Aug 20, 2014

The ringing of the kaiser-bell: German-American Reformed in WWI

When the bell rang at St. Paul's Evangelical Church in Duluth, Minnesota, in the spring of 1917, it rang with undertones of treason.

Midwestern church bells are not typically taken to signal a threat to America. This bell was different, though. It was a relic of German imperialism, mounted in a tower in a German-speaking church, ringing even as America declared war with Germany. This bell had been a gift of Kaiser Wilhelm I, the monarch who established the empire that was now, under the leadership of his grandson Kaiser Wilhelm II, carrying the world to war. The bell itself was a war trophy: it had been cast from a brass cannon captured from the French in the Franco-Prussian war.

This hadn't seemed so outrageous in 1872, when the pastor of St. Paul's wrote to the kaiser asking for a bell.

Then, the audacious thing was just that he asked. But the pastor, J. Lueder, wanted a bell for his German Reformed church and he thought the elderly emperor might be generously inclined towards the spiritual needs of the immigrants in faraway Minnesota. As historian Paul N. Crusius writes, Lueder sent off an "eloquent plea for the simple gift of metal to cast a bell whose tones would be, as it were, a voice from over the water summoning the people to worship God in the manner of their fathers."

Two years later, the church received a brass cannon from the kaiser.

The metal was melted down and re-cast into a bell. It was just a normal bell until war broke out in Europe the Summer of 1914 and America got involved in the war in 1917. Then, the bell was a symbol of German immigrants' connection to a country that was now the enemy.

It rang as a question about loyalty.

Women of Duluth, Minnesota sew in support of the war effort, circa 1918. Americans on the
"home front" were urged to see themselves as part of the war effort, part of beating Germany. 
German-American loyalties were a big issue at the beginning of World War I. Teddy Roosevelt, then the former president, made condemnations of so-called "hyphenated Americans" a standard part of his speeches as he stumped for Republican candidates in 1915 and '16. "There ought to be no room for them in this country," he said. "The man who calls himself an American citizen and who yet shows by his actions that he is primarily the citizen of a foreign land, plays a thoroughly mischievous part in the life of our body politic."

Woodrow Wilson made similar remarks during the campaign. Divided loyalties would not be tolerated. "Such creatures," Wilson said, "must be crushed out." These attacks were met with enthusiastic applause.

The German-American leadership of the country's two German Reformed churches were themselves concerned about connections to the old country. They sought to shed their foreign identities and clearly, publicly side with America and the American military cause.

The older of the two churches, the Reformed Church in the United States, was well assimilated by the time of the war. There was only a trace of German heritage to be concerned about in 1917.

These German Reformed immigrants first organized in America in the 1740s, and from the first the church was part of the American project. Most of its ministers participated in the revolution on the side of the patriots, and the church officially congratulated President George Washington on the "happy and peaceful establishment of the new government" when he was elected in 1789. There were some internal struggles over the question of language, but by the mid-19th century, English had become standard for the church.

By the start of the 20th century, the Reformed Church in the United States was not strongly identified with Germany.

Where there might have been any lingering doubt, allegiances were quickly made clear. The president of one of the church’s seminaries, for example, was German-born. In 1917, he was selected to author a resolution that the Eastern Synod of the church adopted. It stated a “firm conviction of the justice and righteousness of the war in which we are engaged.”

The church was also a charter member of the Federal Council of Churches, the religious establishment of the mainline Protestant churches. The council supported the war with all its moral authority and the Reformed Church did too.

The younger German Reformed church was not as far along the path to assimilation when the war with Germany was declared on Good Friday, 1917.

The German Evangelical Synod dated to a more recent period of immigration. About 40,000 people left Germany every year from 1830 and 1845, most ending up in the American Midwest. Some of the newcomers were Reformed, but found themselves separated from the Reformed Church of the United States by culture, as well as by geography and some theological wrangling. A group of the new immigrants organized a separate church in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1840.

The new church was not opposed to assimilation. They were quick to cooperate in inter-denominational Protestant ministries and worked to adapt to the new country.

If language is taken as a proxy for Americanization, as it often is, it's clear the younger denomination moved steadily in that direction. Seminary classes were offered in English as early as 1850. The order of worship was published in English in 1874. Catechisms were published in English in 1892; a hymnal in 1898; a denominational newspaper in 1902. By 1908, when the Federal Council of Churches was founded, the leaders of the German Evangelical Synod were ready to join the mainstream, even if they were only junior partners in the American Protestant establishment.

When war came, the German Evangelical Synod joined the mainline Protestant clergy advocating for it. When the United States called men into the armed services, the small denomination sent 25,000 soldiers.

The German Evangelical Synod was not completely free from the influence of the old country, however. Individual churches were often very strongly connected to German culture. Some continued to use the language. The church in Duluth, Minnesota had that bell. For many, loyalties were divided. There was a lot to be critical of, in America.

In a church in Detroit, Michigan, a minister publicly prayed that his congregation might be saved from the “Amerikanishen Geist.”

For a young minister like Reinhold Niebuhr, this persisting German-ness was wildly frustrating.

Neibuhr, who has been called 20th-century America's greatest theologian, was at the time the pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church, a German Evangelical Synod congregation in Detroit. A recent graduate of Yale who aspired to a national stage, he found his church's provincialism embarrassing.

"Among the ministers here at least and among many that I know of in other parts there is no real interest in the welfare of this country and no genuine American patriotism," Neibuhr wrote in a bitter letter to a former seminary professor. "I am beginning to feel that our church is trying to perpetuate a little Germany here rather than educate its people to real American patriotism."

As Neibuhr saw it, German-Americans were just too small-minded -- or perhaps small-souled.

He argued publicly that suspicions of German-American disloyalty weren't unwarranted. Though he ministered to 18 German-American families at his church, where the services were in German, and though he was himself a German-American, Niebuhr wrote that German-Americanism was a failure.

"A nation needs and demands the loyalty of its citizens," he wrote, in a piece published by Atlantic Monthly:
Where the interests of the nation and his own interests were identical, the German-American has served the interests of the nation well. 
But, unhappily, the interests of the nation are not always identical with those of the individual. They often require sacrifices on the part of the individual, and they always demand large social sympathies. In these qualities the German-American seems to be deficient. His virtues seem to be individualistic rather than social. He has unwittingly served the nation through his qualities of prudence and thrift, but he has been rather indifferent to the problems of the nation that did not directly affect him. He has manifested no great interest in a single one of the great moral, political, or religious questions that have agitated the minds of the American people in late years.
It seems unlikely that anyone needed Niebuhr's arguments to justify suspicions of German Americans. German immigrants were banned from joining the Red Cross, for fear of sabotage. Orchestra conductors were forced to resign because they were German. Names of cities and streets were changed if they referenced Germany, and apparently even sauerkraut, hamburgers, dachshunds, and German measles were re-named by patriotic Americans. Perhaps, on the other hand, Niebuhr's piece served to show that some German Americans, at least, really were loyal, really were Americans.

Wartime propaganda left little space
to be both German and American.
The German-American leadership, like Niebuhr, sought to show its loyalty and its Americanness by identifying with concerns about the divided loyalties of "hyphenated Americans."

There was still the problem, though, of the undertones of treason in the bell at St. Paul's.

In Minnesota, where 70 percent of the population were immigrants or first-generation Americans, concerns about German Americans, along with pacifists and the labor movement, prompted severe measures to suppress dissent.

On April 16, the day before war was declared, the state legislature approved a bill establishing a Commission of Public Safety, an independent agency tasked with enforcing American loyalty. The commission had $1 million in funding its first year, an armed militia of 7,000, the power to make warrent-less arrests, and a mandate from the state to "protect (Minnesota) against those at home whose behavior tends to weaken its war capacity."

One supporter, a state senator, bragged the bill establishing the commission not only "had teeth," it had "teeth in it eighteen inches long . . . . It is a most drastic bill and when it goes into effect, if the Governor appoints men who have backbone, treason will not be talked on the streets."

In its two years existence, the commission investigated 682 sedition cases, in addition to 118 cases of interference with Liberty Loans and 174 allegations that German was being taught in schools. According to historian Carol Jenson, "these figures are probably the best single documentation of the success of the (Commission of Public Safety) in convincing Minnesota citizens, who reported possible violations to the commission, of the need for conformity to its standards of loyalty."

St. Paul's Evangelical Church survived intact, though. John Baltzer, a leader of the Evangelical Synod of North America, said that, during the war, "There were many days when only the grace of God and our Lord's guidance kept us from being crushed to the wall. We lived through it. We prayed through it. We labored through it. Thanks be to the Lord."

Services at St. Paul's were held in German until 1927. For three years, it operated as a bilingual church, but then switched completely to English in 1930.

In 1940, the two German Reformed denominations merged, the Evangelical Synod of North America and the Reformed Church in the United States becoming the Evangelical and Reformed Church. That church then merged with the Congregational Christian Churches in 1957, forming the Untied Church of Christ.

In Duluth, the people of St. Paul's took the formation of the UCC as an opportunity to re-christen themselves "Peace Church." The bell, once a relic of war, became the central icon of the church, which took the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4 as its mission statement. The prophet said "they shall beat their swords into plowshares"; at Peace Church, they melted cannons into bells.

In 1959, the re-named church wrote to President Dwight Eisenhower, then in his second term, asking for "an instrument of war that could be recast into a second bell." The US government donated a bell from the USS Ascella, a World War II-era Navy cargo ship, later that year.

A third bell was installed at Peace Church in 1962. It was cast from scraps of bronze, copper, and brass from both world wars, donated to the church by the American Legion.

Today, the three peace bells ring in Duluth, Minnesota every Sunday.

The minister leading the liturgy announces every Sunday that the bells are a call to worship. They don't raise questions of national loyalty, any more. Now the bells mean something else. At the church and in Duluth, the bells are understood to signal the congregation's loyalty to a vision of being an "accessible, open and affirming community growing in Christian faith, committed to peace and justice, and reaching out in healing love to all of creation, including all people."