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When Americans tried – and failed – to reunite Christianity

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(The Conversation) — Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther, a German monk, initiated a split in Christianity that came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. After the Reformation, deep divisions between Protestants and Catholics contributed to wars, hostility and violence in Europe and America. For centuries, each side denounced the other and sought to convert its followers.Then, in the early 1900s, ambitious Protestants in the U.S. attempted the unthinkable. Building on ideas circulating in Europe, they took charge of an effort to negotiate the reunion of Christianity.They failed, of course. Strange as it might now seem, their effort is nevertheless informative. Here’s why.

How it started

By 1900, atheists and agnostics were becoming more prominent in the U.S. Anxious Protestant religious leaders started to argue in favor of a united Christianity to stop the spread of these ideas.

Noted theologian and fellow at Yale Newman Smyth complained at the time about religion’s “lost authority” in family, community and intellectual life. He declared, “a Christianity divided in its own house against itself” could not survive.

In response, in 1910, a very small but highly influential group comprising theologians including Smyth, as well as ministers of prestigious churches and noted business professionals, committed themselves to “Christian unity.”

For this group, unity meant more than cooperation or mutual understanding. It meant the actual reunion of Protestantism and Catholicism.

The influential WWI chaplain

Monument to Charles Henry Brent.
AndreoBongco (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Their most significant member was Charles Brent, an Episcopalian bishop.

In the early 1900s, Brent had been a missionary to the Philippines. While there, he became friends with John Pershing, the army officer overseeing much of the territory acquired by the U.S. This friendship would propel the bishop to greater prominence.

General John Joseph Pershing.
Bain News Service, publisher, via Wikimedia Commons

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Pershing took command of U.S. forces in Europe. He persuaded Brent to organize and lead the newly established corps of army chaplains. As he built up the ranks of chaplains, Brent showed his own commitment to Christian unity. Though a Protestant, he made a Catholic priest his second in command and encouraged recruitment of Catholic chaplains.

When Brent returned to the United States in 1919, he was even more convinced that “a divided Church” was a “fundamental disloyalty to Christ.” He lent his name to publications and events to build support for the cause.

Failure to unite

Proponents of unity recognized the need to proceed slowly with this difficult task. Smyth, for example, insisted that they not rush to put forward “particular plans or measures.” Rather, the group should simply arrange meetings and conferences where Catholics and Protestants could discuss their differences. Smyth hoped that the “sentiment for unity” would emerge from dialogue.

But years of discussion brought no progress toward actual unity. The biggest obstacle was that, despite repeated invitations, Catholics took no part in the effort beyond sending unofficial observers to occasional meetings.

There were other issues as well. Protestants expected concessions from both sides. They also expected Catholics to limit the power of the papacy. One Protestant theologian, Charles Briggs, had anticipated that the Vatican would place a system of checks and balances on the pope. In exchange, Protestants said they might accept the papacy, abandoning a critique that dated back to the Reformation.

Catholics found such expectations to be absurd. They rejected any demand for changes to their church.

Global peace through Christian unity?

Despite these difficulties, motives beyond religion gave the movement’s leaders new inspiration in the 1920s. They thought Christian unity offered a path to global peace.

It was a time when America’s role in global affairs seemed uncertain. While American intervention had helped allies win the war, the U.S. had rejected the Treaty of Versailles, the agreement which ended the war. The U.S. also refused to join League of Nations, brainchild of President Woodrow Wilson, formed to resolve international disputes. The possibility of another war loomed large.

To this group, Christian unity offered an alternative means to achieve peace. It was a way of preventing more bloodshed. In correspondence with a friend, Charles Brent worried that only “new unity among the churches” would prevent “hideous waves of terror” from striking “people of the next generation.”

Another supporter, peace activist Peter Ainslie, predicted that fights between Catholics and Protestants would continue to spark global conflicts. Only the “union of Christian forces” would bring an end to militarism and lead to global peace, he noted.

Not enough support

Statements like these highlight how some Americans connected religion to international politics after World War I. But they also reveal why the unity effort failed to win broad support.

The American people had as little interest in global Christian unity as they did in the League of Nations. After the turmoil of the war years, many wanted a focus on domestic issues. They had no wish to remake familiar institutions like the church. This became clear in the 1920 presidential campaign, when Warren Harding won a landslide victory after running an isolationist campaign. His slogan, “Return to normalcy,” signaled an end to the previous decade’s lofty efforts to transform the world.

Furthermore, most Protestants had as little enthusiasm for these efforts as Catholics. They argued that institutional reunion of Protestantism and Catholicism was not needed. “Outlook,” a nationally read Protestant periodical, for example, ran an editoral stating that both sides already agreed on the “essential elements of Christianity” and whatever differences remained were merely “distinctive denominational peculiarities.”

Living with differences


Tiko Aramyan/Shutterstock.com

The effort for unity was not a complete failure, though. It helped advance unity through dialogue. Its greatest success was a 1927 conference in Lausanne, Switzerland. Organized largely by Americans and presided over by Charles Brent, the gathering prompted new dialogue among Protestants, both in the United States and in Europe.

The ConversationIn fact, the main unintended consequence of the unity campaign was that it caused people to realize that they did not want actual unity. It was possible, in other words, to accept the post-Reformation division of Christianity. The differences separating the Protestants and Catholics could be shrugged off as “peculiariaties” rather than intolerable divisions.

(David Mislin is an assistant professor in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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David Mislin

19 Comments

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  • A large Methodist church in my area had a class for I think but I am not sure, married couples and their needs. The speaker said masturbation isn’t enough for men. That doesn’t do it. That doesn’t satisfy them They need more, intercourse..No, I don’t know what else was discussed or if they had a live demonstration but I don’t think this is appropriate in church, in a large group..

    I have listened to the preacher on several occasions and he has made several inappropriate comments such as suicide or self murder is forgivable, asking a priest to pray for the dead, and doubting if Christ really said what the KJV says He said. I think the shepherd of this church is leading the congregation in the wrong direction. I know numerous people that go there and all of this seems to go right over their head. Has our culture become so desensitized?

  • Lol, maybe a system of checks and balances on the Pope would help to unite Catholics, many of whom seem to hate, or at least despise, each other. If a checks and balances system were in place contraceptives would have been accepted, or at least not condemned. Even the arch-conservative Cardinal Ottavianni thought the pope’s encyclical was irrational.

  • The idea that masturbation is insufficient, and that married couples need better sex, seems like a message Christians could get behind. I’m not saying it should be part of the Sunday school curriculum but still.
    The other examples you give I would want to hear more context — what “priest” was the Methodist minister referring to? In any event, both Luther and John Wesley saw prayers for the dead as normative (within a Protestant framework of course).

  • LoL. No, he doesn’t. Christ is long dead and gone and rotted away, and doesn’t exist to know anything. Now, Sandi, enough with the Jeebus sales pitches. Get back to work on your beard. You can wiggle it around all you like, but it’s still only knee length and you won’t steal your beloved Windy Eddie from his chosen Jimmy Shortbeard with an unknottable scruff like that.

  • Go to a counselor. Better yet get God involved. Have Him fix your marriage. You don’t have much faith in that approach, huh? Maybe you are right though. There should be a whole Sunday sermon on sexual dissatisfaction in a marriage. . Maybe encourage porn or maybe have some live demonstrations.

    Every single person I know that grew up Methodist is now an atheist or close to it. I don’t wonder why.
    I don’t know where to start when you think it’s fine for a class to be held in a church on how to physically please each other.. Frustrating.

    That’s not what church is for. It’s blasphemous. Church is a place of worship, worship of our creator. It’s a place to connect with Him , learn about Him, read scripture,study scripture.
    It’s not a place to talk about sexual desires. Ever hear about the sexual immorality at the church at Corinth?
    Luther was an ex Catholic. Regardless, I don’t care what he said or Wesley said about praying for the dead. There is not one verse in the Bible promoting prayers for the dead. I’ll stick with scriptural authority not the opinions of Luther, or Wesley.
    Most Protestants believe it’s too late after death for prayers.

    Arbustin said, what “priest” was the Methodist minister referring to?”
    The preacher was talking about a friend of his who was a Catholic priest. He was angry with the priest because he would not pray for the soul of a man who had committed suicide. Catholics believe suicide is a cardinal sin so of course the priest would not pray for someone who had committed suicide. He felt it would be a sin to do so. This Methodist preacher thought suicide would be forgiven. This was disturbing because there were many ,impressionable young people there.
    When you attend church you need to carefully listen to every word being taught by the minister or teacher. There are many in sheep’s clothing masquerading as a shepherd. Your soul is at risk.

    I’m not interested in what your opinion on whether or not the instances I
    gave you were right or wrong. I know they were wrong. The shepherd of
    this church has lost his way and most of his faith. He doubts who Christ
    was and what Christ said..
    I gave you a few instances of what the pastor said . I don’t have time to laboriously go over his other sermons. Besides, you’d be in agreement with him and that is very alarming for you.

  • LoL. No, Pascal’s Wager from you there Sandi. Christ is long dead and gone and rotted away, and doesn’t exist to know anything or be met.

    Now, Sandi, enough with your Jeebus sales pitches. Get back to
    work on your beard. You can wiggle it around all you like, but it’s
    still only knee length and you won’t steal your beloved Windy Eddie from
    his chosen Jimmy Shortbeard with an unknottable scruff like that.

  • Prods turned over inaugural stones and decimated our churches in Ireland by orders of a fat guy who wopped off the heads of his wives, now you want back in.

  • Suicide is what Jesus did. He voluntarily turned himself over. He might as well walked into a lion’s den, and the fantasy of an all loving God let it happen.

  • Well hey there, hater, liar!!! You are obtuse and ignorant beyond belief. . As Christ said, Don’t throw pearls before swine. So, deep thinker, I won’t bother with you any further.

  • Giving your life so someone else can live is not suicide. It’s an honorable action. Something you know nothing about.

  • Very Christian of you! “Pearls before swine” was a translation of a story written in Greek, later translated in Latin, and the Gospels were written in Greek. Jesus would have spoken to “his people” in a semitic language, so again, you perpetuate a mythical story in which the writers were not privileged to. Have you seen the original transcript of what Jesus said, at the time he said it, and in his own language? Those are the questions that a real Christian would not respond to with “hater” “liar” “ignorant beyond belief” as a response. It should have been a teaching moment if you had any contradictory evidence. Why are you so threatened by the facts. When I bring these things up to clergy, I have to hear about the giant “leap of faith”. It sounds more like you are the hater with the words you have used above.

  • Stop the BS! It was suicide, and the Romans went on to conquer the Middle East and North Africa during its reign, although the Roman Empire became more brutal after they accepted Christianity into their power fold. Christian Emperors and Kings were brutal. That was just the morality of the day– “the divine right of Kings”, giving them the power over life and death. If you attempt to claim something different, you would be dishonest. –Please do not conflate reality with fantasy.

  • With respect to your first paragraph then. Are you saying that you do not believe churches should offer marriage counselling/enrichment programs? Almost always mandatory for couples who seek church weddings is per-marriage counselling. And discussing sex in the context of marriage is part of that. So I would expect this is

    In terms of suicide being forgivable, generally most denominations would say yes – that there is only one unforgivable sin. There is a diversity of opinion about the Bible – 49% say it is inspired, 30% say it is literally true (2011) What you see as people being desensitized more likely means that you do not share the same perspective/doctrine/dogma..

  • If you think that sexual desire between a married couple is “immoral,” you need more help than I can give you. Whether it’s appropriate to talk about in church is up to that church and its members. I just don’t see why Christians would consider it to be an off-limits topic, at least in an appropriate setting.
    My only point about Luther and Wesley is that prayers for the dead are a normative practice in Protestantism. Evangelicals as a sub-group of that may feel differently.
    I doubt I’d agree all that much with the pastor, considering I’m not a Christian.

  • I don’t think sexual desire in a marriage is immoral. Modern day Protestants don’t pray for the dead . A google search will reveal Protestants don’t pray for the dead.
    Unless you belong to a cult, say like Jim Jones, sex is not the topic from the pulpit. Sex is not an off-limits topic to Christians but church is not the proper venue to speak about sex. It’s irreverent.. People go to church for fellowship,to build a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through worship and the study of his word. To remain relevant, the church must provide what can’t be found elsewhere.

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