Methodists Participate in Large Interchurch World Movement Meeting in Dallas February 1920
There is no finer example of the vision and optimism that characterized progressive Protestantism of the early 20th century than the Interchurch World Movement. There is also no finer example of how quickly such optimism can fizzle.
Setting the stage—Proponents of the Social Gospel were accustomed to working across denominational lines to fight the evils of an increasingly urban, industrial United States. There were inter-denominational organizations with Texas chapters that promoted woman’s suffrage, anti-lynching laws, Prohibition, YMCA’s, YWCA’s, and Sunday Schools. The horrors of World War I prompted many Christians to turn their attention to world peace. World War I draftees were given medical and intelligence screening. The aggregated data from those screenings revealed that America had huge problems with disease, malnutrition, drug abuse, and illiteracy.
The main thrust of reformers in the MECS had been prohibition. With the passage of the Volstead Act, it now looked like that battle was won. The armies of volunteers that had been mobilized for prohibition were still intact. The crusading fervor was still there. There were still massive social ills. What direction would the social reformers take?
One of the directions was the creation of the Interchurch World Movement. The IWM had its origins immediately after World War I. The Southern Presbyterian Mission Board convened a conference on December 17, 1918 to consider its post-war mission. Moving more rapidly than is usual in such matters, they convened a much larger meeting in February, 1919. It was at that meeting that the IWM was formed. It was now no longer a Presbyterian mission program, but an ecumenical body. They hoped to unite the missionary efforts of all the Protestant denominations into a mighty crusade. William Adams Brown called the IWM the religious counterpoint to the League of Nations.
The IWM soon had serious financial backing. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., bankrolled it. (One should remember that Rockefeller’s philanthropy was handled by Raymond Fosdick, brother of Harry E. Fosdick.) In January, 1920, the IWM convened in Atlantic City and wrote its platform. Its goal was to unite the Protestant denominations to finish the educational and missionary objectives of the church.
One month later, February, 1920, about 800 church leaders convened in Dallas. Their main task was to support the Atlantic City declaration and to create a regional organization for the IWM. Methodists figured prominently in the gathering. Robert S. Hyer, founding president of SMU, was on what we would call today the “platform committee.” Other Methodists on the committee were J. C. Williams, a Methodist Protestant from Tehuacana, Charles DeBow (MEC), and W. J. Johnson (MECS). In an interesting side note, J. Frank Norris was also on the committee. (Can one imagine Hyer and Norris on the same committee?) Bishop Mouzon addressed a session of the meeting on the importance of continuing the revival spirit. Delegates passed a resolution calling for the cabinet-level Department of Education, something that was done in 1979. Another goal was building 1000 new buildings on college and university campuses in five years.
Methodist participation in the IWM was somewhat compromised because the various Methodist denominations were simultaneously engaged in their Centenary Campaign. The first Methodist mission had been in 1819. In 1919 Methodists adopted a seven-pronged mission effort. (See post for May 20, 2007) The goals of the Centenary Campaign coincided in the large part with the IWM, but there were still questions about the relations between the programs.
The IWM began with great enthusiasm and solid financial backing, but in five years it was dead. Both Northern Baptists and Northern Presbyterians pulled their denomination out almost immediately—later in 1920. The optimistic mood of winning the whole world for Christianity and lifting millions up out of poverty, disease, illiteracy, and hunger seemed but a distant memory.