Friday, May 24, 2013

This Week in Texas Methodist History May 26

Ralph Sockman Preaches for Texas Annual Conference.  Delegates Consider Resolutions on Social Issues, May 30, 1955

On May 30, 1955 the Texas Conference convened for its 116th annual session in First Methodist Church Houston.  As is true every four years, much of the Conference was consumed with elections for General and Jurisdictional conference delegates. 

The conference preacher was the Rev. Ralph W. Sockman (1889-1970) of Christ Church Methodist Church on Park Avenue, New York City, one of the most prominent preachers in America. Sockman joined the staff as an associate at Christ Church upon his graduation from Columbia in 1916 and became senior pastor the next year.  Practically every preacher and lay delegate already knew Sockman by reputation.  He had been featured on NBC’s National Radio Pulpit since 1928, was the author of numerous books of sermons, and traveled widely.  In 1946 Time magazine reported that the NBC program generated 4,000 letters per week.  In addition to his radio preaching and two services per Sunday at Christ Church, Sockman was also professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary.  The attraction of Union Seminary in the 1950s was so great that the appointments of 1955 reveal that four Texas Conference preachers were studying there.

Although the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) made Sockman a household name in America, the Texas Conference of 1955 asked its members to write letters of protest to that company. 

Here’s the story.  In 1954 NBC created the George Gobel Show for one of the popular comedians of the day “Lonesome George” Gobel.   The show was a huge success.  Gobel’s homespun, self-deprecating humor contrasted nicely with Milton Berle’s manic comedy.  Most of Gobel’s humor was relatively clean cut, but one night he told an extremely offensive joke that incurred the wrath of the conference. 

You’ve heard that you can’t buy happiness.  You can. Go out and buy a fifth.”

The gag was neither humorous nor accurate.  Rev. David Switzer, Secretary of the Conference Board of Temperance, asked the conference to take action to protest the lame joke.  Switzer, pastor of Temple Methodist in Houston, asked conference members to write letters of protest to the sponsors, Pet Milk and Armour & Co., and to NBC.

The increasing influence of television upon American culture was not the only social concern that made its way to the conference floor.  The Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education, had been handed down on May 17, 1954.  The Texas Annual Conference met two weeks later.  Another year had passed, and conservative Southern reaction to the desegregation decision had turned ugly.  Some Southern governors vowed “massive resistance” to school desegregation.  In July, 1954 the White Citizens Council was created to fight for continued segregation of the races. Unlike the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Councils met publicly and specialized in intimidation in the cause of white supremacy.  Some southerners tried to show that desegregation was communistic and subversive.  Unfortunately some of the racist governors and organizers of White Citizens Councils were Methodists.  Some Methodist preachers who openly supported racial justice suffered severe criticism and negative consequences to their careers.

 On the last day of Annual Conference, Rev. Grady Hardin of Chapelwood Methodist Church in Houston offered the following resolution to the body

In view of the recent ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States placing the responsibility of desegregation in American public education squarely on the local and federal courts and people; we call upon ourselves in the Church to question the conscience of the people to seek the guidance of the principles of Christ and the help of the Spirit of God to bring these changes in our social structure that will be conducive to growth toward brotherhood and God’s kingdom.

The resolution passed, but the issue of racial justice in Methodism persisted for years.
*Both Rev. Switzer and Rev. Hardin later continued their ministry at Perkins School of Theology, SMU. 


Post a Comment

<< Home