Baptists, Jews and the hand of sincere friendship

Rev. Dr. Lee B. Spitzer

May 2, 2019

Anti-Semitism. Racial prejudice and violence. Opening American borders to welcome refugees from a minority religious background. The relationship between church and state. Genocide. War and peace. These societal problems dominate the headlines, and thoughtful Baptists and other Christians are wondering how their beliefs can inform their responses to such pressing concerns.

None of these problems is novel. Baptists throughout the United States wrestled with all of them during the 1930s and 1940s, as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, persecuted the Jewish people and sought to exterminate them during the Holocaust. Northern Baptists (now known as American Baptist Churches USA), Southern and African-American Baptists expressed in varying ways opposition to anti-Semitism in general and to the Nazi campaigns against the Jews in particular.

Baptists in the United States were well positioned to respond to the challenges of the Nazi era. Southern Baptists had passed a resolution in 1919 expressing care for the welfare of European Jews. In 1920, Jacob Gartenhaus — a converted Jew — became the Home Mission Society’s director of Jewish Evangelism.

Northern Baptist missionaries greeted Jewish immigrants at Ellis Island, and served Jews in Northeastern cities. The Northern Baptist Convention addressed the Armenian genocide, which served as a precedent for how they would respond to the Nazi persecution of the Jews and, in the 1920s, passed resolutions concerning its relationship to Jews.

The Baptist press was not silent regarding the persecution of German Jewry or anti-Semitism. Baptists were well informed about the events unfolding in Germany and Europe.

The Northern Baptist Missions magazine was confused by Hitler’s political intentions and anti-Jewish agenda, but as evidence mounted, it usually sympathized with Jewish victims. Occasionally, it would repeat anti-Semitic canards.

The Watchman-Examiner documented Nazi anti-Semitism, the desperation of German Jews and the rise of concentration camps, while it mourned the death of millions of Jews. It covered the desire of persecuted Jews to find safe haven in Palestine. The editors condemned all forms of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism was usually denounced in Southern Baptist journals, but anti-Semitic opinions were also published. Home Missions provided a unique platform for Gartenhaus, making him the premier Southern Baptist voice of conscience on anti-Semitism and Nazism.

The activities of Baptists did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by the American Jewish community. The American Hebrew provided cogent analysis of Baptist responses to Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and its publication of Baptist sermons was rather courageous.

Baptists countered Nazism with a set of core convictions: soul freedom, liberty, equality, democracy, the separation of church and state, racialism and personality. Racialism had a three-fold application: equal rights for African-Americans, Jews and Asians. Personality was the term Baptists employed to assert that God gave all humans a soul that possessed infinite value, and to criticize the Nazi totalitarianism that robbed individuals and racial groups of rights and dignity.

Baptist organizations passed dozens of resolutions and statements opposing Nazism and anti-Semitism that were shared with thousands of congregations, published in newspapers and distributed to politicians. This fact did not mean that Baptists marched in lock step.

The Northern Baptist Convention consistently passed pro-Jewish and anti-Nazi resolutions. Its council’s exemplary Kristallnacht response in 1938 was covered by The New York Times. Most state bodies also passed resolutions throughout the period, indicating that Northern Baptists felt compelled to revisit the plight of Jews. Resolutions offered sympathy but few practical solutions. Northern Baptists and, in particular, leaders of the Foreign Mission Society, acted as distant bystanders.

In contrast, Northern Baptist Christian Friendliness missionaries befriended Jewish refugees and courageously spoke out against anti-Semitism. They mobilized thousands of Baptist women. They may not have been “rescuers” in the classic sense, but it is fair to characterize them as “rebuilders” of lives, once Jewish refugees made it to America’s shores.

Contradictory forces created an ambivalent Southern Baptist response to the Jewish problem. The Southern Baptist Convention on its national level was mostly silent. President M.E. Dodd and European missionary Everett Gill entertained anti-Semitic or racist views that made the passing of resolutions against Nazi anti-Semitism difficult. Furthermore, how could Baptists criticize Hitler when African-Americans were lynched and systemically discriminated against in the American South?

Nevertheless, Southern Baptists also expressed sympathy for Jews. Four hundred Southern Baptist delegates, including Dodd, voted for the pro-Jewish Racialism resolution at the 1934 Berlin Congress of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). In 1939, they reaffirmed this stance at the Atlanta Congress. As the director of Jewish Evangelism, Gartenhaus was the highest-ranking Jew among Southern Baptists, and he enjoyed the support of the women’s auxiliaries. He espoused Baptist friendship with Jews, opposed anti-Semitism and Nazism and supported Zionism.

With the extraordinary exception of Missouri, Southern Baptist state conventions did not express support for persecuted Jews in resolution form until Kristallnacht. Some states, meeting right after Kristallnacht, overcame Southern Baptist ambivalence and passed resolutions. Pastors, such as Alabama’s Alfred J. Dickinson Jr., denounced anti-Semitism before and after Kristallnacht.

African-American Baptists experienced a competitive friendship with the Jewish community. They portrayed themselves as co-sufferers with Jews in a racially unjust world. While acknowledging Jewish suffering under Hitler, they also compared the relative severity of Jewish and African-American suffering and charged that European Jews were receiving a greater amount of sympathy and support.

The National Baptist Convention’s council produced a uniquely crafted Kristallnacht response. Historically significant, it compares favorably to the Northern Baptist’s proclamation. In 1940, President L.K. Williams brilliantly coined the term “suppressed, chained personality,” powerfully evoking the African-American memory of slavery.

Baptists in the United States expressed their concerns about Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust on an international level through the BWA.

The 1934 Berlin Congress’ anti-Semitism resolution on racialism truly deserves to be viewed as one of the milestones in the historical Baptist defense of freedom, liberty and human rights.

The 1939 Congress in Atlanta may have produced heated debate on Nazism, Fascism and democracy, but it did not produce a fresh or revised resolution that could serve as a strong follow-up to the 1934 resolution.

The 1947 Copenhagen Congress acknowledged the Holocaust and the sufferings of the Jewish people. However, it did not mobilize Baptists to assist Jewish displaced persons, and the reconciliation with German Baptists that took place, perhaps, was premature.

The BWA reflected American responses. Like Northern Baptists, the BWA manifested bystander behavior. Besides passing resolutions, the BWA never developed a strategy for assisting Jews. Like Southern Baptists, J.H. Rushbrooke manifested ambivalence as the BWA general secretary. He rejected Nazism and anti-Semitism, but his commitment to Jews was compromised by his lifelong devotion to the German Baptists who were loyal to the Third Reich. The African-American sense of competitive friendship with Jews was also a feature of Rushbrooke’s journey. Even as Nazi persecution of the Jews progressed, Rushbrooke unswervingly devoted his personal and BWA institutional resources to fighting primarily for Rumanian Baptists’ rights.

How can Baptists today respond to crises in support of others? Friendship is a good starting place. In 1935, when Rushbrooke extended “the hand of sincere friendship” at a meeting with British Jews in London, he hoped that the Jewish community would accept it as a sign of Baptist solidarity, respect and appreciation for Jewish heritage. Only time will tell whether Rushbrooke’s offer of Baptist friendship with Jews will be realized in the 21st century and become strong enough to withstand future outbreaks of anti-Semitism and prejudice.

The Rev. Dr. Lee B. Spitzer is general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA. He is author of “Baptists, Jews and the Holocaust: The Hand of Sincere Friendship” (Judson Press, 2017). First published in The Christian Citizen Oct. 24, 2017.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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