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‘Baptists, Jews and the Hand of Sincere Friendship’

Anti-Semitism. Racial prejudice and violence. Welcoming refugees from a minority religious background. The relationship between church and state.

These societal problems dominate the headlines, and thoughtful Christians are wondering how their faith can inform their responses to such pressing concerns.

None of these problems is novel; Baptists throughout the United States wrestled with all of them during the 1930s and 1940s as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power.

Northern (now ABC-USA), Southern and African-American Baptists expressed in varying ways opposition to anti-Semitism in general and to the Nazi campaigns against the Jews in particular.

Baptists in the United States were well positioned to respond to the challenges of the Nazi era.

Southern Baptists had passed a resolution in 1919 expressing care for the welfare of European Jews, and in 1920 Jacob Gartenhaus – a converted Jew – became the Home Mission Society’s director of Jewish evangelism.

Northern Baptist missionaries greeted Jewish immigrants at Ellis Island, served Jews in northeastern cities, and in the 1920s, the convention passed resolutions concerning its relationship to Jews.

Baptists countered Nazism with a set of core convictions, including soul freedom, the separation of church and state, racialism and personality.

Racialism had a three-fold application – equal rights for African-Americans, Jews and Asians.

Personality was the term Baptists employed to assert that God gave all humans a soul that possessed infinite value, and thus to criticize totalitarianism, which robbed individuals and racial groups of rights and dignity.

The Baptist press published numerous editorials and articles denouncing Nazism while Baptist organizations passed dozens of statements opposing anti-Semitism, but the Baptist voice was not unanimous.

The Northern Baptist Convention consistently passed pro-Jewish and anti-Nazi resolutions, including its exemplary Kristallnacht response in 1938. Most state bodies also passed anti-Nazi resolutions, but these offered sympathy with few practical solutions.

Generally, Northern Baptists acted as distant bystanders, with the notable exception of the Christian Friendliness missionaries, who mobilized thousands of Baptist women and befriended Jewish refugees.

Contradictory forces created an ambivalent Southern Baptist response to the Jewish problem. At a national level, the Southern Baptist Convention was mostly silent.

President M.E. Dodd entertained anti-Semitic or racist views, although he did join 400 Southern Baptist delegates in voting for the pro-Jewish Racialism resolution at the 1934 Congress of the Baptist World Alliance.

As the director of Jewish evangelism, Gartenhaus espoused friendship with Jews, opposed Nazism and supported Zionism.

However, with the extraordinary exception of Missouri, Southern Baptist state conventions did not express support for persecuted Jews until after Kristallnacht.

African-American Baptists experienced a competitive friendship with the Jewish community. They perceived themselves as co-sufferers with Jews in a racially unjust world, comparing the severity of Jewish and African-American suffering and charging that European Jews received greater sympathy and support.

The National Baptist Convention’s council produced a uniquely crafted and historically significant Kristallnacht response.

In 1940, President L.K. Williams coined the phrase “suppressed, chained personality” – powerfully evoking the memory of black slavery.

Baptists in the United States expressed their concerns about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust on an international level through the Baptist World Alliance.

The 1934 Berlin Congress’ anti-Semitism resolution on racialism deserves to be viewed as one of the milestones in the historical Baptist defense of liberty and human rights.

Regrettably, the 1939 and 1947 Congresses did not produce any strong follow-up to the 1934 resolution.

Overall, the BWA reflected American responses.

Like Northern Baptists, the BWA manifested bystander behavior. It passed resolutions but never developed a strategy for assisting Jews.

Like Southern Baptists, J.H. Rushbrooke manifested ambivalence as the BWA general secretary. He rejected Nazism and anti-Semitism, but his commitment to Jews was compromised by his lifelong devotion to the German Baptists, despite their loyalty to the Third Reich.

The African-American sense of competitive friendship with Jews was also reflected in Rushbrooke’s leadership because even as Nazi persecution of the Jews progressed, Rushbrooke’s personal and BWA’s institutional resources were devoted to fighting for Rumanian Baptists’ rights.

How can Baptists today respond to crises in support of others? Friendship is a good starting place.

In 1935, when Rushbrooke extended “the hand of sincere friendship” at a meeting with British Jews in London, he hoped that the Jewish community would accept it as a sign of Baptist solidarity and respect.

Only time will tell whether an offer of Baptist friendship with Jews will be realized in the 21st century and become strong enough to withstand future outbreaks of anti-Semitism and prejudice.

Lee B. Spitzer serves as general secretary of the American Baptist Churches USA. He is author of the recently published “Baptists, Jews and the Holocaust: The Hand of Sincere Friendship” (Judson Press, 2017). A version of this article first appeared in The Christian Citizen, a publication of American Baptist Home Mission Societies. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @leespitzer.