The International Baptist Seminary: A Baptist Attempt at Americanization, Education, and Missions in East Orange, New Jersey: Ethnicity Is an Important Part of American and Baptist History

Article excerpt

Baptists have a diverse and extensive history of interaction with various ethnic groups. Unfortunately, the many successes often are shrouded by failures or masked by misconceptions. In an attempt to highlight one of the many successes, this article submits the American Baptist Home Mission Society's little-known International Baptist Seminary (1921-1941) in East Orange, New Jersey, as a valuable case study in ethnic Baptist history. (1)

Henry L. Morehouse identified the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) as the "pioneer organization" among Baptists in the work with foreign populations. (2) As early as 1845, the ABHMS was already discussing the positive and negative implications of mass immigration. In its report that year, the society noted: "The unparalleled accessions to our population from other lands add to our national strength and wealth, and aid to develop our public resources.... But, with these blessings, how many curses mingle!" (3) Ironically, in the nineteenth century, the ABHMS concerned itself with employing "the minds trained under European influences ... to assimilate the institutions of our country to European models." (4) By the first decades of the twentieth century, however, "Americanization" (i.e., assimilation or integration into American society) had replaced "Europeanization" as the telos of the assimilation process.

In the years leading up to 1914 and World War I, the average American viewed the wars and woes on Europe's horizon with an indifference cultivated by almost fifty years of relative peace. When fighting broke out in Europe after the June 14, 1914, assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, this tradition of American indifference became increasingly difficult to maintain, so difficult that "few [citizens] could avoid sympathizing with one side or the other, in spite of Woodrow Wilson's plea for complete neutrality." (5)

After 1914, when neutrality was no longer possible, the United States approached a cultural crossroad as issues related to "Americanization" coincided with increased involvement in the war. With America's attention turning toward the war, England received the majority of support. Other Americans had high hopes for the Central Powers (Germany, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Austria-Hungary). When many American immigrants exhibited signs of loyalty to their native land (e.g., Germany) instead of their new homeland, America faced an ethnically-driven identity crisis. Up to this time, most people assumed that integration of immigrants into American society would happen naturally, but now many questioned this assumption. Could complete assimilation of the various hyphenated ethnic groups be realized, or was "Americanization" only a utopian vision to be forgotten? The world's melting pot seemed now to be nothing more than a cracked cistern.

Responses to this cultural crisis varied. Parents of second-generation pupils in New York were asked to sign pledge tags, and the governor of Iowa banned all non-English speech in church services, schools, and other public venues. Lawrence B. Davis noted that for thirty years, Baptists showed "tendencies that could have led them either to the nationalist Americanization of fear or to the Americanization of love." (6) In the end, Baptists could not agree on one direction. Some Baptists, like Samuel Z. Batten, ultimately called for an end to foreign-speaking congregations altogether. As chairman of the Northern Baptist Convention's Immigration and Americanization Committee, Batten's 1920 report claimed that the continued use of foreign languages was antithetical to Americanization efforts. (7)

On the other side of the aisle, Charles A. Brooks of the ABHMS denounced any form of Americanization that devalued ancestral heritage. For Brooks, this type of Americanization "amounted to race pride degenerated into race prejudice." (8) In a 1918 report to the society, Brooks reported that "the war had made a previously indifferent populace aware of the potential dangers of a mass of foreigners unadjusted to American ways and unevangelized by the churches. …