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re-creating america: youth ministry and social change, 1930-1999

Jon Pahl explores the youth ministries of Walther Leaguers, Young Christian Workers, Youth for Christ members, and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore and finds a nuanced history with complex interactions across American culture. The history of Christian youth ministry opens several windows onto key changes in the cultural history of the United States. 

contents: introduction · the walther league · the young christian workers · youth for christ · african american youth ministries · recreating america · references · how to cite this article

In his ground-breaking 1977 book, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present, Joseph Kett accurately documented how Christians helped to “invent cover: Jon Pahl Youth Ministry in Modern America 1930 to the Presentadolescence” in the nineteenth-century.  With consistent disdain, however, Kett dismissed the Christian construction of adolescence as a “self-contained world in which prolonged immaturity could sustain itself,” where Christian leaders limited youthful choices and substituted “adult-led training” in place of voluntary associations of young people.  Indeed, Kett argued, “Christian youth organizations of the late nineteenth-century downgraded not only voluntarism but intellectuality and spirituality as well.”  Youth ministries were “vapid” and  “naive,” by-products of the “intellectual decadence” of Victorian Protestantism.  Surely they would soon fade away, for Christian youth ministry constituted “the final act of a melodrama which . . . had exhibited sundry attempts . . . to ‘save’ youth from cities, gambling dens, grog shops, and bawdy houses.”[1] 

When he turned to the twentieth-century, Kett saw the “fortresses of morality” that Protestants had built for youth come crumbling down. “Between 1920 and 1950,” thought Kett, “the reformers and clergymen who comprised the original architects of adolescence passed the scene.”  A few vestigial pockets of Christians interested in “training” youth remained here and there, but they offered youth only “conformity,” “hostility to intellectuality,” and “passivity.” Indeed, Christian youth ministries were part of a by-gone age, through which young people were segregated into a “separate sphere” that kept them ignorant of the complications of adult life, and that supposedly inculcated in them some mysterious qualities of “citizenship,” “leadership,” or “character.”  Such “youth-training institutions” were essentially “negative” in their intentions, and were doomed to fail in their efforts to promote moral purity.[2]

Now, on one level Kett was surely correct.  As Sydney Ahlstrom pointed out, the Puritan age of American religious history has ended.[3]   And yet, on another level, Christian youth ministries have not only endured, they have in many cases flourished in the last half of the twentieth-century.  How they did so across several streams of denominational tradition is an important and largely untold aspect of American religious history.[4]  The history of Christian youth ministry, in fact, opens several windows onto key changes in the cultural history of the United States.  More specifically, in sexuality and gender relations, in class awareness and economic status, in acceptance of popular culture and media, and in concern for racial equality and civil rights, youth ministries survived over the past seventy years not by holding to a negation driven purity program, but by adapting a variety of practices to mobilize youth for various causes.  That this mobilization brought its own ambivalent outcomes in American cultural history does not lessen the significance of the movement from purity to practices as a whole, or of the agency and significance of youth ministers and young people in history.[5]   Youth ministries, at the least, have been telling sites where social change and intergenerational relations have been negotiated.[6]

The Walther League: Lutheran Young People “Sinning Boldly” in Gender Relations

Die Walther Liga was founded in 1893 in Buffalo, New York as a Lutheran answer to the YMCA.[7]  Based in local congregations, and disseminated through a national publication, Der Vereinsbote [The Society Messenger], the League grew dramatically after World War I when the official language of the organization changed from German to English (the publication then became The Walther League Messenger).[8]  By 1930 the League was operating an office in downtown Chicago which connected nearly seventeen hundred congregational youth societies, a number which grew to over five thousand by 1965.  The Chicago office produced four major publications, and coordinated a wide-range of events, most notably an annual convention (modeled on political party conventions); a network of summer camps; oratory, choir, and sporting contests; a network of “hospices”(boarding houses) for Lutheran youth; and a sanitarium for sufferers of tuberculosis.  Eighteen regional districts also held rallies, published study programs and newsletters, and organized service projects.  Many young people had contact only with the congregational societies of the Walther League, most of which were located in parishes of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, but the complex negotiations across generations occurred throughout the organization, from the local to the national levels. 

For instance, Walther Leaguers often found issues related to sexuality and gender a source of intergenerational contention.[9]  As early as 1900, clerical officials of the Lutheran church had recommended that the League not allow women to vote or speak at annual conventions.[10]  The Leaguers rejected this recommendation, and women participated as speaking and voting members of the Walther League fully twenty years before they voted in U.S. Federal elections.[11]  By 1930, having lost badly to their youth on suffrage, Lutheran leaders concerned with preserving adolescent purity found a new gender issue around which to rally: the modern dance.  For the most entertaining of many examples, we turn to Professor P. E. Kretzmann of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, who made the circuit of Walther League Summer camps in the late thirties and early forties speaking on “That Vexing Question of Dancing.”  “The sex passions of the adolescent are easily aroused,” Kretzmann grudgingly admitted.  Consequently, “There is no essential difference between the embrace of ‘petting’ which is so generally indulged in by frivolous young people in our days, and the embrace of the modern dance.”  Indeed, Kretzmann continued, any “girl” who permitted a man to dance with her, deserved to be called a “demi-vierge, only half a virgin, because half of her virginity was gone.”[12]  The virginity of the male was apparently not affected.

Kretzmann clearly articulated the purity program which Kett saw at work in youth organizations.  But what did the young people themselves think and do?  Former Walther Leaguer Martha Smith recalled in a letter to me that she met her husband, Warren, at a Walther League play in Brooklyn, New York one night in the late thirties.  The two were attracted to each other, arranged to meet at the Parkway Inn after the play, and during the evening “they danced and got better acquainted.”[13]  Walther Leaguers told me many similar stories in the dozens of oral history interviews I completed with them.  The young Lutherans knew that the Walther League was a “marriage bureau,” and at least some of them felt free to reject the puritanical prohibitions of their elders and learn to foxtrot, waltz, and even swing, insofar as Lutherans could imagine what that meant. 

By the fifties, the young people of the Walther League were dancing in their church basements and fellowship halls, albeit in a carefully disguised form that they called “play-party games.”  A correspondent to the Walther League Messenger from Iowa explained: “‘And promenade her home’--These words certainly are well known to many an Iowa Walther Leaguer. Playparty games and squares are a common sight in our district.  As informal mixers they are tops. . . .  All you have to do is mention the word ‘playparty’ and the toes begin to twitch.”[14]  The predictable objections came from some clerical leaders.  Rev. T. J. Vogel of Amherst, Nebraska, for example, wrote in 1953 to Edgar Fritz, the Chairman of the Walther League Board of Directors to complain that:  “In the home congregations the young people are warned against the sinful dances, [but] when they return from the [Walther League] conventions . . . they report what a wonderful time they had . . .‘dancing to beat the band.’”[15]

Throughout its history, then, Walther League functioned as a place for young people to experiment in gender roles and relations.  Young men and women mixed fairly freely at both local and national meetings, and young women, especially, benefitted from the opportunities to exercise leadership.  For instance, Elizabeth Zoller, a seventeen-year old member of the Regina, Saskatchewan Walther League Society, delivered a homily at a Holy Week service at her church in the early fifties--over twenty years in advance of the ordination of women in any Lutheran church.[16]  Marilyn Rook Bernthal, active in the Frankenmuth, Michigan Walther League during the late fifties, recalled that “the home society was the place . . . we had the chance to lead, to figure out our own finances, and to [do things] ourselves.”[17]

Indeed, the Leaguers were doing all kinds of things themselves.  One tormented adolescent wrote to the Walther League Messenger in 1956 about a sexual behavior known to begin around puberty: “I habitually commit one of the most horrid sins on earth,” the Leaguer lamented.  “I have prayed and cried over it, but apparently the Lord hasn’t seen my tears or heard my prayers.”  The Rev. Paul G. Hansen responded, not with moralistic prohibition, but with tact and more than a little gentle irony: “There is nothing in Scripture which forbids masturbation . . . [and] there is nothing physically harmful about masturbation. . . . ‘[God] will not suffer you to be tempted above what you are able.’”[18]

By the sixties and seventies, Walther League Executive Director Elmer Witt had published under the title “Life Can Be Sexual--Now!,” arguing among other things that “God created sexuality and calls us to live fully and freely as sexual beings.”[19]  At least some of the Leaguers apparently needed little encouragement to embrace changing gender mores.  Throughout the sixties women began writing more regularly for The Walther League Messenger, which was incorporated into an ecumenical youth ministry publication, Arena, in 1963, and whose name was changed to Edge in 1967, and then again to Bridge in 1969.  The latter featured a regular column, “The Sisters Speak,” whose location in the publication was indicated with the circle-above-cross icon for the female gender, with a clenched fist at the center.  Leaguer Kathy Morkert expressed the way “the sisters” saw things:  “The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod joins the other institutions in our society that perpetuate the myths and role definitions that dehumanize and degrade women. . . .  God’s gifts have no sexual distinction.”[20] 

Now, such sentiments did not sit well with some Lutheran authorities.  Local parishes began to withdraw financial support from th3]  "Martha W. Smith to Jon Pahl,” 21 November 1991.”  I distributed surveys to and requested correspondence from several hundred former Walther Leaguers between 1991 and 1993.  Returned surveys and correspondence have been forwarded to the Concordia Historical Institute, Walther League Collection.

[14]  John Fischer, “Iowa West Highspots,” Walther League Messenger 64(April 1956): 19.

[15]  "T. J. Vogel to Edgar Fritz,” 21 March 1953.  Concordia Historical Institute, Box 43, Walther League Collection.

[16]  Elizabeth Zoller to Jon Pahl,” November 8, 1991, p. 7.  Typescript of homily included.

[17]  "Marilyn [Rook] Bernthal to Jon Pahl,” September 23, 1991, p.  3.

[18]  Paul G. Hansen, “It’s Your Problem,” Walther League Messenger 64(February 1956): 29.

[19]  Elmer Witt, “Life Can Be Sexual--Now,” Arena One (June 1967): 7-8.

[20]  Kathy Morkert, “The LCMS and Women,” Bridge (April 1971): 6.

[21]  See Todd Nichol, All These Lutherans: Three Paths to a New Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), and the ELCA web-page, http://www.elca.org.

[22]  For an examination of this backlash at work in an earlier period, see Betty DeBerg, Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism, 1875-1925 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989).  For the definitive study of the present manifestation, see Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women (NY: Crown, 1991).  For a historical study of the dynamics within the Missouri Synod, see Mary Todd, Authority Vested:  A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod  (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2000).

[23]  This is the implicit plot (badly obscured by lack of editing) in Harvey Graff, Conflicting Paths: Growing Up in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).  See also Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) and Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).  A. Gregory Schneider, The Way of the Cross Leads Home: The Domestication of American Methodism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) dates this process too early, and defines it too narrowly, but clearly identifies the dynamics at work within one denomination.  See also Colleen McDannell, “Home Schooling,” in American Sacred Space.  Ed. David Chidester and Edward T. Linenthal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

[24]  For general historical treatments of the Catholic Action movements, see Jay Dolan, The American Catholic Experience:  A History from Colonial Times to the Present  (Garden City, New York:  Doubleday, 1985); Aaron I. Abell, American Catholicism and Social Action:  A Search for Social Justice, 1865-1950  (Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame, 1963); Debra Campbell, “Reformers and Activists,” in American Catholic Women:  A Historical Exploration.  Ed. by Karen Kennelly, C.S.J  (New York:  Macmillan, 1989), pp. 152-181; and “Labor and Lay Movements:  Part One,” U.S. Catholic Historian 9(Summer, 1990):  223-333, and especially “Labor and Lay Movements:  Part Two,” in Ibid., 9(Fall, 1990):  335-467. 

[25]  See Michael de la Bedoyere, The Cardijn Story  (New York:  Longmans, Green and Co., 1958).  Among Cardijn’s writings in translation, see Challenge to Action:  Addresses of Monsignor Joseph Cardijn.  Ed. by Eugene Langdale  (Chicago:  Fides, 1955) and Laymen Into Action.  Tr. by Anne Heggie  (London:  Geoffrey Chapman, 1964). 

[26]  There is a monograph documenting the history of the group, written by a former member.  See Mary Irene Zotti, A Time of Awakening: The Young Christian Worker Story in the United States, 1938 to 1970  (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1991), p. 153.

[27]  R. Scott Appleby, “Present to the People of God:  The Transformation of the Roman Catholic Parish Priesthood,” in Transforming Parish Ministry:  The Changing Roles of Catholic Clergy, Laity, and Women Religion  Ed. by Jay P. Dolan, et al.  (New York:  Crossroad, 1990), p. 27.

[28]  Zotti, Awakening, p. 15.

[29]  See Dodie Marino, “YCW in Our Factory,” in Apostolate 2(Winter, 1954): 20-26; “YCW Joins a Picket Line,” in Apostolate 4(Spring, 1957): 10-14.

[30]  YCW [Women’s] Staff, “U.S. Girls’ Biggest Problem: Loneliness,” in AIM 2(March, 1958):  4.

[31]  See for example, Jeremiah Newman, What is Catholic Action:  An Introduction to the Lay Apostolate  (Westminster, Md:  Newman Press, 1958), p. 23 who argues in typical fashion that the “alarming” growth of Communism made Catholic action necessary.

[32]  Bob Senser, Specialized Apostolates in Action  (Chicago:  CFM/YCW/YCS, 1959), p. 5.

[33]  Fr. Keith Kennedy, “YCW: A Workers’ Apostolate?,” in Apostolate 5(Spring, 1958): 15-20.

[34]  Zotti, Awakening,  p. 139.

[35]  "Two Reports on YCW City Chaplains,” in Apostolate 9(Fall, 1962): 5-6.

[36]  See “A Time To Begin: Introducing YCM,” typed page proofs.  (Chicago: YCM, 1967).  University of Notre Dame Archives, CYCM Collection, Box 20.

[37]  Andrew M. Greeley, “The Catholics in the World and in America,” in World Religions in America: An Introduction (Louisville, KY: Wesminster/John Knox, 1994), p. 95.

[38]  Bruce Shelley, “The Rise of Evangelical Youth Movements,” in Fides et Historia 18(1986): 49.  The office moved to Wheaton, Illinois in 1953, and Denver, in 1990.

[39]  Ibid..

[40]  Joel A. Carpenter, “Youth for Christ and the New Evangelicals,” in Religion and the Life of the Nation: American Recoveries, ed. Rowland A. Sherrill (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 140.

[41] For this movement, see the PK web-site, http://www.promisekeepers.org/, as cited 2/04/03, and Rhys H. Williams, ed., Promise Keepers and the New Masculinity:  Private Lives and Public Morality  (Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books/The Association for the Sociology of Religion, 2001).

[42]  Dorothy Haskins, “For Girls Only,” in Youth for Christ Magazine 5(February, 1947): 6, 28.

[43]  Tim Stafford, “Love, and Sex, and the Whole Person,” regular feature, Campus Life 56(July/August, 1997): 42-44.

[44] Don Jacobs, “For Boys Only,” Youth for Christ Magazine 5(February, 1947): 7, 58-9.

[45]  Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity:  Christianity and Sports in America  (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2001), isolates the dynamic for an earlier period, through a paradigm that largely perpetuate’s Kett’s.

[46]  See my “Billy Sunday,” in Twentieth-Century Shapers of American Popular Religion, ed. Charles H. Lippy (NY: Greenwood Press, 1989): 410-416.

[47]  See Mel Larson, Young Man on Fire: The Story of Torrey Johnson and Youth for Christ (Chicago: Youth for Christ Publications, 1945), p. 41, and Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 165.

[48]  Tony Campolo, The Church and the American Teenager: What Works and What Doesn’t Work in Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), p. 41.

[49]  Quentin J. Schultze, et al., Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991) raises this possibility.

[50]  Carpenter, Revive Us Again, p. 162.

[51] Vincent Harding, Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), p. 59.

[52]  See for example, David Halberstam, The Children (NY:  Fawcett, 1998), who in somewhat breathless fashion narrates the story.

[53]  See Peter J. Paris, “The Religious World of African Americans,” in World Religions in America: An Introduction, ed. Jacob Neusner (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), pp. 83-89, who develops a helpful typology, based on his earlier The Social Teachings of the Black Churches.  (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).

[54]  Lawrence H. Mamiya, “A Social History of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore: The House of God and the Struggle for Freedom,” in American Congregations: Volume I: Portraits of Twelve Religious Communities.  Ed. by James P. Wind and James W. Lewis (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994),  p. 255.

[55]  "By the Grace of God: A History of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” Homepage of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, http://www.bethel1.org/history.htm, as cited 2/03/03.

[56]  The rediscovery of this insight has been a chief feature of the past generation of scholarship on the African American Church.  See among many James Cone, God of the Oppressed  (N.Y.:  Seabury, 1976); Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll:  The World the Slaves Made  (N.Y.:  Vintage, 1976); Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness:  Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom  (N.Y.:  Oxford University Press, 1977); Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion:  The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South  (N.Y.:  Oxford University Press, 1978).

[57]  Mamiya, “A Social History of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore: The House of God and the Struggle for Freedom,” p. 257.

[58]  C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), p. 241.

[59]  Mamiya, p. 258-261.

[60]  William R. Myers, Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry: Two Congregations in America (NY: Pilgrim Press, 1991) takes this idea of “kinship” as the key to understanding African American youth ministry.

[61]  On this theme of continuity, see Albert J. Raboteau, “The Black Church: Continuity within Change,” in Altered Landscapes: Christianity in America, 1935-1985 Ed. David W. Lotz (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989): 77-91.  On the role of churches in the civil rights movement, see among many Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (NY: Free Press, 1984); David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross:  Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference  (N.Y.:  Vintage Books, 1986); Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters:  America in the King Years, 1954-1963  (N.Y.:  Simon and Schuster, 1988); Adam Fairclough, “The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Second Reconstruction, 1957-1973,” in Modern American Protestantism and Its World, Vol. 9:  Native American Protestantism and Black Protestantism Ed. Martin E. Marty (Munich: K.G. Sauer, 1993): 188-205.

[62]  Jon Pahl, “Interview with David DeVaux,” December 16, 1998.

[63]  Lincoln and Mamiya, p. 380-381.  See also James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues:  An Interpretation (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1972); Wyatt Tee Walker, Somebody’s Calling My Name:”  Black Sacred Music and Social Change  (Valley Forge, PA:  Judson Press, 1979); and Michael W. Harris, The Rise of Gospel Blues:  The Music of Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church  (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[64]  Bethel is one of the A.M.E. (and A.M.E. Zion and Baptist) churches to be involved since the seventies in the“neo-Pentecostal” movement.  This movement, drawing on the dramatic growth of the Church of God in Christ in the U.S., has transformed many traditionally “decorous” black churches into congregations featuring vibrant, spirit-infused worship.  Speaking in tongues is not considered essential for membership in these churches, but it is welcomed as one of many spiritual gifts.  See Lincoln and Mamiya, pp. 385-88.

[65]  "Bethel AME Rites of Passage Syllabus,” p. 8.  In possession of the author, obtained from Rev. DeVaux.

[66]  Mamiya, p. 269.

[67]  Ibid.

[68]  "Interview with David DeVaux,” p. 3.

[69]  "Ministries of Bethel,” Bethel Home Page, pp. 1-3.

[70]  The prospects for this research are good.  The Society for the History of Childhood and Youth was formed in 1999, and holds bi-annual conferences.   Go to http://academic.mu.edu/shcy/ for the society’s web-page.  An H-Net on-line discussion of children and youth is also active, and sponsors a web-page for exchange of syllabi.  See for the latter, http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~child/syllabi/, as cited 2/04/03.

photo: Jon PahlHow to cite this article: Pahl, J. (2003) 'Re-creating America: Youth ministry and social change, 1930-1999', the encylopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/christianyouthwork/recreating_america.htm.

Dr. Jon Pahl is Associate Professor of Church History at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP).

© Jon Pahl 2003