I intended to write about Baptist response to Israel’s May 1948 declaration of independence. But I found nothing in the Baptist news journals I perused.
This put me to thinking about Baptists’ seeming reluctance to speak out on larger issues of the world’s economic, social and political scene. I contend that Baptists’ reluctance—particularly Baptists in America and most especially white Baptists from the American South—was due in part to a frontier personal piety, a mass evangelism theology, and the remnants of a fabricated cultural superiority.
I came to this conclusion while writing an article (see the Sep. 1-8, 1982, issue of Christian Century) on the Baptist World Alliance congress in Berlin in 1934. An immense Nazi flag, hung where the congress met, was a vivid reminder of the bloody purge executed only a few weeks before by anti-Semitic fascists.
Most of the BWA delegates spoke out for soul liberty, the kinship of all humanity and the separation of church and state, but too many Baptist leaders did not. Indeed, a number of U.S. Baptists wrote sympathetically of Hitler’s Germany.
John R. Sampey, president of the Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville, Ky., cautioned against hasty judgment of a leader (Hitler) who had stopped German women from smoking cigarettes and wearing red lipstick in public.
In 1934, the Watchman-Examiner carried a letter written by Boston pastor John W. Bradbury. Of the congress, he wrote, “It was a great relief to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold; where putrid motion pictures and gangster films cannot be shown.”
This focus on personal piety resulted partially from a frontier religious ethic. On the American frontier, where Baptist strength in America arose in the Second Great Awakening, the most crucial ethical decisions were personal: alcoholism, spousal abuse and violence. Few complex social structures existed on the frontier to attract a sustained moral critique. Baptists equated eliminating the sins of the flesh with Christian living.
Mass evangelism at any price was a second factor in Baptist blindness to the Nazi evil. Some Baptists believed that evangelism and the world order were two circles that never intersected.
F.M. McConnell, a Baptist editor from Texas, complained that the BWA congress program gave “too much attention … to economic and social and political matters.” He believed it “far more important that the people … should get our reasons for world-wide evangelism, according to a 1934 Baptist Standard article.
A delegate from Montgomery, Ala., wrote, “Evangelical Christianity transcends all political and social systems,” according to an Alabama Baptist article that appeared that same year. As long as governments, even fascist governments, did not interfere with soul-saving, they could be tolerated.
This segregation of religious and political realities allowed for violent, racist nationalism. According to the BWA Official Congress Report, German Baptist Paul Schmidt argued that stronger races forcefully overcoming weaker ones is an expression of natural law that Jesus would not have his followers alter.
This type of argument must have sounded familiar to the slavery-rooted Southern Baptist denomination. On one page of the Alabama Baptist, the 1934 editor praised his home association for having “the purest Nordic blood among a larger proportion of its people than any other county in the state.”
SBC president M.E. Dodd of Louisiana defended Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. He wrote that though Jews “were not to be blamed for the intelligence and strength, so characteristic of their race, which put them forward,” they could be blamed for using those characteristics to get influential positions “for self-aggrandizement to the injury of the German people.” Besides, Dodd continued, most of the 200,000 Jewish refugees who went to Germany from Eastern Europe “were communist agitators against the government.”
Small wonder, I suppose, that the 1948 Jewish declaration of independence drew little or no comment from Baptists.
Loyd Allen is professor of church history and spiritual formation at the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology.