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Repenting for the Actions of Another

Harry Ward and Eugenics

Published on:
October 23, 2019
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5 min.
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On Labor Day weekend, I posted a picture of my one of my heroes on social media. The caption read: “Methodist pastor Harry Ward became a labor organizer when he learned about the terrible working conditions that people in his congregation experienced in Chicago. Adding action to his prayers, he lobbied for labor rights in D.C., became the founding president of the ACLU, and wrote the first published social creed for churches in the U.S. while working to educate churches about policy advocacy. He makes me proud to be Methodist and I want to be more like him! Happy #LaborDay!” I thought it was such a great post I shared it on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, along with a picture of Ward and a screenshot of the social creed he authored. 

The post got a lot of social media love, and I went to bed that night thinking how awesome it was that I had shared this story of the little-known Harry Ward. Much to my dismay the following morning, I woke to find a message from Pastor Christopher Loring Pierson in response to my tweet that read, “I applaud his work with labor and many causes but his support of eugenics is another story. I’m glad the UMC repented of our involvement.”

“I applaud his work with labor and many causes but his support of eugenics is another story. I’m glad the UMC repented of our involvement.”

I read it a couple times. Seriously, Harry Ward? No way. I didn’t want to believe it, but an embarrassingly short number of Google searches later, I was reading the whole story. It was true, Harry Ward had been an advocate for eugenics, and I felt sick to my stomach that I had ignorantly ended my post with the words, “I want to be more like him.” 

Pastor Christopher’s message had been so kind in teaching me a hard truth, and I wrote back to express my appreciation and admit my ignorance. He patiently kept teaching me, and responded with the pages in the United Methodist Book of Resolutions that offered more information on the topic. Sitting and reading them, I felt embarrassed, angry, and confused. Could I still call Harry Ward a hero? Did I have to throw out all my admiration of his work in the labor movement in light of this new information? These kinds of questions are being asked of theologians throughout history and of religious leaders today.

What do we do with those people, who for all their good works and lasting impact had an appallingly bigoted belief or caused harm through their work? Especially as Christians, what does it mean for us to recognize the sin and brokenness in someone who also did good things? Moreover, what do we do when that theologian is dead and can’t learn that they were wrong, can’t ask forgiveness or repent? Do we throw out all the good ideas because they came from the same person who had bad ideas? Or, can we do the hard and complicated work of telling the whole story, lamenting the harm and working to repair it as much as we can today? 

Perhaps the United Methodist Church’s repentance can be a guide for us. But first, let me tell you a little of Harry Ward’s story. Scholars describe Harry F. Ward as “the single most prominent activist in the Protestant left during the period between the two world wars,”[1] who “began and ended the 1920s calling the church to serious social action, defending civil liberties, fighting capitalism’s vices, and advocating a socialist economy as the true realization of the religion of Jesus for the social order.”[2] Ward was a colleague of Jane Addams and was active in the settlement movement while attending seminary and studying the theology of the social gospel. It was in Chicago that he first saw labor organizing as an essential part of church work, making the connections between systemic poverty and Jesus’s call to help the poor.[3] 

Ordained in 1902, Ward was the pastor of Wabash Avenue Methodist Church and Forty-Seventh Street Methodist Church in what one biographer calls “the Chicago slums.” He preached not just in those churches, but in the streets, following the Methodist tradition of field preaching.[4] In 1904, Ward began serving at Union Avenue Church and after being exposed to many unjust working conditions in factories and plants of his congregants, in 1908 was moved to Euclid Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, which is today Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church and honors Ward’s legacy with a staff position titled “Harry F. Ward Minister for Social Justice.”

Ward’s accomplishments in this time period are significant. In 1907 he and several other Methodists met in DC and founded the Methodist Federation for Social Service (today called the Methodist Federation for Social Action) whose goal was to distribute information about history and social theory to churches. When it was formed, Ward and others met with President Roosevelt and shared their ideas for how churches might become more active in social justice.[5] In 1908 Ward authored the first comprehensive statement of social principles from a church called The Social Creed. It quickly received significant ecumenical support and many churches signed on and adopted their own versions. The revised creed was published in a much longer book form by Ward in 1912 in partnership with the Federal Council of Churches and is still available in print today.[6] 

Ward’s stance on eugenics was wrong and I make no excuses for him.

So how is it that this man who seems to have had such a sense of justice also authored an article in the December 1928 issue of the magazine Eugenics entitled, “Is Christian Morality Harmful, Over Charitable to the Unfit?” in which he wrote that Christianity and eugenics both had the common goal of “removing the causes that produce the weak”?

Ward’s stance on eugenics was wrong and I make no excuses for him. The United Methodist Church formally repented of his teachings on eugenics, writing in the 2012 Book of Resolutions #3184 and Social Principles Paragraph 162O that said in part, 

“Matthew in the opening of his Gospel (Matthew 1:1–16) reminds us that in Jesus’ earthly family were not just Jews, but also four Gentile women. As Christians, we are not called because of our genetic identity; we are not called to reengineer our bodies or those of our children, or destroy those different from us, but rather to follow Christ. The United Methodist General Conference formally apologizes for Methodist leaders and Methodist bodies who in the past supported eugenics as sound science and sound theology. We lament the ways eugenics was used to justify the sterilization of persons deemed less worthy. We lament that Methodist support of eugenics policies was used to keep persons of different races from marrying and forming legally recognized families. We are especially grieved that the politics of eugenics led to the extermination of millions of people by the Nazi government and continues today as ‘ethnic cleansing’ around the world. We urge United Methodist annual conferences to educate their members about eugenics and advocate for ethical uses of science.” A link to the full text is here. 

I’m still horrified by Ward’s ignorant support of eugenics and I’m still inspired by his labor organizing and justice work. The lesson for me is to hold these two things together, recognizing Ward not as a hero on a pedestal but as a fallible human being just like me. I’ve often been wrong and I’m sure I will make more mistakes, but as long as there are pastor Christophers in the world willing to teach me, there is hope for a future of reconciliation with restorative justice. Our task as present-day theologians is to study the work of our ancestors in the faith, sort out the harm and name it, repent of it, and work to repair it, while daily doing our very best to live out love of God and love of neighbor. With that in mind, here’s what I’ll post instead next Labor Day:

“Methodist pastor Harry Ward became a labor organizer when he learned about the terrible working conditions that people in his congregation experienced in Chicago. Adding action to his prayers, he lobbied for labor rights in D.C., became the founding president of the ACLU, and wrote the first published social creed for churches in the U.S. while working to educate churches about policy advocacy. I join the UMC in repenting for his wrongheaded and harmful support of eugenics, and I’m committed to working for justice for all people, because each and every person is beloved and created in the image of God.” 

Violet Johnicker
Rev. Violet Johnicker serves as pastor of Brooke Road United Methodist Church in Rockford, Illinois. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from McCormick Theological Seminary and a Master of Public Policy degree from Adler University. Violet loves reading, fishing, baking bread, and going on adventures with her husband Kyle and their son Lincoln. Find her on Twitter: @violetj.

[1] Doug Rossinow, “The Radicalization of the Social Gospel: Harry F. Ward and the Search for a New Social Order, 1898-1936.” (Religion & American Culture 15, no. 1 (Winter 2005)), 65.

[2] David Nelson Duke, In the Trenches with Jesus and Marx: Harry F. Ward and the Struggle for Social Justice (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2003), 108.

[3] Eugene Link, Labor-Religion Prophet: The Times and Life of Harry F. Ward (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984), 18.

[4] Link, Labor-Religion Prophet, 19.

[5] Rossinow, “Radicalization of the Social Gospel,” 69.

[6] Laceye Warner, The Method of Our Mission: United Methodist Polity & Organization (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 54-56.

Cover image by Tim Mossholder.

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