The sixth General Assembly of the National Council of Churches met December 1–7 in Philadelphia, but its eye was on Washington, D. C. A long shadow cast over the Quaker City’s Convention Hall by the memory of a vacated White House chair seemed to impel the delegates toward the seats of power on Capitol Hill in a search for solution of the nation’s racial crisis, easily the dominant issue of the convention.

The high point of the assembly was to have been a televised address by John F. Kennedy, scheduled to be the first President and first Roman Catholic national leader to speak to an NCC general meeting. Instead of his projected address on “Our Liberties, One and Indivisible,” a memorial service was held for him, in which United Presbyterian Stated Clerk Eugene Carson Blake said: “John Kennedy by his actions as President demonstrated that he was indeed a good Catholic, but more—that his kind of Christianity was a strength rather than a handicap to his serving the whole people of the whole nation under the Constitution and under God.” Bishop George W. Baber of the African Methodist Episcopal Church prayed: “In this hour of our national and world sorrow, we pause to thank Thee for John Fitzgerald Kennedy who now moves with Thee in glorious realms of eternal light; and for the impact of his dedicated personality upon the lives of so many, great and small, known and unknown, of all creeds and colors.” Pennsylvania’s Governor William W. Scranton paralleled the assassination with that of Lincoln, and asserted: “America will survive so long as we have leaders of the people who use as their guidelines the people’s common sense. While politicians and lawyers discuss the legalistic fine points of civil rights legislation, the tyranny of prejudice is doomed because the American people in their deep common sense realize it is wrong.”

Again and again throughout the course of the assembly, speakers pointed to the plight of the dispossessed Negro, and called for Christian action. The newly elected NCC president, Bishop Reuben H. Mueller of the Evangelical United Brethren Church (see News section, Dec. 20 issue), declared Negroes have come to the conclusion that “a threat to profit or property can move a white Protestant a lot faster than an appeal to spiritual ideals.” Methodist church historian Franklin H. Littell said that those who argued during Hitler’s reign that the function of churches was to undergird the “German way of life” have their counterpart in those who today maintain that churches exist to support “the American way of life” or the “Southern way of life.” Dr. W. A. Visser t Hooft, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, spoke of “courageous Christians” in South Africa who are fighting racial estrangement, and said: “You in the American churches can help them more effectively by solving your own race problem than in any other way.” Sierra Leone’s minister of external affairs. John Karefa-Smart, offered some exegesis that startled some: “I wonder if we are far wrong in suggesting that the famous ride into Jerusalem on the donkey was perhaps our Lord’s way of protesting, both to the Jews and to the Romans, for the rights of the masses of his fellow citizens.” Dr. Robert W. Spike, executive director of the NCC’s Commission on Religion and Race, said that the racial issue provides an area where the validity of all lay movements can be tested: “I do not wish to imply that only Negro freedom fighters qualify for the Christian mission in this crucial hour.… Heroic white Christians … keep their trust as well.”

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Assembly delegates responded to the repeated platform appeals by: (1) Approving a message to the churches that stressed racial brotherhood. It said: “At the point of race the Christian church must now profess or deny Christ.” (2) Adopting a pronouncement on human rights that said that particular attention “should be given to the denial of rights on the basis of race or color and to the correcting” of such injustices. (3) Taking the strongest stand on civil rights in NCC history by urging all churches and Christians to initiate specific action toward complete elimination of racial discrimination in their organizations, agencies, and institutions. A call was made for pulpits to be opened to all qualified ministers regardless of race, and for “investment portfolios” to be examined to determine if funds are invested in enterprises that practice racial discrimination, such investments to be removed if discrimination is not ceased. (4) Calling upon Congress to “take every step necessary to insure the earliest possible passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1963, including the immediate use of a discharge petition which will enable the House of Representatives to take action on the bill,” and calling upon all Christians “to urge their Representatives in Congress to sign such a petition when it is presented.”

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To suit action to their words, some 100 clergymen and laymen contacted congressmen in Washington to urge them to sign the discharge petition. Two charter busloads of General Assembly consultants took a day off from the Philadelphia meeting for this purpose. If signed by the necessary 218 House members, the petition would bring the civil rights bill immediately to the House floor for a vote on the next discharge date (second and fourth Mondays of the month—if the House is in session). Dr. Spike indicated that such lobbying “would have been unheard of” a year ago.

Five NCC leaders met with President Lyndon Johnson at his request. They expressed concern for prompt passage of the civil rights bill, commended the President for his “very vigorous” record on civil rights, and discussed how churches can best support racial justice in the future.

The stance of the NCC leadership on the race issue seemed clear. But the key to the program would be grass-roots response. As the Philadelphia assembly drew to a close, a minister reported for thirty workshops that had discussed race during the week: “… the lack of church initiative does not come from an absence of official statements and positions; … our failure arises from the churches’ concentration on themselves.” But the workshops had one specific proposal: that the NCC, which employs many nonwhites in non-executive positions, would promote qualified minority-group members to executive positions.

Other assembly actions included:

• Reaffirmation of opposition to legalized gambling.

• Adoption of a revised constitution, effective January 1, 1965, and authorization of the policy-making NCC General Board to draft and implement new by-laws (see News section, Nov. 8 issue). Though this has been termed a “sweeping reorganization” of the NCC’s structure and though there have been warnings voiced previously by General Board members against the resulting increase of centralization which could, it was said, result in loss of council membership, the action was voted with scarcely a murmur from delegates.

Church Membership Tally

U. S. Protestant church membership gains continue to fall slightly shy of the country’s population increase, according to National Council of Churches statisticians. But a 2.3 per cent growth reported by Roman Catholics enables the new Yearbook of American Churches to again list overall church membership as 63.4 per cent of total population. That is the same figure as last year.

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The church membership increase and the country’s population growth are both given as 1.6 per cent.

In actual figures, the Yearbook’s 1964 edition records that 117,946,002 Americans are members of churches, synagogues, or other places of worship. That includes 64,929,941 Protestants and 43,847,938 Roman Catholics.

The Yearbook, just out, is compiled by the NCC Bureau of Research and Survey and is based on reports by official statisticians of 252 religious bodies for the fifty states and the District of Columbia. The latest figures are said to be “mainly” for the calendar year 1962 or for a fiscal year ending in 1962.

Protestant Sunday school enrollment is showing a slow but apparently steady decline. It is now given as 40,096,624, compared with 40,239,020 a year ago, and 40,241,650 two years ago.

Here are the ten largest Protestant denominations in the United States as reported in the Yearbook:

Secular observers were struck by two negative aspects of the assembly: the almost inaudible responses during voting, though there were more than 800 voting delegates present (along with some 2,500 consultants and accredited visitors); and the widespread delegate absenteeism during the final sessions when most of the important votes were taken.

Paucity of debate on many important issues was attributed by some to trust in and/or awe of the professional leadership.

Electronics helped determine the political complexion of the delegates, consultants, and accredited visitors. An IBM machine reported that of 575 persons polled, 46 per cent were Republican—25 per cent of these self-described as liberal, 19 per cent moderate, and only 2 per cent conservative. Democrats comprised 36 per cent—26 per cent liberal, 10 per cent moderate, and less than 1 per cent conservative.

Top Evangelical News

A group of evangelical editors picked the Supreme Court decision on public school devotions as their most significant news event of 1963.

The Roman Catholic “thaw,” the race question, Billy Graham’s Southern California crusade, and the charismatic revival, were also cited, in that order.

A total of thirteen Christian publications participated in the selection of “the five most important news stories in the evangelical religious world in 1963.” The survey was conducted by News Editor Phil Landrum of Moody Monthly for a special article that appears in the publication’s January issue.

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The Idea Of A University

Southern Baptists can hardly talk about higher education without bringing up Wake Forest College. The campus at Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is a leading center for the training of Southern Baptist young people, and it has had more than its share of controversy. Latest furor is over a proposal by the Wake Forest administration to include non-Baptists and out-of-state residents among its trustees.

The idea grew out of a study made of Wake Forest’s graduate program by a group of educators who analyzed the aim of the school to achieve university status. They recommended a “diversified board of trustees with ability to cultivate potential sources of financial support.” As a result. Dr. Harold W. Tribble, Wake Forest president, undertook a campaign to change the method of electing trustees, now handled solely within the North Carolina Baptist Convention.

Meanwhile, a special committee studying relations between the college and the convention reported concern over a decline in the percentage of Baptist students and faculty members. They supported Tribble’s contention, however, that the new trustee proposal was not designed to wrest a measure of control from the convention.

A petition was circulated among Baptist ministers in the state opposing the change, and scores of them signed it. The petition said the move would “tend to widen the gap between Wake Forest and the convention instead of bringing the two together.”

The trustee plan was introduced at the annual meeting of the convention held in November in the coastal town of Wilmington. It never made it to the floor. A compromise plan also fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority for passage (the vote was 1,628 for and 1,106 against).

“Anything we have to say we will bring up at the next convention,” Tribble declared. “We will not give up. Next year we can carry it at the convention.”

The 1964 North Carolina Baptist Convention will meet in Greensboro, a neighbor city to Winston-Salem.

Tribble’s bid to make Wake Forest a university involves an expansion program that will cost an estimated $69 million. Included are plans for a $4 million Graduate School of Religion, which, in Tribble’s words, “would be distinctly graduate work in terms of university graduate studies rather than professional in terms of theological education.”

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An Evening At The White House

Evangelist Billy Graham, in Annapolis for a Sunday morning preaching engagement at the U. S. Naval Academy Chapel, was called to the telephone for a message from the White House. Said the voice at the other end:

“Billy, this is Lyndon.”

The President of the United States expressed regret that he would not be there to hear the sermon, but said he was immediately dispatching daughter Lucy from Washington to Annapolis.

“God bless you as you preach,” added President Johnson.

The following evening Graham spent five hours at the White House at Johnson’s request. The two talked privately for half an hour, then went swimming in the White House pool with presidential assistant Bill Moyers and Graham’s close friend, Grady Wilson. The President asked Graham to lead the group in a session of prayer and later to return thanks prior to a dinner with executives of the New York Herald Tribune.

Surprise Citations

The late Pope John XXIII was among thirty-three distinguished persons honored last month with the U. S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. The names of thirty-one of the group had been announced in advance, but the awards to Pope John and the late President Kennedy came as a surprise. This was the citation to the pontiff:

“His Holiness Pope John XXIII—dedicated servant of God. He brought to all citizens of the planet a heightened sense of the dignity of the individual, of the brotherhood of man, and of the common duty to build an environment of peace for all human kind.”

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