United Church of Christ New York Metropolitan Association
      History and Polity of the UCC
 

   

New World (Order)

By Rev. Elizabeth Wheeler

In 1893 abolition and suffrage leaders, among them Alice Stone Blackwell, daughter of Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, formed the United Friends of Armenia. That year, too, she took over the Women's Journal, which her mother founded for the American Women's Suffrage Association. It would become an instrument to organize an activist network of Armenian supporters and Friends of Armenia would spearhead America 's first international human rights organization. Through the efforts of Christian revolutionaries, the Armenian Question would become the genesis of the modern era's international human rights movement and the model for defining the term, “genocide”.

Armenia was a seminal event of the modern era. The cause was the massacre of innocent people through a peacetime policy of systematic slaughter. In the minds of abolition and suffrage leaders, this was no more an internal matter of a sovereign nation than the lynching of black men and the rape of black women were internal matters of southern states. That these events occurred in plain view of the American people was due to American missionaries, many of whom were women, and the American press, Stone among them. Seasoned organizers from the abolition and suffrage movements, they knew the power of relentlessly published eye-witness reports. And in the emerging self-consciousness of American national power, they cast the Armenian Problem on to the international stage. Armenia was the cause celebre of the day.

The Armenian civilization fascinated the Western mind. It was located in the “cradle of civilization” and was the first indigenous Christian nation. In their mythology the Armenian people adopted Christianity in 301. A.D. This resonated with the American imagination. The two peoples were joined by the sweep of history. God's covenant to the Hebrews on Mt. Arafat after The Flood at the beginning of time continued through God's covenant with the New Israel of 19th century Christian America.

Armenian Christians were Orthodox. And the decision in the 1820s by the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Mission to evangelize the Near East was controversial. Protestants had not been successful in converting Muslims but they were successful in converting the Orthodox Armenian Christians to Protestantism. On the one hand, they brought a welcome message of material progress and political democracy. On the other, they suffered from the “white man's burden” carried by missionaries who denigrated non-Western cultures and complicated Armenian relations with their Muslim overlords and Orthodox priests.

The cooperative venture of Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Dutch Reform intensified during the Second Great Awakening of the 1850s. By the 1890s a large network of Protestant missions spread from eastern Turkey through northern Iraq and Iran . They were witness to a turmoil that had its beginnings 200 years earlier. In 1453 Christian Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire . The spread of Islam into Christian Europe continued until it was stopped at Vienna in 1683.

What eventually followed were rebellions in Greece (1828) and Bulgaria (1876) that pitted Christian Europe and Russia against the Muslim Turks. The Armenian Question had become an international concern in the 1877 Treaty of Berlin that concluded the most recent of several Russian-Turkish wars. These wars were fought over Russian access to the sea and in support of Armenian Orthodox Christians but involved all of Europe as allies of Russia . The Treaty included sections prohibiting persecution of the Armenian Christians and Armenia became the battlefield of the Turkish Ottoman Empire under siege.

Although the European signatories of the Berlin Treaty imposed oversight rules on the Ottoman Sultan, they imposed no penalties for non-compliance. Enraged by European interventions and threatened by unrest in his own military, the Sultan sought to distract his internal enemies by claiming insurrection among the Armenians. In the spring of 1894, his personal guard systematically murdered 3000 Armenians in the Sasun highlands. It was the “first instance of organized mass murder” carried out in peacetime with no connection to any foreign war but in front of foreign observers. The objective was “extermination, pure and simple,” wrote British vice-consul H. S. Shipley, a member of the committee that investigated the event. The killing did not stop until 1896. (Balakian 56)

There was an apocalyptic horror about the Armenian killings. It seemed wonton and indiscriminate yet diabolically planned. The slaughter reached biblical proportions. In the aftermath of the massacres between 1894 and 1896, 200,000 were killed, 50,000 were expelled, another 100,000 died from famine and disease, a million homes were plundered and burned. The world press covered the carnage and the failure of western governments to protect the Armenians and punish the Turks. With photo images and a drum beat of front-page stories, a “sickening consciousness of something hideous” (Balakian 124) rose in the American mind.

So sickening were the reports coming back from the field that by 1895 Armenian relief organizations had sprung up all over the country. Friends of Armenia attracted money from Wall Street financiers and Main Street schoolchildren -- $300,000 by 1896 when a loaf of bread cost a nickel. (Balakian 70) Humanity was on trial and moral passions ran high.

Relief for refugees and survivors, however, was no compensation for bringing the murderers to justice. In 1903 Charlotte Perkins Gilman, feminist writer and critic, wrote in the inaugural issue of Armenia her vision of America in America 's new age of global leadership. Crimes against humanity had to be backed up by international law to restrain, prohibit, punish and prevent the revolting crimes that Turkey had committed, she said. And then she went on:

Who is to do it? Who will usher in the new age of global social consciousness? . . . America, with the blended blood of all peoples in her veins, with interests in every land and duties with the interests; America, who leads in so many things, can well afford to lead in this; not only allowing human liberty here, but using her great strength to protect it everywhere. (Balakian 131-2)

It was a brave hymn but whistling in the wind. The failure of western governments to punish Turkey set the stage for the 1915 genocide of World War I in which 1.5 million Armenians perished. The “hidden holocaust” centered in Cilicia , the last independent Armenian state to fall to the Turkish Muslims in 1375. With their own government's unwillingness to intervene, many Americans felt betrayed and soiled. They felt like accomplices in murder. And the American conviction that America was the righteous nation faltered.

In 1922 Harry Emerson Fosdick in his famous sermon Shall the Fundamentalists Win? cried out his shame. The world is dying of great needs, he roared, while the Christian church is quarreling over petty questions of sectarian “tiddledywinks.”

There is not a single thing at stake in the controversy (between liberal and fundamentalist churches) on which depends the salvation of human souls. That is the trouble with this whole business. So much of it does not matter! . . . Just a week ago, I received a letter from a friend in Asia Minor . He says they are killing the Armenians yet; that the Turkish deportations still are going on . . . During (World War I) when it was good propaganda to stir up our bitter hatred against the (German-Turkish) enemy we heard of such atrocities but not now! . . . Our government said that it was not any of our business at all. The present world situation smells to heaven!

How different is this cri du coeur from the confidence of the previous generation when suffrage and abolition leaders mobilized millions for liberty and justice and Christians led the way triumphantly. In 1876, Washington Gladden prefaced his first social gospel book Working People and Their Employers with this remark: Now that slavery is out of the way, the questions that concern the welfare of our free laborers are coming forward; and no intelligent man needs to be admonished of their urgency . (Handy 159)

The labor movement was the Social Gospel's primary focus. Partly this was because industrialization and urbanization exploded offending the agrarian sensibilities of rural America; partly it was because the Yankee-Protestant establishment was being pushed aside by immigrant party bosses and humiliated by the aggressive gains of the nouveau riche; and partly it was because the depressions of the 1890s frightened middle class people who felt themselves fast revolving to the bottom and had to do something to stem real losses.

Between immigrant and establishment politics, robber baron and small town gentry little communication existed. Muckraking was perhaps the only open channel. But reformers and workers could find a bridge between labor justice and Christian responsibility. And that was the one they erected from the traditional ethic of Christian benevolence appalled by urban squalor and inhuman factory conditions. In his The Age of Reform Richard Hofstader writes

The whole effect of the Protestant ethic (was) to heighten the sense of personal responsibility as much as possible . . . (But) the religious institutions of Protestantism provided no mechanism to process, drain off and externalize the sense of guilt. American political traditions provided no strong native tradition of conservatism to reconcile men to evils that could not easily be disposed of. The native ethos of mass participation in politics and citizen-like civic consciousness – so strong, as we have remarked, to the immigrants – confirmed the idea that everyone was in some very serious sense responsible for everything. Moral indignation at slums and graft demanded moral action in response if for no other reason than to feel better. (Hofstader 205 and chapters 4 and 5)

Progressive politics was one alternative. The Social Gospel movement and its offspring, cooperative Christian action and the ecumenical movement, was another. Both were middle class clerical revolts. Both were full of optimism for their visions of God's Kingdom come against God's implacable enemies. God's gift of science through God's chosen people would redeem God's groaning world.

The Social Gospel movement rallied liberal minded evangelicals to deal with the problems of society that came to a head after the Civil War. It grew from the benevolent impulses of the early 19th century and the civic imperatives of the 18th century. Middle class Protestants expected government to run on principles greater than personal interest and the Christian missionary and reform movements demonstrated the power of the united evangelical churches for the moral regeneration of society.

Although Washington Gladden was the first to formulate the ideas of the Social Gospel in the 1870s, it was not until the bitter labor wars of the 1880s that the churches awakened to the plight of workers, the danger to Christian civilization and the solutions that were emerging from the new social sciences. Most of the Progressive Era achievements came from secular reformers but they had a “Protestant gloss” from the clergy idealists. To save the nation the “principles of justice and love according to the teaching and example of Christ (were to be applied to) the ready task of the new Christianity, to set Christendom in order – its cities, its industries, its society, its literature, its law.” (Handy 161)

Sin could be eliminated because individual sin was conditioned by unjust institutions. If the institutions were reformed the whole society would be, too. The goal was to square the social order with Christian ethics and anyone could see this was happening. The modern family was more solicitous of each member, the modern church was more charitable to others, the modern government was more democratic, the modern school was more rational, the modern prison was more reformatory than penal colony. Only the relations between business and labor had yet to be Christianized.

The Social Gospel found its national platform in the nondenominational Federal Council of Churches. But divisions within the denominations prevented the Council from leading the movement. In 1925, the Congregational Council for Social Action was the “one really official denominational agent in Social Gospel history to try for a thoroughgoing evangelization of its own church.” (Meyer 43) And the Evangelical and Reform churches, with long traditions open to theological liberalism, were the only denominations that gave widespread parish support to Social Gospel clergy. (Meyer 45)

The most effective, long-term voice of the Social Gospel was Christian Century founded by the Disciples out of their strong, non-dogmatic witness. Through Christian Century , word organized action and The Word remained a vital critic of American life, including the Social Gospel apologetics that eventually tied Christian reform to Progressive politics. (Meyer 53-4)

Here was the harbinger of error. The efforts of liberal pastors were focused on shaping a new church in response to the new forces that stood in the way of the mission imperative to Christianize the world. Social reconstruction through applied social science and political power in Christian love could change the world, beginning in America . Perfecting America was the goal and although World War I confused this vision for some, most Social Gospellers put it into the American historical context.

The 17th century Puritans had anticipated a sanctified society; the 18th century revivals turned anticipation into reality; the 19th century reform movements had confirmed that reality; the Civil War and World War I were the climactic crusades; and the American Way of Life after the Great War demonstrated yet again God's favor toward the chosen people. (Meyer 163-4) In America the “world was starting up again under a divinely granted second chance for the human race.” (Lewis 5)

But to politicize family, business, labor, church, social club, sports is the beginning of totalitarianism and the striving for some universal utopian ideal of organic unity leads only to excess. Economic and social change cannot be the content of belief. These gods are certain to fail. Nor is it possible to re-enchant the world by imposing upon it some single religious idea, like Manifest Destiny, that gives life the feeling of supreme significance. Diversity always dissents before the crusades of Christendom's holy men. (Meyer 193-4)

The Social Gospel error was that the new order exposed the soul to politics and left the inner life of the individual in peril. This was exactly the peril the Social Gospel was to overcome. But “the way was left open to that drift by which the content of salvation tended to become the values of social life” and individuals were left with no gospel at all. (Meyer 134-5) Or rather the American Way was the gospel but a gospel shorn of the sacred. In the celebration of American progress toward the Christianization of society, progress became the object of veneration rather than God.

For a while conservative opposition to the New Deal masked its opposition to the Social Gospel and this fatal flaw. But the New Deal's programs for social and political reform were not then and are not now the faults of the Social Gospel. Rather human being by nature are flawed. Even our idealism is not free from unintended consequences, from collateral damage so to speak, and to think it can be is ideology not faith.

In post Civil War America , however, history seemed open to opportunities to shape the future in God's ways. It was a “kairos moment” so seductive to “the type of man who had dreamed its politics in the first place, the sanctified man, the good man, the moral man who would moralize immoral society.” (Meyer 165) The flaw was in the yearning that could imagine banishing sin and human depravity by human will and equating the reign of God with progressive politics.

In 1912, Walter Rauschenbush, the Social Gospel's greatest prophet, could say that family, church, school and politics had changed so much that most could be counted as agents of Christ's world under Christ's law. And the Christianization of relations between business and labor was moving ahead with child labor laws, collective bargaining rights, factory safety regulations, a living wage. He prayed with conviction for the new world he saw:

O God we praise Thee for the dream of the golden city of peace and righteousness which has ever haunted the prophets of humanity and we rejoice with joy unspeakable that at last the people have conquered the freedom and knowledge and power which may avail to turn into reality the vision that so long has beckoned in vain. We pray Thee to revive in us the hardy spirit of our forefathers, that we may establish and confirm their work, building on the basis of their democracy the firm edifice of a cooperative commonwealth, in which both government and industry shall be of the people, by the people and for the people. May we who now live, see the oncoming of the great day of God, when all men shall stand side by side in equal worth and real freedom, all toiling and all reaping, masters of nature but brothers of men, exultant in the tide of the common life and jubilant in the adoration of Thee the source of their blessings and the Father of all. (Fosdick vol. III 134)

He settled the race problem by declaring it a southern problem and advocating the program of Booker T. Washington to solve it. W. E. B. DuBois knew better and objected.

In 1930 W. E. B. DuBois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk an argument against the gradualism of Booker T. Washington. Washington 's boot strap “propaganda” urged blacks to give up political power, civil rights and higher education in favor of industrial training for the masses. In an age of unusual economic development, Washington 's policy of submission to the gospel of work and money would overshadow the high aims of life, said DuBois. Such a program might win the approval of white folks but at the cost of shifting the burden of justice from the nation to the black man. DuBois objected.

In so far as Mr. Washington apologizes for injustice, North or South, does not rightly value the privilege and duty of voting, belittles the emasculating effects of cast distinctions and opposes the higher training and ambition of our brighter minds – so far as he, the South or the Nation, does this – we must unceasingly and firmly oppose them. By every civilized and peaceful method we must strive for the rights which the world accords to men, clinging unwaveringly to those great words which the sons of the Fathers would fain forget: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (Myers,Kern,Cawelti 34-7)

Sixty years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. had waited long enough. In A Letter From Birmingham Jail he wrote

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you. Was not Amos an extremist for justice: Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: I bear in my body the mark of the Lord Jesus.

Was not Martin Luther an extremist: Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God. And John Bunyan: I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience. And Abraham Lincoln: This nation cannot survive half slave and half free. And Thomas Jefferson: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equally. . . So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremist we will be. (King 297-8)

The 1960s revolution marked the end of the great Enlightenment project of liberal evangelicals to liberate captive people and carry the gospel of peace and prosperity to the whole world. It had failed. Thereafter, the fundamentalists' counterrevolution surged on wave after wave of disillusionment and fear.

The fundamentalists were wrong that the large historical forces of consumer capitalism, scientific inquiry, fragmenting culture, mass murder could be stopped by moralizing, coercive, rearguard actions. The new world order will not be forced at the point of a sword. But they were right that a liberal humanistic faith could never fully express the American religious spirit.

Between 1890 and 1920 when Social Gospel reformers were on crusade, many conservative Christians remained committed to a patriarchal social order headed by native born Anglo Saxons. Between 1910 and 1915 they summed up the basic Christian beliefs in The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth . These booklets sold 3 million copies. Since then liberals have consistently underestimated the commitment of American Christians to orthodox Christian beliefs: Jesus is God, born of a virgin, crucified for our sins, risen from the dead to come again in righteous judgment. Scripture is God's true word and the praise of God is man's true calling.

By 1942 conservatives had organized themselves into the National Association of Evangelicals. Its members were alienated from mainline churches by Social Gospel errors and the ecumenical movement that reduced the Christian confession to its lowest common denominator: Jesus Christ is Lord. The Association gave voice to a “Third Force” in American Christianity, neither fundamentalist nor liberal but evangelical. Billy Graham personified the movement. During the 1940s and 50s evangelical churches grew 400 to 700 percent while older denominations grew 75 to 90 percent. (Ahlstrom Vol 2 456)

The discrepancy was in part because the fundamentalists focused on the private worries of individuals, while liberals continued to concentrate on the more distant and abstract goal of reforming systems. Modernity was pressing down upon the earth with menace and extremes. All the great achievements of science and technology seemed perverted into instruments of violence and invisible powers seemed to control the coarsening minds of the people, beginning with the children.

Millennial fevers of a bloody end-time in which the faithful remnant survived, appealed to Christians distressed by the Bomb, the indecency and godlessness of the popular culture and the waffling gutlessness of liberal leaders to confront evil and bring in a purified, new world order true to America's God-given mission. Since the family was the nation in miniature, by the 1990s “family values” had become the front lines of a cosmic battle to save the soul of the nation.

Liberal evangelicals had believed that the only power strong enough to stop the horrors they had witnessed was God acting through a united church. The undivided church was as much an imperative against the warring madness of nations as a faith response to Christ's prayer “that they may all be one”. Initially the ecumenical movement took its agenda from the world – feed the hungry, promote peace, follow Jesus. Cooperating Christians in mission and in new structural forms energized evangelical liberals in response to the Beatitudes.

The ecumenical fervor drove the Congregational and Christian Churches to union in 1929 and the German Evangelical and Reform Churches in 1934. The fruition of these efforts in 1957 with the formation of the United Church of Christ was historic and euphoric. The people were being called out again into uncharted territory on a journey that would again re-form them and the world.

They had been working for this moment since before World War I. By the Sixties, however, social turmoil around the world and the general mantra of “question authority” disoriented the new, young church. Had these been the only confusions, they would have been more than enough to cope with. But theological divisions and institutional difficulties within the UCC brought its very survival into question. Debate raged through the Seventies.

The fundamentalists were wrong but the liberals were not right. We might have found a friend in Jesus and even a superstar, but the majesty of God went out with King George. New theologies that proposed a divine shattered by modernity and irrelevant to humanity were no solace to the people. They drifted from one religious therapy fad to another new age gnostic mystery. And they perished.

Howl was Alan Ginsburg's cry to God for the generations lost to sex, drugs and rock 'n roll . . . or more likely dis-eased and unmoored by disillusionment and disgust. Ginsburg's cry was from the generations whose gods had failed. His was the raging response of an Old Testament prophet to Whitman's summer boyhood on a timeless stream of human progress. In the 1950s he was a homeless dropout and runaway from the monster America had become for him and others. Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! he shouted. Moloch whose blood is/running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!/Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies!/Gone down the American river! And students in coffee houses cheered.

But how to hold on to the truly inspiring advances of math and science, engineering and technology, the truly humanitarian ideas of natural law universally applied through the rule of law, through international human rights and environmental conventions that restrain tyrants and protect creation? How to hold on to these achievements without obviating divine intervention or belittling the wisdom of the church? How to think about the supernatural as something more than mere superstition or irrationality, as something more than the primitivism of per-democratic, pre-capitalistic people, as something more than the hocus-pocus of charlatans and pre-medical shamans?

For man is not the measure of all things and God will not be mocked. Divinity may have absorbed itself into society where it resides as a self-sufficient, alien power, pulling us into complicities both horrible and wonderful through, visceral responses which leave a residue of anxiety eased somewhat by occasional pleasant surprises which we may or may not attribute to the Holy Spirit.

Saul Bellow wrote Herzog in 1964. At his death in 2005 Ian McEwan's appreciation entitled “Master of the Universe” appeared on the OpEd page of The New York Times , Thursday, April 7, 2005 . McEwan wrote that Herzog had moments when the whole world pressed in on him. In these moments Bellow seemed “to set out a kind of manifest, a ringing checklist of the challenges the novelist must confront or the reality he must contain or describe.” Below is one such moment when Herzog cries out:

Well, for instance, what it means to be a man. In a city. In century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes. In a society that has no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible. Which spent military billions against foreign enemies but would not pay for order at home. Which permitted savagery and barbarism in its own great cities. At the same time, the pressure of human millions who have discovered what concerted efforts and thought can do. As megatons of water shape organisms on the ocean floor. As tides polish stones. As winds hollow cliffs . . .

The United Church of Christ struggled along with Herzog. But those who have had experience of life in these united churches are almost unanimous in affirming that, though union may have brought loss in certain directions and though some hopes may have been unfulfilled, it is impossible that they should ever consider going back to their earlier state of division. (Gunnemann quoting Bishop Stephen Neil 51)

There has been no going back for the United Church of Christ. And prophecy has not failed.


References

Sidney E. Ahlstrom A Religious History of the American People Vols 1 & 2 Garden City NY : Doubleday & Co. 1975

Donald B Meyer The Protestant Search for Political Realism 1919-1941 . Berkley : University of California Press. 1960

Martin Luther King, Jr. A Testament of Hope ed. James M. Washington HarperSanFrancisco 1986

Marvin Meyers, Alexander Kern, John G. Cawelti, editors . Sources of the American Republic Vol. 2, Chicago : Scott, Foresman & Co. 1961.

R. W. B. Lewis The American Adam Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1955

Richard Hofstader The Age of Reform New York : Vintage Books. 1954.

Harry Emerson Fosdick Shall the Fundamentalists Win? The Riverside Church in the City of New York

Robert T. Handy A Christian America Oxford , Oxford University Press.1971

Peter Balakain The Burning Tigris . New York : HarperCollins 2003

David Levering Lewis W. E. B. DuBois New York : Henry Holt and Company 2000