Commentary Magazine

American Protestantism and Social Issues, 1919-1939, by Robert Moats Miller

American Protestantism
American Protestantism and Social Issues, 1919-1939.
by Robert Moats Miller.
University of North Carolina Press. 385 pp., $6.00.


It is the great convenience of the church (temple, synagogue) that it functions both as savior and as scapegoat. If the world is in a mess, we can call upon the church to get us out of it, or we can blame the church for getting us into it. One set of critics complains that the church is too conservative, that it is a peddler of opiates to the people. Another set of critics complains that the church is too radical, that it is the spiritual ferment behind every sort of dangerous revolutionary impulse. The interesting thing about this situation is that everybody in one way or another is right. The difficult problem, however, is that of making discriminating judgments.

The merit of Robert Moats Miller’s book is that it gives us some facts. The inquiry is focused on American Protestantism from 1919 to 1939—the two decades between the two great world wars. There is a thorough and systematic study of the attitudes and actions of various sects, denominations, and interdenominational bodies with reference to the central issues of the time. Mr. Miller first of all considers the general movement of the church to the left during these two decades, and then examines its dealings with civil liberties, with labor, with race, and with war and peace. In these pages we meet Reinhold Niebuhr, Buell Gallagher, Bishop McConnell, Norman Thomas; we watch the Federal Council of Churches, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, or the Fellowship of Socialist Christians; we are there with Sacco and Vanzetti, or with Mooney and Billings; we follow the great strikes, from the steel strike of 1919 to the textile strikes in Lawrence, Passaic, and Gastonia. But it is impossible to summarize the enormous number of issues, organizations, and crises that are encompassed in this study.

If the reader finds some difficulty in staying with the book, this is because in time the sheer massing of evidence can induce tedium. It may also be because, in spite of a prevailing order, clarity, and even zest in the style of exposition, the author lets go every now and then with what appears to be a deliberately outlandish expression. He likes the colloquial “still and all,” gives way on impulse to the casual and clumsy wisecrack, and occasionally provides us with an incredibly incongruous combination of images: “Indeed, it becomes as plain as a pikestaff that Protestant protests against lynching were almost as thick as bald headed sinners at an Amy Semple McPherson revival.” Again, some of his apothegms are more pretentious than sententious: “After all, new found worlds could not be discovered by lost souls”—which I forbear to comment upon; or else: “After all, it was Jesus not Marx who observed that where a man’s purse is there will be his heart also.” But the key word in Matthew 6:21 in the King James version, or in the RSV, or in Moffatt, or even in Phillips, is rendered “treasure,” not “purse,” and it certainly does not signify a pocketbook with money in it.

Nevertheless this volume still offers all the excitement of discovery and of challenge. When Mr. Miller begins with a discussion of “The Churches Corpulent and Contented in the Twenties,” we relish his shrewd documentation, nod our heads in agreement, think uneasily about a possible analogy with the 50’s, and continue reading with the confident feeling that all of our precious stereotypes are to be respected. But the very next chapter is “A Dissenting Report of the Churches in the Twenties,” which shows that there was a considerable ferment of social radicalism among the churches even in those complacent times And the next chapter, on the election of 1928, presents the disturbing thesis that it really was the Prohibition question, rather than anti-Catholic prejudice, that turned so many Protestants against Al Smith.

Every now and then, with respectful malice, Mr. Miller points out how the “realist” Reinhold Niebuhr was often naive and doctrinaire in his judgments in the 20’s and 30’s. He also argues that, during the period under consider ation, if you cancel out the socially conservative Unitarians against the socially radical apostles of neo-orthodoxy, there is still a high degree of direct correlation between conservatism in theology and in public affairs, and liberalism in theology and in social action. However, it also becomes evident that simple sociological interpretations in the Marxian manner can be quite misleading. On the hypothesis of economic determinism it may be understandable that the South should be less liberal than the North. Yet it is in the North, where the industrial interests exist, that the church is more radical in its social policies; and it is the churches of the upper middle classes, rather than those of the lower middle classes, that take the lead in this radicalism.



A rough summary of Mr. Miller’s findings would be to the effect that the church did very well on civil liberties, did pretty well in the cause of labor, did rather poorly in the race question, and, after its mistakes in the First World War, was consistently high-minded and idealistic, if occasionally fatuous, in matters of war and peace. He suggests that the church did not really get going in the cause of racial justice until a later decade. And while Protestants provided both the members and the leaders for anti-Semitic movements, it is nevertheless the case that official organs of the church, both denominational and interdenominational, were overwhelmingly in opposition. It is plain, moreover, that the church dared more than once to take a stand that was genuinely sacrificial. Perhaps the most dramatic instance of this was the report on the steel strike of 1919 by the commission under Bishop Francis J. McConnell. This report had a lot to do with ending long hours of work in the steel industry; but it was also a prime factor in the failure of the Inter-church World Movement, under whose auspices the report was issued, in that it alienated the wealthy sponsors of that movement.

A principal effect of this study should be to force upon our attention the importance of making discriminating judgments. For instance, there can be quite a difference between the stand taken by local churches and the position of churches in their regional or in their national groupings. Of course the class alignments of churches are important, although one must beware of naively Marxian interpretations here. Then each denomination has its own tradition of a peculiar emphasis in social ethics. One must distinguish again between the attitude of the majority and the attitude of a minority, while remembering that sometimes the minority (the leaven) may be more important than the majority (the lump). There are also questions of strategy and of tactics, which may evoke patterns of speech and of behavior rather different from what is involved in the simple affirmation of a social creed. Incidentally, the naivety or the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr needs to be understood in the light of this consideration, for he has always been a man of action as well as an expositor of ideas.



Of particular interest to all religious bodies that are organized in a congregational polity—i.e., to all Jews, and, among Protestants, to all Baptists, Congregationalists, Disciples, Brethren, and most sectarian groups—is the unmistakable conclusion that the boldest leadership in liberal causes comes not from the local clergy but from those church officers who are farthest removed from the control of the local congregation. While allowing for important exceptions, Mr. Miller tells us that “on the whole Protestantism’s most liberal leaders were seminary professors, church press editors, episcopal officers, agency heads, and the like.” That phrase “episcopal officers” may upset some of us, and yet both the Methodist and the Episcopal churches have shown time and again that their bishops can be among the most daring and unconventional in their social attitudes. Indeed, it was the general rule during these two decades that the clergy were ahead of the laity in social liberalism, and this explains in part the fact that there could be a discrepancy between the official, high-level pronouncements of the church and what it put into practice. But if there was a lag in radical social action, that lag would have to be blamed on laicism rather than on clericalism.

Of course in this year 1958 we are already two decades past the concluding point of Mr. Miller’s study. In these two decades what used to be called the Red “scare” has become a world-wide Communist menace; the assault on civil liberties, on the courts, and on due process of law has lost little of its momentum; there has been a tremendous effort to smash the barriers between church and state in public and private school education; there are critical issues of desegregation, of automation, of atomic energy, of the warfare of total annihilation, that claim our attention. In general, the disposition of American society during this time reflects a shift from the left to the right. What has been the role of the churches in these changing times?

It would be my hope that Mr. Miller will shortly be at work on a new book, covering the two decades from 1939 to 1959; and that, with some slight gain in dignity of expression as well as in the interpretive structuring of his materials, he will bring to this fresh undertaking the same energy in research and the same zest in exposition that have already made him a significant scholar in his field.



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