Editor’s Note: 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. To celebrate this milestone anniversary, Church & State is profiling important figures in the life of the organization throughout the year. This month, we’re featuring Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, a Methodist official who was among AU’s founders. This profile draws from Americans United’s archives and historian Robert Moats Miller’s 1990 biography G. Bromley Oxnam: Paladin of Liberal Protestantism.
When Americans United was founded in 1947, one thing was immediately apparent: The organization had broad theological and political diversity.
On one end of the spectrum sat groups like the National Association of Evangelicals and religious denominations that hewed toward a conservative interpretation of the Bible and Christianity. On the other end – way at the end, some might say – rested Bishop Garfield Bromley Oxnam, a social reformer, advocate for the poor and a foe of racism whose views on Christianity were so alarming to some people that he was accused of being a communist. (Spoiler: He wasn’t.)
Oxnam was involved with Americans United from day one. In October 1947, he chaired a meeting of mostly Protestant religious leaders who met in Washington, D.C., to discuss the plans to form a national organization to defend church-state separation. One month later, Oxnam was in Chicago when the organization was officially launched, and its operating Manifesto was drafted. (The Manifesto was written by Charles Clayton Morrison, editor of Christian Century, and Oxnam served on a committee that edited it.)
Oxnam was vice president of Americans United’s Executive Committee (as the Board of Directors was then known), a position he held for more than 12 years. He was a powerful speaker, writer and activist who once appeared on the cover of TIME magazine.
Born in Sonora, Calif., in 1891, Oxnam was raised in a conservative, middle-class family. As a young man, he became interested in social reform and anti-poverty efforts and began moving to the left politically. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 1913 with a liberal arts degree and two years later earned a theology degree from the Boston University School of Theology. In August of 1914, he married Ruth Fisher, his lifelong partner. They had three children.
After a stint serving a small Methodist church in Poplar, Calif., Oxnam was appointed pastor of the struggling Newman Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, which he later renamed the Church of All Nations. Almost unheard of at the time, the congregation was multiracial. Oxnam called for racial integration, workers’ rights and immigration reform. He also opened a medical clinic to serve low-income residents.
In 1923, Oxnam made his only bid for public office, running for a seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education. Among his proposals was a plan to allow teachers more say over curriculum matters. It may sound like common sense by today’s standards, but the plan alarmed the city’s conservative establishment, and Oxnam came under sustained attack from the Los Angeles Times, which at the time was reactionary in its editorial outlook. (Oxnam’s agitating also spurred the FBI to open a file on him.)
Oxnam, the paper asserted, favored “sovietizing the schools, the application to our city educational system of the principles of radicalism that have been so fatal in Russia.”
Labeling Oxnam a “radical orator,” the Times blasted him in several articles, one headlined, “Shall Radicals Head Schools? Facts about G. Bromley Oxnam and Associates. His record as a Supporter of Socialist Doctrine.”
On election day, Oxnam lost by a wide margin.
Four years later, Oxnam moved to Boston, where he became professor of social ethics at Boston University. A year later, Oxnam assumed the presidency of De Pauw University in Indiana, where he endeared himself to the students by lifting a ban on dancing. Oxnam held the position until 1936, when he stepped down after being elected a Methodist bishop. He was assigned to oversee church affairs in Nebraska and Iowa.
Oxnam’s profile began to rise. In Omaha he launched a radio ministry, and he began accepting speaking engagements in other parts of the country. In 1939, he returned to Boston, where he oversaw more than 1,000 Methodist churches.
During World War II, Oxnam headed up efforts by the Methodist Church to furnish chaplains for the military. After the war, he had become a public figure, and his views were capturing national attention.
Oxnam’s experiences in Boston, where the Catholic Church was politically powerful and had influence over state legislatures in New England, convinced him of the need for strict separation of church and state.
At the time, Massachusetts had a law that barred doctors from discussing artificial contraceptives with anyone, including married couples. Oxnam supported a ballot referendum to repeal the measure in 1942 (which failed to pass). In October of 1947, he gave an address to Planned Parenthood in Chicago during which he blasted religiously based opposition to family planning, saying it does not reflect the totality of Christian thought.
“The church universal is composed of many branches,” Oxnam said, according to a report in The New York Times. “The obscurantism of one branch of the church must not discredit the intellectual and moral standards of other branches of the church.”
An advocate of public education and religious freedom, Oxnam worried that growing demands by private religious schools for tax aid would undermine public schools. He opposed a state law in Massachusetts that guaranteed publicly funded bus transportation for private school students. He once observed, “Personally, I do not want public monies to be used to support Communist schools, Fascist schools, Roman Catholic schools or Protestant schools. Public money should be used to support public schools.”
These stands – pro-birth control and anti-private school aid – brought Oxnam into conflict with leaders of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and he was attacked as an anti-Catholic in the church press. But Oxnam never backed down and made it clear that his beef was with the rigid views of the hierarchy, not individual church members. (It’s worth remembering that at this point in history, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church had not endorsed religious freedom as a fundamental human right. That didn’t happen until 1965.)
Oxnam was also an avowed opponent of religion-based censorship. A huge fan of live theater, Oxnam believed that stage plays should be presented as written. While living in Omaha, he clashed with Mayor Dan Bernard Butler, who tried to persuade the producers of Robert E. Sherwood’s play “Idiot’s Delight” to remove some profanity. Oxnam responded, “It is a thousand pities that our mayor should make our city ridiculous. A gentleman astute enough to become a successful politician should be wise enough to know that censorship is more dangerous than an occasional realistic line.”
A keen student of history, Oxnam argued that combinations of religion and government crushed freedom. In 1949, he joined other AU leaders at a conference in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. Before an audience of more than 3,500 attendees, Oxnam spoke with characteristic bluntness.
“Americans who have learned to breathe freely are forever done with manacled minds and shackled souls,” he said. “Here, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Jew have enjoyed the blessings of liberty. Wise men of all faiths will refuse to follow mistaken men whose training has conditioned them to subjugation and whose principles compel them to seek mastery. When will the hierarchy learn that there is no return to the darkness of the Middle Ages, during which a totalitarian church ruled the minds of men?”
Oxnam’s outspoken nature and his high-profile advocacy of the social gospel brought him increasing attention – and it was not always the good kind.
Oxnam had been publicly critical of the Red Scare that swept America in the late 1940s and intensified in the ’50s – some of his detractors even called him the “Red Bishop.” He was especially critical of the Dies committee, the predecessor of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), going so far in 1943 as to call for its abolition. In a February 1953 speech, Oxnam singled out several HUAC members by name, calling them “clowns” and “bullies.”
That assault didn’t go unnoticed. A few weeks later, Oxnam was attacked on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. Donald L. Jackson (R-Calif.) who said Oxnam “served God on Sunday and the Communist front for the balance of the week.” Jackson went on to accuse Oxnam of a “record of aid and comfort to the Communist front.” (Oxnam had traveled in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and penned a book about his travels but made it clear that, as a clergyman, official Soviet atheism was anathema to him.)
An angry Oxnam fired back in a press release, accusing Jackson of using “the floor of the House to broadcast a lie.” HUAC, he asserted, dealt in “falsehoods and rumor” and had become “a party to slander.” He also demanded the right to clear his name, making Oxnam a rarity: someone who actually wanted to appear before HUAC.
HUAC members were happy to comply. Committee members had recently gone on a tear investigating liberal clergymen, who they just assumed were sympathetic to communism. Oxnam was duly summoned, and on July 21, 1953, he appeared before the committee.
In his opening statement, Oxnam pulled no punches.
“I stand for the free man in the free society, seeking the truth that frees,” he told the committee. “I hold that the free man must discover concrete measures through which the ideals of religion may be translated into the realities of world law and order, economic justice and racial brotherhood.”
Oxnam continued, “Loyalty to my family, my church and my country are fundamental to me; and when any man or committee questions that loyalty, I doubt that I would be worthy of the name American if I took it lying down.”
Oxnam then blasted HUAC for its tactics of relying on rumors, hearsay and anonymous charges to tar people as communists. He called this a “vicious expression of Ku-Kluxism, in which an innocent person may be beaten by unknown assailants who are cloaked in anonymity and at times immunity, whose whips are cleverly constructed lists of so-called subversive organizations and whose floggings appear all too often to be sadistic in spirit rather than patriotic in purpose.”
Oxnam was questioned for an entire day and into the evening, an ordeal spanning 10 hours. At its conclusion, HUAC members voted unanimously that the hearing showed “no record of any Communist Party affiliation or membership by Bishop Oxnam.”
Oxnam left the hearing, which had been televised and carried over the radio, feeling drained and despondent. But his spirits undoubtedly picked up the next day when the media reviews of his performance came in: They were glowing.
Coast to coast, newspapers were filled with headlines reading, “Red-Hunters Rapped,” “Bishop Oxnam Victor For Self And Country” and “Oxnam Strikes A Blow For Liberty.”
Bruce Catton, a popular historian of the Civil War, wrote in a column, “Perhaps some kind of corner has been turned at last. Not only was the House Committee on Un-American Activities forced to eat its words in the matter of Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam; it got laughed at to boot, with the mikes switched on, the cameras whirring, and the press tables jammed.”
A year later, Oxnam wrote a book about his experiences, I Protest: My Experience with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In a column about the book, Church & State noted that HUAC had recklessly accused Oxnam of belonging to communist front groups that he not only wasn’t affiliated with but had never heard of.
During the hearing, several HUAC members accused Oxnam of being duped by pro-communist organizations, but Church & State saw things differently: “If anyone was ‘duped,’ it was the Committee members who relied on what Oxnam calls the ‘shoddy’ materials furnished them by ‘incompetent’ investigators,” asserted the article.
Throughout the ordeal, the Methodist Church’s support for Oxnam never wavered, and he took on positions of increasing responsibility. Aside from the churches he served in California, Omaha and Boston, Oxnam led Methodist communities in New York City (1944-52) and Washington, D.C. (1952-60). While in D.C., he took a special interest in American University, which had been founded by Methodist leaders in 1893. Oxnam engineered moving Westminster Theological Seminary from Westminster, Md., to the American University campus., where it was renamed Wesley Theological Seminary. Oxnam also helped launch the university’s School of International Service (SIS), an institution designed to train diplomats and ensure the spread of democracy and freedom.
A plaque outside the building that originally housed SIS reads, “The School of International Service of The American University. Established by the Methodist Church Dedicated to the Glory of God and the Service of Humanity and pledged to the study, proclamation and practice of the principles of freedom and the maintenance of civil, economic, and religious liberty by training competent and consecrated men and women for the international service of the state, the community and the church. G. Bromley Oxnam, Bishop of the Methodist Church, Washington Area 1958.”
Oxnam was also an ecumenist. He served as president of the World Council of Churches (WCC), which was founded in Amsterdam in 1948, and helped launch the U.S. National Council of Churches in 1950.
Oxnam’s work launching the WCC landed him on the cover of TIME magazine on Sept. 13, 1948. In the article, the magazine described him as “a chunky, solid, strong-voiced prelate” who “looks and dresses like a prosperous businessman” with “leftish social views.”
The article went on to say, “Among the assets he brings to any enterprise are his organizing and administrative ability. He applies both to his personal life so formidably that there is never a paper left on his desk or a question left unanswered in any committee over which he presides.”
Despite his many other endeavors, Oxnam never strayed from his commitment to Americans United or the principle of church-state separation. He continued to serve as an AU vice president until March of 1961. About a year later, Oxnam’s health began to decline. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and died on March 12, 1963, at age 71.
Six months prior to his death, Oxnam sent a note to Glenn L. Archer, founding executive director of Americans United. The two had become close over the years, and Oxnam, perhaps realizing that his time was winding down, wanted Archer to know how much his friendship with the AU leader and his association with the organization had meant to him.
“I think you have done a superlative piece of work and I doubt if it could have been equaled by anyone else in the country,” Oxnam wrote. “The organization is now recognized as the most instructive force in the matter of separation of Church and State, and I am proud to have been associated with the work from the day it was organized until the day I had to retire.”
In May 1963, Church & State carried a tribute to Oxnam. Headlined “A Founder Passes,” the article read, “A man of steel nerves and iron will, Bishop Oxnam was equipped with one of the best brains God ever permitted a mortal to have. In him the man of reflection and the man of action were superbly combined so that he had an almost unparalleled capacity for doing good things with efficiency and dispatch.”
In one of his final public statements, Oxnam spun a fanciful tale of a future “interplanetary conference” on religion. “Teachable humility” will characterize the delegates, he wrote, but “fundamentalist dogmatism … will have no place.”
Concluded Oxnam, “The sessions will be televised, and the universe will come to know the universal truth that frees.”