The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA – A Brief History
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. In addition, millions of lower-class white Americans – immigrants and working poor – worked twelve hours or more each day on hardscrabble 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 May 1908, 32 Christian communions met in Philadelphia to form the Federal Council of Churches. As the 32 communions sat together during this first meeting in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, even as they affirmed their theological foundation, though from different traditions, in unity they demonstrated a zeal for social reform. 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 upon in over 100 years. But their zeal for unity, and thus for a unified witness, had staying power.
Continuing to work together toward the elusive goal of full church unity, in November 1950 the US churches that formed the Federal Council of Churches joined with additional ecumenical bodies to establish the National Council of Churches during a Constituting Convention held in Cleveland, Ohio. In this new configuration, the churches’ theological witness, coupled with its public witness on social justice issues, continued in the decades to follow. This has included the stand against war, especially in response to the Vietnam War and the War in Iraq; a search for peace and reconciliation, in particular with regard to the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East, and US-Cuba relations; the promotion of creation care, which brought a moral voice to the ongoing struggle to protect the environment; and work on issues as varied as poverty, education, and civil, and human rights. For many of these issues, the NCC has adopted policy statements, which serve to put forward the organization’s position on a given topic, and which serve as a foundation for all subsequent pronouncements on these issues. For other matters that arise and confront US society and call for a timelier word from the churches (e.g., gun violence, reparations, affirmative action), resolutions are adopted, and public statements are made.
From the beginning, the Commission on Religion and Race was involved in ending segregation in Mississippi. Church leaders attended the funeral of Medgar Evers in Jackson in 1963 and then, starting in 1964, sent minister-counselors to lead the Delta Ministry. Everyone in the ministry experienced threats and harassment like those that were part of the daily life for Black Mississippians. This ministry centered on building community and included a child development group experiment in education that stirred the Black community. Its painstaking efforts at voter registration and political education continued until 1974. It’s no coincidence that in 1986 the first African American was elected to Congress in Mississippi since Reconstruction from the Congressional District in the Delta where the ministry workers had been active. It is also no coincidence that Ambassador Andrew Young, who as a young man had interned for the NCC during this difficult period, later served as the President of NCC from 2000-01.
During this time, the Commission on Religion and Race had success in supporting the Black Freedom Movement and brought huge delegations of church people to Washington, DC when it was needed during the push for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, the National Council of Churches heeded the call from Rev.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to join in the march from Selma to Montgomery, AL and asked for Christians throughout the nation to join the protest. In the aftermath of the brutal attacks by state and local police on Black demonstrators, the commission and national church leaders brought religious leaders from across the nation to Washington, DC to support the Voting Rights Act proposed by the Johnson administration.
Continuing this legacy, in 2018 – which marked 50 years since the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968 – the National Council of Churches re-committed itself to eradicating the entrenched racism that grips the United States by launching the A.C.T. NOW to End Racism initiative on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The A.C.T. Now initiative urges the NCC, its members and partners to Awaken to the many manifestations of white supremacy and racism especially in the church, to Confront the need for change, and to work to Transform church and society into a reflection of the inclusive and equitable reign of God.
The membership and scope of the National Council of Churches have evolved since 1950, but today the 37 member denominations remain committed to proclaiming God’s word and expressing the love of Christ for all persons at every level of society as they go forth in the mission “to live as a community of communions called by Christ to visible unity and sent forth in the Spirit to promote God’s justice, peace and the healing of the world.”
Founding of the Federal Council of Churches
“The Social Creed of the Church” policy statement adopted
Founding of the National Council of Churches
Release of the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible
Conference on Faith and Order
“The Churches and Immigration” policy statement adopted
NCC Invited, Joins Organizing Group for March on Washington
NCC Advocates for Civil Rights Act and Supports Organization of Freedom Summer in the South
Joined Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on march from Selma to Montgomery
“World Poverty and the Demands of Justice” policy statement adopted
“Human Hunger and the World Food Crises” policy statement released
“Challenges to the Injustices of the Criminal Justice System” policy statement adopted
Middle East policy statement adopted (reaffirmed 2007)
“Immigration, Refugees, and Migrants” policy statement adopted
“Racial Justice” policy statement adopted
“Elementary and Secondary Public Education in the Society” policy statement adopted
New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible released
“Global Communications for Justice” policy statement adopted
“Human Rights: The Fulfillment of the Social Order” policy statement adopted
“Pillars of Peace for the 21st Century” policy statement adopted
“Interfaith Relations and the Churches” policy statement adopted (updated 2019)
Joined protests against War in Iraq
NCC leads boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Company in support of workers
“The Church and Children: Vision and Goals for the 21st Century” policy statement adopted (updated 2012)
Just Rebuilding of Gulf Coast Initiative begins in wake of Hurricane Katrina
“Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: Human Biotechnologies” policy statement adopted
“A Social Creed for the 21st Century” policy statement adopted
50th Anniversary of Conference on Faith and Order
“The Authority of the Church in the World” policy statement adopted
A.C.T. Now to End Racism campaign launch and rally on National Mall
“The Dangers of Christian Nationalism in the United States” policy statement adopted
New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition of the Holy Bible released
150th Anniversary of the International Sunday School Lessons (Committee on the Uniform Series)