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  • American Protestants and the Era of Anti-racist Human Rights

How Christian conceptions of human rights became associated with anti-racism is the subject of this article. Protestants rooted human rights in a philosophical doctrine called “personalism,” whose language of “dignity,” the “human family,” and the “human person” was first developed in the Methodist-run philosophy department at Boston University at the turn of the century. Personalism, evoked in interwar discussions of racism and colonialism, transformed into the political language of human rights during World War II, a moment when Protestant intellectuals were seeking to defend liberal freedoms.


Personalism, American Protestantism, anti-racism, human rights, liberalism


World leaders gathered in San Francisco in 1945 and Paris in 1948 to articulate individual and social rights that, they hoped, would avert future wars. The United Nations charter urged nations “to reaffirm faith” in the “dignity and worth of the human person.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights called for “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family” to be the “foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” For the Americans present at the negotiations, phrases such as “inalienable rights” sounded familiar. Yet the most striking language was entirely alien to American politics: for example, “the human family” was a new and controversial concept in a nation that largely banned marriage across racial lines. America’s founding documents make no mention of “dignity.” And the “human person” would have sounded tautological only a few decades before the 1940s.1 [End Page 427]

This article argues that American ecumenical Protestants were at the forefront of developing the 1940s-era language of human rights and they shaped how these rights were understood in their country. A doctrine called “personalism,” which originated among Methodists in Boston University’s philosophy department at the turn of the century, was the most fully articulated defense of the ideas behind human rights in the ecumenical Protestant milieu during the 1940s. Over four decades, personalism was transformed into the social doctrine of human rights, as its language of “dignity,” “human family,” and the “human person” was invoked in the debates over racism and colonialism in the interwar era. The development of a personalist human rights doctrine occurred in a community of discourse that was concerned about preserving liberal values in an era when they were threatened across the world. American ecumenical Protestants involved in the human rights debates were “liberal” in both senses of the term as used in the United States: they prized freedom, open-mindedness, and education, and they also supported the social and political program inaugurated by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.2 Human rights and personalism, this article shows, should be understood in this tradition of religious liberalism, a tradition oriented toward human liberation.3

First, a word of caution. Protestant personalism differed markedly from the Catholic variety, which flourished in interwar Europe. As John Hellman documents, “a group of young journalists, students, and professors invented an anti-democratic and anti-liberal ‘personalist’ approach to life” in 1930s France.4 Samuel Moyn argues that personalism, and Christian human rights more broadly, should be understood as a reinvention of this Catholic communitarianism. “Christian human rights [in the 1940s] were part and parcel of a reformulation of conservatism in the name of a vision of moral constraint, not human emancipation or individual liberation,” he writes.5 Moyn’s characterization of personalism and human rights [End Page 428] as a conservative ideology fits more neatly with Catholic Europe than Protestant America. It also misses a crucial function of human rights in world history.

That function is the long history of human rights as an anti-racist weapon. The anti-racist implications of human rights are left unexplained if they are read as a reinvention of communitarian conservatism.6 Nor can they be explained by the actions of the Roosevelt administration, which deliberately avoided taking action against racism.7 By looking at non-state actors who nonetheless were influential in certain historical moments, this article shows that, prior to the 1970s, human rights were understood primarily as an indictment of segregation, apartheid, race-based immigration restrictions, and other forms of racism. The association between human rights and anti-racism developed in the ecumenical Protestant milieu and, by the 1950s, could be heard all over the world in condemnation of Jim Crow. By focusing on the personalist elements of human rights, this article offers a reinterpretation of the role of human rights in the twentieth century.


Protestant personalism emerged as a liberal philosophical and theological system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century thanks to Borden Parker Bowne, who formulated it in the polarizing context of the Darwinian debates. When On the Origin of Species was published in the United States in 1860, Protestant scientists and theologians assured Americans that natural selection went hand in hand with a God that gave nature purpose and meaning. But two decades later, heated debates emerged over natural [End Page 429] selection because two things had changed. First, the growth of “higher criticism” in the American academy pitted orthodox theologians against those who wanted to situate the Bible in its historical context and, in the words of Benjamin Jowett, to “interpret the Scripture like any other book.”8 By the 1880s the embattled defenders of orthodoxy now condemned Darwinism as “atheism.”9 Second, the works of Herbert Spencer turned Darwinian evolution into a philosophical and sociological system meant to explain human behavior in entirely materialistic terms and emphasized social hierarchies, laissez-faire economics, and limits on governmental powers. Bowne searched for a middle ground between Methodist orthodoxy and Spencer’s materialism, working to affirm God’s immanence in human affairs while opening up religion to the insights of biblical criticism, scientific knowledge, and human reason.

Beginning as a reaction to the Darwinian debates of the late nineteenth century, Bowne’s personalism became more systematic over time. Following the eighteenth-century philosopher George Berkeley, Bowne came to view the “person” as the basic unit of reality; without the person, the material world is meaningless. Bowne imagined God as a person, too, who came to be understood by the human person in virtue of their shared identity. Made in God’s image, human persons were connected to one another in a single community of “brothers” who shared a single “father.”10 Bowne’s person differed from the Catholic communitarian tradition of personhood, which located the individual in a ordered community and emphasized hierarchy. In Bowne’s view, the person found community not through authority or obligation but through ethical reflection, which leads to an understanding of God’s law. According to his student, Francis J. McConnell, Bowne believed that “The moral life has three aspects,—the law of goodwill binding upon all men everywhere, the need of the utmost endeavor, especially intellectual, to find ways and means of working the goodwill into expression, the necessity of an expanding human ideal as both the mainspring and achievement of continuous moral progress.”11 Bowne’s personalism had all the hallmarks of late nineteenth century liberal Protestantism, which [End Page 430] blended together scientific inquiry and social activism into a single, teleological vision of human progress.12

Bowne interpreted the history of philosophy through the debates of the late nineteenth century. He viewed John Locke’s epistemology—that the human mind was a passive recipient of information—as a stepping stone to Spencer’s materialism. Bowne gravitated to Kant’s idea that human minds are pre-programmed to interpret and understand the world, but he believed that Kant’s “thing-in-itself” or “noumenon”—the qualities of the external world which we can never know directly—was worthless. Either the unknowable thing-in-itself must become knowable to the individual through experience or else “the emptiness of this kind of agnosticism immediately appears.”13 Reading Kant with the anxieties of a Darwinian age, Bowne found the philosopher too Spencerian in his outlook.

Bowne was unable to recognize that he, with Kant, affirmed the inherent “dignity” of the person—that is, the intrinsic worth of the individual being, whose value cannot be measured. And Bowne’s most consistent defense of human dignity was identical to Kant’s: humanity’s capacity for reasoning. For both Kant and Bowne, respect for the inherent worth of the person required freedom for that person, and a respect for that freedom by his neighbors. Bowne continued the Kantian project of justifying respect for human dignity, something Kant’s own disciples had largely abandoned.14

Bowne’s own politics were a hodgepodge but the movement of American ecumenical Protestants in general, and Methodists in particular, was toward the social gospel in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1908, the same year that Bowne published Personalism, the Methodist church adopted its “social creed.” When the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), the largest Protestant body in the United States, followed suit that year, they ended with a message that recognized “the dignity of labor” and “human brotherhood” between Christians and “the toilers of America.”15

First applied to labor, personalism soon flourished in anti-racist and [End Page 431] anti-colonialist discussions. Following the First World War, American ecumenical Protestants joined their European counterparts in creating international institutions meant to bring splintered Protestant denominations into a global communion. At a 1928 meeting of the International Missionary Conference in Jerusalem, Protestants from across the world debated and ultimately denounced imperialism and racism.16 The meeting place was chosen deliberately as a way station between West and East, and representation from the North Atlantic West was limited to half of the participants. A commission on racism discussed the problem in its relationship to imperialism and economics. Remarkably, the delegates voted to urge missionary groups to renounce the right to be protected by the military of their home country. They also spoke out against racist immigration restrictions that had been recently passed in the United States. Immigration restrictions, the Jerusalem conference declared, “should never make discrimination among intending immigrants on the grounds of color or race.”17

The language of these declarations showed that two decades after its formal articulation, personalism had become widespread in debates about racism and imperialism far beyond the philosophical and specifically Methodist milieu. Indeed, African Americans were critical to the proliferation of personalist language. Max Yergan, an African American and a Baptist who had long been involved in the nondenominational Young Men’s Christian Association, urged the Jerusalem conference attendees to issue “a statement of belief in and practice of the sacredness of personality as taught by Jesus and the Christian faith.” Yergan’s guiding hand could be seen in the final report, which supported the right to hold any profession, freedom of movement, equal treatment before the law, and the exercise of citizenship rights—all irrespective of race—by appealing to “The Fatherhood of God and the sacredness of personality,” which “are vital truths revealed in Christ.”18

It was in the 1920s and 1930s that “Boston personalism” achieved the [End Page 432] status of a school of thought. And personalism gained wider attention in those years. The University of Southern California, a Methodist-run school, became another center of personalist philosophy. At Harvard, William Ernest Hocking became perhaps the most famous defender of personalist ideas. Bowne’s student Ralph Tyler Flewelling had founded The Personalist in 1922, helping connect some of these far-flung thinkers. In the 1920s and 1930s, “the very years that liberal self-confidence began to erode,” according to Gary Dorrien, personalism became a refuge for many religious liberals.19

Edgar S. Brightman became the most important philosophical exponent of personalism following Bowne’s death in 1910. As a former student of Bowne, Brightman returned to Boston University in 1919 and, beginning in 1925, occupied the newly created Borden Parker Bowne Chair in Philosophy. But Brightman was no mere acolyte. He departed from Bowne on the doctrines of divine omnipotence and divine nontemporality, and sought to give personalism a more substantial psychological basis.20 Brightman also regretted that Bowne had been so aloof from the philosophical profession and sought to make personalism more conversant with other philosophical systems.21

Most importantly, Brightman took personalism in more social and ethical directions. In his 1934 book, Personality and Religion, Brightman defended the metaphysics of personalism as “a social philosophy that shall be at once democratic, theistic, and liberal, in an age when democracy, theism, and liberalism have for the time being gone out of fashion.”22 “Personal religion creates ideals which not only command the whole personality and weld it into a subjective unity,” Brightman continued, “but also reach out toward the objective unity of God whose interest includes the whole of humanity.”23

In 1934, a year after Hitler came to power in Nazi Germany and at the nadir of the Great Depression, Brightman joined other American philosophers in searching for a middle way between laissez-faire liberalism and the [End Page 433] ascendant totalitarian ideologies of that era. Society should be organized to ensure that “the individual is treated as of intrinsic worth and dignity while he is a member of an organic whole,” he argued. Brightman believed that teaching personalism would ensure both social order and respect for individual rights because they are linked together. “One mark of the religiously social individual is that his social concern is universal and not merely particular, local, provincial, national, or racial; it is restricted by no limits of creed, color, or language, caste or class. As God is the Father of All, so the religious man is the brother and lover of all,” Brightman argued.24 In doing so, he went much further in his social and ethical concerns than did his mentor, who often disparaged the poor. “If the aim of religion is to produce in man a due sense of the worth of personality,” Brightman wrote, “the social task of religion is to create in every antisocial individual a reverence for personality, human and divine, and to work for a society in which reverence for personality will be the corner stone on which economic, legal, political, and religious institutions are built.”25

Personalism’s protagonists had been critics of other forms of liberal theology, like Ritschilian social gospel theology and the modernist theology of the Chicago school, despite these traditions’ shared ethical commitments. In the 1930s, personalism came to be further challenged by the realist theology of Reinhold Niebuhr and the continental neoorthodoxy of Karl Barth. Yet many, if not most, American Protestants in mainline denominations clung to liberalism. For many intellectuals, personalism and other liberal theologies were more compelling frameworks for dealing with international affairs.

This was especially the case for Methodists, who were some of the earliest and most fervent proponents of human rights. The influential Commission on a Just and Durable Peace, known popularly as the “Dulles” commission because it was chaired by the future Secretary of State and prominent Presbyterian layman John Foster Dulles, commenced by attaching itself to a Methodist meeting on international affairs in Chicago in 1941.26 That meeting spoke in the language of personalism when justifying its expansive center-left program for remaking international and domestic life. “Christianity is the supreme good,” wrote Methodist pastor Ernest [End Page 434] Fremont Tittle in the official conference statement. “In its declaration of the dignity of humanity, Christianity proclaims the fundamental concept upon which democracy is based. In Christian faith, man is of worth because he is a son of God. We are children of one Father. We are brothers.”27


At the Methodist Conference on World Order at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1943, Protestant intellectuals continued to insist on making the world more Christian, yet the meaning of “Christianization” of the world took on an increasingly liberal character. Francis J. McConnell, who had been Bowne’s student at Boston University and was a former president of the FCC, explained at the Ohio Wesleyan conference that freedom of thought and religion was the first freedom because it serves as a basis of Christian civilization. Preparing the ground for intellectual independence and social prosperity would be a long-term process following the destruction of World War II, McConnell reasoned. In the same way that millions of years of physical development of the earth allowed for the creation of life, and in the same way that thousands of years of Judaism created the grounds for a receptivity to Jesus’s message, so too would a long period of acceptance of liberal values create the groundwork for Christian civilization, he argued. “If there is attack upon the principles of order, upon the value of human beings in themselves, upon regard for truth-speaking and fair dealing,” he said, “civilization has to give attention to strengthening the bases of civilization in the interest of civilization itself, and such defense of civilization is at the same time a defense of Christianity.”28 In the midst of global war against nations that rejected the basic premises of liberalism, it was the grounds on which Christianity rested—“freedom to think, to question established beliefs, and institutions, and to publish results, to work with some degree of security as to livelihood”—that had to be defended. “The spokesmen for Christianity may protest that they do not want such a defense, and the defenders of these foundations may not think of defending Christianity at all,” said McConnell, “but the defense is moral, nevertheless, and is one phase of the task of making possible the sway of moral [End Page 435] considerations in human society.” For the religion to thrive, McConnell insisted, “a basis must be kept under Christianity.”29

In arguing that liberal values undergirded Christianity, McConnell offered a contrasting view to the most famous American theologian of the era, Reinhold Niebuhr, whose 1944 book Children of Light and Children of Darkness was subtitled A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense—the traditional defense being a liberal one. Niebuhr was insistent that only the insights of Christianity on the nature of man could serve as a grounding for democratic polities in the modern world. Those insights included a belief in a power beyond mankind, awe at the vastness of the universe, and a chastened sense of the power of individuals and nations. Christianity formed the basis of democratic society, Niebuhr argued, not the other way around.30

Vice President Henry Wallace, a hero of the American left, echoed McConnell’s defense of liberalism at the 1943 Ohio Wesleyan conference and gave it a sharper political orientation. In his lecture, he expounded on “the democratic Christian philosophy,” which “asserts boldly that ultimate peace is inevitable, that all men are brothers, and that God is their father.” He argued that “this democratic philosophy” was not solely a possession of Christians, but also “of those who draw their inspiration from Mohammedanism, Judaism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and other faiths.” Wallace drew upon the universalizing trend within liberal Protestantism and the “One World” enthusiasm of the World War II era when he declared that “beneath the outer forms, we find that all these faiths . . . preach the doctrine of the dignity of each individual human soul” and “the doctrine of the essential unity of the entire world.”31

Wallace contrasted this tradition of Christian democracy with Prussian autocracy, which taught obedience to the state and emphasized duty over rights. A correction in the other direction would be needed after the war in order to gradually prepare “the German spirit for an appreciation of the fact that a Bill of Rights for the individual is as vital as a Bill of Duties toward the state.”32 He was far less critical of Marxism than fascism. Careful not to praise the Soviet dictatorship, Wallace nonetheless pushed the United States to organize its economic life “in the service of the common [End Page 436] man.” After all, “The right to work at a regular job and for a decent wage is essential to the true dignity of man.”33

Ecumenical Protestants turned to the language of human rights in the early 1940s because it provided a less sectarian defense of human dignity. They were also picking up on the rights-talk of the Roosevelt administration.34 In 1942, Roosevelt’s representatives shared with ecumenical Protestants an early version of what became Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union Address, which enumerated a series of social rights and was dubbed “The Second Bill of Rights.”35 Additionally, in the Protestant milieu, leaders worried about the fate of religious freedom in the postwar world and worked to ensure that religious freedom would be an enumerated right in the charter of the United Nations.36

But above all, the turn to human rights occurred in discussions of racism and colonialism. Beginning in 1941, the move to desegregate the American military and defense industries gained great visibility and drew support from some Protestant intellectuals, who saw the African American demand for civil rights in light of what they believed was their mission to remake the world along Christian lines. Most leaders of the FCC and the global ecumenical movement were white, but they sometimes responded to demands from their nonwhite coreligionists, like Benjamin Mays and Channing Tobias, to condemn segregation forthrightly. Moreover, in imagining a new postwar international order, some Protestants recognized the necessity of ending imperialism, which would require cooperation with non-Christian nations and the atheistic USSR. The most important Protestant policy document produced by the FCC in 1942 only mentioned rights in the context of anti-imperialism and anti-racism. “we believe that the government which derives its just powers from the consent of the governed is the truest expression of the rights and dignity of man. This requires that we seek autonomy for all subject and colonial peoples. . . . we believe that the right of all men to pursue work of their own choosing and to enjoy security from want and oppression is not limited by race, color or creed. The rights and liberties of racial and religious minorities in all lands should be recognized and safeguarded,” the FCC declared.37 [End Page 437]

The rights-talk of 1942 among ecumenical Protestants coincided with movements in the same direction by other groups. At the end of that year, Pope Pius XII defended “the dignity of the human person” in his Christmas message. Two years later, Gunnar Myrdal used the language of human dignity and personality in An American Dilemma, the most influential statement on racism at mid-century. Myrdal posited that Americans had developed an “American Creed” that stood in opposition to racial oppression. That creed included a belief in “the essential dignity of man, the importance of protecting and cultivating his personality . . . over against the doctrines of caste, class, and slavery.”38 Remarkably, in this careful study that ran over 1,500 pages Myrdal made no mention of the origins of “dignity” and “personality.” He attributed the American Creed to the European Enlightenment and to the foundational figures of American political thought, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—figures who rarely used such personalist language. Myrdal helped popularize the association between anti-racism and personalism, while giving it a secular orientation.

The 1943 gathering at which McConnell and Wallace spoke inspired the Methodist Board of Missions director to push forward on the issue of racism worldwide. The final product of dozens of ensuing study groups and conferences was Edmund Soper’s Racism: A World Issue, published in 1947.39 The book took an ethnographic approach, with each chapter devoted to a different region of the world. It was among the most wide-ranging investigations of the global phenomenon of racism available in the 1940s. The book was not only expository but also ethical. The exploration of racial practices in the Soviet Union, in particular, was designed to provincialize American racism through comparison. In holding up the Soviet Union as a positive example, American ecumenical Protestants also showed their increasing comfort with “secular” ideologies.

The differences between the USSR and US resulted from their differing legal regimes, Soper argued. The US practices the melting pot theory, where immigrants are expected to “merge, lose their former distinctive features, and become completely amalgamated,” whereas the USSR has a policy of “local and racial autonomy” and the stated purpose is “to retain its own distinctiveness, language, traditions, and customs.” Soper echoed the conclusion that Jewish philosopher Horace Kallen had reached several decades [End Page 438] earlier, that democracy requires ethnic pluralism. But Soper was more attentive to the law, quoting at length from anti-racist language in the 1936 Soviet constitution. He wrote that we are “beginning to realize that the racial problem is not a problem by itself but one which is a part of another, that of basic human rights.”40

Soper heaped praise on the Soviet Union despite widespread anti-communism in 1947 and he expressed hope for better relations with that country through a mutual respect for human rights. Casting away barriers to racial equality was “one of the greatest steps forward in human progress,” which placed “man, the common man, equal and free . . . in the center of the entire program” of the USSR. This, said Soper, was the misleading part about the Soviet Union: Stalin may appear to be “virtually a dictator” but at the bottom of society “there is real democracy.” Despite the materialistic philosophy of the USSR, the fact that “racism is completely repudiated” there would pave the way for a peaceful and cooperative relationship with the United States.41

But such a relationship would be contingent on Christians following the lead of the USSR. Soper urged his coreligionists to match the ethical force of Soviet Marxism, because “The personality of each man in every race is held sacred and inviable and must be given the fullest opportunity to develop every capacity it possesses.”42 (Another Protestant intellectual chastised fellow Christians for not producing “an ethical attack on color caste which approaches the vigor and virility of the attack launched by the American Communists.”)43 Christian human rights would not only make the world free of racism and colonialism but also create a basis for cooperation with the Soviet Union, Soper hoped.44


In the Methodist discussions of the early and mid-1940s, the philosophy of personalism became a political program that included intellectual and [End Page 439] religious freedom, a socially controlled economy, and a world free from racism and colonialism. The Methodists were not alone. They were part of a broader political mobilization among non-evangelical Protestant churches in the era of World War II.45 Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, American Baptists, and other members of the FCC likewise engaged in ambitious reform movements in the 1940s with a distinctly global outlook.46 Many of the leaders of this group borrowed from the language of personalism to express the political commitments many liberal Protestants had endorsed by the 1940s. Methodists stood out for their pioneering role in developing the distinct metaphysics and language of personalism, and also for their enthusiasm for human rights in the 1940s. Beginning in 1943 their “Methodist Crusade for World Order” sent teams to every Methodist church in the country to discuss international affairs, flooded mailboxes with millions of pamphlets about the United Nations and human rights, and redesigned Bible study curricula for millions of adults to include discussions of international affairs.47

The most important of such political efforts was the work of the Dulles commission, which mobilized public intellectuals and politicians on behalf of the United Nations and human rights. Speaking at the behest of Dulles, Thomas Dewey, the 1944 Republican Presidential nominee, echoed the commission’s position that a lasting peace would only be achieved through [End Page 440] “spiritual faith which rests upon the dignity of the individual and equality among all human beings.”48 Behind the scenes, the FCC sent a group of lobbyists to work with the State Department at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco. There, in cooperation with other NGOs, they convinced a reluctant State Department to back a human rights charter, and worked over the next three years on the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This Protestant group “was not the only body to propose such measures, of course, but it was among the most adept,” observes Andrew Preston: “Rarely had religious lobbying been so effective, or so consequential.”49

Most American liberal theologians at mid-century were not personalists, even if they shared their ethical commitments and often borrowed personalist language. In tracing a line from Boston-school personalism, through the debates over race and nation, to the human rights discussions of the 1940s, this article highlights a philosophical and theological tradition whose impact is often obscured because it shares its name with its Catholic and European doppelganger. American Protestant personalism—and its adherents’ understanding of human rights—was liberal in both origin and practice. It was concerned about defending individual autonomy during an illiberal age, and it became, over time, more tolerant of “secular” ideologies than the Catholic and neoorthodox groups of the era.

The history of personalism and human rights also demonstrates that, for many Americans, the history of human rights was woven together with anti-racism and anti-colonialism.50 It was certainly understood that way in the 1940s. When the FCC issued its own list of human rights in 1948, the front page headline of the New York Times read, “End of Racial Segregation Asked by Churches’ Council.”51 That human rights required desegregation in the United States was understood well beyond American shores. As Mary Dudziak has shown, the evocation of human rights abroad pushed [End Page 441] the State Department to hasten desegregation in the United States. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles wrote urgently to Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 about the Little Rock school desegregation crisis. “We are portrayed as a violator of the standard of conduct which the peoples of the world united to proclaim in the Charter of the United Nations,” Dulles wrote, “whereby the peoples reaffirmed ‘faith in the fundamental human rights and the dignity and worth of the human person.’”52

In the 1950s and 1960s, the most important expression of human rights was in the fight against racism at home and abroad. Personalist ideas were part of a broader transnational discourse on human rights that was taken up, at particular historical moments, by states and became part of international law. One such moment was the 1960s, when, according to Steven Jensen, “Race and religion together transformed the role of human rights in international affairs” thanks to the efforts of nations from the Global South.53 Ecumenical Protestants’ conception of human rights were consonant with the broader anti-racist human rights discourse. They applauded the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and became some of the most stalwart allies of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, which included organizing voter mobilization on behalf of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.54 It was not surprising that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous piece of writing, “A Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” was first published in The Christian Century before it was picked up by other publications. In it, King spoke about his work on behalf of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and urged his coreligionists to work for a “positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”55 King, in fact, had attended Boston University for his doctoral training, where he worked closely with Brightman and took classes on Bowne and personalism. “Bowne was the forthright champion of freedom. He affirmed that without it both kn [sic] reason and morality would go shipwreck,” King wrote on a final examination.56 That the most famous critic of Jim Crow made personalism central [End Page 442] to his understanding of human rights speaks to the prominent place of personalism at mid-century, and to the long-running dialogue between white philosophers and African American activists.57 Personalism never became the only way to speak about human rights, not for King and certainly not for all American Protestants, and yet it was one of the most sophisticated and popular philosophies for mobilizing people, abroad and at home, on behalf of human rights for much of the twentieth century. [End Page 443]

Gene Zubovich
Washington University in St. Louis


1. On human rights in the 1940s, see Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Mark Philip Bradley, The World Reimagined: Americans and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2001); Carol Anderson, Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003); John Nurser, For All Peoples and All Nations: The Ecumenical Church and Human Rights (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005); Paul Gordon Lauren, The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

2. See James T. Kloppenberg, “Liberalism,” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History, vol. 1, ed. Michael Kazin (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 475–84.

3. Matthew Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); David A. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013).

4. John Hellman, The Communitarian Third Way: Alexandre Marc’s Ordre Nouveau, 1930–2000 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), 3.

5. Samuel Moyn, Christian Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 10.

6. On Catholicism and race, see John Connelly, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012); Paul Hanebrink, In Defense of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism, and Antisemitism, 1890–1944 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006); John T. McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Kevin Spicer, Resisting the Third Reich: The Catholic Clergy in Hitler’s Berlin (De Kalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2004); David W. Southern, John LaFarge and the Limits of Catholic Interracialism, 1911–1963 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996).

7. Borgwardt, New Deal for the World. The NAACP was among the most important groups pressing for an anti-racist reading of human rights in the 1940s. See Anderson, Eyes off the Prize.

8. Benjamin Jowett, “On the Interpretation of Scripture,” in Essays and Reviews, ed. J. W. Parker (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1860), 377.

9. John W. Stewart and James H. Moorehead, eds., Charles Hodge: A Critical Appraisal of His Life and Work (Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans, 2002).

10. Borden Parker Bowne, The Essence of Religion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1910), 282.

11. Francis J. McConnell, “Bowne and Personalism,” in Personalism in Theology: A Symposium in Honor of Albert Cornelius Knudson, by Associates and Former Students, ed. Edgar Sheffield Brightman (Boston: Boston University Press, 1943), 33.

12. On Protestant theological liberalism, see William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976); David Mislin, Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of the Secular Age (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).

13. Quoted in Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900–1950 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 376. See also Bowne, Metaphysics: A Study in First Principles (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1882), 198–244.

14. Moyn, Christian Human Rights, 26–28, 98–100.

15. Gary Dorrien, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 111–12.

16. Michael G. Thompson, For God and Globe: Christian Internationalism in the United States Between the Great War and the Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 111.

17. Quoted in Thompson, For God and Globe, 113. William Ernest Hocking, another proponent of personalist ideas, was likewise invested in disassociating missionary work from imperialism in his famous report, Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry After 100 Years (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1932). On Hocking’s report, see Hutchison, Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 158–75.

18. The Christian Mission in the Light of Race Conflict: Report of the Jerusalem Meeting of the International Missionary Council, March 24th–April 8th, 1928 (London: University of Oxford Press, 1928), 217–18, 237.

19. Dorrien, Making of American Liberal Theology, 286.

20. On the relationship between Protestant conceptions of personality and psychology, see Heather Warren, “The Shift from Character to Personality in Mainline Protestant Thought, 1935–1945,” Church History 67, no. 3 (1998): 537–55 and Richard Fox, “The Culture of Liberal Protestant Progressivism, 1875–1925,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 3 (1993): 639–60.

21. Dorrien, Making of American Liberal Theology, 311.

22. Edgar Sheffield Brightman, Personality and Religion (New York: Abingdon Press, 1934 [1979]), 7.

23. Brightman, 126.

24. Brightman, 148.

25. Brightman, 150.

26. On the Dulles commission, see Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 384–410. See also Anthony C. Arend, Pursuing a Just and Durable Peace: John Foster Dulles and International Organization (New York: Praeger, 1988).

27. When Hostilities Cease: Addresses and Findings of the Exploratory Conference of the Bases of a Just and Enduring Peace, Chicago Temple, May 27–30, 1941 (New York: Commission on World Peace of the Methodist Church, 1941), 8.

28. McConnell, “God and the World We Live In,” in The Christian Bases of World Order: The Merrick Lectures of 1943 (New York: Abingdon Press, 1943), 33.

29. McConnell, 32.

30. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues, 218.

31. Henry A. Wallace, “Practical Religion in the World of Tomorrow,” in Christian Bases of World Order, 9.

32. Wallace, 14.

33. Wallace, 16.

34. Borgwardt, New Deal for the World; Glendon, World Made New.

35. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues, 67.

36. Nurser, For All Peoples. See also Anna Su, Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

37. Nurser, For All Peoples, 187.

38. Gunner Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944), 8.

39. Edmund D. Soper, Racism: A World Issue (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1947).

40. Soper, 80.

41. Soper, 80–81, 84.

42. Soper, 290.

43. Buell G. Gallagher, Color and Conscience: The Irrepressible Conflict (New York: Harper & Bros., 1946), 188–89.

44. On the anti-racist activism of Protestants at mid-century, see James F. Findlay, Jr., Church People in the Struggle: The National Council of Churches and the Black Freedom Movement, 1950–1970 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Gene Zubovich, “The Global Gospel: Protestant Internationalism and American Liberalism, 1940–1960” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2015).

45. Zubovich, “For Human Rights Abroad, Against Jim Crow at Home: The Political Mobilization of American Ecumenical Protestants in the Era of World War II,” Journal of American History 105 (forthcoming).

46. On the 1940s, see Mark Thomas Edwards, The Right of the Protestant Left: God’s Totalitarianism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); “The Realist-Pacifist Summit Meeting of March 1942 and the Political Reorientation of Ecumenical Protestantism in the United States,” in Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues, 56–81; William Inboden, Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945–1960: The Soul of Containment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Nurser, For All Peoples; Preston, Sword of the Spirit, 365–410; Thompson, For God and Globe, 167–189; Warren, Theologians of a New World Order: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian Realists, 1920–1948 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Zubovich, “The Global Gospel.” On the Protestant accommodation of liberalism, see Margaret Bendroth, The Last Puritans: Mainline Protestants and the Power of the Past (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion; Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues; Amy Kittelstrom, The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition (New York: Penguin, 2016); Preston, Bruce J. Schulman, and Julian E. Zelizer, eds., Faithful Republic: Religion and Politics in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015); Doug Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Leigh Eric Schmidt and Sally M. Promey, American Religious Liberalism (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2012).

47. Robert A. Divine, Second Chance: The Triumph of Internationalism in America During World War II (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 160–61.

48. Thomas E. Dewey, “ ‘Six Pillars of Peace’ Program of the Federal Council of Churches,” New York Times, June 27, 1943, 18. This article was one of a series of eight, all of which appeared in more than 100 newspapers.

49. Preston, Sword of the Spirit, 409; Warren, Theologians of a New World Order, 106–7.

50. Anderson, Bourgeois Radicals: The NAACP and the Struggle for Colonial Liberation, 1941–1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Thomas F. Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

51. The Churches and Human Rights: An Official Statement adopted by the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America Records, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Folder 16, Box 57, NCC RG 18. George Dugan, “End of Racial Segregation Asked by Churches’ Council: Church Council Hits Racial Bias,” New York Times, December 4, 1948, 1.

52. Quoted in Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 132.

53. Steven L. B. Jensen, The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values, reprint ed. (2016; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

54. Findlay, Church People in the Struggle.

55. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail: A Vigorous, Eloquent Reply to Criticism Expressed by a Group of Eight Clergymen,” Christian Century, June 12, 1963, 767–73.

56. “Final Examination Answers, Personalism,” January 1, 1952 to January 31, 1952, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 2, Rediscovering Precious Values, July 1951–November 1955, ed. Claybourne Carson et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 110–13. See also Rufus Burrow, God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006) and Warren E. Steinkraus, “Martin Luther King’s Personalism and Non-Violence,” Journal of the History of Ideas 34, no. 1 (1973): 97–111.

57. On King’s personalist theology, and the affinity between personalist ideas and King’s upbringing in the black church, see Burrow, God and Human Dignity.

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