Throughout the early twentieth century, Christian teachings shaped many Americans' sense of identity. Church leaders often considered themselves a moral voice of the nation. Although this might suggest that Christians became strongly motivated to help persecuted European Jews during the Holocaust, the reality proved more complex. Many considerations—including worries over the Nazis' treatment of Christians in Europe, and the perception that both American democracy and civilization itself were endangered by fascism—played a more powerful role in determining American Christians' reactions. Prejudice and suspicion toward Jews both at home and abroad also remained a strong element of American Christianity in this era. Ultimately, American Christians formed opinions and took action based both on their knowledge of events in Europe and their own views on the Nazi threat: as a danger to Americans, a danger to Christians and Christianity, and, perhaps less urgently, a danger to Jews.
According to a 1944 poll, nearly every American reported believing in God.1 The majority of Americans considered themselves Christian, and nearly one-half attended church regularly.2 Roman Catholics formed the largest bloc, followed by a variety of Protestant groups, including Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, among others.3 By any measure—church attendance, baptisms, belief in the main tenets of Christianity—the United States in this era was an overwhelmingly Christian society. Accordingly, Americans' perceptions of and responses to the rise of Nazism, the onset of World War II, and news of the Holocaust took shape through the lens of their Christian faith.
Although this collection of primary sources does not offer a comprehensive view of Christian activities during this period, it presents a cross section of American Christian life, touching on the experiences of Catholics, mainline Protestants,4 Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Quakers.5 Understanding the diversity within and among Christian communities, the tensions produced by this diversity, and the attempts to resolve these differences is critical to analyzing the sources in this collection. Authored by clergy and laypeople, both men and women, several of these sources reflect the perspectives of individuals at the margins of their particular faith tradition, highlighting the wide range of viewpoints that could exist even within one religious group.6
In addition to individual churches and members of the clergy, this collection highlights the activities of religious organizations: ecumenical7 organizations like the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), which consisted of representatives from different Protestant denominations; interfaith organizations, which brought together representatives from different religions, such as the National Council of Christians and Jews (NCCJ);8 and faith-based relief organizations, such as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). All three types of organizations emerged before the Nazis came to power in 1933, but faced new challenges after Hitler's appointment as German Chancellor.
Regardless of citizens' membership in a particular faith tradition or institution, Christianity and Christian symbols remained deeply embedded in American culture, providing an important means for interpreting current events and determining how best to respond to major developments—the rise in antisemitism at home and abroad, the outbreak of war, and news of the persecution and mass murder of Jews in Europe. However, American Christianity also faced its own legacy of anti-Jewish sentiment: the "tolerance movement"9 of the 1920s built stronger ties between Christians and Jews, but it did not address Christianity's deeper historical and theological prejudices.10 Indeed, a history of Christian antisemitism contributed to a distorted understanding of Christians' responsibility to the suffering of Jews. Moreover, many American Christian communities viewed the plight of European Jews as a European problem, strengthening their desire to keep the United States out of World War II. Nevertheless, because American identity was widely understood as rooted in Christianity, Nazi Germany's hostile stance toward Christianity came to represent a danger to American values and the security of the nation itself. Spotlighted here in the item "Desecration of Religion," American Protestant imagery could be used to symbolize the threat posed by the Axis powers.
The particular issues that captured the attention of Christian leaders and organizations transformed over the course of the 1930s and 1940s. Early commentary tended to focus on the church struggle in Germany.11 American Christians, much like Christians in Germany, sought to understand the Nazi government's treatment of the churches and to learn what role Christianity would play in the newly founded Third Reich. Many Christian communities in the United States also felt connected to German churches and, to some extent, bore a sense of responsibility for their fellow believers, a trend evidenced in this 1933 pamphlet by Minister Henry Smith Leiper. Although many Christians expressed shock at the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, they remained primarily concerned with the welfare of members of their own faith.
The Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 provoked widespread outrage among American Christian leaders, as well as the US public more broadly.12 As reflected in the featured Broadcast from Catholic University of America after Kristallnacht, many proclaimed sympathy for the Jews and condemned Nazi violence. As the war progressed, however, and crimes against European Jews became more widely known in the United States, American churches navigated a difficult political climate in taking any position on the situation facing the Jews. Indeed, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, many American Christians remained strongly committed to staying out of the war and reluctant to aid European Jews. One exception was the AFSC (the Quakers), a group that led efforts to resettle European Jewish refugees.13 In contrast, as the war drew to a close, many American Christian institutions became engaged in helping to rebuild Europe, reaching out to their counterparts in Europe, including German church leaders. The FCC's visit to Germany in late 1945 reflects one such point of contact between American and German church leaders.
Ultimately, Church leaders and their congregations primarily understood the rise of Nazism and the onset of the Holocaust like many of their fellow Americans did: as an immediate threat to American values and American Christian ways of life. This collection explores how, when, and why American Christian institutions and individuals chose to respond to events in Europe and invites consideration of the aims and motivations behind those responses.