This Week in
Texas Methodist History
Ralph Sockman Preaches for
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
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 , 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. Christ
Although the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) made Sockman a household name in
Texas Conference of 1955 asked its members to write letters of protest to that
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
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.