Research Report: Madison Barben on German and American Methodists and Nazi Germany

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 29, Number 3/4 (Fall 2023)

Research Report: Madison Barben on German and American Methodists and Nazi Germany

By Madison Barben, Washington State University

My master’s thesis, “Between Brethren and Fatherland: German Methodist Relations with Nazi Germany and American Methodism, 1933-1939,” (Department of History, Washington State University, 2023) explores conflicts of religion, politics, and international relations between Nazi Germany and the United States by focusing on the German Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC). As the Nazis rose to power, they worked furiously to bring all aspects of Germany society, including churches under their control. The Nazis’ consolidation efforts affected not only the larger official state-recognized churches like the German Evangelical and the Catholic Churches, but also the Free Churches. Due to their independent status and foreign ties, the German Methodists and other Free Churches were in a precarious position. While the German Methodists feared their Anglo-American ties jeopardized their Free Church status, Nazi officials saw their connections as a means to influence American public opinion. In the thesis, I examine the German Methodist bishops’ international visits to analyze their changing relationship with the Nazi state and their American church brethren. To explore these ideas, I used Methodist periodicals The Christian Advocate and as well as the German Methodist bishops’ writing, speeches, and correspondence to church leadership in the United States.[1]

Recently, the Free Churches and German Protestants’ transnational ties have received specific attention. Historians Kyle Jantzen, Rebecca Carter-Chand, and Blake McKinney’s research stress the transnational scope of the Kirchenkampf with Carter-Chand and McKinney specifically examining the Free Churches.[2] I focused on the Methodists as a case study to examine how one Free Church navigated its place amidst Nazi control and conflicts amongst the German churches. With my thesis, I aim to contribute to scholarship on the Free Churches and the Kirchenkampf’s transnational influence. Also, my thesis builds on prior scholarship into Methodism in the Third Reich by emphasizing the church’s transnational connections through the bishops’ international tours.[3]

From 1933-1939, Bishops John L. Nuelsen (1912-1936) and F. H. Otto Melle (1936-1946) completed multiple propaganda tours in the United States and England on behalf on the Nazis. Their international visits illustrate the extent to which the German Methodist leaders went to preserve their church, even if it meant complying with an oppressive regime. The first bishop, Nuelsen, complied with Nazi orders as means for the MEC to survive, fearing opposition would destroy the MEC’s existence in Germany and connections to international Methodism. In 1933 and 1935, he completed propaganda tours in the United States supporting the Nazi’s positive influence over German society. While he showed early public support, he privately criticized the Nazis and later, when Germany was no longer part of his episcopal jurisdiction, ceased explicitly defending the Reich.

While Nuelsen cooperated with the Nazis for the church to survive, his successor, Melle, did so for it to thrive. In contrast to his predecessor, Melle, a self-described German national, was more opportunistic and eager to cooperate with the Nazi state. This is most evident in his controversial attendance and statements defending the Third Reich while dismissing the Confessing Church at the 1937 Life and Work “Oxford Conference.” Through his willingness to collaborate, Melle received political and material favor for the German Methodists, much to the dismay of Nuelsen and international Methodists.

My thesis only touched the surface of German Methodists and other Free Churches in the Third Reich. My project ends at the outbreak of World War II and does not cover wartime, the Holocaust, and post war.[4] While my thesis focuses on an individual Free Church, there is value in examining them collectively to highlight their parallel experiences and ecumenical relationships.[5] Finally, there can be more research into the Free Churches’ transnational relationships, specifically examining how their connections were used to influence opinions and politics on both sides of the Atlantic.

Biographical Note

Madison Barben recently graduated with a master’s degree in history from Washington State University. She is an Assistant Content Creator for the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Archives and History and an Assistant Archivist at the Nebraska United Methodist Historical Center and Archive. She is currently applying to Ph.D. programs and intends to continue researching intersections of religion and politics in German-American international relations.

[1] I specifically researched at the United Methodist Archives at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and The Interchurch Center in New York City.

[2] Blake McKinney, “Conference Report: “Nazi Germany, International Protestantism, and the German Churches,” Contemporary Church History Quarterly, 27, no. 4 (December 2021),; Rebecca Carter-Chand, “Nationalism and Religious Bonds: Transatlantic Religious Communities in Nazi Germany and the United States,” in Religion, Ethnonationalism, and Antisemitism in the Era of the Two World Wars, eds. Kevin P. Spicer and Rebecca Carter-Chand (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022); Blake McKinney, “The National and International Church: National Socialism, German Protestantism, and the Watching World” (PhD diss., University of Alabama, 2021)

[3] James A. Dwyer, “The Methodist Episcopal Church in Germany, 1933-1945: Development of Semi-
Autonomy and Maintenance of International Ties in the Face of National Socialism and the German Church Struggle,” PhD diss., (Northwestern University, 1978); Herbert Strahm, Die Bischöfliche Methodistenkirche im Dritten Reich, (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1989); Roland Blaich, “A Tale of Two Leaders: German Methodists and the Nazi State,” Church History 70, no. 2 (2001); Daniel, W. Harrison, “To Strengthen the Ties That Bind: Bishop John L. Nuelsen and German-Connectionalism in the Methodist Episcopal Church Mission in Europe, 1912-1940.” Methodist History 38, no. 3 (April 2000); Ulrike Schuler, “Crisis, Collapse, and Hope: Methodism in 1945 Europe,” Methodist History, 51 no. 1&2 (2012); Helmut Nausner, “Tracing Reconciliation: Post 1945,” Methodist History, 51 no. 1&2 (2012); Karl Heinz Voigt, “Melle, Friedrich Heinrich Otto,” Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon, 1993,

[4] There has not been much scholarship into German Methodist responses to the Holocaust besides Karl Voigt’s chapter in Daniel Heinz’s edited volume. Daniel Heinz, ed., Freikirchen und Juden im “Dritten Reich”: Instrumentalisierte Heilsgeschichte, antisemitische Vorurteile und verdrängte Schuld (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011).

[5] Carter-Chand and McKinney’s recent research examine the Anglo-American Free Churches as a collective unit, but there is still room to expand on these ideas.