Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Maclane Heward: The Foundations of UMVIM: Michael Watson, the Red Scare and the Social Gospel

Today's post is by Maclane Heward. Mr. Heward is a doctoral candidate in the History of Christianity and Religions of North America at Claremont Graduate University. It is part of an on-going UM & Global series on UMVIM and short-term mission.

Michael Watson stands prominently among the many individuals who brought about the formation and growth of the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) program. Surprisingly just a few years before Watson took his family on his first short-term mission experience, he himself considered leaving behind his childhood faith in search of something “more to [his] liking.” The purpose of this brief post will be to illuminate one particular experience that became formative for Michael Watson as he became perhaps the most significant figure in the establishment of UMVIM.

Watson, having been raised by a mother who had a heart for mission, began his medical practice after his discharge from the US Marine Corps and his completion of medical school in the small South Carolina town of Bamberg in the late 1950s.

Watson became fast friends with a like-minded young minister by the name of George Strait. Strait and Watson shared more than just their status as young enterprising Methodist bachelors, they were significantly missionary-minded and felt that the opportunities for Methodists to be involved with missions beyond simply financing them would allow the laity “more meaningful participation in the life of the church.”[1]

A “strange thing happened” in 1960 when Watson was elected the South Carolina Annual Conference’s Minimum Salary Commission which placed him on the Conference’s Board of Missions. With Strait already participating on the board as the District Mission Secretary, the two individuals now had a voice in sharing their ideas regarding lay involvement in missionary pursuits. Among other activities, they “decided to enlighten the General Board of Missions with [their] inspiration” to send the laity into mission service for short periods of time. The letter sent seemed to fall by the wayside as it was never responded to.

During the same period of time, the late 1950s and early 1960s, The National Council of Churches (NCC), had come under increased scrutiny due to its supposed involvement in Communism. As the church was a member of the NCC, suspicions arouse regarding its involvement in communism. One study conducted in 1954 found that the “Methodist church, a member of the National Council of Churches, was the least likely among Protestant groups to support Joseph McCarthy and his subcommittee.”[2] Thus, in the minds of some, it was the most likely to house communist infiltration.

It was at this time that Watson became so disconcerted with the possibility that the church was somehow involved with communism that he began looking for a new church home among other denominations. His fellow congregants in Bamberg shared his anxiety and appointed Watson the chairman of a special committee to research and report on the infiltration of the NCC by communists.

So while Watson was investigating the NCC, he was also looking into other denominations. Dissatisfied with each denomination he investigated, Watson began researching the beginnings of Methodism. He learned that Methodism began during the Industrial Revolution in England, a “time when man’s inhumanity to man was at its zenith.”

While originally concerned that if Methodism was not communistic, it certainly leaned socialistic, the process of learning about the church’s beginnings caused Watson to be “no longer… suspicious of [Methodism’s] Social Gospel, but … Proud of it and realized that this had been [his] position all the time!” Looking again at the critics of the NCC, Watson with his new paradigm was able to see the conflict over the NCC as a conflict between liberal and conservative theological ideologies, a conflict that he had not previously known existed. He came to see the accusations of communist infiltration as the attempts of the “Righteous Right.”[3] His report to the Board of Stewards in Bamberg concluded “there was just a difference of opinion and perspective that had been carried beyond the bounds of truthfulness by some of the critics.”

His research and the increase outside criticism of the NCC led to the SEJ Conference leadership appointing him to give a report on the NCC at the UMC Conference. Watson’s report informed the conference on the NCC and concluded that “the NCC was in reality cooperative Protestant Christianity in America” and was part of a worldwide movement of “Christian cooperation.”[4]

Two significant outcomes took place as a result of Watson’s investigation into communism in the NCC.

First, Watson himself became aware of his deep connection and commitment to the Methodist church. As part of that commitment to Methodism, Watson learned that involvement in social issues and in humanitarian efforts was at the core of how Methodism began; the Social Gospel was not just a thing the church did—for Watson it was the core of what the church did.

Second, because of previous time constraints, Watson left immediately after his conference report was received by standing ovation. In his absence he was voted in as the official delegate to the NCC from the Methodist Church.

This appointment greatly expanded Watson’s interactions with decision makers in the Methodist church and other mainline denominations across America. During each of his interactions with executives from the Methodist church he would steer the conversation toward his “favorite subject—using volunteers in [the Methodist] mission program.”[5]

Though nothing came directly of these conversations—seemingly because of the aversion of Methodist executives to the use of volunteers in a work done by professionals—his associations led him to an appointment as a member of the Methodist Committee on Relief (MCOR, which would later become UMCOR after the merging of the Methodist church and the Evangelical United Brethren church in 1968).

Watson’s involvement in UMCOR played directly into lay participation in short-term mission (STM) experiences. Having learned of Watson’s commitment to using volunteers, James Thomas, a UMCOR staff member, called Watson just months after his appointment to UMCOR and informed him of a volunteer opportunity. Thomas, an official representative of the church, was essentially inviting Watson on the first UMVIM trip. Watson’s reaction: “After 14 years, we at last had a mission challenge. I could hardly wait to tell George [Strait].”[6]

[1] Michael Watson. “A Journey of Faith,” September 1, 2009, 2. See also Thomas L. Curtis. From the Grassroots: A History of United Methodist Volunteers In Mission. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000, 34.
[2] Thomas Aiello, “Constructing ‘Godless Communism’: Religion, Politics, and Popular Culture, 1954– 1960,” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 4, no. 1 (Spring 2005): See also Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, The Politics of Unreason: Right Wing Extremism in America, 1790–1970 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 230.
[3] Watson, “A Journey of Faith,” 4.
[4] Watson, “A Journey of Faith,” 4.
[5] Watson details the dominos that fell in consequence of his presentation on communism in the NCC. “The acceptance of membership on the NCC General Board led to a series of events that included 12 years as a member of UMCOR, eight years as a member of the Board of Missions/Board of Global Ministries, membership in five Jurisdictional Conferences and three General Conferences and three years as a member of the Board of Directors of Church World Service. I also served as the U.S. delegate to the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas meeting in Nassau, The Bahamas, and to the British Methodist Conference meeting in Nottingham, England. I was elected to membership in the World Council of Churches meeting in Upsula, Sweden, and the World Methodist Council meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, but was unable to attend those meetings.” Watson, “A Journey of Faith,” 5.
[6] Watson, “A Journey of Faith,” 6.

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