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Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam: Paladin of Liberal Protestantism
by Robert Moats Miller
Abingdon Press, 624 pages, $29.95

Garfield Bromley Oxnam (1891-1963) was a bishop of the Methodist Church, and a cover subject of Time, though it’s hard to imagine the two going together today. Billy Graham can fill the Sheep Meadow of Central Park with listeners, and John Cardinal O’Connor can fill Fifth Avenue in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral with protestors. But the Methodists, though they are still the third largest church in America after Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, are simply off the map as far as the country’s attention is concerned. Robert Moats Miller’s biography of Bishop Oxnam helps us understand why.

Miller, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, has written the biographies of other Protestant churchmen, and familiarity has bred, if not contempt, a querulousness that is a welcome relief from the earnest tone of clerical life. Oxnam was destined to such a life at birth. His father, a mine-owner, built chapels for his mining camps; his mother was a charter member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Bromley pledged himself to be a minister at a revival meeting when he was seventeen. The Methodists gave him his preacher’s license, and by 1936 he was elected bishop, the youngest in the church’s history. He kept at it until Parkinson’s disease forced him to retire in 1960. Along the way, he was a prime mover in the Federal (later National) Council of Churches and Americans for Democratic Action, a supporter of FDR and Truman, and a friend of John Foster Dulles. 

Oxnam was known as a liberal churchman, which, in his day, did not necessarily mean that he was a clone of Bishop John Spong. The modern schism between liberal and conservative Protestants manifests itself in three areas: morals, theology, and social action.

Oxnam lived before liberal Protestants went over the top on the Seventh Commandment. He wrote about sex with a pre-Freudian innocence that is as amusing to read as it is impossible to share. “I could look at a nude woman, and think of her as an expression of God’s beauty,” he confided to his diary, “but to look upon a woman who tantalizes you with her charms . . . can only serve to lower her in my estimation and arouse that which I strive to keep down.” During his tenure as president of DePauw University, Oxnam reluctantly allowed dancing. “There ought to be fifty-seven things to do at a party besides dance,” he told the student who first raised the issue. Such as? the student asked. “One could discuss the peace movement,” Oxnam replied.

Theologically, Oxnam was a liberal by default, since he barely thought of theology at all. Doctrinal discussions bored and annoyed him. He compared them to “one monkey with a mirror flashing it in the eyes of another.”

But on the third great dividing issue of the Protestant schism, the religious significance of social reform, Oxnam was an archetypal liberal. The turning point for him, as for many of his generation, was Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, which Oxnam read in college. “Someday,” he wrote soon afterwards, “I am going to help lead the church against the slums, their causes, etc. and smash them forever.” The slums lasted, but so did his determination to smash them. Slums, he believed, were caused by unchecked capitalism. Though he was never a fellow traveler in the manner of his fellow Methodist Harry F. Ward, he criticized the industrial order as “unchristian, unethical, and anti-social,” because it was based on “a direct appeal to selfishness.” As the years passed, his concerns became global as he called, fifty years before George Bush, for a New World Order under the leadership of the United Nations, which would in turn be inspired by the example of the United States. “In international cooperation Old Glory will win New Glory.”

What was liberal about these goals was not just their content, but the degree to which they monopolized Oxnam’s life. He thought of the pursuit of slum clearance and peace not as consequences of Christian belief, or even as Christian duties, but as the substance of Christianity. “It is the khaki of the Christ way of service that wins battles for the King.”

Because Oxnam was not a thinker, when other people advanced different goals, he reacted with incredulous scorn. He tussled with Catholics all his life, equating “directives from Rome” with “directives from Moscow.” (Some of his Catholic opponents were no mean street-fighters themselves; Cardinal Spellman called anti-Catholic liberals “unhooded klansmen.”) In one of his last major addresses, Oxnam foresaw an Interplanetary Conference on Religious Faith, adding that “fundamentalism and papal infallibility will have no place” there, though Martians would.

Even when Oxnam’s labors met with agreement from fellow Protestants or from the politicians he supported, the results of his endless activities seem surprisingly slight now. The Methodist Crusade for a New World Order was a years-long effort, involving hundreds of meetings, millions of pieces of mail, and posters designed by Howard Chandler Christy, an artist most remembered today for his depictions of what Oxnam would have called “nude women.” When it was done, Methodists congratulated themselves on their role in bringing the UN into existence. Yet, despite years of reading books about the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, this is the first time I have heard of the Crusade.

Oxnam’s relationship with John Foster Dulles, his only trans-ideological friendship, was played in a similar key. Dulles and Oxnam got along personally, and Dulles was himself a Presbyterian layman active in the Federal Council of Churches who shared Oxnam’s hopes for a new world order. Yet when Dulles became Secretary of State, he kept his own counsel, not the bishop’s. “Oxnam’s hunger to be recognized by Washington’s power elite,” writes Miller, “would be risible if it were not so poignant.” The religion clause of the First Amendment, it is clear, not only saves citizens from the domination of uncongenial faiths, it spares churches the frustrations and embarrassments of courting the powerful.

It also spares them from unkind turns of the wheel of history; unless, like Oxnam’s Methodists, they look for trouble. If all you want to do is change the world, what do you do when the world changes (mostly in ways you didn’t anticipate)? G. Bromley Oxnam couldn’t have said, and neither could his church, which is one reason why he is history, and it is no longer news.

Richard Brookhiser is a Senior Editor at National Review and author of The Way of the Wasp (Free Press).