German-American Lutherans and World War II

During World War I, German-Americans had endured a great deal of suspicion and legal persecution. Some states banned them from instructing their kids in German and/or forced them to attend public rather than their own parochial schools. The pressure very quickly turned petty; German cuisine was renamed such that sauerkraut was renamed “liberty cabbage” and “hot dog” became the new term for frankfurter. A majority of German-American immigrants were Lutheran, but their evangelical identity didn’t do much to protect them from their neighbors.

By World War II, Lutheran denominational leadership had shifted from German-speaking first generation immigrants to a bilingual second generation. As the ties to the old country weakened, Lutherans started embracing American patriotic symbols, flying American flags in their sanctuaries, buying war bonds, and allowing military service and chaplaincy.

Even so, those cultural affinities die slowly and and you might be surprised by what replaces them. In January 1941 a Lutheran pastor in Virginia wrote to a radio station manager. The manager had previously asked the pastor, when speaking on the air, to use “negroes” instead of “darkies” or “colored people.”

One way for German-Americans to fit in was to adopt the dominant racial mores. White supremacy was a way of asserting American identity. Hey, I may be a cabbage-eating Kraut, but at least I’m white! The most extreme expression of this impulse was the German American Bund, the authorized American arm of the Nazi Party. Here’s an infamous picture from a 1939 Bund rally in Madison Square Garden which was attended by 22,000.

Nazi George Washington


I don’t know if the pastor in the letter at hand was a Bund member. In any case, he replied to the manager that he would be more careful in the future and concluded with this line:

Living in a southern, pro-British, Rooseveltian atmosphere in itself makes me rather cautious. Behind all this dirty weather in the world the sun of Grace is still shining!

The pastor was an isolationist opposed to US intervention against Germany in World War II. He likely has in mind the pending Lend Lease Act, passed in March 1941, which would funnel military supplies to the British government on credit (before, the Brits had to pay cash, which they were running out of).

It reads strangely today, doesn’t it? I don’t think that’s just because he’s an isolationist, but because he represents a kind of nationalism which is alien to us. He’s writing in English which makes it likely he’s at least a second generation German-American. Yet his affinity for Germany (and antipathy for Britain) is affecting his views of US policy. He then cloaks that nationalism in religious language. The threat of American intervention is “dirty weather” covering up the “sun of Grace,” implying that God is on the German-American isolationist side.

I think moments like these are instructive for us today. I do not doubt that for this Lutheran pastor his hybridized national identity felt as natural as breathing. This should provoke us to reflect on how our own national and racial identities sub-consciously shape our attitudes, politics, and loyalties.

Communists, They Are Everywhere, But Sunday School Will Save Us!

I was reviewing my archival research and came across this cover from Teach (“The Sunday School Idea Magazine”).

Sunday School Communism

The rhetorical question is more than a bit silly. But J. Edgar Hoover took a break from illegally wiretapping civil rights groups to contribute an article. Hoover served up his usual strong dose of civil religion; Christianity had value because it inspired “moral idealism” in America’s youth, protecting the US against Red subversion.

What’s interesting to me about documents like this is that they show the extent to which anti-Communist rhetoric pervaded the post-World War Two cultural and political consensus. Democrats and Republicans competed to see who could be most vociferous in their condemnations of Communism. Everywhere you looked you’d see anti-Communist material, from refrigerator advertisements to graphic novels. It was so pervasive that it became kind of meaningless, just a part of the rhetorical background. (Albeit a “meaninglessness” that could bite. Just ask anybody blacklisted at the time.)

I’m not sure there’s a perfect corollary today. Maybe think of it as the mid-twentieth century version of contemporary consumer environmentalism. You’d be hard pressed to find a major American corporation today that doesn’t give at least lip service to conservation. A few years ago, Poland Spring announced thinner plastic bottles to save the earth. The bank I used to work at changed it’s slogan to “Go Green!” and instituted a cap on our monthly printing. Even oil companies pay for lavish pro-environment ad campaigns. It’s generally just posturing. They dress up moves to help the bottom line as altruism.

The major difference between then and now is that while environmental conservation has reached peak cultural consensus, it hasn’t created the kind of political consensus that backed anti-Communism during the Second Red Square. We don’t have a House Un-Environmental Activities Committee subpoenaing testimony from polluters. Oh, wait. Still, the point stands, I think.

J. Roswell Flower Visits Bob Jones College

J. Roswell FlowerIn June 1946 J. Roswell Flower visited Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tennessee to receive an honorary doctorate from the institution. A year later, Bob Jones College would become Bob Jones University and move its campus to Greenville, South Carolina.

Flower was an influential voice within pentecostalism. He was one of the youngest representatives present at the formation of the Assemblies of God in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1914. He served in a variety of executive posts within the nascent denomination and played a vital role in its “evangelicalization.” During his career, the Assemblies moved away from its historic support for pacifism, softened its stance on speaking in tongues as a necessary sign of salvation, and engaged more broadly with other evangelical denominations. Indeed, the Assemblies of God was the largest denomination to join the National Association of Evangelicals in the 1940s and it saved the organization from financial collapse multiple times. Flower brought pentecostalism into the evangelical mainstream.

The choice of Flower is interesting because Bob Jones University eventually withdrew from broader evangelicalism and also became increasingly critical of pentecostalism. Take, for example, the position advocated in a 1989 book published by BJU’s press, Pentecostalism: Purity or Peril? (Hint: These kinds of books always put the correct answer second.)

But that future would’ve been unimaginable to students at Bob Jones College in the 1940s. Bob Jones Sr. was a founding member of the National Association of Evangelicals. He was even then embroiled in a competition for students with the archly-fundamentalist Wheaton College. When Wheaton President J. Oliver Buswell attacked Bob Jones College for putting on “worldly” operas and Shakespearean plays, Bob Jones Sr. responded with a ringing call for Christian liberty of conscience. A betting man would have put his money on Bob Jones College as the future flagship institution for this new form of evangelicalism. And he would’ve lost every penny.

Flower’s visit to Bob Jones College is a reminder of how fluid the state of evangelicalism was in the 1940s. The labels and lines that are familiar to contemporary evangelicals and fundamentalists would not harden for at least another decade.

In our quarterly letter dated March 1 we stated that prejudice against the Assemblies of God is melting perceptibly. It is possible to mingle with others without compromise and to gain respect for our Christian testimony. Recently, the writer had the opportunity to prove this statement. He was given the privilege of visiting Bob Jones College at Cleveland, Tenn. during its Commencement exercises. Both Bob Jones Sr. and Bob Jones Jr. were most cordial and friendly….

Bob Jones was reminded that a short time ago he had spoken in one of the Assemblies of God in Seattle, Wash…. He said that when the time came for prayer, an intelligent, cultured woman began to pray in an unknown tongue. When she had finished, a man, well dressed, intelligent, said, “I will interpret,” and immediately began to pray in English. Bob Jones said, “I have been in this way for a long time and you can’t fool me. That was of God and I knew it.” He went on to say that we may not fully understand this speaking in tongues, but when the Spirit of God moves he could recognize it….

Incidentally, about seven or eight students came to us to inform us they were Assemblies of God members. Two of them graduated with honor. I was called upon to speak in the Sunday morning Chapel service. I did not discern a particle of prejudice at any time, and the announcement was made publicly of my position in the Assemblies of God. Since my return home, I have contacted other young men and women who plan to attend Bob Jones College. I believe, from my own experience there, no attempt will be made to break down their Pentecostal testimony.

In fact, Brother J.L. Slay, a former C.B.I. student and now pastor of the Church of God in Cleveland [a Pentecostal church], told me that more students attend his church than any other church in town, and the college does not oppose them. We learned also that the Church of God Publishing House does practically all the printing for the college.

Thank you to the aptly-named Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center for the document these quotes are from. During my visit to Springfield, director Darrin Rodgers was a gracious host who even took the time to give me a tour of the facilities and showed me around town.

Christian Nationalism in Surprising Places


David Barton, Harold Ockenga

Photo Rights, David Barton: Photo Rights, Harold Ockenga: Fuller Seminary David Allan Hubbard Library

American Christian nationalists believe that God anointed the United States of America as a spiritual successor to the Old Testament nation of Israel. America was chosen, so the story goes, because of the faith of the colonial settlers. The Puritans founded an American “city on a hill” that was tasked with an exceptional mission to shine the gospel light on the rest of the world. Then the Founding Fathers, most of whom were evangelical believers, enshrined Christian values in the Constitution. Unfortunately, later generations of Americans have fallen away from that state of grace. But should Americans repent and turn from their secular humanist ways, America might once again find itself the recipient of God’s blessing.

Christian nationalism is both theologically and historically hogwash, but it’s not my purpose in this post to specify why; better historians than I have already given it their best shots. What I do want to point out is that Christian nationalist thinking has been much more mainstream among evangelicals than is commonly portrayed in contemporary discussions about New Christian Right activists.

Take the example of Harold J. Ockenga, who is known for his role in the creation of a “new evangelicalism” during the 1940s and 1950s. Theoretically he represents a milder, less militant form of fundamentalism. Yet here is a 1943 address he gave at the founding convention of the moderate National Association of Evangelicals under the heading, “America Will Determine World Destiny” [emphases my own]:

I believe that the United States of America has been assigned a destiny comparable to that of ancient Israel which was favored, preserved, endowed, guided and used of God. Historically, God has prepared this nation with a vast and united country, with a population drawn from innumerable blood streams, with a wealth which is unequaled, with an ideological strength drawn from the traditions of classical and radical philosophy, with a government held accountable to law, as no other government except Israel has ever been, and with an enlightenment in the minds of the average citizen which is the climax of social development.

He continued later,

Apparently the last great privilege of ministering to mankind was committed to this particular nation. That is a tremendous responsibility for which we are answerable. We have the enlightenment. We have the historical tradition. We have the material means. We have the leadership. We have everything which is necessary in order to evangelize the world. Now we have entered into our maturity, and we are facing an accounting for that destiny. If America fails to discharge its responsibility darkness must ensue.

Ockenga was appealing for the creation of a united evangelical front in America. As I argue in my dissertation, this was the moment when “evangelicalism” transformed from a mere description of theology into a term of identity. Ockenga harnessed this Christian nationalist rhetoric because he believed it would unite disparate Protestant groups–including Pentecostals, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists among many other groups–against their common enemies (modernists, Catholics, etc). Christian nationalism has been at the heart of American evangelical identity for much longer than you may have thought.

Ockenga’s speech was transcribed in the Pentecostal Holiness Advocate, vol 27, no 3 (20 May 1943).

Lyndon Johnson has Some Advice for 2016’s Presidential Hopefuls

Today we take for granted that presidential hopefuls will make a pilgrimage to Iowa. They put on dad jeans, roll up pristine shirtsleeves, and pretend to be interested in farming. Iowa’s tradition as the first state caucus on the presidential circuit only began in 1972, but playing the regular Joe in Iowa began much earlier.

In October 1964 Lyndon Baines Johnson’s internal polls showed him cruising towards a victory over surprise Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Still politicians are an insecure breed and LBJ’s aides encouraged him to do some last minute campaigning in Iowa.

Now, LBJ has a better claim to authentic everyman status than his modern-day, wannabe successors. He was raised on a hardscrabble farm in the Texas Hill Country. Still, he’d left that lifestyle behind forty years before, which made his aide’s advice for his Iowa trip as condescending as it is amusing.

The Iowans have one request to make of you for your visit next week, and I think it is politically sound, even if it sounds earthy. They want you to get some manure on your shoes. In other words, they want you to take about 30 minutes to visit a farm, have some pictures taken, look at some pigs and livestock.

So far so good, lame pun included. Nothing that a politician worth his salt (or even a North Korean dictator) isn’t already used to. Then the kicker.

Four years ago you apparently purchased a pig at an Iowa farm during the campaign. They still talk about it and this time they would like you to buy another pig, say you did so because the pig you bought four years ago was so good. This is pure corn — it’s also Iowa.

As presidential candidates start showing an untoward interest in farm equipment and livestock later this year, remember, it’s just good ol’ pure Iowa corn.

HT: John M. Bailey Papers, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut

HT: John M. Bailey Papers, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut