Saving Germany

North American Protestants and Christian Mission to West Germany, 1945-1964

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James C. Enns
McGill Queen's Studies in the History of Religion
  • Montreal, Quebec: 
    McGill Queen's University Press
    , March
     2017.
     328 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780773549135.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Scholars of North American Protestantism have yet to develop a satisfying nomenclature. Who precisely do we mean when we talk about liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists, mainliners, evangelicals, and ecumenical Christians, and how do we distinguish between them? In the ongoing confusion over terms, the old notion of a rift in the 20th century between Protestants who looked to save souls and those who sought to reform social structures remains relevant. In his excellent new book, James C. Enns shows how the “two-party thesis” played out in a German context after World War II. As he tells it, North American Christian internationalism was split between the ecumenical Christians of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and Church World Service (CWS), which tried to rehabilitate the German Protestant establishment, and the postwar evangelicals led by Youth for Christ (YFC), Janz Team Ministries (JTM), and Billy Graham, who pursued the reconversion of the German people. Ecumenical and evangelical Protestant strategies were complementary as well as competitive, aiming at the revival of Western Christian culture. And both failed. North American missionaries looked on in dismay at the “transition from the lingering notion of Christendom to some form of post-Christian society” throughout Europe (7).

All had not seemed so lost in 1945, however. North American Protestants had then marched confidently behind Allied armies into Germany, certain they could cure what one called the “European sickness” (4). In arguably their greatest success, ecumenical and evangelical Christians partnered with the American Military Government (AMG) in official and informal ways to promote democratic freedoms and to preach resistance to communism. Yet WCC and CWS affiliates also transitioned away from evangelizing and civilizing missions to humanitarian assistance and a “self-help” ideal. By reconstructing the national German churches (Landeskirchen), they believed they had created the conditions under which German church life could recover itself. Mistrustful of the sociological imagination of the ecumenical movement, Graham, YFC, and JTM instead proposed to fight secularization abroad while they resisted it at home through mass revivalism. Ironically, what they produced was less a return to old-time European Christianity and more a new sectarian German religious identity (Evangelikal) with close ties to its North American equivalent. Enns also notes a third group between evangelical and ecumenical Christians—“denominational missionaries” led by the Mennonites and Southern Baptists—whose labor gave more legitimacy to the independent churches in Germany (Freikirchen). Despite their faithful investments in institutions and individuals, though, North American Protestants all came to the same conclusion during the 1970s: Christendom was dead, long live world Christianity (thanks to the churches of the global south).

Enns’s book is masterfully researched, organized, and written. He joins Andrew Preston, Melani McAlister, Cara Burnidge, David Hollinger, Lauren Turek, and many others who have been documenting the importance of religious actors and ideas in the development of American foreign policy. Equally helpful is his multi-national approach, which allows him to chart the reception of North American missionary work by Germany’s Protestant community. For instance, Enns shows how over time German Christians came to view the evangelical Cold Warrior Graham as a sort of “Good Samaritan” bestowing comfort on a beleaguered people (173-74). Religious studies scholars would no doubt appreciate more careful attention to concepts such as “secularism,” “post-Christian,” and “post-Christendom secularism,” which are repeatedly invoked but not defined. Was the line between Protestantism and secularism ever as distinct as Enns assumes it was? The author here missed an opportunity to comment on the trans-Atlantic paradox of how secularization (by which is meant the declining public authority of organized religion) still advanced during an era of remarkable Christian vitality and expansion. 

But those concerns should not detract from what is otherwise an expert and welcome piece of scholarship. Enns is to be commended for growing our understanding of the global contests and confluences between North American evangelical and ecumenical Christians, as well as the simultaneous Americanization, indigenization, and marginalization of postwar German Protestantism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark Edwards is Associate Professor of History at Spring Arbor University.

Date of Review: 
August 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James C. Enns is professor of history at Prairie College.

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