Evangelicals and Immigration–1940s Style

Evangelicals and Immigration–1940s Style July 30, 2014
Statue of Liberty (Public Domain)

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

These words, ascribed on a bronze plaque affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, were penned by American poet Emma Lazarus.   Originally written to help raise money to fund pedestal construction, “The New Colossus” portrays the statue as the “Mother of Exiles” whose “beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome,” encapsulating a vision of America as a land of opportunity for immigrants.  Lazarus understood the promise that America held for those wishing to emigrate.  A part of the migration of Sephardic Jews to America, her own family succeeded in the United States, rising into the upper class.

Like the “Mother of Exiles,” in the mid-twentieth century neo-evangelicals welcomed immigrants traveling from some “teeming shore” across the Atlantic.  Like Emma Lazarus, they recognized the promise that America held for those wishing to emigrate from Europe.  Embracing the “activism” or their evangelicalism, after World War II, they helped settle such persons in the United States.

Recent books like historian Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason (Oxford, 2013) and theologian Greg Thornbury’s Recovering Classic Evangelicalism (Crossway, 2013) emphasize the intellectual aspects of the mid-twentieth-century evangelical renaissance.  However, just as intellectuals and elites fueled a more socially and culturally engaged American evangelicalism, so did the evangelical practitioners and laypeople associated with the movement.

While neo-evangelical intellectuals worked to engage the scholarly currents prevalent in Western culture, pastors, missionaries, ecclesiastical leaders, and laypeople were confronted by a world thrown into turmoil by World War II and its aftershocks.  As the world grew smaller due to technological developments and media advances, these laypeople and ecclesiastical leaders regularly encountered suffering on the “other side of the world” right in their homes and churches.  Seeing those in need, the words of a Jesus concerning the “least of these” spurred them to address the spiritual and physical needs of the world just as their heady coreligionists attempted to address the scholars in Cambridge, New Haven, Chicago, and Berkeley.  To wit, they founded several evangelical global relief agencies, an evangelical child welfare agency, and several other ministries focused on meeting the needs of the less fortunate “for whom Jesus died.”  As might be expected, when opportunity came, they assisted those who wanted to emigrate to the United States in order to escape deplorable conditions and persecution in their home countries.

Three years after VE Day, the United States passed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, temporarily expanding immigration in order to welcome people displaced due to persecution associated with World War II.  Barely four years old at the time, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) unhesitatingly agreed to the State Department’s request that it sponsor 3,000 such displaced persons (DPs).  Leaders hustled into action, raising monies and educating their constituency regarding the why’s and how’s of sponsorship.  Even the aged grandfather of neo-evangelicalism, J. Elwin Wright, got in on the action, pressing for support in “Shall DP’s Have a Chance to Live Again?” published in the February 15, 1949 edition of United Evangelical Action, the official organ of the NAE.  By autumn 1949, nearly 500 DP’s had been sponsored.  In that era, evangelical leaders welcomed those who could not return to their home countries for fear of retribution.

To be sure, there were processes in place for relocating DP’s to the United States (an act of Congress, signed by the President in order to deal with an anomalous crisis.. *ahem*).  Even so, the actions of the leaders and constituency of the NAE in the late 1940s demonstrate something about the ethos of mid-century evangelism: it possessed an attitude of expansive welcome towards those who were displaced.  In our current context, let us at least demonstrate the same attitude as our compassionate evangelical forebears.

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  • So the fact that 1940s evangelicals supported the absorption of a relatively small number (3,000) of people who had been victims of one specific kind of horrendous persecution (Nazi-inflicted) through specific legislation that guaranteed the legality of the resulting immigration on a purely-temporary basis means that they would have been welcoming to the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants brazenly violating our borders today? And the only reason we are not more like them is because we have lost their “attitude of expansive welcome towards those were displaced?” And the “anomalous crisis” created by World War II is somehow on a par with the economic and social factors that are driving our current border problem?

    Uh, that’s…like, way more than a bit of a stretch.

  • polistra24

    We don’t even know that these “children” are children, and we certainly don’t know that they are displaced. Most pictures show adults, or children accompanied by parents. Whatever they are, they are NOT fleeing from persecution. It appears that they are being sent northward by Central American governments attempting to alleviate their own gang problems by exporting the gangsters to us.

    Why should we welcome gangsters?

  • Miles Mullin


    The DP Act of 1948 made provision for 200,000 people, not 3,000. That number was the NAE’s agreed allotment. The leaders would have done more if they could have, but the organization was young and already stretched thin financially. Even so, when the State Department asked them to take on the large-for-them-at-the-time responsibility for 3,000, they did not even blink. They jumped at the chance.

    And yes, the situation is, in some ways analogous. After WW2, many DPs repatriated to their home countries. Others, who feared what might happen if they did, refused, “brazenly violating” all sorts of legal strictures. Many of these had opposed the Nazis, were Jewish, or were escaping from the Communist Governments taking control in Eastern Europe. Regardless of the fact that he could not verify their stories, General Dwight Eisenhower refused to forcibly repatriate them.

    And yes, by all accounts of those who have actually been to the border, the dangers these young people claim they face in returning to their “homes,” is similar to the dangers DPs in the 1940s claimed to face.

    There are some very disappointing features of the 1948 DP Act, such as attempts to exclude Catholics and Jews in order that DPs admitted helped maintain the WASP-y character of the USA (Truman almost didn’t sign the bill for these reasons), but the evangelical response to the State Department’s overtures was not one of them.

    My overall intent of the article was actually pretty mundane: encourage evangelicals to embrace the sort of compassionate attitude towards humans who are displaced that their forebears did when confronted with DPs in the 1940s, 1950s (Hungary), and 1970s (Vietnam). From the comments and actions I have seen, many of us are falling well short of that.

    Thanks for reading.


  • Miles Mullin


    Most pictures in certain media outlets certainly tilt that direction. Most people who have actually gone to the border or live on the border tell a different story (E.g. see Amanda Taub’s article on vox.com) And, personally, I would classify death threats from gangs (the de facto rulers in many of these area) as persecution.

    Further, those who claim Christ ought to have a knee-jerk reaction towards compassion and care–especially towards children but even towards lawbreakers and gangsters.

    Thanks for reading,


  • Andrew Dowling

    “It appears that they are being sent northward by Central American
    governments attempting to alleviate their own gang problems by exporting
    the gangsters to us.”

    Conspiracy theory with zero evidence. Who cooked up that nugget . . Glen Beck?

  • Andrew Dowling

    The extreme gang violence in countries like El Salvador are not mere “economic and social factors.” They also were also partly formulated by the culture accompanying the military death squads which blatantly raped, tortured, and massacred hundreds of thousands of Central American men, women, and children for decades with American arms, American training, and American money.

  • Steve Rose

    “Whatever they are, they are NOT fleeing from persecution. It appears that they are being sent northward by Central American governments attempting to alleviate their own gang problems by exporting the gangsters to us.”

    Feel free to join me on my next trip to Honduras to work with the poor, the displaced, the orphans and those who are living in fear to see exactly “why” they are fleeing. Are there some bad apples mixed in? Of course…but here’s a news flash – the bad apples were already coming in.

  • Guest

    Honduras, LOL

  • Steve Rose

    Care to elaborate?

  • Antiphon411

    Our forefathers were indeed generous in welcoming immigrants from Europe. USA is nation whose success and prosperity is based largely on immigration…from Europe.

    How well has America’s social situation done “welcoming” millions upon millions of non-European, non-white immigrants into the country?

    Yes, I am racist. No need to employ that label as though it is a trump card in the argument.

    White Christian nations have always been the most benevolent to their less fortunate non-white brothers. A healthy West is good for the whole world. But massive non-white immigration into USA and Europe have sapped their vitality.