Prejudice and Purging: 

World War I and the Demise of the German Methodist Church in America


Joshua Hollingsead


It was during World War I that the major persecution of German-American occurred, and the Americanization sentiment progressed unbridled, destroying much of German-American culture. One well-known instance of brazen violence against those of German-American descent occurred when a man was lynched in Collinsville, Illinois on suspicion of German heritage. While theonly recorded lynching of a German-American during the war, the act reflected the air of hostility and hate present in the country. Of course, the war and the prejudices of the American people changed the culture of German-Americans. Hyphenation was condemned, and everyone had to become one hundred percent American. This Americanization, which forbid the teaching of German and renamed German ethnic dishes, greatly destroyed the previous German-American culture. Even church services in German had to be discarded.[1]The bigotry and bias inflamed by the patriotic feelings aroused during war entailed the destruction of German-American culture.

The German Methodist Church, a German-language church, felt the impact of the war.   German Methodism started in the 1830s in the United States and differed from its parent Methodist Church chiefly in its employment of the German language.  The German Methodist Church was established by the American Methodist Church in the 1830s to minister to the growing number of German immigrants in the United States.  From humble beginnings the German Methodist Church grew until it was an old and respected institution in the early twentieth century.  Before World War I, the German Methodist Church thrived.  In 1915, ten German-speaking conferences existed serving sixty to seventy thousand German-Americans in 740 congregations.  Several colleges and other institutions along with a high quality theological magazine were founded and maintained by the various German conferences.[2]  Well-established, organized, and funded, the German-Methodist Church contributed much to the missions of Methodism.  During World War I, the major persecution of German-Americans occurred, hyphenation was condemned, and everyone had to become one hundred percent American, and the prejudice against Germans and German-Americans led to the harassment and decline of the German Methodist Church.  The Methodist Church, internalizing the message of Americanization, hassled and bullied its own German Methodism branch.[3] 

At the same time as the war was beginning in Europe, the American German Methodist church reported “an increase in nearly all directions.”[4]  From 1913 to 1914, before the war, the German-language conferences experienced an overall boom throughout the country.  The St. Louis German conference, for instance, had over nine thousand members in 1914.  Across the nation, membership in the German Methodist conferences increased from 61,872 in 1913 to 62,390 in 1914.[5] This growth showed the strength of the German Methodist Church in the period immediately before World War I. 

During World War I the United States experienced a few years of ostensible neutrality and then declared war on Japan and Germany.  Anti-German hysteria and the push for Americanization ravaged the German Methodist church, closing 52 individual churches and turning younger preachers away from joining the German Methodist conferences.[6]  The weekly periodical of the Methodist Church, The Christian Advocate, depicted the increasingly hostile attitude of Methodists toward the German-speaking brothers as well as a defense of their conferences by German Methodists and their supporters.[7]

In 1914 anti-German emotions arose across the United States, and The Christian Advocate reported on some of the actions taken against Germans and the German culture.  The Church felt the resonance of the rising anti-German feelings.  In April of 1915 the magazine printed an article promoting Americanization that drew a large response.  Bishop Quayle wrote that the foreign-speaking Methodist conferences had served their purpose, but now that immigration was declining, the foreign-language conferences should be merged with their English-speaking counterparts as the Norwegian-Danish Conference had done. [8]  Seeing the slump in immigration due to World War I, Bishop Quayle conjectured that the mission of foreign-language conferences was finished and that the war would demand Americanization. [9]   Bishop Quayle wrote:

In the coming days, more even than in the past days, America will demand that citizens of foreign birth amalgamate themselves more speedily with the American idea and the American speech and the American folks.  Americans are we and Americans we ought to be and this is not less so in religious matters and denominational matters than in civic matters.[10] 


Quayle’s suggestions were pragmatic, if biased, and foreshadowed the increasingly hostile American attitude toward immigrants.  Many in the United States doubted German-American loyalty; Quayle utilized the fear and nativism to argue that to be a true American Methodist the person had to be fully American.  Americanization and nativism was on the rise within the church. 

Quayle’s suggestion faced opposition; although, the resistance originated mostly from German Methodists.  Eugene Weiffenbach, a leader of the German Methodist Church, defended the German Methodist conferences by examining finances and finding that in return for the $44,300 spent on German Methodism for 1915 the German Methodist congregations gave $302,325.[11]  If Weiffenbach’s figures were correct, the German Methodists contributed financially to the Church much more than they received and that deflated the argument of German Methodists being a leech on the Methodist Church.  Even if Weiffenbach’s numbers were off his statement proved the commitment of German Methodists to their Church and its parent, the Methodist Church.  Of course, Weiffenbach opposed the immediate and complete integration that Quayle had proposed.[12]  Weiffenbach’s defense illustrated the devotion of the German Methodists to keeping their churches separate.  The article by Quayle reflected the desires of at least some of Methodist Church’s leaders to end foreign-language ministry in America and Weiffenbach’s showed the German Methodist wish to keep their own church organization.

 In a strange, unintended parody of later defenses against anti-German sentiments, Weiffenbach wrote:  “Are [German Methodists] then hyphenated Methodists, foreigners in Methodism, or an integral part of the Church . . . ?  Let no one accuse them of being inferior Methodists, lacking in loyalty, because they happen . . . to worship God bilingually.  German Methodists are loyal Methodists.”[13]  If the words “Methodists,” “Methodism,” and “Church” were replaced with “Americans,” “America,” and “United States,” the passage turns from a defense of German Methodists to German-Americans during World War I.  The parallelism was not intentioned, but the bias toward the German Methodist Church and German-Americans themselves was based on the fear of disloyalty and the German-American isolation from the rest of society.  The arguments for tolerance for both German-Americans and the German Methodist Church therefore bear marked similarity to one another.  Still the quote reflected the strong statement of loyalty by the persecuted minority in face of the fearful majority.  The bias against immigrants exhibited through Quayle’s suggestion and the need for defense of the foreign language conferences exposed the nativist feeling rising in the Methodist Church.

Many voices, though, supported the Americanization of the German Methodist Church.  An anonymous letter entitled “Americans Are First Americans” present in the June 16th issue of The Christian Advocate along with a much longer editorial in the July 14th issue endorsed Americanization.[14]  The former is a minor statement of patriotism but the latter strongly rephrases Quayle’s original suggestion.  The writer affirmed Americanization:

[N]ew comers should make the greatest practicable haste to become Americans, real units in the great mass, at home with American institutions. . . .   Does, or does not the perpetuation of foreign-speaking Conferences get in the way of such Americanizing of our brethren who come from foreign lands to ours?  If it does, it ought to be modified—or it out to give way.[15]


The writer suggested that the foreign-language conferences had helped with Americanization, but their ostracism by the English-speaking conferences made the process more difficult and suggested an examination at the next General Conference. While the members and clergy of the German-Methodist Church desired a continuation of the German-Methodist conferences, those in the English-speaking Church wanted to Americanize all foreign-language conferences into the English-speaking conferences.

            German Methodists responded to the Methodist Church.  The general meeting of the German branch of the Methodist Church met in St. Louis from July 6-8, 1915, discussed merging churches, and concluded that it would be better to keep the conferences separate.[16]  The attendees defended German Methodism with the observation that a large number of its members flowed into the English-speaking church, yet the German Methodist Church continued to grow, especially in Sunday school services.[17]  They felt that the continued growth of the German Methodist Church showed its viability and continuing importance as part of the Methodist Church.  Delegates adopted resolutions supporting separate conferences and German Americans:

That we voice our disfavor of any present movement for consolidation as advocated lately by a good bishop in The Christian Advocate, and that it is our conviction that for the successful continuation and development of our work and the education of our German Methodists and their descendants and for the further existence and development of our institutions, the organizations of our districts Annual Conferences and the 14th General Conference District are absolutely necessary and that we protest emphatically against any change or discontinuation that might be intended.[18]


The delegates clearly knew of Quayle’s suggestion and felt strongly that the German Methodist church deserved and needed to continue.  As delegates they would be the most dedicated members of German Methodism, but their staunch avowal of support for German Methodism reflected on all German Methodists. 

            The German Methodists present at the conference also made a resolution addressing the spreading anti-German hysteria and prejudice:

We protest against the term “hyphenated Americans” invented by an anti-German spirit and mainly applied to Americans of German descent.  English and other nationalities are “hyphenates” in the same sense and degree.  Whoever has sworn to the Stars and Stripes is an American.  Americans of German descent are Americans second to none and the term “Hyphenates,” applied in a special sense, is unfriendly and, as we believe, undeserved.[19]


German Methodist leaders recognized the anti-German hysteria being drudged up with World War I.  The German Methodists sought to calm the hysterics if possible among their Methodist brethren.  The need for the resolution also expressed the upwelling of anti-German emotion among the populace and among Methodists.  Many of the Methodists the leaders tried to reach were those pushing for the integration of the German Methodists conferences with their English counterparts.  Wishing to spread the message of acceptance they created the resolution to turn awareness of the Methodists to the power of language to determine patterns of thinking.  The question of the hyphen further expanded into national awareness with the US entrance into the war.

            German Methodists realized that their embrace of the German culture and language would be even larger targets of prejudice and suspicion after the United States entered the war than even in the period before.  Bishop Henderson contended in the Apologist, the German-language publication of the German Methodist church:

Methodism has always been bound up with patriotism. . . .  Methodism and Americanism have always been synonymous.  In this hour of national as well as international crisis, every Methodist preacher will be a patriotic leader and every Methodist congregation a flock of true patriots.[20]


Members and leaders of the German Methodist church recognized the bias against them and understood that with the entrance of the United States into the war, the anger and hate towards German culture and anything associated with Germany would grow.  Henderson’s declaration then can be viewed as an assertion of patriotic feeling and a veiled warning to the readers of the Apologist, mostly German Methodists, of the increase in anti-German attitude to be expected.

As if to meet the German Methodist fears, the Board of Home Missions and Church Extension started a program of Americanization that was lauded in an article by Elsie McCormick, a detractor of German Methodism.  The language toward those of recent immigrant background was negative.  McCormick talked of the horrendous “foreign problem” and stated that the Methodist Church is “the first religious body to awaken to the size of the problem and to realize the perils which threaten this country unless immediate steps are taken to Americanize the foreign-speaking groups.”[21]  The board articulated a new policy to get the immigrants out of the foreign-language missions and into an “American congregation” as quickly as possible once the immigrant learned enough English to understand an English sermon.  The supposition behind the argument of the article was that prejudice would be reduced with immigrants joining American congregations as soon as possible.  The conjecture logically was flawed.  The immigrants would still be separate from the English-speaking congregation but would no longer have the comfort of other immigrants from the same background.  The support for the board’s policy resulted from the patriotic, conformist outlook that the sooner immigrants joined American society the better, especially as immigration had greatly decreased during the war years.  The patriotic, Americanization full-speed feeling intensified after 1917.  American involvement in World War I and the corresponding patriotic fervor and subsequent increase in nativism was the only change that could have caused the Methodist Church to change its policy, from allowing the foreign-language conferences to exist as successful, thriving separate entities to rushing toward convergence.

            An article by a bishop appeared in the same issue of The Christian Advocate as the McCormick piece.  Written by Bishop Cooke, the article took a strong stand on not allowing foreign languages in the Church, telling readers, “nothing separates humanity like diversity of tongues . . . let our preachers and people use only the English language . . . we should preserve the unity of the nation and foreign language is not the language of the young people of America.”[22]  Cooke counseled against the use of the German tongue to avoid mob violence and giving offense. He believed the only reason to use the German tongue was to minister to the old immigrants who never learned English as he would not deny them their right to worship.  Both patriotism and a pandering to anti-German prejudice influenced Cooke’s statements, but as a bishop of the Church he possessed influence and his attitudes surely were reflective of the orientation of at least some other members of the Church leadership.

Another article in the same issue, “Shall Our Foreign Language Conferences Be Dissolved?,” told the reader, “The maintenance of foreign-language Conferences is Un-American.”[23]  It argued for the abandonment of the German language for a couple different reasons.  The article concluded that German-Methodists were hurt by their separation from English-speaking congregations and the Church would be dropped by American soldiers after the war if the Church supported the German language; the article also stated that some German-Methodist churches stopped using German on their own and exploited this as support for the argument against the German language.[24]  Alternative reasons for the end of German language services in some churches can be offered, though.  In several cities and states the German language was banned along with much of the culture, which made it hard to have German services.  Other German Methodist churches would have felt compelled to end the use of their language for safety reasons.  The German Methodists, for whatever reason though, were being weaned from the German language.

            The Americanization impulse resident in the Methodist Church continued even after the war.  An article published a year after the armistice used an analogy comparing the one hundred percent American to the one hundred percent Christian.[25]  While the article told the reader that outward displays do not make one Christian, the article’s use of the analogy showed how accepted the image of one hundred percent Americanism was at the time and how ingrained it was on the American psyche.  Americans incorporated the propaganda calling for Americanization into their mentality, and the favored analogy showed how deep the internalization was among the public and the members of the Methodist Church.  With unquestioned acceptance of basic Americanization tenets, the Church could not help but try to implement them. 

            The German Methodist ministry of the Methodist Church lasted a century, from the 1830s to the 1930s.  In the years previous to World War I, the German Methodist Church thrived with a membership of over sixty thousand people.  Catering to German immigrants and their descendants, the war and its anti-German impetus shaped the German Methodist Church.  Visibly in The Christian Advocate, the Methodist church absorbed the anti-German hysteria and encouraged the dissolution of the German Methodist branch of the church. 

The end of the German Methodist church came fairly quickly.  Starting with the St. Louis German Annual Conference in 1924, the German conferences merged with the main body of the Church.  All the German conferences were combined with the main body of the Church within twenty years after the end of World War I.  By the early 1940s the German Methodist Church was no more.  Americanization and prejudice obliged the liquidation of the German Methodist conferences.  Before the United States entered World War II all the German Methodist churches in America would be gone.[26]  The German-language ministry of the United Methodist church lasted for over a century, enjoyed its strongest membership just before World War I and less than twenty years after the war, German Methodism ended.

The end of the German Methodist Church was inevitable as immigration slowed and English spread, but World War I severely shortened the length of time and the influence of the German Methodist branch of the Methodist Church.  The war’s effect in increasing nativism and engendering anti-German hysteria seriously affected the Methodist Church.  The Church, internalizing the values of Americanization attacked and persecuted its German Methodist branch.  The end of the German Methodist conferences reveal the way religious institution can be shaped by society and public opinion as well as showing how any institution is vulnerable to prejudice and bias toward the other, the alien. 


Select Bibliography


 Daniels, Roger.  Coming to America:  A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life.  New York:  HarperPerennial, 1991.

________.  Not Like Us:  Immigrants and Minorities in America, 1890-1924.  Chicago:  Ivan R. Dee, 1997.

Douglass, Paul F.  The Story of German Methodism: Biography of an Immigrant Soul.  New York:  The Methodist Book Concern, 1939.

Kennedy, David.  Over Here:  The First World War and American Society, 25th Anniversary ed.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1980, 2005.

Kirschbaum, Erik.  The Eradication of German Culture in the United States:  1917-1918. Stuttgart, Germany:  Hans-Dieter Heinz Academic Publishing House, 1986.

Luebke, Frederick C.  Bonds of Loyalty:  German Americans and World War I.  DeKalb, Illinois:  Northern Illinois University Press, 1974.

Wittke, Carl.  German Americans and the World War with Special Emphasis on Ohio’s German Language Press. Don H. Tolzman, ed.  The Anti-German Hysteria of World War One. vol. 1 German Americans in the World Wars.  London:  K. G. Saur, 1995.




[1] Roger Daniels, Not Like Us:  Immigrants and Minorities in America, 1890-1924 (Chicago:  Ivan R. Dee, 1997), 97.


[2] Frederick C. Luebke, Bonds of Loyalty:  German Americans and World War I .  (DeKalb, Illinois:  Northern Illinois University Press, 1974), 40.

[3] Sources used in this work include David Kennedy, Over Here:  The First World War and American Society, 25th Anniversary ed. (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1980), The 25th anniversary edition was published in 2005; Roger Daniels, Coming to America:  A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York:  HarperPerennial, 1991); and Frederick C. Luebke’s Bonds of Loyalty:  German Americans and World War I .  (DeKalb, Illinois:  Northern Illinois University Press, 1974).  Kennedy’s Over Here provides a good overview of the homefront during World War I.    Daniels’ Coming to America gives a general look at immigration to the United States.  More specific information about the German-Ameircan experience during World War I can be found in Frederick C. Luebke’s Bonds of Loyalty:  German Americans and World War I .  It provides an solid, in-depth view of the German-American experience during World War I.

[4] “West German Conference,”  Central Christian Advocate, 16 September 1914, 16,  SL #7 (Above), Box 102, Item #2E. Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference – Southern Illinois Annual Conference Archives (IGRAC – SIAC Archives), Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL.

[5] “Chart,”  Central Christian Advocate, 30 June 1915, 11-2.  SL #7 (Above), Box 102, Item #43E.  IGRAC – SIAC Archives, Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL.

[6] Luebke, 291.

[7] The periodical’s inclusion of letters and writings of church leaders along with conference reports makes it a good resource to judge the general mood and sentiment of the Methodist Church.  .

[8] Bishop Quayle, “A Wise Precedent,” Central Christian Advocate, 14 April 1915, 10.  SL #7 (Above), Box 102, Item #32E. IGRAC – SIAC Archives, Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL.

[9] Roger Daniels, Not Like Us:  Immigrants and Minorities in America, 1890-1924 (Chicago:  Ivan R. Dee, 1997), 79.

[10] Quayle.

[11] Eugene Weiffenbach, “Is It ‘A Wise Precedent’?” Central Christian Advocate, 7 July 1915, 11-2.  SL #7 (Above), Box 102, Item #44E. IGRAC – SIAC Archives, Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL. 11.

[12] Ibid., 12.

[13] Ibid., 11.

[14] “Americans Are First Americans,” Central Christian Advocate, 16 June 1915, 3.  SL # 7 (Above), Box 102, Item #41E.   IGRAC – SIAC Archives, Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL. and  “Methodism Making Americans.” Central Christian Advocate, 14 July 1915, 7.  SL #7 (Above), Box 102, Item #45E. IGRAC – SIAC Archives, Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL.

[15] “Methodism Making Americans.”

[16]  “Central Meeting of German Branch of Methodist Episcopal Church.” Central Christian Advocate, 18 August 1915, 12.  SL #7 (Above), Box 102, Item #50E.  IGRAC – SIAC Archives, Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Central Meeting of German Branch of Methodist Episcopal Church.” Central Christian Advocate, 18 August 1915, 12.  SL #7 (Above), Box 102, Item #50E.  IGRAC – SIAC Archives, Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL.

[20] Paul F. Douglass, The Story of German MethodismBiography of an Immigrant Soul (New York:  The Methodist Book Concern, 1939), 7; and Joseph Calvin Evers, The History of the Southern Illinois Conference of the Methodist Church (Nashville, TN:  The Parthenon Press, 1964), 237.

[21] Elsie McCormick, “Knocking the Hyphen Out of the Church: The Board of Home Missions and Church Extension Launches a New Patriotic Program of Americanization,”  Central Christian Advocate, 18 September 1918, 16.  SL #7 (Above), Box 103, Item #37E.  IGRAC – SIAC Archives, Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL.

[22] Bishop Richard J., Cooke, “The Church and Foreign Languages,”  Central Christian Advocate, 18 September 1918, 19.  SL #7 (Above), Box 103, Item #37E.  IGRAC – SIAC Archives, Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL.

[23] “Shall Our Foreign Language Conferences Be Dissolved?”  Central Christian Advocate, 18 September 1918, 5-6.  SL #7 (Above), Box 103, Item #37E.  IGRAC – SIAC Archives, Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL. 5.

[24] “Shall Our Foreign Language Conferences Be Dissolved?” 5-6.

[25] Harold E. Wilson, “One Hundred Per Cent Christians.”  Central Christian Advocate, 12 November 1919, 8.  SL #1 (Above), Box 1A, Item #3E. IGRAC – SIAC Archives, Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL.

[26] Frank T. Enderis, “German Methodism: The Centenary of Its Mother Church is Being Celebrated at Cincinnati, October 23-30,” Christian Advocate: Central Edition, 6 October 1938, 19, 22...  SL #4 (Above), Box 84A, Item #1E. IGRAC – SIAC Archives, Holman Library, McKendree College, Lebanon, IL.