The following is written by Union Theological Seminary student, Kristen Leigh Southworth.
A large collection of records from the first two decades of the National Council of Churches (NCC) has recently been reprocessed and made available again thanks to a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. This collection is held by Columbia University at the Burke Library as part of the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Archives Collection.
In addition to the work of reprocessing, several boxes of documents were pulled from a large pile of unprocessed materials and were added to the existing collection. These reports, consultation summaries, minutes, correspondence and planning documents – formerly unavailable to researchers – now have the potential to shed new light on issues facing the NCC during the height of its influence in the 1950s and 1960s.
Particularly interesting are the ways that the ecumenical movement, the civil rights movement, and the developing theology of Christian missions among mainline Protestants all intersected during this time in order to shape the NCC’s vision and trajectory. For example, two boxes of papers from the desk of Robert C. Dodds reveal how extensively he used his position as General Director of the NCC Planning Committee to fight racism within the church, and how this ultimately came to effect the structure of the organization as a whole. In a recorded conversation with Joseph Oldham, Dodds shared the following:
It became evident as a result of our analyses that the churches themselves were profoundly implicated in racial injustice in the U.S., that they have furthered it and supported it by their doctrines, by what they actually preach from certain pulpits, by their silences, and by their support of the system which made racial injustice possible. Well, this wasn’t very happy news for the churches to receive. They didn’t like it, and you can understand why. We tried to make it sugar-coated, but you can’t sugar-coat that kind of message. Well, it was as a result of that kind of thing that the communions finally – some of them – began to express concern about what we ought to be doing in long range planning.
It was the discomfort of those church communions who had been called into account for their racist attitudes and practices that apparently motivated the subsequent 1965 restructuring of the Council in which power was centralized and Dodds was moved to the department of Ecumenical Affairs.
The bulk of materials in the collection are from the NCC’s Division of Foreign Missions, which later became the Division of Overseas Ministries and constituted the largest unit of the organization both financially and administratively. Now available for the first time are a number of reports conducted by the Division of Foreign Missions’ Research Committee in conjunction with the Missionary Research Library on the subject of missiology, including an unpublished paper by H. Richard Neihbur outlining a theology for the missionary obligation of the church.
The NCC served as a prominent international voice for the Protestant churches of the U.S. during the mid-twentieth century. Through the work of its Division of Foreign Missions in particular, the NCC collected materials and conducted extensive reports pertaining to significant world affairs and their relationship to the churches. As such, this collection contains reports, news articles, pamphlets, and other primary documents concerning events of international and ecumenical significance such as Vatican II, the North American Assembly on African Affairs, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, as well as organizations like the Congo Protestant Relief Agency, the Ecumenical Program for Emergency Action in Africa, the International African Institute, and Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation, and general subjects of relevance such as education and world literacy, mass communication, bilateral conversations, Israel and the Middle East, Cuba, Marxism and Chinese communism, South African apartheid, the civil rights movement and black liberation theology, and Vietnam.
Newly available in this collection are also documents outlining the various proposals that were considered in the restructuring of the NCC in 1973.
The main repository of archival records for the National Council of Churches is in Philadelphia, PA, and so it is especially exciting to make this extensive collection of the organization’s earliest records available at the Burke Library, located right next door to NCC’s current administrative offices, placing these valuable historical documents – and the perspective that could be gained from reading them – right at the organization’s fingertips.