A disappointed man

Religion | The religious views of Norman Thomas, a Presbyterian minister who became the 20th century standard bearer of the Socialist Party
by John R. Erickson
Posted 11/07/15, 01:42 pm

In 1967, John R. Erickson, now the author of 66 Hank the Cowdog books, then a theology student at Harvard Divinity School, interviewed the grand old man of American socialism, Norman Thomas (1884–1968). This previously unpublished article shows how Thomas, a six-time Socialist Party candidate for president, built his socialist beliefs on the pre–World War I social gospel, and tried to erect a hopeful ideology on a vague theology. —Marvin Olasky

Three generations of Americans knew Norman Thomas as a socialist and as a reformer. But because he published very little on the subject of religion, it is not so well known that Thomas began his career as an ordained Presbyterian minister, that he later lost his Christian faith, and as a result, he became, in his own words, a “disappointed man.”

When he graduated from Princeton in 1908, Thomas decided to study for the ministry as his father and grandfather had done before him. But instead of choosing an orthodox Presbyterian seminary, as his father hoped he would, he elected to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York. It was at Union that Thomas discovered the “social gospel.” He read Walter Rauschenbusch and William James. He listened to the sermons of Harry Emerson Fosdick and Henry Sloane Coffin, and gradually he moved away from the orthodoxy of his childhood toward a position of liberalism. But even though his thinking changed substantially, he maintained his close ties with the Presbyterian church, and in his senior year he applied to the Presbytery of New York for ordination. Even at this early date, Thomas had enemies among the conservative clergymen in New York and there was even some talk of bringing heresy charges against him. His chief opponent was a certain John Fox who bore down particularly on Thomas’ unwillingness to affirm positively the virgin birth of Jesus. But the conservatives lost the struggle and Thomas was ordained on Jan. 25, 1911.

After his graduation he took his first church, East Harlem Presbyterian. At that time East Harlem was a neighborhood of poor immigrants, and during the next four years Thomas threw himself into his church work and was preoccupied with his new duties as husband and father. He had little time to think about what was happening in other parts of the world. But by 1915 he was beginning to have serious doubts about the war in Europe. His thinking was turning toward the conviction that Christianity and war were in complete opposition, and gradually he came to accept the charge made by socialists such as Eugene V. Debs that both sides in the war were imperialists. In 1916 he joined the Christian-pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and the American Union Against Militarism, and he began making public speeches against the war. In 1917, in a letter to his mother, he wrote, “For myself I believe that the Christian ethics are impossible in the present order of society and that every Christian must desire a new social order based on cooperation rather than competition. … Whether the church will tolerate me or not is for it to say. I hope it will.” The church did not. Nor, as it turned out, did he tolerate the church.

The years 1917 and 1918 were pivotal in the life of Thomas. In 1917 his first published work, The Christian Patriot, appeared. In it he wrote that Christianity is a “profoundly revolutionary” religion that should be “the prophet and pioneer of the Kingdom of God.” In that same year he became part-time secretary for the Fellowship of Reconciliation and accepted the post of editor of the pacifist magazine The World Tomorrow. Early in 1918, when the chairman of the Home Missions Committee suggested the church contributions were falling off as a result of Thomas’ political activities, he resigned from his parish and went to work full-time for the FOR.

When the war came to an end, Thomas did not return to his parish work. There were probably several reasons for this. For one thing, he could not forgive the clergy for its failure to speak out against the hate and hysteria so prevalent during the war. For another, he was troubled by serious theological doubts that would have made it difficult for him to go on preaching about a God that was both all-loving and all-powerful. And added to this was the fact that he had been virtually blacklisted by the church for his radical views. So instead of returning to the parish ministry, Thomas went on with his work with the FOR and continued as editor of The World Tomorrow.

His writing during the three years after the war reflected a growing interest in social and political problems. “We cannot be Christian,” he wrote in November 1919, “so long as we participate or acquiesce in a social structure whose foundation principles are the direct denials of the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount.” In August 1920 he declared, “The religion of the future—or, if you like, the idealism of the future—is going to be built on elements already implicit in the radical labor movement.” By 1921 theological terminology had almost vanished from his writings and was being replaced by such words as “worker,” “strike,” “capitalist,” “labor,” “imperialism,” and “profit.”

Although Thomas did not formally demit the ministry until Oct. 5, 1931—he wanted to avoid calling public attention to it—he made his final break with the Christian church near the end of 1921. Feeling that men more strongly committed to Christianity than he would better serve in his posts, Thomas stepped down from his positions in the FOR and at The World Tomorrow. By that time the faith of the preacher’s son, the young seminarian, and the parish minister had been shattered beyond repair. Thomas never again considered himself a Christian. The appalling slaughter of World War I produced the problem that crushed his Christian faith: theodicy. If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why doesn’t He put an end to this suffering? As we shall see later, he never found a satisfactory answer to that question.

Another result of this crisis of faith was that Thomas had to abandon his unswerving religious pacifism. When, in 1935, the local New York chapter of the Socialist Party voted to recruit a “Eugene V. Debs Column” of 500 volunteers to fight with the Loyalist army in Spain, Thomas did not oppress the move. He wrote at the time, “I myself have not for many years found it possible to accept the type of religious pacifism which I accepted during the World War. Life has forced me to change in many respects my philosophy of those years.”

In 1967, while I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, I wrote Thomas and asked if I could meet him in New York and ask him some questions about his religious views. This was his reply: “I should be very glad to talk to you on the questions you have in mind. The difficulty is time. … I operate on a narrow margin nowadays because of legal blindness, which prevents my reading, and very considerable arthritis.” We agreed upon a date and on March 17 I met him in his second-floor office on Manhattan’s East 19th Street.

The office consisted of a front and back room. In the front room a male secretary worked at a typewriter and answered the telephone. I was told that Mr. Thomas was busy, and so I sat down, tested my tape recorder, and waited. After several minutes, Thomas, assisted by a young aide, emerged from the back room. His movements were slow and painful, and yet, as soon as he entered the room, I began to sense his aristocratic dignity. Some might find it odd that America’s most famous socialist should be described as aristocratic, but anyone who saw Thomas in person will know what I mean. Eugene Debs was a man of the people; Norman Thomas was an aristocrat—cool, intellectual, and distant.

As he walked toward me, something about him seemed to say, “I’m old and crippled, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that I’m just one of the boys. I’m not.” His was the dignity of a distant mountain, and you knew instinctively you would never climb to the top, you would never learn all the secrets the mountain held. And you knew it was best to leave it at that. An old man who has no secrets is an object of pity.

Thomas was taller than I had expected, and he carried his trim 6-foot-plus body with as much grace as was possible for a man debilitated by age and aching joints. He was dressed in an immaculate three-piece suit, and every hair in the magnificent white thatch on his head was combed into its place. His eyes, though gray with blindness, could still crackle with indignation, and they reflected the keen mind that was always at work behind them. Later, when he laughed, the eyes narrowed into slits and his face was dominated by a mouthful of teeth that at times bore such a comical resemblance to a horse’s mouth.

When he was a few yards away from me, Thomas said hello, offered his hand, and waited for me to take it. When I had introduced myself, the young man helped Thomas into a chair and left the room. I turned on the recorder and began the interview.

What was his concept of God? Would it, for instance, be in agreement with the conclusions of Freud and Feuerbach that God is but an extension of man?

“Well, in the first place, I don’t very much choose to discuss theology, for various reasons. I do not accept the notion that the idea of God or God Himself is only an extension of man. But the concept of God is very much influenced by this idea of the extension of man. However, I think that the concept of God is also derived from the sense of mystery and wonder, terror and beauty in life; the search for some explanation, the search for some explanation of the fact that we live at all or how we live. And I do not think that there is much sense in talking about religion in terms of ‘God is dead.’ Humanism may as such have some of the qualities of religion—psychologically—but it is scarcely a substitute for what has been the role of religion historically. This is my rather basic belief, and I find no particular strength in the ‘God is dead’ or in the ‘God is irrelevant’ school.

“Basically, my trouble is this: I was very well satisfied with the kind of Christianity which I thought was liberal Christianity about the time when I graduated from Union Theological Seminary. It was the kind expressed, for instance, popularly and very ably by Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick. I found it possible to believe in both a God of power, who explained the existence of the universe, and one of love. I came very sadly to the conclusion that I couldn’t reconcile the doctrine of a God of power with the doctrine of a God of love, and I was not willing positively to reject possible beliefs in either. But I felt that I could not accept what I had once very earnestly and warmly accepted—what I understood as the Christian identification of a God of power and a God of love. I had no desire to spread my doubts among other people. I regretted them very much. The doubts did not make me an atheist. They left me very puzzled, and the great desire of my life was a concept of God which could reconcile these two beliefs. I think that it is reasonable to say with Matthew Arnold that there is a Power somewhere which is not ourselves that makes for righteousness. I can’t define it specifically, but I don’t believe that that kind of Power can be said to be omnipotent in view of the facts of evolution and the facts of life, for which I think a God of power would have to accept some responsibility.

“You see, the point is that I am quite a disappointed man that I couldn’t hold the kind of belief—based pretty much, by the way, on James’ pragmatism—that I couldn’t hold that as I held it up to … well, until after the First World War. But my observations of what happened and my reflections on it made it impossible for me to hold to what had been quite basic with me—that, after all, the universe was pretty much in the hands of God or a Force of something which was both all-loving and all-powerful. I reached a negative conclusion on that and had developed no very positive philosophy to replace it, except that … a kind of philosophy of respect for the mystery of life and the belief that we could improve the conditions of it.”

In his first published works, Thomas placed a great deal of emphasis on the theological concept of the Kingdom of God. What exactly did he have in mind when he spoke of the Kingdom of God?

“Well, at that time I was still, at least in my own hope, I was very much a Christian. Still. My early opposition to war was based very much on it. My approach to socialism was largely inspired by the so-called ‘social justice,’ the ‘social gospel’ of Rauschenbusch and others. My concept then was a Kingdom of God on earth which would have been pretty much an ideal socialist state—society, not state—and that would be subject to interpretation and to long discussion. I’ll admit that socialists didn’t fully apprehend the difficulties and the dangers, and the thought, for instance, that the abolition of social injustices would end crime—which it won’t as far as we know. I agree.”

Had the United States not gotten involved in World War I, would Thomas have left the ministry anyway?

“I just don’t know. If some other phenomenon had awakened my critical faculties the way that war did, I might have, yes. There would have been other reasons that could have made me do it. I was immersed in practical work and during those years I did what I now consider to be singularly little thinking on philosophy, social or political, ’til the war woke me up—the war and the poverty in the midst of which I was living.”

Did he feel that there would be a role for the church in the future?

“I see no reason to doubt that there will be a role for a long time to come, and I hope it will be a good role. You see, I believe that the church on the whole is better than it was when I was young. I think sociologically it has much better influence than it used to have. But I would be inclined to go along with the writers who call ours a ‘post-religious’ age. It no longer has the authority that religion had, even when religion was not followed or rejected. Nevertheless, I have to take account of such factors as the healthy development in the Catholic Church—the great influence of Pope John and so forth. I am speaking objectively, not in terms of what I myself believe but in the terms of what is actually being done. And I often say that the church has improved a good deal since I got out of it, but I don’t think there is a relation of cause and effect. You have rather a paradox: It is a post-religion age in a very true sense. Even the possibilities of ecumenism are quite largely based on the lack of intense belief that once people had in their particular theologies or philosophies. It’s a post-religious age in that there isn’t the same underlying, basic moral authority coming out of religion for our social standards. But it is not so much a post-religions age that there is not still a role for churches, along with ethic and culture societies.”

Had the churches changed enough so that he felt he could become a member of one?

“Well, it depends on what church, I suppose. Yes, I guess I could be a Unitarian. They really have no underlying philosophy except a sort of vague feeling that there ought to be some religion. I don’t know who first said it, but you know it has been said they pray to God in terms of ‘to whom it may concern.’ I suppose I could belong to such a church if it were doing a good work in the neighborhood. I have a great respect for a lot of work in the neighborhood. I have a great respect for a lot of churches now—the work they’re doing in comparison with the past—including my older Presbyterian Church. I don’t go along with some ministers—whom I respect—who would find it possible, for instance, to, Sunday after Sunday—Episcopalians particularly—to repeat the Apostles’ Creed as a definite statement of religious faith, when they don’t believe in the virgin birth, when they don’t believe in the resurrection of the body, and so on. I think honesty in communication is too important to gloss that over. And I also think the so-called ‘demythologizing’ process can be carried too far in the explanation of Christianity.”

If he were a young man, fresh out of college in 1967, would he study for the ministry?

“I think not, and I am rather sorry to make that answer. I am rather sorry to say a great many of the things I have said. I would have respect for people who did go, are trying to find answers that way. You see, it’s a little difficult to say to an old man, ‘What would you do if you were a young man?’ because he hardly knows himself, because he is now the sum of a great many other experiences that he didn’t have as a young man. And I can say that I went with considerable eagerness to the seminary, that I found it on the whole pretty satisfactory, and temporarily it gave me a reasonable good … happy … I don’t know what adjective I want … solution of problems and considerable support and strength for action. I much regret that I lost it because I no longer thought that, even in the broadest terms, what I would think was a Christian philosophy corresponded with the rather amoral facts of history and evolution.”

In March of 1967, clergymen were beginning to protest the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. What did Thomas think of the church’s role as moral critic in the society?

“I think it’s a very high role and I’m all for it. And to the degree that this role is strengthened by their religious or philosophic beliefs, it’s to the good. I only wish I could share it. What I don’t believe is that you can consider Christianity simply in terms of this admirable concern for human relations. There’s more to Christianity than that, which I think truth would compel you to recognize one way or another. I also add that I think that one reason that there has been so much ecumenism as there has been, and one reasons why so many very fine young clergymen have plunged into the race problems and war and peace, is because they are pretty sure there of what to do, and it gives them some consolation for an acknowledged or unacknowledged lack of certainty as to what they ought to preach in terms of individual theology.”

What should ministers be preaching?

“Well, if they can accept Christianity they ought to be saying that there is the kind of God that backs us up and saying it with faith and conviction, and their work and all our work would be stronger. I feel myself in many ways the weaker for lack of the kind of faith that I once had. You see what I mean? If they are Christian in any realistic sense of the word, they have to bring God or some concept or some force designated as God into the picture—quite actively and openly. I simply do not believe that you have Christianity without God. I simply do not believe that it is possible to be so admiring of Jesus and to reject or to ignore Jesus’ concept of the relation that men might have with God.”

In what can man, living in the Atomic Age, have faith?

“Well, we can have enough faith at least to go ahead and try. In this curious and remarkable story of man and his progress through evolution, both individual evolution and later the evolution of his social customs, there has been enough hope of progress, there have been enough men who have lived and under various formulations have presented ideals worth living for, to make it thoroughly worthwhile to have enough faith in life to believe that life is improvable, or that condition of life and the relationships of life are improvable by men—fallible men—leaving unsolved the question of whether there is a Power not ourselves who helps us. You could, without being too mystical, believe that.

“I still think that progress is a possibility. Or I express it negatively: I do not think that we are damned either by our gods, whatever they are, or by our genes. But that progress is automatic, that the world is moving steadily or even unsteadily toward some far-off divine event, I don’t believe. It will have to be achieved by struggle—by which I don’t mean war.

“Don’t you see, it’s quite possible to believe that there is enough in life—in the wonder of it, in the goodness you see, and in the friendships you have—to make you think that it is worth a tremendous fight to struggle to make it better. And enough happens to keep that faith alive. This is strengthened by what I would call, what I used to call the Christian view of God and His relation to the universe and to men. But I don’t think it’s necessary. I again repeat: I believe that we are not damned by our gods and our genes. And since we are not damned, and since there is so much that has happened in the wondrous development of life and of people, we’ve got to go on and try to make it better. And we get great satisfactions out of it and can contribute to that which in itself is or may be quite marvelous.”

When I switched off the recorder, Thomas seemed more at ease, and for the first time he volunteered some opinions without being asked. He expressed his disapproval of the views of Reinhold Niebuhr and his admiration for A.J. Muste, who had died a month before the interview: “I wanted to be like A.J. Muste. He was a remarkable man.” When, almost inevitably, the conversation turned to the war in Vietnam, he said if he were a young man of draft age, he would be a conscientious objector, “especially to this war.” Then he added sadly, “We live in a world so mad that we have to choose between relative forms of madness.”

Thomas’ loss of belief brought him no emotional satisfaction. Instead, he was a man who coveted a faith he could not have, who never believe that a social creed was an adequate substitute for religious faith, and who never ceased asking religious questions. As I was leaving the office, Thomas remarked, “I’m sorry I couldn’t have given you a better interview. But this is the way I see religion now.” Words of a disappointed man.

John R. Erickson

John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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