Controversial Methodist

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Monday, Feb. 18, 1952

Bishop Francis J. McConnells first sermon, as he recalls it, “covered a vast range of lofty religious principles, well up in the air. After having risen so thoroughly to the heights, I decided that the next Sunday I would get down closer to earth and stay there, a resolution I have been trying to keep ever since.”

In the 58 years since, Methodist McConnell has stayed close enough to earth to become the best-known preacher of the “social gospel” in U.S. Protestantism. In By the Way (Abingdon-Cokesbury; $3.50), a chatty autobiography well furnished with preacher stories, the controversial patriarch of U.S. Methodists, now 80, takes a mellow backward look on his long struggle to give his religion a social conscience as well as a theological one.

Ringing Doorbells. Francis McConnell grew up in an old-fashioned Methodist parsonage. His father, like most Methodist pastors of his day, baptized many of his converts by immersion (at their request), kept his preaching topics strictly Confined to the Gospels. The Scriptures were rigidly obeyed. When the circus came to town in Norwalk, Ohio, Francis had to see it without his parents. His father, although he loved the circus, “as a loyal Methodist, had to stand against the circus.”

Young Francis thought out a different definition of a loyal Methodist. By the time he went to the seminary, he had decided that aggressive good works were more important in a Christian than theological niceties. He found few to agree with him. “Preachers,” he recalls, “were supposed to stick to religious topics . . . In that far-off day, a chief social doctrine about God was that the Lord helps those who help themselves . . .”

As a young pastor, McConnell put his own ideas into practice. When a wealthy lady willed $2,500 to his church at West Chelmsford, Mass, for “religious purposes,” he shocked the elders by proposing to turn over the money to the town for better street lights. The horrified elders voted him down. At Brooklyn’s New York Avenue Methodist Church, his first important pastorate, the well-heeled parishioners wanted him to concentrate on pulpit oratory. McConnell made the point, and won it, that “ringing doorbells” in parish work was equally important.

Friends & Enemies. Gradually Pastor McConnell’s vigorous church work got him the grudging admiration of the orthodox. At the Methodist General Conference in 1912, when he was only 40, he was made a bishop. “At present,” he observes, “the bishops have quite a bit of ceremony for the new men. There was nothing of this kind in 1912. One of the bishops said, ‘We are meeting in Room B. Come on in.’ I went in.” When he came out, the new bishop had been assigned to the Denver area (including Methodist missions in Mexico), where he traveled an average of 42,000 miles a year on church business.

As a bishop, McConnell had more scope to develop his idea of a social gospel, and his definition of “social” was of the widest. It included defending liberal professors threatened with expulsion by their colleges, supporting trade unions, attacking “militarists” and “Fascists” where he thought he saw them.

Such forthrightness brought him good friends and bitter enemies. Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, who took over the New York area from McConnell in 1944, called him “a voice that said freedom all down the line, an ecclesiastic who wasn’t an official.” More conservative Methodists were not so complimentary. Bishop McConnell recalls an anonymous letter he once got. It read: “You’re a first-class skunk. Yours in Jesus’ name.”

The No. 1 Problem. From 1912 to 1944, Bishop McConnell was also president of the Methodist Federation for Social Service (later changed to Social “Action”), an unofficial church group organized, he says, to alert the church to “the more important social issues,” without committing it to specific solutions. In 1919, nonetheless, President McConnell ried to solve the hottest social issue of the day—the Pittsburgh steel strike. He led an inter-church investigation which reported in favor of the strikers. In recent years, the Methodist Federation has been under attack for its indulgent attitude toward Communism (TIME, Sept. 17). McDonnell rejects Communism (“You can’t fit that system into Christianity”), but he las not seen fit to speak out against the party-lining of some federation officials. Writes the bishop unconcernedly: “I myself do not know a Methodist who is a Communist. The federation is almost always under fire for one thing or another.”

Plenty of Methodists now think that their church is socially conscious enough, but not Bishop McConnell. He still likes to castigate “a type of Methodist who is always talking about the members the church will lose if it does not silence the radicals.” The present “criticism of the church for its attitude on social questions,” rather than questions of prayer or salvation, says McConnell, is the church’s No. 1 problem.

Found in: TIME magazine archives


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