The Baptist General Conference and Bethel College Encounter Communism

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U.S. troops in Vladivlostok during the allied intervention in the Russian Civil War (1919) - Wikimedia Commons

U.S. troops in Vladivlostok during the allied intervention in the Russian Civil War (1919) – Wikimedia Commons

With VJ-Day still barely a fresh memory, Americans quickly found that the contours of the post-war world precluded enjoyment of the long-awaited peace. By the spring of 1947, the United States was fully engaged in a global power struggle with her former wartime ally, the Soviet Union.

The causes of the Cold War were complex and dated back to the beginning of the century. During the post-revolutionary Russian Civil War (1917-1922), the United States and other western countries aided the anti-communist White Army. And although the U.S. gradually accommodated itself to the victorious Soviet regime (Roosevelt finally afforded the USSR official diplomatic recognition in 1933), that first antagonistic interaction would prove prophetic. Through the 1930s each country remained wary of the other: in America, reverberations of the post-war red scare continued to shape a culture of anti-communism while Soviet ideology portrayed the United States as a bastion of imperialism.

U.S. wartime propaganda poster - Wikimedia Commons

U.S. wartime propaganda poster – Wikimedia Commons

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 swiftly brought the two countries together — at least at policy-making levels. Despite the uncomfortably-recent Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact allying Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (an agreement which enabled the 1939 joint invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II in Europe), Roosevelt and Stalin rapproched, the former beginning a steady flow of lend-lease goods which would supply nearly eleven billion 1947-value dollars worth of war materiel and food by the spring of 1945. Between 1941 (particularly after Pearl Harbor in December) and 1945, the American wartime propaganda organs sought to portray the Russians — so recently enemies — as fast friends and allies to all freedom loving peoples. The marriage was one of convenience; Roosevelt and Stalin’s shared opposition to Hitler would only temporarily subsume the hostility between their two nations, not abrogate the fundamental differences between them. Indeed, over the course of the war a series of disagreements signaled the ongoing tension.

Churchill and Roosevelt at the issuance of the Atlantic Charter - Wikimedia Commons

Churchill and Roosevelt at the issuance of the Atlantic Charter – Wikimedia Commons

Those tensions were illustrated at their most basic level by the western allies’ support for the principles of the Atlantic Charter. The Charter, promulgated by Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941, outlined the shape of the post-war world: aggressor nations would be disarmed, the peoples of the world would be freed from fear and want, self-government was to be restored, and territorial self-aggrandizement by the victors or the alteration of national borders without the consent of the peoples involved was prohibited. While the Soviets might have agreed in spirit with the first two principles, the remaining declarations were deeply offensive to Soviet sensibilities and furthermore, promised to threaten Stalin’s ambition for a security buffer zone in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. Although Stalin feared a resurgent Germany after the war (recall that Tsarist Russia had lost nearly two-and-a-half million men to Germany only a quarter-century ago), the desire for a buffer zone was not motivated solely by security concerns; as the Russianist historian Vladislav Zubok has argued, Soviet policy was animated by a blended ideology of Russian imperialism and communist internationalism. In other words, Stalin (and subsequent Soviet premiers) believed that the more territory the Soviet Union controlled the more secure the state would be, particularly if that conquered territory was remade in the Soviet likeness. Security and the promotion of communist ideology abroad were thus two sides of the same coin.¹

While the principles of the Atlantic Charter illustrate the fundamental nature of the Western-Soviet split, other wartime events contributed as well, especially Stalin’s perception that the Western allies delayed the long-promised invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, leaving the Soviets to face the Germans alone. The atrocious Soviet losses on the Eastern front lend some emotional credence to this feeling — over ten million Soviet soldiers died in the Great Patriotic War — but although the invasion of Normandy in June of 1944 was likely delayed by Churchill’s insistence on a North African campaign, it is difficult to accuse of Western allies of outright stalling. Other wartime disagreements, such as the disposition of post-war Eastern Europe established at Yalta, made the prospect of an enduring post-war U.S.-Soviet friendship difficult — although not impossible — to sustain.

The bombing of Nagasaki - Wikimedia Commons

The bombing of Nagasaki – Wikimedia Commons

As 1945 bled into 1946, that possibility quickly eroded. Even before the end of the war in the Pacific, American-Soviet competition took on a macabre shade when on July 24 the newly-ascended President Truman

casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force. The Russian Premier showed no special interest. All he said was he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make “good use of it against the Japanese.²

The British Prime Minister was also at Potsdam when the revelation occurred. In his memoirs, Churchill recalled “[watching] with the closest attention” as Truman told Stalin. “What was vital to measure was its effect” on the man.³ Stalin seemed unconcerned. Decades later, the Soviet Marshal Georgii Zhukov — also present at the meeting — gave the event a different significance:

Both Churchill and many other Anglo-American authors subsequently assumed that Stalin had really failed to fathom the significance of what he had heard. In actual fact, on returning to his quarters after this meeting Stalin, in my presence, told Molotov about his conversation with Truman. The latter reacted almost immediately. “Let them. We’ll have to talk it over with Kurchatov and get him to speed things up.” I realized that they were talking about research on the atomic bomb.⁴

Zhukov in 1941 - Wikimedia Commons

Zhukov in 1941 – Wikimedia Commons

Zhukov concluded that Truman’s revelation of the atomic bomb was designed to bolster the American position vis-a-vis the USSR in the last months of the war, even accusing Truman of employing the bomb in without any pressing military need. Historians have subsequently debated the validity of Zhukov’s assertion, arriving at differing conclusions. (It’s worth noting, of course, that each of these three men — Truman, Churchill, and Zhukov — were intimate participants in the events they wrote about and had ample reason to cultivate a desired image of their actions — whether through explicit manipulation or through the unconscious influence of later events on their memories; the earliest memoir was composed in 1953, well after the Cold War was underway in earnest.)

Regardless of Truman’s motivation for employing the atomic bomb against Japan (it’s more probable that both military necessity and strategic concern played a role in the president’s decision), by August 1945 the rift between the superpowers had already manifested itself in several ways. On May 11, Truman had abruptly ordered the cessation of all Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union; the order resulted in a brief but intense spat. The USSR had, Stalin argued, relied on the continuing flow of goods for its economic planning. Aid was restored soon after, but the program only lasted until late September.

Anti-British protesters pillory Churchill in Łódź, Poland (1946) - Applebaum, Iron Curtain

Anti-British protesters pillory Churchill in Łódź, Poland (1946) – Applebaum, Iron Curtain

As early as 1944, Stalin had begun the process of the Sovietization of Eastern Europe. As the Red Army’s rollback of the Nazi occupiers continued, Soviet-trained agents were smuggled into Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and eastern portions of Germany where they took control of the security apparatus of whatever governments remained. In like manner, radio broadcast networks across the Soviet zone were commandeered and put to work disseminating pro-Soviet propaganda. Thus, even before the negotiated division of Europe at Potsdam in the summer of 1945 Stalin was well underway in establishing his security buffer zone.⁵

These actions were well known in the west and, along with Soviet resistance to many of the institutions of the post-war world order, they began to trigger a security dilemma at the highest levels of American policymaking. The next two years saw a gradual yet steady stiffening of the boundaries hastily drawn at the end of the war as diplomatic relations spiraled downward between the two superpowers and their allies. In February 1946, George Kennan, the Deputy Chief of Mission to the USSR from 1944, composed the “Long Telegram” in response to a Treasury Department query as to why the Soviets were refusing to cooperate in the establishment of the Bretton Woods financial system. In a nearly eight-thousand word response, Kennan described the historical and ideological inputs which shaped the psychology of the Soviet leadership. Later, the telegram was reworked into “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published in Foreign Affairs in 1947 (it’s from that later document I’ll be quoting).

George Kennan - Wikimedia Commons

George Kennan – Wikimedia Commons

The Communist Party, Kennan argued, was ideologically opposed to capitalism, perceiving it to be the antithesis of everything Socialism stood for. Complementing this, the historical development of the Party and the Soviet leadership’s drive to retain for itself power exacerbated the existing enmity with the west. In the early stages of the Russian Revolution, it had been possible to blame dysfunction in the new regime on internal capitalist agents; as these “dying elements of capitalism” were extinguished, this explanation became less convincing and therefore less of a buttress to continued Party domination. Thus, “it became necessary to justify the retention of the dictatorship by stressing the menace of capitalism abroad.”

Domestic needs therefore, mandated an expansionist foreign policy. And because, like the church, the Kremlin felt itself dealing in concepts of long term validity, there was no pressure to move quickly — to the Soviet mind, circumspection, flexibility, and caution were political virtues, Kennan argued. Thus, “its political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power. But if it finds unassailable barriers in its path, it accepts these philosophically and accommodates itself to them.” Based on this reading of the Soviet mentality, Kennan laid out the logic that would govern much of U.S. policy for the rest of the Cold War:

it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.

Winston ChurchillBy early next year the Cold War had commenced in earnest. In March of that year, in response to the British government’s decision to withdraw its support from the anti-communist government in the ongoing Greek Civil War, the American president articulated the hence-known Truman Doctrine. Truman framed the issue as one of a contest between free peoples and totalitarian regimes, pledging to finance and aid those on the side of freedom. That demarcation of the world into spheres of the free and the oppressed echoed the former British prime minister’s words at Fulton, Missouri from the year earlier:

From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere…

Demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, 1931 - Wikimedia Commons

Demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, 1931 – Wikimedia Commons

How then did the Baptist General Conference respond to the emergence of the Cold War as the organizing reality of the post-war world? Like most Christian denominations, the Baptist General Conference was deeply opposed to the communist system. While other Americans might have viewed Soviet communism’s antipathy toward democratic rights and a free and open society as the primary reason to oppose the ideology, for Conference Baptists the issue was one of first principles. Marxism-Leninism’s inherent materialism, its insistence that dialectical class struggle — not divine providence — was the engine of history, and its atheism all directly contradicted Christian teaching and it was from a Christian logic that the BGC attacked the Soviet Union, particularly before the early 1950s (more on this later). For the Conference, opposition to communism and anti-Soviet sentiment did not spring forth at the close of the war, as it did from American policymakers, but was rather rooted deeply in the prewar and wartime experience of the BGC. Indeed, until the intensification of the Cold War at the beginning of the 1950s, the Conference reaction to Russian and Chinese communism was one of remarkably constant opposition.

1942 Bethel Bulletin advertisement - The History Center

1942 Bethel Bulletin advertisement – The History Center

As a fairly patriotic denomination, one might expect the BGC during World War Two to have accommodated itself to the changing government line towards the Soviet Union (as many American cultural institutions did), buoyed along by unity propaganda. In broad strokes, such a pattern would see distrust and opposition from the Revolution through the Nazi invasion (intensified particularly during the years of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact in 1939-41), thereafter cautious and somewhat restrained friendship during the Grand Alliance, and finally deepening enmity as the countries slid into the Cold War. Conference Baptist publications evince no such change. Even during the years of alliance (1941-1945), the Standard continued its firm anti-communist stance. Indeed, a month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the global conflict, the Standard ran an editorial which explicitly rejected the American government’s wartime support of Stalin. While the writer found it “easy enough to take sides and wish for a final and complete victory to the allies,” he balked at the notion that support of the British should entail support for any opponent of the Nazis:

Hitler and Stalin are now engaged in a life and death struggle and because of our sympathy for the British and our avowed stand against the Axis powers, we are expected to hail with joy any champion of the allied cause… [we cannot] persuade ourselves that Stalin, fighting on the side of Britain is any less of a barbarian than he was before he entered into that fight.⁶

Orthodox icon commemorating the martyrdom of priests in the 1930s purges - Wikimedia Commons

Orthodox icon commemorating the martyrdom of priests in the 1930s purges – Wikimedia Commons

Twenty days after Pearl Harbor the Standard continued its attack on the Soviet Union, denouncing the suffering of the Russian people under Stalin’s totalitarian regime. This time, the writer enlisted the aid of a Finnish Lutheran archbishop who professed amazement at the Church of England’s “benevolent attitude” towards Russia: “Has the Christian church in England really sunk so deep from the Gospel and Christianity?” Then in February, the Standard’s editor expressed concern for the religious future of Europe, questioning whether Christianity would survive the dual onslaught of war and the “new paganism” — communism — emanating out of Russia. Of that country, the writer was unsure: “And Russia, anti-Christian, communistic, ruled by a ruthless dictator, will it open its portals again, after the war, to the gospel of Christ?”⁷

If the BGC’s criticism of the Soviet Union and communism was attenuated at all during the war years, it came by way of disengagement rather than active softening; from the latter half of 1942 through 1944, the Standard simply printed fewer condemnations. For Conference Baptists, the years 1945-47 did not mark the beginning of the Cold War; BGC opposition to the Soviet Union and communism had antedated the U.S. government’s Cold War by nearly three decades. Using religious language, the BGC characterized the Soviet Union as an atheistic monolith bent on undermining the Christian faith. Thus, although the transition from the wartime Grand Alliance to the early Cold War marked a distinct shift in how the American government viewed the Soviet Union, no such change is evident in the Conference.

Vladivostok, ca. 1900 - viola

Vladivostok, ca. 1900 – viola

What explains the BGC’s longstanding opposition to communism and its relative inelasticity with regard to the U.S. government’s wartime desire to promote the U.S.-Soviet alliance? Two factors stand out. First, the Conference’s longstanding interaction with communism on the missions field had inculcated a deep distrust of the ideology. Unlike many American organizations, the BGC had direct personal experience with communist opposition to its goals. Since 1919, the Conference had sponsored missionaries in the far eastern Russian town of Vladivostok — later known primarily as the home of the Soviet Pacific fleet — and Nikolsk-Ussurisk. Although BGC-founded churches in the two towns could claim nearly six hundred attendees by 1923, in that year the missionaries were forced out of the country by what the Conference Foreign Missions Secretary blithely referred to as “political conditions.” Those conditions were the result of the final victory of the Bolsheviks over their opposition. Vladivostok had been the center of anti-communist resistance, being occupied shortly after the Great War by various contingents of allied Czechoslovak, American, and Japanese troops. By 1920, only the Japanese remained, and on October 25, 1922, the fall of the city marked the country-wide victory of the Bolshevik party. In the ensuing reorganization, the BGC missionaries were forced out.⁸

Harbin, pre-1945 - Wikimedia Commons

Harbin, pre-1945 – Wikimedia Commons

They went to nearby Harbin, part of a tide of White Russian supporters and anti-communists fleeing the Bolsheviks. A city in north-central Manchuria, Harbin had come to prominence in the 1890s as a result of the opening of the Chinese Eastern Railway.⁹ Over the next fifty years, the city (and the entire Manchurian region) became a center of contest between three (or four) competing empires: the Soviets, the Japanese, and the Chinese — both communists and nationalists. For eleven years, the BGC missionaries worked in contested Harbin, through the period retaining the label of “Russian Mission”; although the mission was now in Chinese territory, the enterprise still centered around the Russian people — nearly all refugees from Bolshevism. Within the year, the missionaries had revived a dying Russian Baptist Church which now saw a membership of more than three hundred.

Red Army soldiers -

Red Army soldiers –

In 1934, the Conference missionaries, by now comprising only August and Margaret Lindstedt, were forced out of Manchuria entirely and relocated to Tientsin, a city near Beijing. The next nineteen years are scantily documented. In 1929, Conference missions in Asia were expanded further into China when a church was organized in Shanghai. This church, however, appears to have been for the evangelism of Chinese, not Russian emigres. As larger political developments continued to envelop northern China (the Chinese Civil War, pitting communists against nationalists, had broken out in 1927 and raged until 1950, disrupted only by a few brief years of united opposition to the Japanese invasion), the Conference missionaries shuffled around China, evading both Japanese invaders and Chinese communists. Both the “Russian” and Chinese missions began a quiet three-year expiration after the 1950 victory of Mao’s communists. One by one the American missionaries evacuated. Esther Nelson, who by 1951 was the last Conference missionary in China, was reported in the 1952 Annual Report as still seeking an exit visa from the communist authorities. The Annual Report for the following year bears no mention of Nelson, nor of the apparently-defunct Russian/Chinese missions; BGC evangelism had shifted to the Philippines, Japan, and Ethiopia.¹⁰

Chinese Red Army soliders -

Chinese Red Army soliders –

The narrative of Conference missions activity in Russia and China — fragmented as it is — suggests the first reason why the BGC resisted America’s wartime alliance with Stalinist Russia. Although broader American culture had been affected by the post-Great War red scare and the succeeding decades’ anticommunist rhetoric, the Conference’s longstanding interaction with actual communist opposition to missionary activity in Russia and China inculcated an appreciation for the reality of Stalin’s regime that went beyond what most Americans experienced between the Russian Revolution and the Second World War.

If the Foreign Mission reports in the Conference Annuals speak circumspectly about the role of communist opposition in the constant shifting of east Asian missions activity, they do so for two reasons. First, Conference Baptists expected their missionaries to encounter opposition on the field. When harassment and even martyrdom occurred (the later was, unfortunately, an occasional reality in 1940s Asian missions) they were welcomed as a divine confirmation of the righteousness of the enterprise. Thus, that the Annuals show little sense of communism posing a civilizational threat — in contrast to the Standard — is expected. Communist opposition was, in practice, little different than any other opposition a missionary ought to expect on the field — an inconvenience, trying at times, but something to make the best of. Writing from communist occupied China, having been actively denied an exit visa, Esther Nelson wrote:

The Lord is good to us. Prayers are being answered. We are happy in Him and standing on His promises. I know you are remembering us in prayer.¹¹

Second, the Annual Reports and the Standard played very different roles in the Conference’s suite of publications. While the Standard regularly played host to inflammatory opinions, denunciations, and impassioned arguments, the Annuals assume, as a whole, a far more deliberate and subdued tone. It is only because the sources we have took little interest in polemical description that the record of BGC missionaries’ interactions with the rise of communism in Russia and China seem restrained in its comments.

Novodevichy Convent, site of the Orthodox Theological Institute opened during WWII by Stalin - Wikimedia Commons

Novodevichy Convent, site of the Orthodox Theological Institute opened during WWII by Stalin – Wikimedia Commons

The Conference’s long experience of communist opposition through its missions work in Russia and China comprises the first half of why the BGC developed an early anticommunism and continued its anti-Soviet rhetoric throughout the war. The second concerns the Conference’s primary organizational concern: the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Unlike the U.S. government, the Conference had little concern for geopolitical strategy beyond how it affected the possibilities for global evangelism. Indeed, the BGC displayed outright distrust of the ability of earthly institutions to nurture a lasting peace on earth at war’s end:

…the hope of the Christian world is less in the line of political reconstruction as in the realm of spiritual forces and powers…. Our missionary opportunities will be greater than ever, and our responsibility for healing the hurts of the world will be staggeringly great.¹²

Because the Soviet regime’s atheism led it to suppress religion (notwithstanding Stalin’s wartime revitalization of the Russian Orthodox Church), the Conference could not allow even the existence of a wartime U.S.-Soviet alliance to blunt its criticisms of communist Russia. The continuing criticism of the Soviet Union during World War Two is thus a notable instance of the denomination standing against the temperament of broader American society. Irrespective of the American government’s policy preferences, the BGC’s allegiance was to a higher law.

Mao Zedong proclaims the People's Republic of China - Wikimedia Commons

Mao Zedong proclaims the People’s Republic of China – Wikimedia Commons

By 1947-48, the Baptist General Conference’s anti-communism was once again consonant with the mainstream of American political life. As the decade ended, three events sharpened American fears of communist expansion. On 29 August 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested its first atomic bomb. President Truman announced to the public that the USSR had acquired atomic technology at the end of September. Then on 1 October, Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. By May, fighting had collapsed and the remaining nationalist Chinese had retreated to the island of Taiwan. In the meantime, two sensational trials played out in the pages of America’s newspapers. In January 1950 Klaus Fuchs, a German-born theoretical physicist who had worked on the Manhattan project, confessed to passing atomic secrets to Soviet agents. That same month, Alger Hiss, a former high ranking government official who had served at the Yalta Conference and on the United Nations, was convicted of perjury in the midst of accusations that he had been a member of the Communist Party USA and spied for the Soviets.

1947 anti-communist comic book - Wikimedia Commons

1947 anti-communist comic book – Wikimedia Commons

On 9 February 1950, a little-known junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, gave a speech to the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. Entitling his remarks “Enemies from Within,” McCarthy claimed he possessed a list of two hundred communist agents working within the State Department. Over the next four years, McCarthy beat the drum of anti-communism, utilizing the pre-existing House Committee on Un-American Activities to harass those he suspected of being communists. McCarthy proved the perfect spark for a firestorm of anti-communist fervor; although other social institutions were engaging in similar anti-communist activities (the University of California system, for example, required a loyalty pledge beginning in 1949), McCarthy positioned himself as the standardbearer of the movement.

McCarthy’s fall began when he widened his attack in the fall of 1953 to include the U.S. Army. As a result of the investigations, McCarthy was brought before a hearing on the basis of his alleged improper pressuring of certain Army personnel. The hearings, which were televised daily for over a month beginning in April 1954, displayed McCarthy to the country as a reckless, bullying figure; from January of 1954 to June his approval ratings slid from fifty to thirty-four percent and his disapproval from twenty-nine to forty-five percent.¹³ The pivotal moment of the hearings came when the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph Welch, frustrated at McCarthy’s attacks against a young lawyer in his Boston law office, spoke:

Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

Joseph_McCarthyThe BGC’s anti-communism during the McCarthy years (1950-54) was diminished from the regularity with which it was displayed in the pages of the Standard during the war. Even so, there is no sense that the denomination’s judgement of the Soviet Union had changed; only the frequency with which the subject was grappled slowed, likely a product of the decline of wartime passions.McCarthy’s embarrassment was compounded by the airing of CBS journalist Edward Murrow’s biting critique to national audiences. The apogee of the second Red Scare had come and by 1957 McCarthy was dead of a heart attack.

(It’s worth briefly mentioning by way of a reminder, just how scant the evidence for the BGC’s (and Bethel’s) reaction to communism really is. In focusing so closely on that question, myopia is perhaps inevitable. Even during the richest periods of record — in this case, World War Two — appropriate sources are rare; the reality is that for every article or snippet on communism which appears in the Standard, hundreds more on evangelism, church-building, and spiritual development exist. This is partly a function of the types of documents available. The Standard was not a newspaper and never sought to be one; it is perhaps unjust for us to expect a denominational publication to concern itself deeply and consistently about anything but the business of the denomination. While there is little doubt that Conference men and women discussed world events with interest in the home and at church, those conversations — and the opinions, prejudices, and concerns which Conference people expressed — are lost to historians.)

Bohn Aluminum corporation advertisement, ca. 1950s - James Vaughn

Bohn Aluminum corporation advertisement, ca. 1950s – James Vaughn

Still, McCarthyism had an impact on the BGC, most visible in how the tone of anti-communist texts shifts. While retaining entirely the religious language previously used to critique the ideology, Conference writers began to adopt a more conspiracy-driven idiom, mirroring broader allegations of communist infiltration of American society. No longer is Bolshevism merely an atheistic ideology which enslaved millions of people somewhere over “there.” Now, communism threatened American life. The theater of contest, in other words, had moved across the ocean and settled in the backyard.

One article from 7 September 1951 demonstrates the point. Continuing a line of concern which had been articulated during the war, the author of the piece suggested that:

Communism and the liquor traffic use the same methods of government infiltration, the same arrogant contempt for the rights of the people, the same sneering cynicism regarding any fact that shows their true nature, the same disregard for enforcement of laws that would curb their activities, the same avaricious greed and hunger for wealth and power, and the same pretense of respectability and patriotism.¹⁴

Although the writer’s analogy is perhaps not the most apt, it does illustrate the new rhetorical style which crept into the Standard during the McCarthy years. Three years later, the Standard was still displaying the same preoccupations. On 5 February, 1954, one author described how communists seek to “step into a precarious situation and fan into flame smoldering fires of political unrest, anti-imperialism, race strife and labor disputes…” Then, drawing directly on McCarthian language, the author continued, “More subtle is their infiltrating reputable organizations.”¹⁵

Although the denomination proved less willing than one might expect to endorse the wild extremes of McCarthyism during the early 1950s — especially given its earlier opposition to the Soviet Union — the single editorial which explicitly discussed McCarthyism produced a distinctly weak condemnation — if it can be characterized as such. On 26 March 1954, editor Martin Erickson finally commented on McCarthy. Was, Erickson wondered, the senator’s era finally waning? The editor’s answer — “loyal Americans hope so” — suggests, but does not explicitly state — the BGC’s stance on the Wisconsonite. Yet this was the closest Erickson came to condemning the senator and the remainder of the editorial sought to backtrack from the criticism:

To hush McCarthy’s uncomfortable messages, however, without making sure that other voices, clear but without irritation, will keep the nation alerted to dangers would be reckless. Eventful years in the past furnish examples of irreparable losses caused by carelessness, false tolerance, irresponsible politics.

Although Erickson might have been willing to censor the senator’s tactics, he was clearly sympathetic to the larger McCarthy message: communists pose a threat to America by their clandestine activities, even within the halls of government. The caveat contained within the closing lines of the piece made the editor’s opinion on the McCarthy era clear: “We believe in liberty for all — but within the limit of the best interest of the country.”¹⁶

Henry Wallace, 1948 Progressive candidate for U.S. President - Wikimedia Commons

Henry Wallace, 1948 Progressive candidate for U.S. President – Wikimedia Commons

That attitude met its contrast at Bethel College in the early 1950s. Communism wasn’t mentioned in the student newspaper — the Clarion — before 1948. Its first occurrence was in October of that year in a roundup of the latest presidential debate. The 1948 election (best remembered for the iconic image of Truman beaming at the erroneous Chicago Tribune: “Dewey Defeats Truman”) featured, in addition to the aforementioned candidates,the Progressive Party candidate and one-time Roosevelt vice-president Henry Wallace. Among Wallace’s remarks at the Minneapolis debate were sharp words directed at the Cold War and its (in his view) architects. Wallace suggested that voting for Republican or Democrat candidates would cost one hundred billion dollars and fifty million lives — the result of America’s “dangerous and un-Christian cold war policy” toward Russia. Wallace offered a pacifistic solution: “We can’t lick the communists with guns — Human survival depends on the Sermon on the Mount.” The Clarion student author agreed:

Mr. Wallace is partially right! This is a momentous period of history, and it seems certain that Communistic ideology can only be defeated by giving people something better than Communism. That something, however, is more than just dependence on the Sermon on the Mount. It is the “knowing” of its Author.

That a Bethel College student would agree so openly with a candidate who was noted for refusing to disavow the endorsement of the Communist Party USA is telling. While the Bethel’s parent denomination rejected communism repeatedly and with increasing reliance on McCarthy-esque language, the college never appears to have been afflicted with a similar level of Cold War skittishness. Communism was a topic which was engaged through a variety of outlets through the 1950s, but while the Conference tended to focus on the threat the ideology posed, the emphasis at Bethel (appropriately enough for an educational institution) was on educating and understanding.

Elias Golonko - The History Center

Elias Golonko – The History Center

Of course, this hardly meant that Bethel was an enclave of American communism; such an assertion would be ludicrous. Although student writers in the Clarion tended to be less emotional in their criticism of communism than their parents and grandparents writing in the Standard, they were not more inclined to support the ideology. A slew of communist-related campus events during the 1949-50 and 1950-51 academic years testify to the interest the subject commanded on campus. In February 1950, a Quaker pacifist spoke on the subject of “Christianity vs. Communism”; in October, the Progressive Discussion Group (PDG) hosted debates on the issues of “unity among non-communist nations” and the question “Should communists be deprived of liberty in this country?” The conclusions of the latter were published in the Clarion of 27 October and are notable for the restraint each side displayed. The pro position — that communists ought to be deprived of liberty — concluded that the existing Smith and Espionage Acts were strong enough checks on communists and that the recently passed McCarran Internal Security bill would be ineffective (The McCarran act forced communist aligned organizations to register with the federal government, among other provisions). The con position concluded that communists were such a minority in this country that they posed little threat and should not be a cause for concern.

In December 1950, the PDG hosted Elias L. Golonko who spoke on “Communism in Russia and China.” Golonko, born in Russia and raised in Poland, served in the Polish army during the war and was captured by the Russians in 1939. Four months later, he was allowed into Germany — the result of the still-intact Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact — to study at the Baptist Seminary in Hamburg. From the end of the war until 1950, Golonko served in various cities in East Germany and in the British and American zones. In February of 1950, he, his wife and two children came to Minnesota under the sponsorship of the Minneota Baptist Church where served as pastor while studying for his Bachelor of Divinity at Bethel. December was not the first time Golonko had spoken on campus; in October, he delivered a similar lecture to the German Club.¹⁷ Although it’s difficult to tell exactly what effect the presence of eyewitnesses to Soviet communism like Golonko had on Bethel students, it’s likely that the sobriety displayed in Bethel publications derives, in part, from these living witnesses.

Ralph Carlson - The History Center

Ralph Carlson – The History Center

While the editor of the Standard was reluctant to give a full-throated condemnation of McCarthy, one Bethel Seminary student was not. Ralph Einar Carlson, a 1956 graduate, penned a letter to the Clarion’s editor at the height of the Army-McCarthy hearings. In it, he questioned the tendency of Christians to befriend any force opposed to communism and counseled against allowing national passions to erode individual liberties:

Shall authoritarian McCarthyism be embraced by those who claim to hold to the traditional Baptist beliefs on democracy? This question is very pertinent in light of the seeming uncritical acceptance in the past week of ultra-right wing crusaders, who in the disguise of fighting Communism have gnawed at the very roots of honesty and fair trial. It appears that some Christians believe that anything that is opposed to Communism is right, this is not only hard to substantiate from the point of logic by history has painted its grim regulation. Let’s be critical and not embrace all who claim to be of our fold or who would appeal to our nationalistic passions.

Carl McIntyre - Wikimedia Commons

Carl McIntire – Wikimedia Commons

Baptist General Conference anti-communism continued into the 1960s and the Vietnam War era. Conference leadership consistently expressed a fairly restrained and mainstream brand of conservative anti-communism and American patriotism. Indeed, the Conference was quick to accept the domino theory and so supported President Johnson’s escalation of the war as a means of preventing the spread of communism throughout southeast Asia. Even so, Conference leadership came under occasional criticism from Carl McIntyre, a prominent and virulent anti-communist fundamentalist preacher. Conference leaderships’ error, it seemed, was its support of the governmentally-registered Baptist church in the Soviet Union and the denomination’s affiliation with the World Baptist Alliance. Such international ties, McIntyre argued, compromised the Conference’s stand against the influence of communism across the world and in American culture. On several occasions, McIntyre’s supporters picketed BGC meetings.¹⁸ Such protests had no apparent effect on BGC leadership, but it’s reasonable to assume at least some of the fundamentalist fringe within the Conference sympathized with McIntyre’s stand. Through the mid-century decades the occasional letter from an angry layperson would sneak into the pages of the Standard, testifying to the existence of small pockets of fundamentalism within the denomination. Such expressions, though, were clearly in the minority. Thus, while the Conference never exhibited the kind of virulent and extremist anti-communism some fundamentalist figures might have hoped for, it’s fair to characterize the denomination’s public stance as merely one of firm anti-communism.

Kremlin, 1950 - Carl Mydans

Kremlin, 1950 – Carl Mydans

Interestingly, BGC communist concern was directed almost exclusively at the Soviet Union; China played little role in Conference discussion. While Bethel occasionally dealt with China, the focus there was also on Russia. To the extent that China appears, it was usually in the context of missions, not geopolitics or civilizational threats. While I doubt a single answer exists for this phenomenon, I suspect several elements contributed. First, Russia was viewed in the BGC as the origin of the communism which threatened the world. Conference leaders seemed to have little awareness of the differences between Marxism-Leninism, Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, and Marxism-Leninism-Maoism — differences which brought Russia and China into brief armed conflict in the spring of 1969. While China was clearly communist — BGC missionaries had, after all, been forced out of the country after the 1950 victory of Mao — the emanating center of the global movement lay in Moscow. A 1962 letter by the (ostensibly) twelve-year-old Susan Button displays the logic:

It all started when a man whose name was Vladimir Lenin decided to conquer the world, not just that but he was Communist. A man who didn’t believe there was an Almighty God. The Communist Party with a few dedicated men was able to gain control of the city of Moscow, and soon the entire country of Russia. They have gone on conquering the world even after the deaths of Lenin and Joseph Stalin, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev. They have overrun Asia, Eastern Europe, and many small nations. Still they are carrying out their mission.¹⁹

Chinese collective farm, 1958 - Pelikia Photos

Chinese collective farm, 1958 – Pelikia Photos

Second, China was clearly viewed by the Conference (perhaps rightly) as part of the global periphery. While Russia had modernized and industrialized rapidly in the first decades of the twentieth century, China in the 1950s was still overwhelmingly an agrarian economy with little heavy industry. When Chinese soldiers invaded Korea in fall 1950, they did so largely armed with foreign-manufactured weapons. China too, was far from the European heartland — the true heartland of the Cold War. Finally, U.S. foreign policy clearly operated under a Russo-centric view of the world; the People’s Republic of China was not even afforded recognition or diplomatic relations until 1979. Such an attitude likely influenced how the BGC perceived the global Cold War.

Bethel likewise continued its course through the 1950s and into the Vietnam era. Bethel students opposed communism for many of the same reasons the as the BGC (atheism, opposition to missionaries, threat to America, etc), but usually without the tinge of hysteria which could infect the Conference’s pronouncements. Education on the issue was the approach favored by most.

Bethel stands accused (click for full document) - Personal papers, G.W. Carlson

Bethel stands accused (click for full document) – Personal papers, G.W. Carlson

Just as the Conference suffered sporadic attacks by a fundamentalist fringe, so too was Bethel harassed on occasion. We’ll close by way of looking briefly at a document compiled by Conference pastor John Ballentine in 1970.

(As an aside, that document and the incident it establishes has a storied reputation in Bethel’s history department. I’d long heard of its existence, but without solid evidence, I’d assumed it was just an apocryphal piece of the school’s history. That is, until Professor Emeritus G.W. Carlson handed me a stack of his personal papers last summer…)

Sometime in 1970, Ballentine, a pastor at the Highland Park Baptist Church in St. Paul, commenced a two-day attack on alleged communist influences at Bethel College. Broadcasting his lectures on local radio stations in Iowa and California — where, unfortunately for Bethel, a substantial number of Conference Baptists lived — Ballentine condemned President Lundquist for associating with Billy Graham (Graham was considered too accommodationist to liberal protestantism), for his affiliation with the National Association of Evangelicals (for the same reason), and for his allowance of a National Student Association presence on campus.²⁰ Bethel was also attacked for having shown a film sympathetic with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Detail of Ballentine document

Detail of Ballentine document

The document extant, which I can only assume was the accompanying handout to the lectures, documents Bethel’s sins mainly via excerpts from the Clarion. Ballentine’s strategy was simple: document the existence of an event or organization at Bethel; show through newspaper clippings that such an event or organization was compromised in some way; insinuate that by associating themselves with such activities, Bethel participated in evil. The guest lecture delivered by University of Minnesota professor Mulford Q. Sibley in the fall of 1968 is an apt example. Ballentine’s document reproduced the Clarion report of the speech at which Sibley, a well-known Quaker, spoke on dissent in the life of the Christian. Opposite the report, Ballentine reprinted an except from the Minneapolis Star newspaper which discussed Sibley’s views on civil liberties. In heavy underlining, Ballentine identified the relevant quote from Sibley:

Personally, I should like to see on the [University of Minnesota] campus one or two Communist professors, a student Communist Club, a chapter of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, a Society for the Promotion of Free Love, a League for Overthrow of Government by Jeffersonian Violence (LOGJV), an Anti-Automation League and perhaps, a Nudist Club.

The conclusion readers should draw was obvious: through hosting such an odious man on campus, Bethel clearly endorsed nudism.

— Fletcher Warren

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¹ Vladislav M. Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 21.
² Harry S. Truman, Year of Decisions (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1955), 416.
³ Winston Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1953), 669-70.
⁴ Georgii Konstantinovich Zhukov, The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov (New York City: Delacorte Press, 1971), 674-675.
⁵ Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (New York City: Doubleday, 2012), xxix.
⁶ The Standard, November 1, 1941.
⁷ The Standard, February 7, 1941.
⁸ Baptist General Conference, “Foreign Missions Report,” in Baptist General Conference Annual Report, 1947 (Harvest Publications, 1947), 57-8. [Additional years hereafter “BGC Annual Report __.”
⁹ Mara Moustafine, “The Harbin Connection: Russians from China Shen” In Beyond China: Migrating Identities, ed. Yuanfang and Penny Edwards (Australian National University, Canberra, 2002), 75-­87.
¹⁰ BGC Annual Report 1950, 54-5; BGC Annual Report 1951, 61; BGC Annual Report 1952, 59-66; BGC Annual Report 1953, 60-5.
¹¹ BGC Annual Report 1952, 64.
¹² The Standard, February 7, 1942.
¹³ Richard M. Fried, Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1990), 138.
¹⁴ The Standard, September 7, 1951.
¹⁵ The Standard, February 5, 1954.
¹⁶ The Standard, March 26, 1954.
¹⁷ The Standard, October 27, 1950.
¹⁸ Diana Magnuson and G. William Carlson, “Bethel College and Seminary,” in Five Decades of Growth and Change: The Baptist General Conference and Bethel College and Seminary, 1952-2002 (St. Paul, MN: The History Center, 2010), 47-8.
¹⁹ The Standard, July 9, 1962.
²⁰ Magnuson and Carlson, “Bethel College and Seminary,” 48.

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