Saturday, June 15, 2019

This Week in Texas Methodist History June 16

Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam Blasts Dallas Morning News, June 1948

Why should a Texas newspaper care about a speech made by a New York bishop delivered to an audience in Boston?   If the newspaper was the Dallas Morning News, a paper whose editorial stance could be described as ultra-conservative, and the speech was the Episcopal address at the General Conference of the Methodist Church delivered by one of the most liberal Methodist bishops of the 20th century, it’s easy to see why.

The Dallas Morning News employed editorial writers who were obsessed with racial segregation and used their platform to conflate desegregation efforts with communism every chance they got. 
The bishop was G. Bromley Oxnam (1891-1963) of the New York Episcopal Area, and the speech wasn’t any speech.  It was the Episcopal Address at the General Conference of the Methodist Church of 1948 held in Boston.  

The Episcopal Address is a special kind of speech.  It is composed by one of the bishops selected by the other bishops.  The bishop chosen allows a draft to be circulated prior to delivery, and the other bishops make critical comments.  In the end it is customary for all the bishops to sign or initial the printed version.  

Oxnam was selected by his fellow bishops as author in March 1947.  He worked on the speech for over a year, and presented a draft to his colleagues on April 15, 1948.  They left it substantially intact.  As delivered, it ran to two hours in length.   The Dallas Morning News then ran an editorial, “Rubescent Bishop Would Woo Reds.”    What was so objectionable?  Oxnam called for participation in the National Council of Churches.  He also called for the creation of a commission on church union, and as result of his known interest in the subject, was chosen to represent the Methodist Church at the first General Conference of the Evangelical United Brethren, a denomination recently created by merger of two denominations.

Oxnam replied to the DMN editorial with a letter which he supplied to the Southwestern Advocate which published the letter in its June 17th issue.  His defense was a recitation of his anti-communist bona fides.  Among other items he noted was his introduction of a resolution at the 1936 General Conference denouncing both fascism and communism.    That would not do for the newspaper, and perhaps the editorial writer was reacting to Oxnam’s past as well as his speech.  He had studied sociology at the University of Southern California and did field work among the poorest immigrant communities.  After graduation, he went to Boston for theology training, and then back to Los Angeles where he established the Church of All Nations in downtown Los Angeles.  The church welcomed all races and ethnicities and at one time counted members from 46 different nations on its rolls.  He ran for the Board of Education on a platform of improving schools for immigrant and working-class children.  The conservative business elite, foreshadowing the conservative reaction in Dallas, launched a smear campaign against him and his attempt to “sovietize” Los Angles schools. 
In 1927 he became Professor Social Ethics at Boston College, but after just one year, was elected President of DePauw College.  As president he liberalized student affairs by allowing dancing on campus.  He served as president until his election as bishop in 1936.  

In 1952 he became Bishop of the Washington area and that public arena suited him just as well as New York City. After the publication of the Reader’s Digest “Methodism’s Pink Fringe” article, Oxnam again wrote a defense/reply.  This time it was Houston conservatives instead of Dallas conservatives who played a prominent part in the story.  Laity of Houston First Methodist were particularly impressed by the Reader’s Digest half-truths, innuendo, and character assassination.   The “Pink Fringe” article most prominently attacked the Methodist Foundation for Social Action (MFSA). In 1953 Oxnam was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee whose members dredged up some of the same slanders that had been used against him when he ran for the Board of Education.  

 Frank Smith was called upon to calm the water at Houston First Methodist. 

Smith and Oxnam had considerable interaction as bishops.  Both were already bishops upon the creation of the Methodist Church in 1939, Smith from the MECS and Oxnam from the MEC.  Both were elected as fairly young men and had forceful personalities.   After the creation of the MC in 1939, they both assumed highly visible roles in the new denomination and sometimes clashed.   Oxnam presided over the Board of Foreign Missions of the Board of Missions which was located in New York City in the same building as his office.  Smith served as President of the Board of Home Missions.  Oxnam noted the investments by Home Missions Board and wanted to divert some of them to Foreign Missions.  Smith successfully repulsed the attempt. 

While serving the Washington Area, Oxnam relocated Westminster Seminary from Westminster, Maryland to land owned by American University in D.C.   After relocation the name was changed to Wesley Seminary.  After his death in 1963, that is where his ashes were deposited. 


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