Martin Niemöller in New York (1938)

From a newspaper article about Bill Sr. sermon at St. James Church, Madison Ave. & 71st St., New York City, at ll o’clock service, Feb. 20th, 1938.  He had been on a Sherwood Eddy tour to Europe, including Germany and the U.S.S.R., the previous summer.

The trial and persecution of Martin Niemoller by the Nazis*/ demonstrates how imperative it is that people stand together to maintain democracy and freedom”, declared the Rev. William B. Spofford, executive secretary of the Church League for Industrial Democracy. The service was held in connection with the annual meeting of the League which is being held in St. George’s Church.

Describing a conference with Niemoller in Berlin three days before the German pastor was arrested, Mr. Spofford said that Niemoller and other church leaders had definitely stated that they were prepared to go along with the Nazi regime in its economic and international policies if the Church could remain free. “Niemoller uttered no protests when the Social Democratic Party was put out of business; he stood by while the trade unions were liquidated; he even applauded the persecution of the Jews. Now his turn has come. Stand by while others lose their freedom and you may be sure your turn will soon come.”

Declaring that the same forces that had imprisoned hundreds of pastors in Germany were preparing to do the same thing in the United States, Mr. Spofford said that religious leaders here would soon receive the same treatment unless they join forces with others in defending democracy and peace. “I recently returned from a visit to eight European countries where a number of us met with outstanding leaders: men like Lloyd George, Lord Cecil, Lord Halifax, Major Clement Atlee (leader of the Labor Party in England), Francis Jourdain and Jean Longuet of France, Rudolph Breitscheid, the leader of the exiled German Social Democrats; Senator Smeral of Czechoslovakia and others. Without exception we were told that the world faces two dismal prospects: an economic crack-up, a war, or both. They were all quite aware that we are living under a decadent economic system and that democracy and peace can be maintained only if the people throughout the world join forces to extend democracy into other areas beside the political. Oiur economic system worked reasonably well in a world only partly industrialized, but now that the rest of the world is catching up, every nation is fighting for markets in which to dispose of the goods they refuse to allow their own people to consume. it has brought untold suffering to the masses of the people. We are attempting to meet this crisis by building a social service state. This means ever increasing taxation which of course cuts into profits and threatens to eliminate them entirely. As a result the financial and industrial rulers of America, faced with a choice between profits on the one hand and democracy and freedom on the other, are already crying for a dictatorship. It is not because anyone wants it but because it is either that or so extending democracy into social and economic life that there may be greater and more equitable distribution of the goods we can so easily create.

“There should be no question where the churches stand in this struggle”, concluded Mr. Spofford. “We are for the abundant life for all people; for brotherhood between nations and peoples. Instead of moving into our heritage, we will be all enslaved, with church leaders receiving the same fate as Martin Niemoeller, unless we line up with those forces that are fighting fascism and war which is a part of it. There are forces in America that believe in democracy sufficiently to wish to see it extended into other areas of life. The religious forces of the country should stand shoulder to shoulder with them in the struggle.”

(Bill Jr. Note: The 1938 meeting of the C.L.I.D. at St. George’s Church, N.Y.C., was considered the largest and most important meeting of the organization up to that time. Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, old-time colleague in the Marion County textile strikes, and at this time Distinguished Professor at Union Seminary, was the chief speaker. Dr. Niebuhr, among others, had been instrumental in bringing German intellectuals such as Paul Tillich out of Nazi Germany. Dr. Harry Ward, ethicist at Union, who served on the national American Civil Liberties Board and the American League for Peace and Democracy with Dad, often conflicted with “Reinie” on international policies and the role of unions and communism in the national scene. In such disputes, Dad generally sided with Harry Ward.

On an occasional summer, Bill and Dot would have a cottage at Heath, Mass. It was a colony of academics and others, including Justice Felix Frankfurter, Bps. Angus Dun of Washington and Charles Gilbert of New York, Dr. Wm. Wolf, theologian of E.T.S., Dr. Sherman Johnson and his wife, both professors at E.T.S. and subsequently dean of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and others. Since Heath was a recreational colony, they would have guests who were well-known.   Each would be expected to take their turn at preaching in the local ecumenical church, and would have at the Gospel from differing perspectives. Alas, as far as I know, no collection of “The WORD from Heath” sermons were ever collected or printed. It would have been most interesting.

Dad finally stopped going to Heath. As he put it, “Everytime I get my shirt off and lie down with a beer in my hand to listen to a Yankee game, somebody comes over and wants to talk about theology or something!” I think that was his rationalization. It wasn’t really his idea of spending R&R time. And as disputes about the nature of the world crises got hotter, and he was more often on the minority side, it wasn’t a comfortable place to be.

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*/ Bill Jr. : Martin Niemoller was a well-known German pastor who had been a U-boat commander in World War I and who, after W.W.II, became an ardent and much sought-after peace advocate. His quote about ‘standing by’, which has become so popular that it was used in the 1992 presidential election, was believed to have been first printed by Dad in The Witness.)