By Rev. Jeff Gill
[In this third of three articles Jeff Gill offers a reading of the mainline church’s decline over the past 50 years, specifically its roots in the social, historical, and political factors unfolding in a changing culture. This article originally appeared in the Newark Advocate.]
In First Corinthians 14:8, Paul asks who gets ready for combat when they hear “an uncertain trumpet”?
The full King James Version verse is “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”
American churches after World War One had somewhat the opposite problem.
They had played “Charge” to their congregations, whose sons had found themselves in mud-mired trenches facing barbed-wire no-man’s-lands and artillery duels punctuated by poison gas. After the equivocal end of post-war deliberations at Versailles, many in America said “What were we doing there, anyhow?”
None of this is to say that Germany under the Kaiser was in the right, or even that America shouldn’t have joined with the western Allies. But there was a passion for battle and bloodshed on the part of the Christian churches in 1914 and after that, once the war ended, looked in retrospect rather unseemly at best, discreditable at worst.
In this third of three columns about the centennial of World War I, there’s a bit more to say about how that event shaped the role of churches in American life (and possibly European, but that’s more complex and even further outside of my skill set).
For the generation or two before World War I, church-related organizations had played a dominant role in national policy formation. The Temperance movement made Prohibition the law of the land, blue laws and other proscriptive legislation had passed to constrain and define American life, and churches – especially the so-called “mainline church” bodies, were tone and trend setters on social policy and education. Read newspapers of the era, and you can see that mark of a dominant Christendom on almost every page, on a wide variety of subjects.
The so-called “golden age” that people are talking about when they say “how things used to be” with the place of faith in civic life is, I would argue, more the turn of the last century than it is the post-war boom years. Yes, pastors and others are always hearing about how in the 1950s all the education wing was filled (or we built one and filled it) and how there was a line around the block to get in for Easter services, and those reminiscers usually blame some combination of “The Sixties”, Vietnam, and Watergate for the breakdown of respect for authority and particularly for the church.
I realize I’m committing the practice of sociology without a license here, but I would argue as a pastor myself, who is a bootleg historian of sorts, that this is a confusion borne of the fact that like so many things, the wake of World War II created a ferment and to some degree a smoke screen that hid developments already under way.
Folks came back from the common mobilization still saluting authority, and got right to work having babies and raising children (hello, Baby Boom!), and there was a surge of church attendance. But those numbers hide the decline behind them back in the Depression era, which was both financial and numerical.
My reading of the national and denominational and local records has led me to say this: in the wake of the hyper-patriotic ferment that swept church life in World War I, the manic passion for “slaughtering our foe” which became nearly mandatory *within* congregational walls, not just in the public press, there was a very strong reaction afterwards. On the one hand, churches lost moral stature in the public arena; on the other, internal hand, denominations winced and withdrew from nationalism in ways that still are being debated within congregations and among clergy to this day. It was in the 1920s that church-founded colleges & universities pulled back from their denominational heritage in a decisive manner; it was in the 1920s that arguments over a conservative/modernist worldview began to split and formally divide denominations in ways that hadn’t been seen since the 1840s over slavery.
In the 1930s, Prohibition ends to general approval, and social improvement is seen as more the province of government (New Deal programs) or secular wisdom (Jane Addams, settlement houses, social work). Churches close in record numbers, and the place of faith in social efforts becomes steadily more supplemental than central. In the African American community, the church is still central, but when the civil rights era begins the mainline bodies flinch, and that record can be read in heartbreaking full with Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
And what is the role of church & faith in the society we’re making in the 21st century? That trumpet call is yet to be played.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you think the church’s role should focus at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.