December 2006 Newsletter


Association of Contemporary Church Historians


(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)


John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia


December 2006— Vol. XII, no. 12
 Dear Friends,


1) Appeal on behalf of threatened Centre for the Study of Christianity in the non-western world, Edinburgh, Scotland.

2) Book Reviews

a) Nurser, For all Peoples and all Nations. The ecumenical church and human rights
b) Sanchez, Pope Gabriel
c) Thomas, Communing with the enemy. Britain and the GDR

3) Journal articles

a) Noll, What happened to Christian Canada?
b) Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany.
c) Ziemann, Psychological counseling in West German Catholic Church

1) Dr Michael Marten, of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, sends the following notice:

Dear colleagues,

Many of you may have used the facilities at the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World at Edinburgh University. In the course of my research I personally have made extensive use of the Prof. Andrew F Walls library, archives, and staff based at the Centre, and it is a truly remarkable and unique resource for the study of global Christianity in the past, as well as in the present and the future.

However, the Centre is now under serious threat of imminent dismemberment or even closure by the University. Apparently, this is because the University has decided it no longer wishes to pay the rent for the premises the Centre occupies. The building is owned by the Free Church of Scotland, and the rent has risen according to the terms of the original rental agreement the University made with the Free Church when the buildings were first leased from them a number of years ago.

Apparently the University has not even approached the Free Church in recent times to ask if the rental agreement might be renegotiated or reconsidered, which would appear to indicate a lack of will on the part of the University to maintain the Centre at all.

Members of this list will appreciate more than most how tragic the breakup or loss of the Centre would be. I would therefore urge you to write to the University about this. It seems to me that the Head of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences might be an appropriate person to turn to – this is Professor Vicki Bruce. Her address is: College of Humanities & Social Science, The University of Edinburgh, 55-56 George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9JU, U.K. Email:
In addition, if you know other scholars who would be concerned at this, I would urge you to forward this email to them as soon as possible. As the story on the Ekklesia site indicates, the situation is very urgent, with the Centre unlikely to exist in its present form after Christmas if the University has its way.

With best wishes,
Michael Marten

2a) John S. Nurser, For all Peoples and all Nations. The Ecumenical Church and Human Rights. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press 2005 200 Pp. ISBN 1-58901-039-6 cloth; 158901-059-0 paper

The twentieth century will undoubtedly go down in history as having seen unprecedented levels of warfare, violence and revolution world-wide, much of it prompted by national state governments. The cost in terms of human lives and suffering is incalculable. But so prevalent were the cults of militarism, racism and national expansion that any alternative values were spurned and regarded as irrelevant fantasies. Pacifism attracted the allegiance of a tiny minority; Christian pacifists were even fewer. Their advocacy of the eirenic virtues of peace, justice and international reconciliation was for the main part dismissed as utopian. Only on two occasions, in the immediate aftermath of the two world wars, and out of feelings of revulsion against the excesses just experienced, did such ideals come to have support from the movers and shakers of public opinion. In 1919 this resulted in the formation of the League of Nations. But, as its short and sad history proved, the League was unable to reverse the self-seeking and self-glorifying ambitions of individual nations. It did, to be sure, have a limited success in promoting the rights of individual citizens, especially in minority situations.

In 1945 the world community – or rather the leading circles among the victors in western Europe and North America – resolved to do better. They resurrected the international institution in the form of the United Nations Organization, to be given extra enforcement powers, but as history has shown with only partial success. At the same time, these powers were to pay far more attention than before to what was perceived as a vital issue – how to protect the individual from the totalitarian ambitions of maleficent rulers. In short, this led to a sustained campaign for the codification and propagation on a world-wide scale of human rights, which undertaking was a complete novelty on the scale envisaged and eventually realized.

The story of how this campaign developed in the immediate post-1945 years, and the contributions made to its successful conclusion by representatives of the ecumenical Christian community is the subject of John Nurser’s illuminating and well-researched study. His heroes are the far-sighted leaders of a small team associated with the World Council of Churches, itself still only in the process of formation. This body only formally came into being in August 1948. But already its officials had been at work together for several years seeking to promote the reconstruction of a world torn apart by the violence of Nazism and Japanese militarism. It was particularly in the United States and its nearest allies that the initiative was taken to rebuild a better international society than before. The churches, through their international representatives, sought to carry out their mission to bind up the wounds of war and to set a light before men in the name of the Christian values of peace, justice and freedom.

Thoughtful churchmen had already, during the turbulent inter-war years, considered how best the churches could influence the construction of an international order which could be effective enough to maintain stability and peace. But equally, during this period, the realization had grown that individual churchmen or women, and even individual church denominations, could only have some impact if they set aside their historic rivalries and acted together across countries and continents, in some coherent body capable of advancing a common platform in the name of Christian witness.

The difficult and even disastrous developments of the 1930s made the need for such ecumenical collaboration even more urgent. The evident success of the sinister and destructive forces of Nazism, Fascism and Communism presented an unparalleled challenge to the Christian community. When war again engulfed Europe in 1939, it was a notable advance that the church leaders on this occasion showed that they had learnt their lessons from 1914. They refused to give theological justification to national war efforts, or to endorse the view that God was on their side. Instead they strove to maintain whatever links were possible across the battle lines, and to put their faith in the possibility of a reconstructed international world order after hostilities had ceased.

The centre for such hopes for Protestants lay in the as yet incomplete edifice of the World Council of Churches. Under the leadership of its General Secretary, Visser ‘t Hooft, a Dutch Calvinist, these church representatives concentrated the resources they had on thoughtful preparations for a post-war world, not merely for the predictable short-term and humanitarian relief efforts to assist the war’s victims, but more significantly in planning for the creation of a manageable world order based on a commonly-agreed world ethos. In the circumstances of the early war years, this was a heroic gamble of faith.

One prerequisite for the success of such an endeavour was the abandonment of certain deeply entrenched Protestant beliefs. Politics was all too often regarded as a worldly affair, which could easily lead men into sin, and should therefore be shunned. But events had shown that all that was needed for evil to triumph was for good men to do nothing. Instead, these ecumenical pioneers argued, the missionary zeal of their churches should be devoted, in this pluralistic world, to securing an essential component of stability, namely man’s freedom. Political structures need to be built up strong enough to resist the pressures of intolerant governments and social forces. The achievement of such an international order, and the recognition of its universal validity, could be seen as a true form of Christian evangelism.

The principal architect of such a revisionist concept of Christian witness was the British missionary bureaucrat, Joseph Oldham. But it was the Americans within the ecumenical movement who took the lead in calling for a Christian influence in the post-war settlement in international affairs. To begin with, the impetus came from the missionary societies who believed that the end of the war in 1945 provided new opportunities for Christian mission, based on a new assertion of religious liberty on both the personal and communal levels But under the influence of such men as John Foster Dulles, their horizons widened. Religious liberty for Christian missions, they came to see, was not enough. What was required was, not merely religious liberty for all, but individual liberty for all through the safeguarding of human rights in general. A parallel development can be seen in Catholicism, where Jacques Maritain argued in favour of human rights for all, derived from a sense of the dignity of any human being created in the image of God. Such were the views energetically advanced by representatives of the ecumenical churches during the planning stages of the newly-created United Nations at its founding conference in San Francisco and beyond. It was to be a vital contribution.

Nurser devotes a whole chapter to the career of the American Lutheran scholar and strategist, Fred Nolde, dean of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, who was to be a strong and effective champion of these ideas for the churches’ role in the new international order. Nolde was of course only the tip of a pyramid of other churchmen, especially in the United States, where the Federal Council of Churches had established, as early as 1940, a Commission to study the basis of a Just and Durable Peace. This Commission’s work was notable in its ability to recruit men and women of distinction and expertise. At the same time, it departed from the earlier attempts of such church bodies, which had been superficial in their diagnoses and proposed remedies for international war and violence. In 1942 Nolde joined this Commission and began to establish a wide-ranging and thoughtful programme of speaking engagements to promote the churches’ views for post-war reconstruction. So too the Peace Aims group in the United States set to work with professional skill, rather than amateur enthusiasm. John Foster Dulles provided very able leadership and made use of his close connections with the American political hierarchy in Washington and New York. By his side, Nolde became the very competent and effective administrator and spokesman for this cause. By 1944, with American confidence that the war would shortly be won, the churches’ leadership in thinking through the issues for a post-war settlement proved to be of considerable value and importance.

Nurser believes rightly that, in subsequent years, the existence and effectiveness of the churches’ contributions have been largely forgotten, or even suppressed in the histories of the United Nations by those who wish to present the organization as a purely non-religious development, owing its inspiration to the secular tradition of the French Revolution. Hence Nolde’s sensitive and creative part has been virtually ignored, even by church historians. But Nurser seeks to show that, on the contrary, the significance of such churchmen as Nolde, Dulles and the President of Princeton University, John Mackay, was acknowledged at the time by all those involved in the delicate and often difficult period of ingestion for the new world order.

In the wider sense, it was undoubtedly the American Presbyterians and Methodists who were the powerhouse of this project for arousing public support for this new vision of American involvement in international affairs . Many of them had strong connections to the YMCA and YWCA, with their long traditions of public involvement and service. They were, to be sure, a small elite coterie, but Nurser shows how their common backgrounds provided for highly effective team work. Their links to the established political figures in the United States, and their years of experience in mobilizing support for worthy causes were great advantages. Translating ethical ideals into day-to-day programmes which served just causes was part of their vibrant tradition. The goal of a new world order and a new peace, promoted with justice, drew wide support, particularly in North America which had not suffered the same kind of disastrous losses and disillusionment as had Europe. Hope was still pervasive. Largely at the prompting of such confident churchmen, in 1946 the incipient World Council of Churches decided to establish a permanent Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. Fred Nolde was appointed its director, and remained at the helm for more than two decades.

At San Francisco the Federal Council of Churches and its mission societies equipped themselves – in an unprecedented way – to give strong support to the United States government’s determination to participate fully in a new international organization, and to reinforce those in a wavering State Department pressing for the inclusion in its structures of a human rights agency. The non-governmental representatives (including from religious groups) who had been invited to attend – in itself an innovation that has been carried into the life of the United Nations with remarkable consequences – mounted a remarkably effective campaign. It struck observers that the concerns of Jews were matched by those of the Protestants and by Catholic religious orders. As Nurser notes, they had unprecedented access to the State Department’s spokesmen. He describes the stages of their successful lobbying to have the new U.N. Charter include provisions on human rights, and in particular its mandatory commitment to a Commission on Human Rights. And he outlines the subsequent stages taken to bring about the institutional reality of this Commission, and the efforts made to define its terms and functions. As Director of the World Council’s Commission on International Affairs, Nolde spent much of his time representing the Protestant world-level organizations to the newly functioning United Nations family of agencies in New York, particularly concentrating on the Commission on Human Rights. So Nurser is surely right in claiming that Nolde and his associates should be regarded as significant godparents to this infant structure. His crowning achievement was the final adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights on December 10th 1948. It was generally recognized that its Article 18 on religious freedom, taken in its context of freedoms of association, expression and information, had largely been his work.

Nurser also points out that this international and ecumenical cooperation became constitutive for the World Council of Churches itself from its official inauguration in 1948. As its General Secretary until 1965, Visser Ît Hooft recognized the importance of the churches’ exercising influence in such international bodies as the United Nations, as well as in public affairs more generally. But as Nurser rather gently laments, his successors were not able to maintain his standard of involvement. But for two decades, the C.C.I.A., under Nolde’s leadership, made strikingly effective contributions for all peoples and all nations. The vision of the World Council’s sponsors that the churches could become meaningful partners in the creation of a new world order based on the ideals of international peace, justice and human rights, was here vindicated and turned to reality.

Nurser’s tribute is all the more welcome as this whole episode has been largely eclipsed, not only in secular histories, but even within the churches themselves. To be sure, the high hopes placed in those years on the success of the United Nations as the arbiter and peacemaker of international conflicts have largely ebbed away. So have the hopes of seeing world Protestantism playing a significant role on the international stage. Only Pope John Paul II achieved the kind of leadership position to which the C.C.I.A. once aspired. Nevertheless the fact is that in the years 1945 to 1948 the international community was able to find a sufficient unity to proclaim the validity of universal human rights, and to take practical measures to turn such a goal into reality. It is only too likely that a few months or years later, such a consensus could not have been achieved. So the churches’ ecumenical contributions to this project, and their pressure for its immediate realization, were significant steps. Nolde’s skill in fashioning a common mind and purpose for the Protestant community on the subject of their international responsibilities has now received its appropriate acknowledgment. Even if the goal of a world ethos and the full protection of human rights is still far from completion for all peoples and all nations, we should nevertheless honour those pioneers who laid the indispensable foundations. We can therefore be grateful to John Nurser for his insightful reappraisal of the history of this process.


2b) José M.Sanchez. Pope Gabriel. A counterfactual History. New York: iUniverse, Inc. 2006. 115 Pp. IDSBN-13: 978-0-40180-2

We have never before reviewed a spoof. But José Sanchez’ counterfactual account of a fictitious Pope is so delightful, so well-informed and so convincingly told that we are glad to share this comment with you. He invents the story of a Spanish cardinal surprisingly elected in 1939 to succeed Pope Pius XI, but whose short reign took a very different turn from that of the historical figure of Pope Pius XII. Sanchez speculates as to what might have happened had the dictators been defied, the horrors of war denounced, and the victims of persecution and violence supported. His protagonist, Pope Gabriel, demonstrates a strength of will, an absence of caution, and a sympathy for suffering individuals, which were to be his credentials in enhancing the moral credibility of the Papacy. Sanchez skillfully blends in details from the actual historical circumstances, including quotations from the abundant documentation, and portrays the characters and dialogue as consistently as possible with their real personalities. He thereby constructs an appealing counterfactual case which ends in a vividly tragic climax. It is a book which would make the perfect Christmas gift for all those who have ‘pontificated’ about the Vatican’s policies during the Second World War. As the author notes, this is an entertainment, not to be taken too seriously. But it certainly captivates the imagination.

2c) Merrilyn Thomas, Communing with the Enemy. Covert operations, Christianity and Cold War politics in Britain and the GDR. Oxford/New York/Frankfurt: Peter Lang. 2005. 293 pp. US-ISBN 0-8204-7177-1.

This is a book about secrets – especially about the secret activities of British and German Christians in the German Democratic Republic in the 1960s. During this period of the Cold War, a distinguished English clergyman, Bill Williams, Provost of Coventry Cathedral, took a party of young students to help rebuild a church hospital in the city of Dresden, which had been so ruthlessly devastated in the fateful RAF raid of February 1945. Outwardly, this was to be an act of reconciliation, to prove that creative enterprises can heal the wounds of the past, and to show that the Christian religion can bridge the divisions of nationality, race and politics. But this was in fact no ordinary example of the kind of Christian do-goodism which was common enough in that era. According to Merrilyn Thomas, who was one of the students involved, this whole endeavour was part of a much more subtle, secret and far-reaching game of political and psychological warfare on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

To reveal the truth behind the scenes, Thomas has done extensive research in Berlin into the newly-available archives of the former East Germany, including the papers of the notorious Stasi in the Ministry of State Security. She arrived at some striking conclusions. But she has to admit that, just because many of these covert operations were discreetly hidden, she has to make some unverifiable assumptions, all the more since the British authorities refused to allow her any access to their files for this period.

In the post-1945 period, relations between the West and the Soviet Union’s satellites, such as Communist-controlled East Germany, deteriorated rapidly. Militarily NATO erected an impenetrable barrier against aggression, while diplomatically the West refused to acknowledge the separate existence of the German Democratic Republic. On the other side, the East German authorities adopted policies of deep suspicion and vehement propaganda against the ãrevanchist fascists in West Germany and its alliesä. They refused to allow their citizens to travel freely to the West. This process only grew more obvious after the Berlin Wall was built in August 1961.

How then did it happen that this small group of British church people, mostly idealistic students, was allowed to spend several weeks in the spring of 1965 in Dresden, unopposed, even welcomed? Thomas suggests that the answer is to be found the convoluted state of relations between the East German authorities and their churches, particularly the largest group of Protestants. In the first years after the Communist take-over, a full-scale repression of the churches took place. Marxist theory had no place for Christianity in the new socialist paradise. But after several years, the governing authorities began to realize that such repression was only causing the church members to dig in and to cement their non-cooperation. A new tactic was called for. Without renouncing Marxist theory, a novel strategy combining surveillance and seduction was implemented, as Thomas infers, at the orders of the Communist dictator, Ulbricht. For this purpose, the now fully-fledged Stasi was to deploy its armies of informers, while efforts were to be made to facilitate a new Christian-Marxist dialogue.

The objective, Thomas suggests, was to create the image of a more friendly government, while isolating the church’s hard-liners, such as the Bishop of Saxony, Gottfried Noth. Such a stance would reinforce the regime’s propaganda that it stood for international peace in contrast to the militant revanchism of the NATO powers. Since the few church members who had already joined this bandwagon were known as careerists or opportunists, the possibility of getting help from sympathetic foreigners was too good to be missed. Moreover, if treated nicely, such western visitors would help to advance the cause of gaining diplomatic recognition for the GDR from their home governments. The whole operation was to be secretly controlled by the Stasi. A whole chapter is devoted to the main Stasi official, Hans-Joachim Seidowsky, whose ambiguous activities are explored on the basis of the surviving Stasi records.

Why did the British government play along with such a scheme? Thomas points out that, officially, they never did. Publicly, outright hostility to the GDR regime was the order of the day, lest Britain’s friends in West Germany should be alarmed. But unofficially, and behind the scenes, the British were willing to facilitate measures which they believed would serve to infiltrate the East German regime and eventually prepare the ground for a change, or even overthrow, of the dictatorship. Furthermore, these Foreign Office officials had been alarmed by the recurrent crises in central Europe. Instability could easily flare up into a major conflagration. Any steps which could discourage open opposition to these regimes, such as from the churches, could help to reduce any such outbursts. So co-existence with a communist state, at least temporarily, could be seen as being in Britain’s interest. Thomas suggests that much of the impetus for this kind of psychological warfare came from the fertile brain of Richard Crossman, a former member of British intelligence, and subsequently a leading Labour cabinet minister, who had long argued in favour of extending diplomatic recognition to the GDR.

How much were the participants themselves aware of these behind-the-scenes machinations? Not much, apparently. Provost Bill Williams had been warned of the unpredictability and delays in dealing with the East German authorities. But he had his own worries. He needed to raise the funds to cover his team’s expenses. He got no help from the Coventry City Council whose left-wing members were busy arranging trips for themselves at public expense to visit their comrades in East Berlin. They were openly opposed to any activity undertaken by organized religion. The relationship between Coventry City Council and Coventry Cathedral was one of mutual suspicion. Williams was also in competition with the middle-class members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation who had uncritically swallowed the East German propaganda line that they were the true champions of peace, and whose organizers Williams dismissed as “naive” and “brainless parsons”. He was determined not to be associated with any sort of “fellow travellers”, or to allow Coventry Cathedral’s reputation to be high-jacked for any other cause than his belief in overcoming the past through gestures of reparation.

Besides, Williams spoke little German, and hence was probably unaware of the range of covert activities developing on the German side. Even his colleague, Canon Paul Oestreicher, who did speak German, having been born there, and who had frequently visited East Germany, strenuously denied that he had ever worked for any intelligence agency. But as he conceded to Ms Thomas: “I can deny it as much as I like and no-one is going to believe me”. Her conclusion is that the British clergymen almost certainly did not know the extent to which they were being manipulated by the intelligence services. But they did know they were serving a political purpose aimed at the suppression of dissident voices within the GDR.

In the end, after long delays and difficulties, the Coventry visit did take place. Thomas does not go into detail about the results, but suggests that in both Britain and the GDR the impact was only marginal. Her interest is really to study the project as an example of the Cold War’s stratagems. But any exact description or evaluation was clearly beyond her reach. The Cold War thrived on misinformation and misinterpretation. Many events are still surrounded by the fog of secrecy. The historian’s task is daunting, even after the collapse of the whole Communist empire and enterprise. The survivors are naturally reticent. So while Merrilyn Thomas has been able to piece together the basic outlines of this story, in which prominent Christians in both Britain and Germany played a striking if minor role, she runs the danger of exaggerating the conspiratorial atmosphere. There were, after all, other churchmen, not mentioned at all in this account, whose efforts were directed to keeping open the lines of friendship and collaboration between the churches without any political purposes, let alone to plot against the regime. Their witness can be said to have been part of the campaign to try to maintain alternatives to the rigid and dogmatic Communist ideology which, twenty-five years later, was to succeed in bringing about the regime’s final overthrow.


3) Journal articles:

a) Mark Noll, What happened to Christian Canada? in Church History, Vol. 71, no. 2 June 2006, p. 245ff.

Noll’s sympathetic account of the religious changes in Canada over the past fifty years seeks to explain why this nation, which was once so heavily indoctrinated with Christian values and vocabulary, has most recently become even more secularized than its southern neighbour, the USA. He finds no one single causal factor, but attributes the growth of secular nationalism and education as leading Canadians out of the previous colonial tutelage, also in religious matters. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom has undoubtedly been a major influence encouraging multiculturalism, enforcing religious tolerance and ensuring public religious neutrality. Public space has thus become de-christianized. But private spaces still retain a healthy vigor in many encouraging ways.

b) Religion, State and Society, Vol. 34, no.2, June 2006

This entire issue is devoted to the history of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany since 1933. Comparisons are made between their treatment under the Nazi and the Communist dictatorships, both of which were brutal and repellent. The experiences of this small minority sect are evaluated as paradigms of religious liberty (or its absence) under these respective political regimes. Although the major outlines of the German Jehovah’s Witnesses’ history is already known, these five essays make this information readily available to the English-speaking audience. Useful bibliographical references are included. Newly-researched evidence from the Stasi files is revealing about how the Ministry of State Security refined to perfection its system of surveillance and subversion.

One ground for the hostility displayed by the German Democratic Republic’s authorities was the fact that the Witnesses’ headquarters were in the United States, “the main enemy of socialist reconstruction and world peace”. But, interestingly, the same did not apply to the Mormons (See Newsletter, August 1998, item 4). The final essay brings personal recollections by children of Jehovah’s Witnesses under both dictatorships, which offsets the previous essays’ overemphasis on the state and police documentation. But the whole tone repeats the standard interpretation of Jehovah’s Witnesses as victims of unwarranted state repression and as heroic upholders of their religious beliefs.

c) Benjamin Ziemann, The Gospel of Psychology. Therapeutic concepts and the scientification of pastoral care in the West German Catholic Church, 1950-1980 in Central European History, Vol. 39 no. 1, March 2006, pp. 79 ff.

Ziemann’s perceptive and innovative article seeks to describe the interplay between psychology and religion in the Catholic Church of West Germany in the post-Second World War period. To begin with, the Catholic authorities had a built-in suspicion of psychoanalysis because of its association with the anti-religious ãatheistä Sigmund Freud and his advocacy of highly unsuitable models of individual freedom. By contrast, Carl Jung, whose writings stressed the psychological importance of faith and religion, received more attention. By the 1950s there were Catholics who sought to widen their practices of therapeutic counselling, and recognized that psychology might well open up new horizons. If pastoral care was to be effective and to enrich the consciences of the faithful, some understanding of personality in a psychological framework might well be useful. Group therapy and group dynamics became more popular in the late 1960s, going along with the increased emphasis on the importance of the laity after the Second Vatican Council., and the impact of what has come to be called the “68-generation” with its anti-authoritarian tones. Much of this activity was based on American models,whose anthropology was of a “positive” rational kind, and hence aroused opposition from more orthodox theologians. The author calls for more empirical study of the effects of such psychological counselling in the wider life of the church.

As we come to the close of Volume XII of this Newsletter, I would like to take this opportuity to thank those colleagues who have contributed reviews to this Newsletter during the past twelve months. I am most grateful for your help. It only remains for me to wish all of you a very happy and blessed Christmas season. I trust you will all be able to have suitable festivities, and look forward to being in touch with you again in the New Year

As we enter the watchful season of Advent, may we be full of hope for the remembrance of the coming of our Lord in the war-torn and impoverished Palestine of His day. We shall all pray that His message of peace and reconciliation may be heard throughout His world in the days and years ahead.

With all best wishes,
John S.Conway