Prejudice and purging: World War I and the demise of the German Methodist Church
(Editor’s note: As a follow-up to the February cover story on the 200-year history of Methodism in Mt. Carmel and Alton, this story tells of the German Methodist Church. Alton Grace UMC, one of two congregations in Alton today, was a former German Methodist Church that became a part of the former Southern Illinois Conference in 1924-25 when the St. Louis Conference of the German Methodist Church dissolved).
By Joshua Hollingsead
It was during World War I that the major persecution of German-American occurred, and the Americanization sentiment progressed unbridled, destroying much of German-American culture.
One well-known instance of brazen violence against those of German-American descent occurred when a man was lynched in Collinsville, on suspicion of German heritage. While the only recorded lynching of a German-American during the war, the act reflected the air of hostility and hate present in the country.
Of course, the war and the prejudices of the American people changed the culture of German-Americans. Hyphenation was condemned, and everyone had to become 100 percent American.
This Americanization, which forbid the teaching of German and renamed German ethnic dishes, greatly destroyed the previous German-American culture. Even church services in German had to be discarded (Daniels, 1997, 97). The bigotry and bias inflamed by the patriotic feelings aroused during war entailed the destruction of German-American culture.
The German Methodist Church, a German-language church, felt the impact of the war. German Methodism started in the 1830s in the United States and differed from its parent Methodist Church chiefly in its employment of the German language. The German Methodist Church was established by the American Methodist Church in the 1830’s to minister to the growing number of German immigrants in the United States.
From humble beginning, the German Methodist Church grew until it was an old and respected institution in the early 20th century. Before World War I, the German Methodist Church thrived. In 1915, ten German-speaking conferences existed serving between 60,000 and 70,000 German-Americans in 740 congregations. Several colleges and other institutions along with a high quality theological magazine were founded and maintained by the various German conferences (Luebke, 40).
Well-established, organized, and funded, the German-Methodist Church contributed much to the missions of Methodism. During World War I, the major persecution of German-Americans occurred, hyphenation was condemned, and everyone had to become one hundred percent American, and the prejudice against Germans and German-Americans led to the harassment and decline of the German Methodist Church. The Methodist Church, internalizing the message of Americanization, hassled and bullied its own German Methodism branch.
At the same time as the war was beginning in Europe, the American German Methodist church reported “an increase in nearly all directions” (Central Christian Advocate, Sept. 16, 1914, 16). From 1913 to 1914, before the war, the German-language conferences experienced an overall boom throughout the country. The St. Louis German conference, for instance, had more than 9,000 in 1914. Across the nation, membership in the German Methodist conferences increased from 61,872 in 1913 to 62,390 in 1914 (Central Christian Advocate, June 30, 1915, 11-2). This growth showed the strength of the German Methodist Church in the period immediately before World War I.
During World War I the United States experienced a few years of ostensible neutrality and then declared war on Japan and Germany. Anti-German hysteria and the push for Americanization ravaged the German Methodist church, closing 52 individual churches and turning younger preachers away from joining the German Methodist conferences (Luebke, 291). The weekly periodical of the Methodist Church, The Christian Advocate, depicted the increasingly hostile attitude of Methodists toward the German-speaking brothers as well as a defense of their conferences by German Methodists and their supporters.
In 1914 anti-German emotions arose across the United States, and The Christian Advocate reported on some of the actions taken against Germans and the German culture. The Church felt the resonance of the rising anti-German feelings. In April of 1915 the magazine printed an article promoting Americanization that drew a large response. Bishop William Alfred Quayle wrote that the foreign-speaking Methodist conferences had served their purpose, but now that immigration was declining, the foreign-language conferences should be merged with their English-speaking counterparts as the Norwegian-Danish Conference had done. (Central Christian Advocate, April 14, 1915, 10). Seeing the slump in immigration due to World War I, Bishop Quayle conjectured that the mission of foreign-language conferences was finished and that the war would demand Americanization. (Daniels, 1997, 79). Bishop Quayle wrote:
“In the coming days, more even than in the past days, America will demand that citizens of foreign birth amalgamate themselves more speedily with the American idea and the American speech and the American folks. Americans are we and Americans we ought to be and this is not less so in religious matters and denominational matters than in civic matters.”
Quayle’s suggestions were pragmatic, if biased, and foreshadowed the increasingly hostile American attitude toward immigrants. Many in the United States doubted German-American loyalty; Quayle utilized the fear and nativism to argue that to be a true American Methodist the person had to be fully American. Americanization and nativism was on the rise within the church.
Quayle’s suggestion faced opposition; although, the resistance originated mostly from German Methodists. Eugene Weiffenbach, a leader of the German Methodist Church, defended the German Methodist conferences by examining finances and finding that in return for the $44,300 spent on German Methodism for 1915 the German Methodist congregations gave $302,325 (Central Christian Advocate, July 7, 1915, 11-2). If Weiffenbach’s figures were correct, the German Methodists contributed financially to the Church much more than they received and that deflated the argument of German Methodists being a leech on the Methodist Church. Even if Weiffenbach’s numbers were off his statement proved the commitment of German Methodists to their Church and its parent, the Methodist Church. Of course, Weiffenbach opposed the immediate and complete integration that Quayle had proposed. Weiffenbach’s defense illustrated the devotion of the German Methodists to keeping their churches separate. The article by Quayle reflected the desires of at least some of Methodist Church’s leaders to end foreign-language ministry in America and Weiffenbach’s showed the German Methodist wish to keep their own church organization.
In a strange, unintended parody of later defenses against anti-German sentiments, Weiffenbach wrote: “Are [German Methodists] then hyphenated Methodists, foreigners in Methodism, or an integral part of the Church . . . ? Let no one accuse them of being inferior Methodists, lacking in loyalty, because they happen . . . to worship God bilingually. German Methodists are loyal Methodists.” If the words “Methodists,” “Methodism,” and “Church” were replaced with “Americans,” “America,” and “United States,” the passage turns from a defense of German Methodists to German-Americans during World War I. The parallelism was not intentioned, but the bias toward the German Methodist Church and German-Americans themselves was based on the fear of disloyalty and the German-American isolation from the rest of society. The arguments for tolerance for both German-Americans and the German Methodist Church therefore bear marked similarity to one another. Still the quote reflected the strong statement of loyalty by the persecuted minority in face of the fearful majority. The bias against immigrants exhibited through Quayle’s suggestion and the need for defense of the foreign language conferences exposed the nativist feeling rising in the Methodist Church.
German Methodists responded to the Methodist Church. The general meeting of the German branch of the Methodist Church met in St. Louis from July 6-8, 1915, discussed merging churches, and concluded that it would be better to keep the conferences separate. (Central Christian Advocate, August 18, 1915, 12). The attendees defended German Methodism with the observation that a large number of its members flowed into the English-speaking church, yet the German Methodist Church continued to grow, especially in Sunday school services. They felt that the continued growth of the German Methodist Church showed its viability and continuing importance as part of the Methodist Church. Delegates adopted resolutions supporting separate conferences and German Americans:
That we voice our disfavor of any present movement for consolidation as advocated lately by a good bishop in The Christian Advocate, and that it is our conviction that for the successful continuation and development of our work and the education of our German Methodists and their descendants and for the further existence and development of our institutions, the organizations of our districts Annual Conferences and the 14th General Conference District are absolutely necessary and that we protest emphatically against any change or discontinuation that might be intended.
The delegates clearly knew of Quayle’s suggestion and felt strongly that the German Methodist church deserved and needed to continue. As delegates they would be the most dedicated members of German Methodism, but their staunch avowal of support for German Methodism reflected on all German Methodists.
The German Methodists present at the conference also made a resolution addressing the spreading anti-German hysteria and prejudice:
We protest against the term “hyphenated Americans” invented by an anti-German spirit and mainly applied to Americans of German descent. English and other nationalities are “hyphenates” in the same sense and degree. Whoever has sworn to the Stars and Stripes is an American. Americans of German descent are Americans second to none and the term “Hyphenates,” applied in a special sense, is unfriendly and, as we believe, undeserved (Central Christian Advocate, August 18, 1915, 12).
German Methodist leaders recognized the anti-German hysteria being drudged up with World War I. The German Methodists sought to calm the hysterics if possible among their Methodist brethren. The need for the resolution also expressed the upwelling of anti-German emotion among the populace and among Methodists. Many of the Methodists the leaders tried to reach were those pushing for the integration of the German Methodists conferences with their English counterparts. Wishing to spread the message of acceptance they created the resolution to turn awareness of the Methodists to the power of language to determine patterns of thinking. The question of the hyphen further expanded into national awareness with the US entrance into the war.
German Methodists realized that their embrace of the German culture and language would be even larger targets of prejudice and suspicion after the United States entered the war than even in the period before. Bishop Henderson contended in the Apologist, the German-language publication of the German Methodist church:
Methodism has always been bound up with patriotism. . . . Methodism and Americanism have always been synonymous. In this hour of national as well as international crisis, every Methodist preacher will be a patriotic leader and every Methodist congregation a flock of true patriots (Douglass, 1939, 7 and Evers, 1964, 237).
Members and leaders of the German Methodist church recognized the bias against them and understood that with the entrance of the United States into the war, the anger and hate towards German culture and anything associated with Germany would grow. Henderson’s declaration then can be viewed as an assertion of patriotic feeling and a veiled warning to the readers of the Apologist, mostly German Methodists, of the increase in anti-German attitude to be expected.
The Americanization impulse resident in the Methodist Church continued even after the war. An article published a year after the armistice used an analogy comparing the one hundred percent American to the 100 percent Christian (Central Christian Advocate, November 12, 1919, 8). While the article told the reader that outward displays do not make one Christian, the article’s use of the analogy showed how accepted the image of 100 percent Americanism was at the time and how ingrained it was on the American psyche. Americans incorporated the propaganda calling for Americanization into their mentality, and the favored analogy showed how deep the internalization was among the public and the members of the Methodist Church. With unquestioned acceptance of basic Americanization tenets, the Church could not help but try to implement them.
The German Methodist ministry of the Methodist Church lasted a century, from the 1830s to the 1930s. In the years previous to World War I, the German Methodist Church thrived with a membership of more than 60,000 people. Catering to German immigrants and their descendants, the war and its anti-German impetus shaped the German Methodist Church. Visibly in The Christian Advocate, the Methodist church absorbed the anti-German hysteria and encouraged the dissolution of the German Methodist branch of the church.
The end of the German Methodist church came fairly quickly. Starting with the St. Louis German Annual Conference in 1924, the German conferences merged with the main body of the Church. All the German conferences were combined with the main body of the Church within twenty years after the end of World War I. By the early 1940s the German Methodist Church was no more. Americanization and prejudice obliged the liquidation of the German Methodist conferences. Before the United States entered World War II all the German Methodist churches in America would be gone. The German-language ministry of the United Methodist church lasted for over a century, enjoyed its strongest membership just before World War I and less than twenty years after the war, German Methodism ended.
The end of the German Methodist Church was inevitable as immigration slowed and English spread, but World War I severely shortened the length of time and the influence of the German Methodist branch of the Methodist Church. The war’s effect in increasing nativism and engendering anti-German hysteria seriously affected the Methodist Church. The Church, internalizing the values of Americanization attacked and persecuted its German Methodist branch. The end of the German Methodist conferences reveal the way religious institution can be shaped by society and public opinion as well as showing how any institution is vulnerable to prejudice and bias toward the other, the alien.
(Joshua Hollingsead is a library specialist in the Grainger Engineering Information Center at the University of Illinois. The article above is adapted from a paper he wrote in spring 2006 while an honors student at McKendree University. Hollingsead is a 2006 McKendree University graduate. Reprinted with permission).
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