Topics in the News
Catholicism and Modernism
The 1940s were a decade of momentous change for Catholicism in the United States. Traditional Catholicism was challenged on every front: liturgical, philosophical, and organizational. The Catholic Church in general became more worldly, liberal, and egalitarian. Modernism, a catchall term that signified the multiple and diverse forces arrayed against tradition, confronted and transformed American Catholicism. This confrontation was long delayed. Unlike other churches, the Catholic Church failed to come to adequate terms with concepts and ideas that had transformed other theologies in the nineteenth century. Evolutionary theory, for example, restructured American Protestantism at the turn of the century. When Father John A. Zahm of Notre Dame University attempted a synthesis of Darwinism and Catholicism in 1896, the Vatican had him silenced. After World War II a reckoning with modernism could no longer be avoided. This confrontation made the 1940s one of the most dynamic decades in the history of American Catholicism.
By tradition, American Catholicism was a religion of immigrants, connected to the turn-of-the-century migration of Irish, Germans, Italians, Poles, French Canadians, east Europeans, and later immigrations of Latin Americans. For all of these groups Catholicism was tied to the immigration and...
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The Churches and World War II
Like every other institution in American life, the churches of the United States were deeply involved in World War II. Churches provided moral guidance, spiritual advice, and comfort to millions of soldiers in the battlefield and millions of families on the home front. Many members of the clergy enlisted in the military as chaplains, and churches provided Bibles and other religious items to the troops. Churches were often the location of bond rallies and scrap drives. Some clerics advised pacifism during the war and coordinated small opposition groups. Most, however, were engaged in the struggle against Germany and Japan and afterward became important agents in postwar reconstruction. Significant clergymen, such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Francis Spellman, were instrumental in framing American policy during and after the war, and churches and religious periodicals acted as shapers of public opinion throughout the period.
The developments of the late 1930s and early 1940s that propelled the world toward war had a different impact on different churches. American Catholics were troubled and divided by events in Europe. Rome was deeply opposed to atheistic communism, and many Catholics in Europe and the United States therefore supported or remained sympathetic to the anti-Communist philosophy of fascism. This was...
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Communism and the Faithful
By the end of the 1940s, among anti-Communist crusaders it had become almost axiomatic that communism had infiltrated American churches and was using the pulpit as a base from which to subvert American society. Such beliefs were common among many church leaders, congressional investigators, and policy makers, as seen in the National Security Council Memorandum 68 (1950), which listed the churches as one of the institutions that worldwide communism "sought to stultify and turn against our purposes." As American churches in the 1930s and 1940s had been instrumental in pursuing progressive political causes, anti-Communists suspicious of anything left of center interpreted church advocacy of causes such as civil rights as proof of a Communist conspiracy among the congregations. If anything, however, American churches in the 1940s were foremost among institutions opposing communism and contributing to the McCarthyism of the period. When it came to communism, American churches were first among its opponents.
Perhaps the most militantly anti-Communist church in the United States was the Catholic Church. The Vatican had denounced communism following the publication of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's The Communist Manifesto in. 1.848. Echoing Rome, American Catholic leaders objected to the...
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Ecumenism and the World Council of Churches
The Ecumenical Spirit.
The 1940s brought an unprecedented lessening of tensions between faiths and cooperation between denominations. A spirit of ecumenism, or cooperation between churches, dominated. This new spirit had a variety of sources, including the impact of the Holocaust, the development of Catholic modernism, wartime cooperation between British and American churches, and the suburbanization of churches. At the popular level the new spirit sought to do away with longstanding religious animosities, especially between Catholics and Jews and between Protestants and Catholics. The ecumenical spirit also created new organizational cooperation between denominations, especially in charity work, missionary activities, and political programs. These activities found expression in the creation of the World Council of Churches in 1948 and would result in the creation of a formal ecumenical body, the National Council of Churches, in 1950. By the end of the decade the ecumenical movement had thus become a worldwide phenomenon that was led by many American clergymen, including Henry Van Dusen, John Bennett, and Reinhold Niebuhr.
Before World War II differing Protestant denominations routinely cooperated with one another in charity work or social reform. In the 1940s these informal experiences became formalized and...
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Fundamentalism and Liberal Protestantism
Since the Civil War the mainline Protestant denominations proved surprisingly capable of adapting intellectual challenges such as Darwinian evolution, biblical research, artistic modernism, and philosophical naturalism into their theologies and practices. There was a general trend toward liberalism, which meant that mainline Protestantism attempted to remain broadly and optimistically humanistic and began treating the Bible less as a book of literal truth than as a book of symbolic and metaphoric wisdom. Not all Protestants followed the trend, however. One important group of Protestants rejected almost all of the philosophical innovations of the modern era and attempted a return to the "fundamentals" of Protestantism. At the Niagara Bible Conference of 1895 fundamentalists set forth five essential articles of faith: the inerrancy of Scripture, the divinity and virgin birth of Christ, the idea of "substitutionary atonement" (Christ taking the place of sinners on the cross), the physical Resurrection, and the bodily return of Christ to earth. These fundamentals, amended and supplemented, were widely publicized in a series of tracts published between 1910 and 1915 called The Fundamentals. They became the basis of modern fundamentalism.
Before the 1940s fundamentalists often clashed with liberals,...
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Judaism and Assimilation
Like Catholicism, Judaism in America was largely a religion of immigrants. By 1937 nearly 5 million Jews lived in the United States, nearly all of them recent immigrants or children of immigrants, with half of them living in New York City. Like Catholicism, therefore, Judaism in America was tied to the assimilation process. Jews who were determined to maintain a preexistent cultural identity clung to Judaism in its Old World, orthodox form. Many spoke Yiddish, a language unique to east European ghettos, and attempted a degree of isolation from American culture in tightly knit urban neighborhoods. By the 1930s, however, most Jews were drifting away from their faith, especially those determined to assimilate into American society. Many first-generation Jews were repelled by the orthodox religious practices of their parents, burdened as it was with the taint of "foreignness." A 1935 survey in New York City revealed that almost 75 percent of young Jews failed to attend synagogue in the past year. The majority of Jews in the Depression identified themselves more as an ethnic group than a religious faith, and many abandoned any sense of Jewish identity whatsoever. The 1940s were different. Inspired by the anti-Semitism of the Nazis and others, by the rise of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel, and by the invigoration of American variants of Judaism, many Jews returned to...
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The most important development in theology in the 1940s was neo-orthodoxy, a significant reformulation of the Calvinist core of Protestantism. Guided by Protestant theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and his brother H. Richard Niebuhr, as well as Swiss theologian Karl Barth and German exile Paul Tillich, neo-orthodoxy harmonized liberal Protestantism with a host of modern concepts—including existentialism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism—to revitalize the Calvinist emphasis on sin and individual free will. Like Catholic modernism and the reconstruction of Conservative and Reform Judaism, the neo-orthodox intellectual movement began during the Depression but became most important in the 1940s. During the decade, events such as World War II, the Holocaust, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki seemed to sanction the neo-orthodox worldview, which was based on the insufficiency of human reason and good will. Disseminated in hundreds of seminaries in the 1940s and 1950s, neo-orthodox theology was profoundly influential with Protestant clergy.
Perhaps the most important aspect of neo-orthodoxy was its reformulation of the concept of sin. Orthodox Calvinism insisted that sin was innate in individuals; only the redeeming power of God could overcome it. Neo-orthodox theologians argued much the same by use of modern...
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Postwar Prosperity and the Return to the Churches
The most distinguishing feature of American religion in the 1940s was its revival. Church membership, in decline before the war, skyrocketed in the latter half of the decade. Postwar prosperity renewed the economic base of many American churches, which expanded rapidly. New churches were built in the burgeoning postwar suburbs; established urban ministries were renewed. Most importantly, the economic prosperity of the postwar years made churchgoing into something of a status symbol, a badge of upward mobility. While there were theological and spiritual reasons for the return to the churches, most notably the impact of World War II, millions of prosperous working-class families aspiring to the ranks of the middle class saw churchgoing as a definitively all-American activity. Church membership in the late 1940s was both a product and a symbol of American affluence.
Most American denominations had declined in membership...
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As a natural consequence of increased interest in religion during the 1940s, along with growing prosperity, sales of books dealing with religious matters prospered during the decade. Religious best-sellers ranged from popular self-help books and humorous reflections on religious life to novels with religious characters or situations to studies by or about well-known religious figures.
In 1940 Alan Watts published The Meaning of Happiness, which dealt not with a future reward for the good but with a present reality for those living in harmony with nature. Two best-selling novels appeared in 1942: The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas, and Franz Werfel's The Song of Bernadette. Also that year, the pastor for forty-four years of New York's Madison Avenue Methodist Church, Ralph W. Sockman, published The Highway of God, his Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching from the previous year at Yale University. Best-sellers for 1943 included Sholem Asch's The Apostle, a life of Paul, and On Being a Real Person, by an eloquent preacher and preeminent apologist for liberal Christianity, Harry Emerson Fosdick. That same year saw the release of David, a life of the biblical king by Duff Cooper; Col. Robert L. Scott's God Is My Co-Pilot; and Clerical Errors, the recollections...
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The Religious Response to the Atomic Bomb
"I Am Become Death."
"I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds," a line from the Bhagavad Gita, was J. Robert Oppenheimer's only thought after the blinding flash of the first atomic bomb test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on 16 July 1945. The August bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a less literary relation to death: hundreds of thousands died in the blasts or from the radiation sickness that followed. Such devastation and the technology that made it possible naturally evoked much commentary from theologians and the clergy. Despite the fact that the public overwhelmingly approved of the atomic bomb, America's religious leaders responded to the bomb less unanimously. Their doubts and misgivings about living in an atomic world soon became part of American popular culture.
Most Americans agreed with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified, because it was "used to save the lives of thousands of American soldiers who would otherwise have perished on the beaches of Japan." The vast majority of Protestant and Catholic clergy deplored the presence of atomic weapons but maintained that their use to end the war was justified—and perhaps would be justified in the future. Protestant layman Arthur H. Compton went further, seeing in the American development of the...
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Religious Response to the Holocaust
A Muted Memory.
As horrific as was the Holocaust in retrospect, it is surprising how muted the response to the calamity was in the 1940s. For non-Jews the Holocaust tended to be discussed in the context of German barbarism, a manifestation of the moral bankruptcy of war, or a sign of deep-seated human depravity. Many associated it with the other catastrophes of the period—with Japanese brutality toward prisoners of war, Japanese medical experimentation in Manchuria, and the Bataan death march in the Philippines; with the Lidice massacre and the murders in Katyn Forest; with scorched-earth warfare in Russia; with carpet bombing of European cities; and with V-2 rockets and the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As terrible as these events were, to a great extent they paled before the intentional, systematic extermination of 9 million innocent human beings (6 million of them Jewish) in the Nazi death factories. Placing the Holocaust in context perhaps assuaged more than
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Urbanization and the Black Church
American churches in the 1940s were almost entirely segregated. A 1946 estimate suggested that no more than one-half of 1 percent of blacks attended church with whites. Instead, African Americans actively promoted and supported their own churches. There were thirty-four predominately black denominations, the largest of which, the National Baptist Convention of America, possessed 4.4 million members. The heart of black church strength was in the Baptist and Methodist churches of the South. Led by a segregated middle class of black professionals, they unified community life, mitigated the difficulties of poverty, and provided a distinct culture and identity for African Americans. Black congregations were far more engaged in services than their white counterparts, and black spirituals and gospel music bound the churches together. In the 1940s southern black churches remained important, but as more and more African Americans migrated from the rural South to the industrialized North to take jobs in defense industries, the character of black religion began to change.
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Muste, A. J. 1885-1967
PACIFIST, FOUNDER OF CORE
Out of Step.
In the 1940s few Americans were more out of step with public opinion than Abraham Johannes Muste. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the country rallied behind the war effort; Muste, one of the most ardent pacifists in American history, counseled those resisting the war. After World War II the nation slowly but certainly closed ranks around the struggle against the Soviet Union; Muste dissented, propagating the Cold War "third camp" position—opposing both Communist political tyranny and capitalist economic oppression. And while many Americans in the postwar years came to support black equality, few did so with the fervor of Muste, who helped form the trailblazing civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He also popularized Mohandas K. Gandhi's philosophy of peace in the United States, teaching nonviolence to a generation of civil rights leaders. Muste was out of step with his countrymen, but out in front of most on the path to social justice.
Born in the Dutch shipping port of Zierikzee on...
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Niebuhr, Reinhold 1892-1971
Number One Theologian.
America's preeminent religious intellectual in the middle third of the twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was also an important figure in social and political affairs. His picture graced the cover of Time magazine's twenty-fifth anniversary issue in 1948, and two years later the same publication called him "the number one theologian of United States Protestantism." His professional reputation was the equal of his public acclaim. The foremost philosopher of Protestant neo-orthodoxy, Niebuhr in his reconstruction of the faith was highly influential among theologians. He is perhaps best known for his "Serenity Prayer," first published in 1951:
God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed;
give us the courage to change what should be changed;
give us the wisdom to distinguish one from the other."...
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Peale, Norman Vincent 1898-1993
AUTHOR AND MINISTER
A country boy from Ohio, Norman Vincent Peale trained at Boston University Seminary and began his full-time ministry at a church in Brooklyn in 1924. He married Ruth Stafford on 20 June 1930 and two years later accepted a call to the Dutch Reformed Marble Collegiate Church in New York, where he was soon attracting large crowds with his simple preaching style. He appealed to middle and upper-middle-class Americans struggling to survive a Depression and two world wars.
Before World War II Peale wrote The Art of Living (1937), which sold poorly but which announced the theme to which he would return in later books: "applied Christianity helps people to tap [the] reservoir of power within themselves." In the mid 1940s Peale began a newsletter called Guideposts, which offered anecdotes and inspirational accounts of faith in action. It soon achieved a circulation of more than 800,000. With New York psychiatrist Smiley Blanton he established the Blanton-Peale Institute of Religion and Health, which focused on the relationship of faith and mental health. In 1940 Peale and Blanton had published Faith Is the Answer, an interesting mix of religious truisms and distorted psychoanalysis. They argued that religious faith unlocked the unconscious mind, a position...
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Spellman, Francis J. 1889-1967
ARCHBISHOP OF NEW YORK
The American Pope.
On 23 December 1945 Francis J. Spellman, archbishop of New York, was named cardinal by Pope Pius XII. The appointment represented the culmination of an extraordinary career within the Catholic Church and within American society. By 1945 Spellman was the leading Roman Catholic clergyman in the United States, the confidant of powerful political and business figures, and the spiritual leader of the largest Catholic archdiocese in America, His influence on American political affairs, both domestic and foreign, was considerable, leading critics to dub him "the American Pope."
Spellman was born in Whitman, Massachusetts, on 4 May 1889 to an upper-middle-class grocer. An indifferent and unexceptional student, he nonetheless went to Fordham University in 1907, determined to make his mark in the priesthood. After graduating he attended the North American...
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Tiluch, Paul 1886-1965
Religion and Culture.
Along with Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich was the most influential Protestant theologian in the United States in the middle of the twentieth century. Tillich was adept at linking religion with all aspects of culture, including science, art, philosophy, psychology, and ethics.
Born in Starzeddel, Germany, in 1886, Tillich was the son of a Lutheran pastor who instilled in him what he recalled as a "heightened consciousness of duty and sin/' By age twenty-four Tillich had received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Breslau. Drawn to the Romantic philosophy of Friedrich Schelling, Tillich was also preoccupied with resolving the challenges modern philosophy and science presented to traditional Protestantism. Under the influence of one of his teachers, Martin Kähler, he sought to integrate modernism into Protestant theology without compromising the distinctive...
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Trueblood, D. Elton 19OO-1994
THEOLOGIAN AND AUTHOR
D. Elton Trueblood, whose Quaker ancestors settled in America in 1682, was one of the most prominent theologians in the United States during the 1940s. Educated at the Harvard School of Theology and Johns Hopkins University, he was less an intellectual than a popularizer of religious thought. His studies of religion were widely read in the 1940s and contributed to the revival of religion during the decade.
Trueblood was the author of thirty-three books, five of them published in the 1940s: The Logic of Belief (1942), The Predicament of Modern Man (1944), Foundations for Reconstruction (1946), Alternative to Futility (1948), and The Common Ventures of Life: Marriage, Birth, Work, and Death (1949). In his work he sought to enlighten the "literate secular reader" rather than the professional theologian. He hoped his works would inspire people to work toward a "redemptive" society based upon Christian principles. In 1944, concerned that the war had resulted in a "cut flower" civilization—one cut off from its roots—he sought to reassure readers that the moral and religious bases of Western civilization remained intact. This idea was also central to his acclaimed book The Life We Prize (1951), which also argued that the...
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People in the News
On 8 October 1947 Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God, established Ambassador College in Pasadena, California.
Archbishop Athenagoras I was enthroned as patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church on 22 January 1949.
On 7 July 1946 Pope Pius XII canonized Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini of Chicago as the first American saint for having established convents and orphanages in several cities around the world. She died in 1917.
Under the Espionage Act of 1917, the U.S. government on 14 April 1942 banned the anti-Semitic weekly Social Justice, published by Father Charles E. Coughlin of Detroit.
On 8 November 1944 the Most Reverend Richard J. Cushing was installed as archbishop of Boston, making him, at forty-nine, the world's youngest archbishop. On 13 October 1947 Cushing opened the ninth annual convention of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) by noting that members of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States are, without exception, sons of workingmen.
Dr. Louis Finkelstein, a Jew; Dr. William Adams Brown, a Protestant; and Rev. Elliot Ross, a Catholic, collaborated on a 1941 book, Religions of Democracy, published by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
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Rev. George Aaron Barton, 83, Episcopal clergyman and expert on biblical literature and Semitic languages, 28 June 1942.
Rev. Warren Akin Candler, 84, bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and chancellor of Emory University, 25 September 1941.
Rev. James Cannon, Jr., 79, bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and aggressive advocate of Prohibition, 6 September 1944.
Rev. William Chalmers Covert, 77, moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, 4 February 1942.
Rev. William Horace Day, 75, moderator of the National Council of Congregational Churches, 16 March 1942.
Marcus Garvey, 52, Jamaican black nationalist and advocate of a future black homeland in an "Africa for Africans," 10 June 1940.
Dr. Jesse Herman Holmes, 78, Quaker who founded the organization that became the American Friends Service Committee, 27 May 1942.
Rev. Methodios Kourkoulis, 79, leader in the Greek Orthodox Church, 9 April 1941.
Rev. Peter Marshall, 46, former pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and chaplain of the U.S. Senate, 25 January 1949.
Rev. Shailer Mathews, 78, theologian, author, and dean...
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Aaron Ignatius Abell, The Urban Impact on American Protestantism, 1865-1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1943);
Gustaf Aulén, Churchy Law, and Society (New York: Scribners, 1948);
Donald M. Baillie, God Was in Christ (New York: Scribners, 1948);
Salo Wittmayer Baron, Modern Nationalism and Religion (New York: Harper, 1947);
Sufi M. R. Bengale, Life of Muhammad (Chicago: Moslem Sunrise, 1942);
John C. Bennett, Christian Ethics and Social Policy (New York: Scribners, 1946);
Bennett, Christianity and Communism (New York: Association, 1948);
Andrew Blackwood, Pastoral Leadership (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1949);
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1949);
Harold A. Bosley, Main Issues Confronting Christendom (New York: Harper, 1948);
Bosley, The Philosophical Heritage of the Christian Faith (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1944);
John Wick Bowman, The Religion of Maturity (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1948);
Charles S. Braden, Man's Quest for Salvation (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1941);
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Important Events in Religion, 1940–1949
INFLUENTIAL PUBLICATIONS: E. Stanley Jones, Is the Kingdom of God Realism?; Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand; William E. Hocking, Living Religions and a World Faith.
- The United Jewish Appeal is founded.
- In February, the United States establishes a diplomatic counsel at the Vatican for the first time since 1868.
- On March 21, Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel arrives in the United States insisting humanity must make a distinction between good and evil.
- Catholic leaders reform and reissue the Baltimore Catechism, the basis of Catholic educational instruction.
- On January 19, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis estimates there are 450,000 Christian pacifists in the United States.
- On September 6, the Presbyterian Church in the United States reports a membership decrease of 8,654 to a new total of 2,013,247.
- On November 30, more than sixteen thousand attend the opening of the entire interior length of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, the longest Gothic cathedral in the world (601 feet).
- On April 14, the Saturday Evening Post disclaims any anti-Semitic bias in an article by Milton...
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