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The Realist–Pacifist Summit Meeting of March 1942 and the Political Reorientation of Ecumenical Protestantism in the United States

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 August 2010


“I hope that the matter of the agreement not to discuss the war can be satisfactorily clarified,” Walter M. Horton wrote to the office of the Federal Council of Churches in November of 1941, referring to a meeting of several hundred liberal Protestant leaders the FCC was planning for the following March. “I found some questioning about it” at a recent meeting of peace advocates, some of whom, Horton continued, expressed fear that if they went to the conference they would be obliged “to swear an oath not to say a word about the dominant reality on the horizon.” The distinguished Oberlin theologian worried that the question of “a just and durable peace” that was to be addressed at the “Delaware Conference”—so named on account of its being held on the Delaware, Ohio, campus of Ohio Wesleyan University—might not be effectively engaged because opponents of American entry into World War II were being asked to shut up in the presence of the self-styled “political realists” who were chiefly behind the conclave.

Research Article
Copyright © American Society of Church History 2010

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1 Walter M. Horton to Walter Van Kirk, November 16, 1941, Federal Council of Churches Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society, Record Group 18 (hereafter cited as FCC/PHS), Box 28, Folder 8.

2 Among the few scholars to comment on this conference even in passing are King, William McGuire, “The Reform Establishment and the Ambiguities of Influence,” in Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900–1960, ed. Hutchison, William R. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 127Google Scholar, and Gunn, T. Jeremy, Spiritual Weapons: The Cold War and the Forging of an American National Religion (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2009), 9293Google Scholar.

3 Of the many accounts of this debate, the most discerning remains Meyer, Donald, The Protestant Search for Political Realism, 1919–1941 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960; 2nd ed., Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988)Google Scholar, although Meyer's unabashedly triumphalist narrative of Niebuhr's victory over the pacifists and isolationists leaves the impression that there is little more to be said about the political history of ecumenical Protestantism after 1941 except to chart Niebuhr's legacy. That the index to this thorough history of the political arguments of liberal Protestants right down through 1941 contains no references to race, Negroes, or civil rights is a convenient reminder of how different the liberal Protestant conversation about politics became from the time of the Delaware Conference onward. There was of course some engagement with race during the interwar period; for an overview of this more marginal discussion, see Miller, Robert Moats, American Protestantism and Social Issues, 1919–1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1958), 292313Google Scholar. For the earlier era of engagement, see Luker, Ralph E., The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885–1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

4 Walter Van Kirk to Walter M. Horton, November 18, 1941, FCC/PHS, Box 28, Folder 8.

5 Undated memorandum, “National Study Conference on the Churches and the New World Order,” FCC/PHS, Box 28, Folder 8.

6 See, for example, Bradford S. Abernethy to “My dear friend,” January 15, 1942, FCC/PHS, Box 28, Folder 8. The Committee of Direction also included several officials of ecumenical organizations who were not heavy combatants in the realist–pacifist clash; these included Russell Clinchy of the National Conference on Christians and Jews, A. L. Warnshuis of the International Missionary Council, and Henry Smith Leiper of the then-provisional World Council of Churches. Other members of the Committee of Direction whose names would have been recognized instantly by recipients of Abernethy's letter included Harvard philosopher W. Ernest Hocking, Yale historian of missions Kenneth Scott Latourette, University of Chicago theologian Edwin E. Aubry, Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, and Chicago Theological Seminary President Albert W. Palmer.

7 Van Dusen's account of this debate is found in Christianity and Crisis, April 6, 1942, 2–3. Among the other published accounts, one of the fullest is in American Friend, March 26, 1942, 133–34.

8 Paul Hutchinson, “Proposed Bases for a Lasting Peace,” Christian Century, March 18, 1942; the text of the Delaware Conference's resolutions was published as “The Churches and a Just and Durable Peace,” Christian Century, March 25, 1942, 390–97.

9 This handbook also carried the title, The Churches and a Just and Durable Peace, but the text is an extended set of commentaries on each passage of the document issued by the Dulles Commission itself in a pamphlet, A Message from the National Study Conference on the Churches and A Just and Durable Peace, and copied word for word in the March 25, 1942, issue of the Christian Century. The handbook and the Message are available in various archival collections, including FCC/PHS.

10 See, as examples, Christianity and Crisis, March 22, May 31, June 28, and July 12, 1943.

11 Reinhold Niebuhr, “American Power and World Responsibility,” Christianity and Crisis, April 6, 1943, 4.

12 “Durable Peace,” 391. Here, as throughout, when citing the resolutions of the Delaware Conference, I will reference the pages as found in the Christian Century, March 25, 1942, instead of as found in Message (see note 9, above) because the Century is more easily available.

13 “Durable Peace,” 391, 393.

14 “Durable Peace,” 391, 395.

15 “Durable Peace,” 396.

16 “Durable Peace,” 394.

17 “American Malvern,” Time, March 16, 1942. The era's numerous “one worlders,” as they were sometimes derisively called by skeptics, were quick to appreciate the Delaware Conference's having advocated “the setting up of a World Government,” as it was put in an appreciative letter to Dulles by Charles Davis, the founder of the World Government Foundation, April 14, 1942, FCC/PHS, Box 28, Folder 8.

18 Minutes, Committee of Direction, Commission for a Just and Durable Peace, March 21, 1941, FCC/PHS, Box 29, Folder 6.

19 Time, March 16, 1942.

20 This charming and revealing fact is mentioned by William R. Hutchison, “Protestantism as Establishment,” in Hutchison, Between the Times, 7.

21 Others included John D. Rockefeller, Jr., of Standard Oil and Thomas W. Lamont, the Board Chairman at J. P. Morgan, who was a member of the commission but did not attend the Delaware Conference.

22 FCC/PHS Box 28, Folders 8 and 9; Box 29, Folder 6.

23 FCC/PHS, Box 28, Folders 8 and 9. For the operations of the Chicago group and Tittle's consultations with Dulles, see Tittle to Abernethy, February 20, 1942, Box 28, Folder 9.

24 FCC/PHS Box 28, Folder 9. Abernethy's notes show he wanted “one more Negro” on the New York committee and penciled in the names of Walter White and Adam Clayton Powell as possibilities. It is unclear if he invited either of them.

25 All of the organizations are listed in “Durable Peace,” 390–91.

26 All six lectures were published as Ohio Wesleyan's “Merrick–McDowell Lectures for 1942,” Francis J. McConnell, John Foster Dulles, William Paton, Leo Pasvolsky, Hu Shih, and Hambro, C. J., A Basis for the Peace to Come (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1942)Google Scholar.

27 Pasvolsky's fifty-two-page, untitled document is found in PSS/FCC, Box 28, Folder 9. Roosevelt's State of the Union Address of 1944 has recently been the subject of extensive attention, for example, Sunstein, Cass, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever (New York: Basic, 2004)Google Scholar.

28 The idea for a study group focusing on the ideal terms for world peace took form within the FCC leadership in 1940, in the context of the European war. Van Dusen and FCC Executive Secretary Samuel McCrea Cavert were considering how to go about this when Dulles keynoted an FCC conference in Philadelphia in February of that year. Dulles by this time was convinced that churches could play a decisive role in the direction of world history and that only Christianity offered a sound basis for lasting peace. At a 1937 conference on “Church, Community, and State” at Oxford, Dulles had been inspired by the intensity of resourcefulness of ecumenical leaders from both the United States and England which he contrasted to the despair he found in other circles facing the prospect of another world war. Also present at Oxford had been Roswell Barnes, who ministered a New York City Presbyterian church of which Dulles was an elder, and by 1940 was on the staff of the FCC. Dulles's ringing manifesto for church leadership resonated powerfully within the FCC, strongly influencing the FCC's decision in December of 1940 to establish the commission and to ask Dulles to chair it. Barnes and Van Dusen together persuaded him to accept. These early steps in the development of the Commission for a Just and Durable Peace are described in Warren, Heather, Theologians of a New World Order: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realists, 1920–1948 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 98101Google Scholar, and in Nurser, John S., For All Peoples and All Nations: The Ecumenical Church and Human Rights (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005), 5760Google Scholar. The development of Dulles's religious ideas and their direct connection to his views of American foreign policy is a topic dealt with only episodically in the considerable literature on Dulles's career, but one book is directly on point and is based on relevant archival materials in addition to interviews with Van Dusen, Cavert, and other churchmen who interacted with Dulles during the 1940s and especially at Delaware: Toulouse, Mark G., The Transformation of John Foster Dulles: From Prophet of Realism to Priest of Nationalism (Mercer, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985)Google Scholar.

29 Minutes, Committee of Direction, March 21, 1941, FCC/PHS, Box 29, Folder 6. In this context, and apparently in relation to a feeling that their enterprise needed to connect more directly to local churches, the committee agreed to add “six pastors,” to be approved by the FCC Executive Committee upon nomination by a subcommittee of the Committee on Direction consisting of Van Dusen (a confirmed realist), Methodist theologian Harkness (then one of the few members of the committee strongly identified with pacifism), and James H. Franklin (a Northern Baptist minister who was then president of Crozier Theological Seminary) in consultation with Van Kirk. This process resulted in the appointment of both Tittle and another prominent pacifist preacher, Congregationalist Albert Buckner Coe, but the other four added were not conspicuously identified with either faction.

30 Minutes of the Commission to Study the Basis of a Just and Durable Peace, September 18, 1941, FCC/PHS, Box 29, Folder 6. This meeting in New York City included a brief discussion of the possibility of a study conference, which remained uncertain until late October when authorized by the FCC Executive Committee. Those in attendance at this meeting of the commission, in addition to Morrison, Niebuhr, and the members of the Committee of Direction, included Horton and Mott. Prominent figures who were members of the commission but not in attendance included Muste, Lamont, radio preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, Moorehouse College President Benjamin Mays, and Quaker theologian Rufus Jones.

31 Willkie, Wendell, One World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1943)Google Scholar.

32 It should be noted that between these two major study conferences, the commission sponsored several other smaller events, including a “roundtable” for world Christian leaders at Princeton, and circulated widely a document entitled “Six Pillars of Peace,” which was a condensation of the general principles adopted at Delaware.

33 A Message to the Churches from the National Study Conference on the Churches and a Just and Durable Peace, Cleveland, Ohio, January 16–19, 1945 (New York: [Federal Council of Churches], 1945), 9–10.

34 See, for example, “Church Program for Peace Voted,” New York Times, Jan. 20, 1945, and “Churches Adopt ‘Oaks’ Peace Plan, Plus Atlantic Charter,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 19, 1945.

35 The Cleveland Conference was almost cancelled in November on account of the difficulties of travel at that time, but when Van Kirk wrote about this problem to Edward Stettinius, then an Undersecretary of State, Stettinius appears to have authorized an exception, probably because he realized the Conference would generate strong support for the Dumbarton Oaks proposal then being pushed by the Roosevelt administration. On Stettinius's intervention, see Nurser, All Peoples, 109.

36 The list of delegates to the Cleveland Conference is FCC/PHS, Box 28, Folder 3. For an account of Jones's motion and its debate, see Cleveland Plain Dealer, January 19, 1945.

37 Message… from Cleveland, 8–9, 11, 13. The Christian Century's assessment is in the issue of January 31, 1945, 135–37; and 149, 157–58.

38 At its initial meeting of May 24, 1944, the Committee on Arrangements for the study conference, then being contemplated for early 1945, discussed the site at some length. The committee “voted to hold it in Grand Rapids unless RR facilities difficult, then Cleveland,” because in “both Grand Rapids and Cleveland there would be no discrimination against the Negro delegates with regard to hotel accommodations. This was considered a most important point.” When Grand Rapids proved difficult to get to, the committee decided at its May 31 meeting to hold the conference in Cleveland. FCC/PHS, Box 28, Folder 1.

39 Inboden, William, Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945–1960: The Soul of Containment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 Nurser, All Peoples. This book is especially helpful in tracing the trajectory of O. Frederick Nolde from his participation in the Delaware Conference to an increasingly important role in the FCC, including at the Cleveland Conference, but especially through the FCC's Joint (with the Foreign Missions Council) Committee on Religious Liberty. Nolde, working closely with Dulles, was the central figure in ecumenical Protestantism's pressure for more attention to human rights in the structure and operations of the United Nations.

41 Inboden, Religion, 94–97.

42 The Cleveland Conference's call for more aggressively ecumenical programs is found in Message… from Cleveland, 14.

43 Examples are the memorandum of A. J. Muste to the New York planning group, January 30, 1942, and Report of Commission II for the Cleveland Conference, chaired by Walter M. Horton, FCC/PHS, Box 28, Folder 1. Discussions in relation to both the Delaware and Cleveland conferences made frequent reference to the world missionary conference at Madras, India, in 1938, at which indigenous church leaders from many Asian, African, and Latin American societies protested vigorously the historically unequal relationship between the “sending” churches in the North Atlantic West and the “receiving” churches in the rest of the world.

44 This direction in the liberal Protestant missionary enterprise and the radically different outlook of evangelicals is efficiently addressed in Hutchison, William R., Errand into the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), esp. 177–99Google Scholar.

45 David W. Wills, “An Enduring Distance: Black Americans and the Establishment,” in Hutchison, Between the Times, 172.

46 Findlay, James F. Jr., Church People in the Struggle: The National Council of Churches and the Black Freedom Movement, 1950–1970 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), esp. 1147Google Scholar.

47 Inboden, Religion, 81–93, offers a well-documented account of the bitterness and severity of the antagonism toward the ecumenists on the part of the group that established, edited, and funded Christianity Today. The closest student of Christianity Today and civil rights finds that magazine consistently hostile to King and to civil rights in general from its founding in 1956 until well after 1963; see Toulouse, Mark, “Christianity Today and American Public Life: A Case Study,” Journal of Church and State 35 (Spring 1993), 241–84CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Toulouse's, companion article, “The Christian Century and American Public Life: The Crucial Years, 1956–1968,” in New Dimensions in American Religious History, ed. Dolan, Jay P. and Wind, James P. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), 4482Google Scholar.

48 Soper, Edmund D., Racism: A World Issue (New York: Abington-Cokesbury, 1947), esp. 710Google Scholar; and Soper, Edmund D., The Philosophy of the World Christian Mission (New York: Abington-Cokesbury, 1943)Google Scholar. For Soper's Chicago-area seminars during World War II, see Edwin D. Soper Papers, Garrett Seminary Library, Box 8, Folder 21.

49 Gallagher, Buell G., Color and Conscience: The Irrepressible Conflict (New York: Harper, 1946), esp. 170–71Google Scholar, 188, 215–19. For my understanding of Gallagher's remarkable career, I am indebted to research done by two University of California, Berkeley graduate students, Yevgeny Zubovich and Daniel Immerwahr.

50 This episode is recounted in Mark Silk, “The Rise of the ‘New Evangelicalism’: Shock and Adjustment,” in Hutchison, Between the Times, 281, and in Marty, Martin E., Modern American Religion, 1941–1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 368–69Google Scholar.

51 For a more extensive discussion of the destiny of ecumenical Protestantism in the mid-century decades, see my “After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Ecumenical Protestantism and the Modern American Encounter with Diversity,” Journal of American History 97 (forthcoming June 2011), and “Religious Liberalism and Ecumenical Self-Interrogation,” in American Religious Liberalism, ed. Leigh Eric Schmidt and Sally M. Promey (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, forthcoming 2011).