Saturday, March 10, 2018

Bishop Francis and Eva Thomas -- The McConnells

 Francis McConnell

Francis J. McConnell (1871-1953) was an American Methodist bishop, a college president, a social reformer and an author. He was born in Trinway, Ohio. “The Bishop” died in Lucasville on his 82nd birthday, August 18, 1955. He is interred in the local cemetery.

Francis' wife, Mrs. Eva Thomas McConnell (1871-1968), was born in Lucasville on July 23, 1871. She was the daughter of James and Rachel M. Thomas. Eva, along with Genevieve Marsh, were the two members of the first graduating class in Lucasville. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1894. There, she met Francis and they were married in 1897.

Together, Francis and Eva rose to significant leadership of the Methodist Church. Upon their retirement in 1944, they returned to Lucasville to manage their farms on Fairground Road. In 1952, Francis wrote of Eva: “After having known her for nearly sixty years, I have never seen any trait in her in which I would suggest improvement.

Eva was vice -president of The Women's Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church and traveled widely with her husband. She died at Lucasville, Ohio, in her ninety-seventh year.

Francis and Eva's daughter, Dorothy McConnell (1900 - 1989), became an American editor and author. 

Dorothy was born at Ipswich, Massachusetts, on September 18, 1900. She received her B.A. from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1920, and an M.A. in 1922 from Columbia University.

Dorothy McConnell was a social worker (1922-1926), and an editor (1926-1932). From 1940 to 1966 she was editor of World Outlook, a periodical of the Board of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church. McConnell served as a member of the Board of Higher Education in Asia, on the executive committee of the World Methodist Council, on the national board of the Y.W.C.A., committee member of the National Council of the Churches in Christ in the U.S.A. and of the World Council of Churches.

The Church and Francis McConnell

The social gospel movement was launched in the late nineteenth century by Congregationalists, Baptists, and Episcopalians, but at the turn of the twentieth century, liberal Methodists converted to it, and quickly became the movement's leading denominational force.

Francis MeConnell was the son of a studious, progressive-leaning Methodist minister father and a studious, intensely devout, strong-willed mother. His father, Israel H. McConnell, diligently studied the sermons of Horace Bushnell, Phillips Brooks, and Jame Martineau, and whenever possible, he traveled to hear Henry Ward Beech. I. H. conducted lengthy revivals but regretted how the American Protestantism was dependent on revivals; his preaching focused on individuality morality and salvation, sometimes with a strong word against racial injustice or demon rum.

Israel's wife, Nancy J. McConnell, was an old-style Wesleyan sanctificationist who spoke of “heart purity” as the Christian ideal.

Francis McConnell was born in 1871 on his maternal grandfather's Ohio farm, shortly before his father was ordained to the ministry. At the age of nine he made his profession of faith with no special urging from his parents. Every Sunday morning after the sermon his father issued a low-keyed altar call. One Sunday young Francis walked forward to the altar rail and shook hands with his father. “That was all there was to it, as far as ceremony was concerned,” he later recalled. “When we returned to the parsonage after the service, both Mother and Father told me they were glad for what I had done.

McConnell grew up in a series of Ohio Methodist parsonages; during his father's seventeen years of ministry the family moved nine times, their longest stint in any parish three years. As a youth, he heard many Civil War veterans tell him war stories. Years later, he was stunned to discover the existence of Northerners who still resented Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

At the age of seventeen, Francis lost his father at age 43 to appendicitis at a parish in Indiana. Returning to Ohio, Nancy McConnell put thre sons through Ohio Wesleyan University and into the Methodist ministry.

Frank graduated from college in 1894 and enrolled at Boston University the following autumn.

In 1897 not only did Francis McConnell marry Eva Thomas, but also he received his S.T.B. Degree, and was ordained to the ministry. In two years he completed his Ph.D. McConnell gave eight years to parish ministry, pastoring congregations in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and Brooklyn, New York. He then accepted the presidency of DePauw University in 1908; however, his books started flowing before he entered academe.

In The Diviner Immanence (1906) McConnell affirmed the modern emphasis on God's nearness. “There is and can be no place for mere stuff in the universe,” he asserted. McConnell reasoned that because space and time are merely forms of the mind's knowing, with no substantial reality in themselves, it followed that “we (humans) are not far from the Creative Mind either in space or in time.”

McConnell believed that good theology is related to science and philosophy and that they are critically determinative for theology. He considered “lower forms of nearness” such as Darwinism. But theology has its own ultimate object in a higher form or nearness, he argued, which is the immanence of soul. 

In the mind of McConnell, spiritual nearness was “the nearness of mutual understanding, of reciprocal interest, of sympathetic cooperation, of shared burden-bearing, of fellow-feeling, and of good comradeship.” He reasoned that scientific and philosophical labor can establish “lower nearness” though the lower nearness “may be gloriously preparatory and introductory to the higher.”

To McConnell, when God energizes His mental creations into reality, there is no reason why these different world systems cannot “jostle and collide with each other.” God, then is able willfully to energize someone like a novelist into actual expression of imagining something as abstract as six different story worlds.

In 1912 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church elected McConnell, then forty years old, to the episcopacy. Though his ecclesiastical assignment took him further away from Boston – McConnell first assumed responsibility for Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, and Mexico – the personalist school gained much from his subsequent writing and public prominence.

McConnell's service in the larger church included the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America and the Methodist Federation of Social Action. He served as a visiting professor at Columbia University, Yale University, Drew Theological Seminary and Garrett Seminary.

McConnell is well-known for this quote:

“We need a type of patriotism that recognizes the virtues of those who are opposed to us. We must get away from the idea that America is to be the leader of the world in everything. She can lead in some things. The old "manifest destiny" idea ought to be modified so that each nation has the manifest destiny to do the best it can - and that without can't, without the assumption of self-righteousness and with a desire to learn to the uttermost from other nations.”


A Flaw in McConnell's Design

Writing about the past and examining the minds of well-intentioned people in those bygone days is fraught with unusual and sometimes perplexing discoveries. Such is the case when reviewing the life of Bishop Francis McConnell. Now, the people of the United Methodist Church apologize for some of his views … views that, unfortunately, support eugenics. How these ideas once gained widespread acceptance in churches and even in the government is shocking. So, with great regret, I report the following for the good of history. If you believe I unjustly discredit the memory of the Bishop in doing so, I hope you will understand the need to report the facts.

Eugenics is defined as the “science” of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

Eugenics, grounded in the belief that certain “genetic” traits are good and others bad, is associated in the public mind mostly with the extreme eugenics policies of Adolf Hitler, which ultimately led to the Holocaust. Developed largely by Francis Galton as a method of improving the human race, it fell into disfavor after the perversion of its doctrines by the Nazis.

Built into the idea of natural selection is a competition between the strong and the weak, between the fit and the unfit. The eugenicists believed that this mechanism was thwarted in the human race by charity, by people and churches who fed the poor and the weak so that they survived, thrived, and reproduced.

Ironically, as the Eugenics Movement came to the United States, the churches, especially the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Episcopalians, embraced it.

Most of the time, church advocates of eugenics supported “positive eugenics” – essentially careful selection of mates. Nevertheless, sterilization became an acceptable kind of eugenics along with marriage laws limiting marriage between whites and nonwhites. Some annual conferences supported such laws and a few opposed them.

Despite its packaging as “scientific,” and “healthy”, implicit in the movement was the notion that not only were certain individuals unfit to reproduce, whole ethnicities and races were equally unfit. The county fairs of America featured “Better Baby” contests, where African-American and Asian mothers were discouraged or barred from entering. The winners of these contests were invariably Caucasian.

The United States Government implemented “preferred” nations in their immigration screening, making it more difficult for Southern Europeans, African-Americans and Asians to emigrate. Conferences and forums were held to earnestly discuss population breeding and management.

The auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had links through shared leadership roles. This all seems surreal to the modern reader, who is inclined to categorize these “reformist” groups along different ideological axes, but those beliefs were part of the times. Eugenics providing a “scientific” basis to their racial segregationist bias was too tempting to resist. Many believed some whole groups (those who consumed alcohol) and races (Afro-Americans) were simply unfit to live in America.

In 1907, in an attempt to effect God’s will while resolving major social problems, the State of Indiana passed the first sterilization law in the United States. Other states of the nation were not far behind Indiana in approving sterilization legislation and, while California eventually became the nation’s leader in the campaign to sterilize the unfit, by mid-century some sixty thousand Americans had been deemed unfit or too dangerous to be a part of the nation’s gene pool and had been sterilized.

This all was accomplished with the specific approval of the Supreme Court of the United States which ruled, in a decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. -- Buck v. Bell (1927) -- that states had a legal right to sterilize their citizens.

In the 1910s, Methodist churches hosted forums in their churches to discuss eugenics. In the 1920s, many Methodist preachers submitted their eugenics sermons to contests hosted by the American Eugenics Society. By 1927, when the American Eugenics Society formed its Committee on the Cooperation with Clergymen, Bishop Francis McConnell, president of the Methodist Federation for Social Service, served on the committee. In 1936, he would chair the roundtable discussion on Religion and Eugenics at the American Eugenics Society Meeting.

The laity of the church also took up the cause of eugenics. When the American Eugenics Society offered cash prizes for the best sermons based on eugenics, they inspired about 300 sermons, mostly by liberal Protestants. In 1929, the Methodist Review published the sermon “Eugenics: A Lay Sermon” by George Huntington Donaldson. In the sermon, Donaldson argues, “the strongest and the best are selected for the task of propagating the likeness of God and carrying on his work of improving the race.”

Here is an apology by the United Methodists that is still posted on the site of the People of the United Methodist Church:

“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.”


Book of Resolutions: Repentance for Support of Eugenics

Gary J. Dorrien. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity. February 28, 2003.

Guide to the Francis John McConnell Family Papers. Prepared by Peter Cole, Student Assistant; Robert Drew Simpson, Assistant Archivist and Mark C. Shenise, Associate Archivist United Methodist Archives and History Center.

General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church. (Published for the Drew University Methodist Library). December 18, 2001.

Lucasville Ohio Sesquicentennial 1819-1969. Local Publication. 1969.

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