom 7:1 (Winter 1942): 2434.

51. Van Dusen, Henry P. to The Members of the Theological Discussion Group, 15 04 1941, TDG-YDS;Tillich, Paul J., Greene, Theodore M., Thomas, George F., Aubrey, Edwin E., and Knox, John, The Christian Answer, edited with an introduction by Van Dusen, Henry P. (New York, 1945), p. viii.

52. “Theological Discussion Group, Proposed Program for the year [sic] 1942–1943,” TDG-YDS.

53. The Relation of the Church to War,” Federal Council Bulletin 26:4 (05 1943): 12.

54. Cavert, Samuel McCrea to Bennett, John C., 11 02 1943, Bennett Correspondence;Aubrey, Edwin E. to Members of Section 1 of the Commission on “The Relation of the Church to the War in the Light of the Christian Faith,” undated, Bennett Correspondence.

55. Theological Discussion Group members who belonged to the commission were: Edwin E. Aubrey, Roland Bainton, John C. Bennett, Harvie Branscomb, Angus Dun, Theodore M. Greene, Georgia Harkness, Walter M. Horton, John Knox, John A. Mackay, Benjamin E. Mays, Reinhold Niebuhr, H. Richard Niebuhr, Wilhelm Pauck, Douglas Steere, Henry P. Van Dusen, and Alexander Zabriskie. Known active members of the TDG not included in the committee were: Seelye Bixler, Virginia Corwin, Cornelius Kruse, Daniel A. McGregor, Francis P. Miller, John M. Moore, George Thomas, and Paul Tillich.

56. See Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago, 1951), 1:8, '30–31, 34, 59–66.

57. “Theological Discussion Group, Proposed Program for the year [sic] 1942–43,” TDGYDS.

58. Calhoun, Robert L. to Bennett, John C., 13 05 1943, Bennett Correspondence.

59. Van Dusen, Henry P. to The Theological Discussion Group, n.d.;Ferré, Nels F. S., “The Relation of the Church to the War in the Light of the Christian Faith”;Knox, John, “War as Seen from the Point of View of the Christian Faith”;Van Dusen, Henry P., “The Christian Faith and War,” 10 1943, TDG-YDS.

60. The Relation of the Church to the War in the Light of the Christian Faith,” Social Action 10:10 (10 1944): 379.

61. Ibid., p. 22.

62. Ibid., p. 29.

63. Ibid., p. 27.

64. Ibid., pp. 27–28.

65. Ibid., p. 28.

66. Ibid., p. 47.

67. Ibid., p. 57.

68. Ibid., pp. 59–60; Bennett, John C., “In Such a Time,” Christendom 7:2 (Spring 1942): 162.

69. The Relation of the Church to the War in the Light of the Christian Faith,” Social Action 10:10 (12 1944): 7579.

70. Historical Review of Church and War,” Federal Council Bulletin 28:2 (02 1945): 8.

71. Appendix—The Relation of the Church to the War in Light of the Christian Faith, Part II, Sections B, C, and D of the Calhoun Report to the Federal Council of Churches, November, 1944,” Christendom 10:2 (Spring 1945): 263284.

72. The Church and the War,” Christianity and Crisis 4:22 (25 12 1944): 5.

73. Creeds of the Church: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present, 3rd ed., ed. Leith, John H. (Atlanta, 1962; reprint 1982), p. 523.

74. Tillich, et. al., The Christian Answer.

75. Ibid., p. viii.

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