(This presentation was made to Wesleyan Theological Society on March 6, 2020 at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City. Tooley’s talk is largely drawn from his 2012 book METHODISM & POLITICS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY.)
The Soviet Union was the first modern totalitarian empire and through direct executions, mass incarcerations, forced relocations and orchestrated famines killed millions of people. It was of course hostile to religion, which it tried to extinguish or manipulate. USA Methodism, perhaps because of an undeveloped political theology and undeveloped theology of human rights often was unable to offer substantive critique across most of 70 years. When it did criticize, it more often relied on American civil religion than deep Christian arguments against repressive Marxist Leninist ideology.
Here’s some of that story, which should motivate Methodist desires for deeper theological commitments to defending human dignity for all bearers of Gods image.
The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia elicited different reactions among Methodists. Northern Bishop James Bashford regretted Methodism had not spent more on missions in Russia, ensuring “Russian democracy would have stood firm in the crisis brought about by revolution.” Northern Methodist pastor George Simons, who had headed Methodist missions in Russia, in 1919 testified to the U.S. Congress against Bolshevism’s “un-Christian, un-American terrorism and class hatred which is Bolshevism’s soul.”
Methodist Federation for Social Service chief Harry Ward was accused of Bolshevism by fellow Methodist clergy. “It is not true that I am an apologist for Bolshevism,” he responded. “I have not taken a position on the subject. I am open-minded about it, and ask that judgment be suspended until the evidence is all in.”
Before expelling, the new communist authorities initially subsumed the small Methodist presence in the Soviet Union under its authority. But Swiss-based northern Methodist Bishop John Nuelson told the northern church’s Board of Foreign Missions in 1922 of “absolute religious freedom” in the Soviet Union, where the Russian Church was becoming more like “American Protestantism.”
Northern Methodist Bishop Edgar Blake, based in Paris, attended a 1923 Soviet church conference even as the Soviets were persecuting the Russian Orthodox Church’s anticommunist Patriarch and had executed a Roman Catholic archbishop. “For the first time in human history a great nation is dedicating itself to do good for the masses of humanity and is striving to attain everything God-given for man,” the bishop gushed about the Soviets.
In the wake of controversy, Blake was recalled to report to the northern Board of Bishops, which publicly disavowed any unauthorized “personal opinion.” Heading home, he insisted, “If the Soviet government dealt harshly with certain ecclesiastics it justified itself on the ground that it was fighting for its life.”
Blake urged Methodist support for the new Soviet-created “Living Church” that would displace traditional Orthodoxy. He told the bishops that the new communist-sanctioned church, to which he promised $50,000 from U.S. Methodism, was closer to Methodism by discouraging relics, hierarchy and celibate clergy. “I think we ought to sacrifice our denominationalism to save religion in Russia,” Blake implored. “Methodism holds the destiny of Russia in its hands.” He also claimed: “I think personal property is more secure in Moscow than in Brooklyn.”
Pittsburgh Bishop Francis McConnell supported Blake: “I take my stand at the side of the brother who saw 150,000,000 people in need and struck out in their direction. That’s the way great missionaries have always done. His pledge of $50,000 was $50,000 worth of mighty fine gesture.” The Bishops avoided support for the Soviet-backed church, instead commending Blake and Nuelson for “fidelity and devotion” in “a delicate mission.”
New York Methodist Frederick Brown Harris—later pastor of Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., and U.S. Senate chaplain—pronounced America as “amazed and puzzled at the spectacle of a Methodist preacher sitting in the circle of those who are applauding the recent execution of a Christian minister and who are eager to betray their own Archbishop into the hands of his enemies.”
But L. O. Hartman, editor of Zion’s Herald, a New England Methodist publication, who accompanied Bishop Blake to Russia, derided the executed Catholic archbishop for committing “treason” by supposedly spying for Poland. Hartman boasted of visiting Leon Trotsky and reviewing Soviet troops in Moscow. “The Soviets inaugurated and are succeeding with the most colossal social experiment in history,” Hartman insisted.
At the 1923 West Ohio Annual Conference, Bishop Blake pronounced that the uproar about the executed Roman Catholic archbishop in Russia was due to “vast propaganda” from the Vatican, influencing even northern Methodism’s Board of Bishops. He noted the Soviets had already killed 1,200 Orthodox clergy. The Soviet “Living Church,” sustained by $40,000 raised from Methodists (falling short of the original promise), eventually collapsed.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Methodists offered differing views about Soviet communism. After visiting Russia in 1926, southern Bishop James Cannon found it stable, relatively prosperous, lacking in tension, and offering religious toleration, though the regime disapproved of religion. Former missionary to Russia George Simons in 1929 cited the Soviet Education Minister as saying: “We hate Christianity and the Christians.” Southern Methodist Board of Missions chief W. G. Cram declared in 1930: “The situation in Soviet Russia with reference to the persecution of the Christians is one that should unite in making such a representation of the case to the Soviet Government as will bring immediate relief.”
In contrast, speaking at a Baltimore church in 1933, Methodist Federation for Social Service chief Harry Ward praised the Soviet Union as a place where even children are educated about their obligation to society and where freedom from profit making allows greater unselfishness. A New York pastor enthused in 1935, “It is a wonderful thing they are doing in Russia, in abolishing the church,” which was a “grasping religion, with all its temporal power and its billions of dollars worth of property.”
In 1937, a northern Methodist missions official disclaimed: “While I have no use for most of Communism outside of Russia, I believe it has been good and is good for Russia,” where he rejoiced that “church devils” were being cast out.
Pasadena Methodist minister Albert Day in 1938 insisted the “totalitarian state has no future.” He predicted that “disillusionment will come, even about a Hitler, a Mussolini, and a Stalin,” while the “path of tyranny, sooner or later, winds up in the abyss.”
The 1941 German invasion aroused sympathy for the Soviets, and President Franklin Roosevelt asserted that the Soviet constitution upheld religious freedom, prompting a rebuttal from Detroit Methodist Bishop Raymond Wade: “Undisputed imprisonment and slaying of tens of thousands of priests, clergymen and laymen for religion in Russia, together with thousands of closed churches speaker louder than printed words.” A former Methodist missionary to Poland warned in 1945 that Poland would be a “test tube” for communist experimentation after the Soviet occupation.
But California Bishop James Baker in 1945 urged trusting the Soviet Union. “To accuse Russia of insincerity in her desire to help establish and maintain peace … is a betrayal of the spirit and hopes of the peoples of all nations.” The 1946 New York East Annual Conference similarly urged America and the Soviet Union to work “harmoniously together for world peace.”
In 1946, New York Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam insisted Christians could not condone Soviet “methods of violence” and “purges wrought upon newly acquired peoples or the taking from these people of political, intellectual and religious liberty.” Oxnam in 1947 urged the U.S. to reach out to Stalin and criticized President Truman for not seeking more avenues to peace. “Appeasement of dictators is futile,” he admitted. “Discovering a way in which conflicting ideologies can exist in the same world is good sense.”
At this time, Dallas Bishop Charles Selecman wanted America to be more “firm” with Russia because “we are dealing not only with Russian political maneuvers but also with Communism, which is anti-Christian and antidemocratic.”
The 1948 Methodist General Conference declared: “Peace in the immediate future depends primarily on the establishment of better relationships between the Soviet Union and the United States.” It further urged “mutual understanding” and reconciling “differences” with Russia.
Speaking for Methodism’s World Peace Commission, Ralph Sockman assured the 1948 General Conference that if war were averted, Christian democracy, contrasting with “atheistic Communism,” would persuade Western Europe to “look to us rather than Russia for leadership.”
A Methodist editor told the General Conference that the U.S. was “at least partly” responsible for war hysteria and urged “one, more honest, serious and forthright effort to negotiate with Russia.”
A lengthy episcopal address to the 1948 General Conference declared: “We reject Communism, its materialism, its methods of class war, its use of dictatorship, its fallacious economics and its false theory of social development; but we know that the only way to defeat it permanently is to use the freedom of [our] own democracy to establish economic justice and racial brotherhood.” Methodism should resist communism by “enthroning the faith of Christ in the practice of men.”
Later, Bishop Oxnam insisted the U.S. “must keep itself so strong that Russia will be convinced that attempts to impose Communist ideology by force cannot succeed, and if attempted will jeopardize the peace.”
After Soviet-backed forces seized Eastern Europe, persecution of Hungary’s Cardinal Jozef Mindszenty especially outraged Frederick Brown Harris, pastor of Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., who was also U.S. Senate chaplain. The “battle is drawn between Christ and anti-Christ,” he proclaimed in 1949. “This fight is not just between Roman Catholicism and Communism,” but “between a Godless Communism and any type of Christianity worthy of the name.”
In 1950, Bishop Oxnam told Methodist district superintendents: “We see in the expanding imperialism of Russia a threat to freedom everywhere and we properly cooperate with the United Nations to stop aggression.” He warned: “Russia does threaten the free society,” and “its aggression must be blocked.”
Soviet-friendly stances by the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) became increasingly controversial during the Cold War’s early years. In 1950, eight Methodist bishops condemned MFSA’s “aid to the Communist propaganda and program,” which was “in open defiance” of the “great body of the church.” The 1952 Methodist General Conference disavowed MFSA .
The 1952 General Conference declared: “There can be no condoning of the ideology or practices of Communism,” because of its “terrible forms of tyranny,” its “atheistic totalitarianism,” “clever deception” and “ruthless violence,” making it the “major foe both of Christianity and of freedom in the world today.” The conference urged communication with Christians in Russia, who persevere “despite severe repression.”
At the 1952 General Conference, the bishops admitted the “philosophy of atheistic communism must be frankly and aggressively faced by the Christian forces of the world.” They declared: “We believe we have the truth, we believe the Christian, democratic way offers the only solution, but if the earth-bound philosophy of Communism is not to be accepted by the multitudes of earth we shall need to out-think, to out-love, and to out-sacrifice the leaders who offer it.” Communism is a “perverted and godless way of directing revolution to its own evil ends.” The bishops expected that millions in revolt around the world would eventually turn to their “God-given yearning for freedom.”
Bishop Oxnam challenged Soviet chief Nikita Khrushchev in 1955 to allow theism to “meet atheism in the free market of ideas” and “guarantee the civil liberties essential to the proclamation of the Christian faith.” The bishop was confident that the “superstitions of the Communist faith will vanish before the realities of the Christian faith in any fair competition for the minds of men.”
In 1956, the Council of Bishops denounced the Soviet Union’s invasion to suppress anticommunist rebellion in Hungary. The Soviets were “destitute of moral scruple and devoid of moral principle,” the bishops declared, urging moral support for Hungary.
At the 1956 General Conference, the Bishops urged a “common language” of “freedom,” “democracy” and “liberation.” The General Conference reaffirmed the “Christian’s undying interest in freedom and self-government for all people.” It rejected “materialistic ideologies prevalent in many places in the world,” with their “disregard for human rights, their scorn for the dignity of the individual, and their failure to acknowledge the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of Man,” as “abhorrent to basic Christian principles.”
Just back from Russia in 1959, Bishop Gerald Kennedy derided Khrushchev’s idea of co-existence: “We are in a tough fight, and one of us must win, for either God is or he is not. Either men are of worth in themselves or they have value only as pawns of the state.”
Bishop Kennedy later cited the Soviets as proof that “collectivity doesn’t work,” while “individual incentive” and “reward” are needed. “I think in the long run God made man for freedom,” the bishop said. “It seems to me that’s His plan, and ultimately the system either political or religious that accepts that will be closest to His plan and so to the real situation.”
In 1960, a Methodist minister returned from Cuba, where pro-Soviet Fidel Castro had seized power the year before. Bemoaning the dictatorship as a “terrifying and tragic alternative” to Christianity, he still told a New York congregation: “We must not look down on the revolution and say that it’s awful.” Instead, he suggested: “We must ask, ‘Have we failed?’”
In the 1960s and 1970s Methodism largely stopped criticizing the Soviet Union and became increasingly supportive of Soviet backed Marxist regimes and revolutions.
In 1980, the Council of Bishops’ executive committee denounced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as this “critical threat to world peace” and “blatant military action to impose a government of Russia’s own choosing on that nation.”
At the 1980 General Conference, the bishops—without naming either the Soviet Union or Afghanistan—deplored the “invasion of a sovereign nation by a nation whom they called friend.” They noted “thousands of persons have been killed, human rights violated and a people and a government made puppets by a greedy and cruel super power,” and they condemned as “reprehensible” such “bloody aggression.” They added the USA to their critique: “We deeply regret the covert interference in the affairs of other nations, the questionable alliances with oppressive dictatorships, the unwise arms sales, the violations of human rights too often carried out as the result of shortsighted foreign policies of the great powers.”
World Methodist Council official Alan Walker in 1980 asserted: “Christians everywhere are alarmed by the approach to international affairs being adopted by President Reagan and key advisors.” He suggested: “The way to peace is not through the language of threat and force or though seeking the myth of arms superiority.” He warned: “A belligerent, nationalistic America will put world peace in jeopardy.”
In late 1981, the Council of Bishops was relieved when President Reagan appealed for nuclear disarmament. They commended proposals from Reagan and Soviet chief Leonid Brezhnev as “signs of God’s grace.” But Bishop William Cannon questioned, “Do we as a Christian church advocate the abolition of nuclear arms in a free nation where we have that right? Suppose we succeed in the democratic countries, but the totalitarian nations keep their nuclear arms. What does that do to human rights?”
Seven bishops, plus the Women’s Division and Board of Church and Society, affirmed a nuclear “freeze” in 1982. “The time has come,” explained Bishop James Armstrong, “for the Brezhnevs and the Reagans of the world to turn aside from partisan postures and public egos and respond to the desperate human need, so we might have an open future for the family of humankind to look forward to.” Later the Council of Bishops endorsed the freeze, warning of human “extinction” and declaring, “We must reverse the madness of our present course.”
The Council of Bishops executive committee in 1982 urged the U.S. to “exert every reasonable influence and to apply every political and economic measure at its command” to help Poland achieve “greater self-determination and freedom.” And it saluted the “courageous” witness of Polish Christians against martial law.
But Indiana Bishop James Armstrong told an anti-Reagan rally in Washington, D.C. in 1983: “Adventures like Vietnam are with us yet, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Honduras, Afghanistan, Chad, Namibia, El Salvador—the Soviet Union is feeding the furnaces of 13 wars around the world and we are fueling 20 wars.”
In 1984 Bishop Cannon delivered the episcopal address calling for “total disarmament” but warned the “danger of enslavement is as terrifying as the threat of nuclear disaster. The inability freely to express one’s thoughts, to disseminate new ideas, and to pursue the dictates of conscience are as oppressive as death itself. The domination of any portion of humanity by an oppressive, totalitarian regime is an evil which the church must resist with the same vigor and determination that it resists war.”
In 1984 three bishops met with Sandinista President Daniel Ortega and insisted “there is no suppression or persecution of religion” in Nicaragua. They celebrated: “The revolution and those improvements in the quality of life that have come as a result of the revolution have filled the people with new hope.”
In 1985, Los Angeles pastor James Lawson addressed the bishops, calling the U.S. the “number-one enemy of peace and justice in the world today.” He explained, “If Afghanistan is wrong, and it is, our behavior in Central America is equally wrong. If it is not right for the Soviet Union to prevent Jews’ immigrating to Israel, then it is not right to prevent refugees from El Salvador coming to this country.”
Bishop William Grove in 1987 told the Board of Church and Society about Nicaragua: “The Soviet Union, whatever its motive, is responding far more positively and creatively to a struggle for freedom than is the USA,” citing Soviet book shipments to Nicaragua.
In their 1988 episcopal address, the bishops declared that both communism and capitalism were “morally wanting.” Communism had “failed both economically and in its inability to guarantee the most basic human rights of free speech, free press, and free religion.” Capitalism had failed to “cope with the growing numbers of homeless people, the expanding world population living in poverty, and the erosion of the middle class, mostly into the ranks of the poor.”
Fourteen United Methodist bishops visited Nicaragua in early 1989, conferred with President Daniel Ortega, and pronounced: “We are here to express our joy for what the Nicaraguan people have accomplished in their long struggle for self-determination and justice.”
Before the Sandinistas’ defeat, communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed. The Berlin Wall crumbled during a Council of Bishops 1989 meeting. The bishops commended now ex-communist countries in East Europe for “openness and growing self-confidence.” They also warned against imposing Eastern or Western value systems. German Bishop Rudigor Minor assured the bishops, “What people [in East Germany] are seeking is not a return to capitalism. They are looking for something beyond the old dichotomy between capitalism and communism.”
United Methodist professor and activist Janice Love told the bishops: “Because of the events in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe, there appears to be a new-found triumphalism about capitalism that I find to be uncritical, unwarranted and chauvinistic.”
In early 1990, Bishop Minor expressed “hope” that Marxism was not dead: “As critics, I think Marxists are still relevant.” “Marxism has insights into power that we can learn from.” He surmised “perhaps the utopian element in Marxism is still worth talking about” among Christians.
Months later, the Soviet Union and its ruling Communist Party formally dissolved. There’s never been any official United Methodist regret over its at best mixed stance toward the Soviet empire & repression. But perhaps more important than official repentance for the past is commitment to developing a comprehensive Wesleyan theology of human rights for the future.