The National Council of Churches was formally organized in 1950 in Cleveland, Ohio, but the ecumenical spirit in the U.S.A. emerged a half century earlier.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, churches of every Christian tradition were acutely aware of the irony of proclaiming Christ’s gospel of love and salvation in a culture of acrimony and injustice. In 1900, millions of non-white Americans were living in hostile environments, fearing for their lives, ostracized from employment lines, forced into the figurative and physical prisons of Jim Crow segregation, government designated reservations, and ghettos.
Too, millions of lower-class white Americans – immigrants and working poor – worked twelve hours or more each day on hard scrabble farms and in dangerous factories, for cruelly inadequate wages. Children as young as eight years old were forced to work in grueling, unsanitary conditions. Church leaders – many of whom had been active in abolition and temperance movements – realized the churches would have to work together to address the deplorable social conditions in the United States.
In 1907, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist theologian and social activist, wrote Christianity and the Social Crisis, and his words galvanized church leaders into a plan of action:
No one shares life with God whose religion does not flow out, naturally and without effort, into all relations of his life … Whoever uncouples the religious and social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and human institutions, to that extent denies the faith of the Master.
In May 1908, 32 Christian communions met in Philadelphia to form the Federal Council of Churches. One of the Federal Council’s first achievements was to issue the “The Social Creed of the Churches, based on a report on horrendous conditions in factories and farms by Methodist minister Frank Mason North.
The 32 communions that sat together during the first meeting of the Federal Council of Churches in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia demonstrated a zeal for social reform that put them severely out of step with most Americans during the period between the Spanish American War and World War I. The majority of the delegates favored immigration reform, labor reform, the abolition of child labor, improved conditions for the poor, and temperance. As a result, they were regularly accused of being socialists – a worn-out canard that critics have not improved on in 100 years.
But their zeal for unity had staying power. A hundred years after the adoption of the Social Creed of the Churches, their descendants in the National Council of Churches and Church World Service updated the declaration as “A Social Creed for the 21st Century.” Continuing to work together toward the goal of church unity, U.S. churches that formed the Federal Council of Churches joined with other ecumenical bodies to form the National Council of Churches in 1950.
The membership and scope of the National Council of Churches has evolved over the past 63 years, but the churches have remained committed to proclaiming God’s word and expressing the love of Christ for all persons at every level of society.