Re-creating America: Youth ministry and social change, 1930-1999

Photo by Tegan Mierle on UnsplashPhoto by Tegan Mierle on Unsplash

Jon Pahl explores the youth ministries of Walther Leaguers, Young Christian Workers, Youth for Christ members, and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore and finds a nuanced history with complex interactions across American culture. The history of Christian youth ministry opens several windows onto key changes in the cultural history of the United States.

contents: introduction · the walther league · the young christian workers · youth for christ · african american youth ministries · recreating america · references · how to cite this article

In his ground-breaking 1977 book, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present, Joseph Kett accurately documented how Christians helped to “invent adolescence” in the nineteenth-century.  With consistent disdain, however, Kett dismissed the Christian construction of adolescence as a “self-contained world in which prolonged immaturity could sustain itself,” where Christian leaders limited youthful choices and substituted “adult-led training” in place of voluntary associations of young people.  Indeed, Kett argued, “Christian youth organizations of the late nineteenth-century downgraded not only voluntarism but intellectuality and spirituality as well.”  Youth ministries were “vapid” and  “naive,” by-products of the “intellectual decadence” of Victorian Protestantism.  Surely they would soon fade away, for Christian youth ministry constituted “the final act of a melodrama which . . . had exhibited sundry attempts . . . to ‘save’ youth from cities, gambling dens, grog shops, and bawdy houses.”[1]

When he turned to the twentieth-century, Kett saw the “fortresses of morality” that Protestants had built for youth come crumbling down. “Between 1920 and 1950,” thought Kett, “the reformers and clergymen who comprised the original architects of adolescence passed the scene.”  A few vestigial pockets of Christians interested in “training” youth remained here and there, but they offered youth only “conformity,” “hostility to intellectuality,” and “passivity.” Indeed, Christian youth ministries were part of a by-gone age, through which young people were segregated into a “separate sphere” that kept them ignorant of the complications of adult life, and that supposedly inculcated in them some mysterious qualities of “citizenship,” “leadership,” or “character.”  Such “youth-training institutions” were essentially “negative” in their intentions, and were doomed to fail in their efforts to promote moral purity.[2]

Now, on one level Kett was surely correct.  As Sydney Ahlstrom pointed out, the Puritan age of American religious history has ended.[3]   And yet, on another level, Christian youth ministries have not only endured, they have in many cases flourished in the last half of the twentieth-century.  How they did so across several streams of denominational tradition is an important and largely untold aspect of American religious history.[4]  The history of Christian youth ministry, in fact, opens several windows onto key changes in the cultural history of the United States.  More specifically, in sexuality and gender relations, in class awareness and economic status, in acceptance of popular culture and media, and in concern for racial equality and civil rights, youth ministries survived over the past seventy years not by holding to a negation driven purity program, but by adapting a variety of practices to mobilize youth for various causes.  That this mobilization brought its own ambivalent outcomes in American cultural history does not lessen the significance of the movement from purity to practices as a whole, or of the agency and significance of youth ministers and young people in history.[5]   Youth ministries, at the least, have been telling sites where social change and intergenerational relations have been negotiated.[6]

The Walther League: Lutheran Young People “Sinning Boldly” in Gender Relations

Die Walther Liga was founded in 1893 in Buffalo, New York as a Lutheran answer to the YMCA.[7]  Based in local congregations, and disseminated through a national publication, Der Vereinsbote [The Society Messenger], the League grew dramatically after World War I when the official language of the organization changed from German to English (the publication then became The Walther League Messenger).[8]  By 1930 the League was operating an office in downtown Chicago which connected nearly seventeen hundred congregational youth societies, a number which grew to over five thousand by 1965.  The Chicago office produced four major publications, and coordinated a wide-range of events, most notably an annual convention (modeled on political party conventions); a network of summer camps; oratory, choir, and sporting contests; a network of “hospices”(boarding houses) for Lutheran youth; and a sanitarium for sufferers of tuberculosis.  Eighteen regional districts also held rallies, published study programs and newsletters, and organized service projects.  Many young people had contact only with the congregational societies of the Walther League, most of which were located in parishes of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, but the complex negotiations across generations occurred throughout the organization, from the local to the national levels.

For instance, Walther Leaguers often found issues related to sexuality and gender a source of intergenerational contention.[9]  As early as 1900, clerical officials of the Lutheran church had recommended that the League not allow women to vote or speak at annual conventions.[10]  The Leaguers rejected this recommendation, and women participated as speaking and voting members of the Walther League fully twenty years before they voted in U.S. Federal elections.[11]  By 1930, having lost badly to their youth on suffrage, Lutheran leaders concerned with preserving adolescent purity found a new gender issue around which to rally: the modern dance.  For the most entertaining of many examples, we turn to Professor P. E. Kretzmann of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, who made the circuit of Walther League Summer camps in the late thirties and early forties speaking on “That Vexing Question of Dancing.”  “The sex passions of the adolescent are easily aroused,” Kretzmann grudgingly admitted.  Consequently, “There is no essential difference between the embrace of ‘petting’ which is so generally indulged in by frivolous young people in our days, and the embrace of the modern dance.”  Indeed, Kretzmann continued, any “girl” who permitted a man to dance with her, deserved to be called a “demi-vierge, only half a virgin, because half of her virginity was gone.”[12]  The virginity of the male was apparently not affected.

Kretzmann clearly articulated the purity program which Kett saw at work in youth organizations.  But what did the young people themselves think and do?  Former Walther Leaguer Martha Smith recalled in a letter to me that she met her husband, Warren, at a Walther League play in Brooklyn, New York one night in the late thirties.  The two were attracted to each other, arranged to meet at the Parkway Inn after the play, and during the evening “they danced and got better acquainted.”[13]  Walther Leaguers told me many similar stories in the dozens of oral history interviews I completed with them.  The young Lutherans knew that the Walther League was a “marriage bureau,” and at least some of them felt free to reject the puritanical prohibitions of their elders and learn to foxtrot, waltz, and even swing, insofar as Lutherans could imagine what that meant.

By the fifties, the young people of the Walther League were dancing in their church basements and fellowship halls, albeit in a carefully disguised form that they called “play-party games.”  A correspondent to the Walther League Messenger from Iowa explained: “‘And promenade her home’–These words certainly are well known to many an Iowa Walther Leaguer. Playparty games and squares are a common sight in our district.  As informal mixers they are tops. . . .  All you have to do is mention the word ‘playparty’ and the toes begin to twitch.”[14]  The predictable objections came from some clerical leaders.  Rev. T. J. Vogel of Amherst, Nebraska, for example, wrote in 1953 to Edgar Fritz, the Chairman of the Walther League Board of Directors to complain that:  “In the home congregations the young people are warned against the sinful dances, [but] when they return from the [Walther League] conventions . . . they report what a wonderful time they had . . .‘dancing to beat the band.’”[15]

Throughout its history, then, Walther League functioned as a place for young people to experiment in gender roles and relations.  Young men and women mixed fairly freely at both local and national meetings, and young women, especially, benefitted from the opportunities to exercise leadership.  For instance, Elizabeth Zoller, a seventeen-year old member of the Regina, Saskatchewan Walther League Society, delivered a homily at a Holy Week service at her church in the early fifties–over twenty years in advance of the ordination of women in any Lutheran church.[16]  Marilyn Rook Bernthal, active in the Frankenmuth, Michigan Walther League during the late fifties, recalled that “the home society was the place . . . we had the chance to lead, to figure out our own finances, and to [do things] ourselves.”[17]

Indeed, the Leaguers were doing all kinds of things themselves.  One tormented adolescent wrote to the Walther League Messenger in 1956 about a sexual behavior known to begin around puberty: “I habitually commit one of the most horrid sins on earth,” the Leaguer lamented.  “I have prayed and cried over it, but apparently the Lord hasn’t seen my tears or heard my prayers.”  The Rev. Paul G. Hansen responded, not with moralistic prohibition, but with tact and more than a little gentle irony: “There is nothing in Scripture which forbids masturbation . . . [and] there is nothing physically harmful about masturbation. . . . ‘[God] will not suffer you to be tempted above what you are able.’”[18]

By the sixties and seventies, Walther League Executive Director Elmer Witt had published under the title “Life Can Be Sexual–Now!,” arguing among other things that “God created sexuality and calls us to live fully and freely as sexual beings.”[19]  At least some of the Leaguers apparently needed little encouragement to embrace changing gender mores.  Throughout the sixties women began writing more regularly for The Walther League Messenger, which was incorporated into an ecumenical youth ministry publication, Arena, in 1963, and whose name was changed to Edge in 1967, and then again to Bridge in 1969.  The latter featured a regular column, “The Sisters Speak,” whose location in the publication was indicated with the circle-above-cross icon for the female gender, with a clenched fist at the center.  Leaguer Kathy Morkert expressed the way “the sisters” saw things:  “The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod joins the other institutions in our society that perpetuate the myths and role definitions that dehumanize and degrade women. . . .  God’s gifts have no sexual distinction.”[20]

Now, such sentiments did not sit well with some Lutheran authorities.  Local parishes began to withdraw financial support from the increasingly youth-led League when The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod as a whole went through a conservative take-over in the late sixties and early seventies, and by 1977 the Walther League had closed its offices.  Many former Walther Leaguers left the Missouri Synod and eventually helped found the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which ordains women, in 1988.[21]  The Missouri Synod, on the other hand, staked its market share as the Lutheran Church of the backlash; a development traceable in part to the dramatic changes in gender dynamics wrought a few decades before in the Walther League.[22]  Those changes had, however, been grounded in Lutheran theology, and especially in the Lutheran notion of Christian liberty.  According to Luther, the very best things that a person could do (like falling in love) were invariably tinged with sinful self-interest.  Luther’s response to this dilemma was, however, neither to perpetuate the Catholic penitential system to mediate between the sinner and God, nor to flee from the self-interested world in sectarian isolation.  Rather, Luther encouraged Christians to “sin boldly,” that is, to trust in God’s grace and forgiveness, and to act as boldly as he himself had acted as a once celibate monk who broke his vows to marry a nun.  For several generations, at least, the Walther League assisted young Lutherans in coming to recognize that the Christian gospel was not synonymous with either the separate spheres mentality or the moralistic prohibitions of Victorian gender ideology.  That its openness to experimentation both led to a schism that divided a church, and led to the formation of a new one, demonstrates some of the vitality in the movement.

The Young Christian Workers: The “Natural Grace” of Upwardly Mobile Lay Apostles

If a plot of Christian history in nineteenth-century America was democratization through the revivals of the frontier, the twentieth-century saw the domestication of Christianity through the rise of the consuming and comfortable middle classes.[23]  Whatever one thinks of this development–and academics have a notoriously hard time admitting our own place within it–youth ministries played a significant role in socializing young people to become “American Christians.” A telling example is the case of the Young Christian Workers (YCW).

YCW had its roots in the larger Catholic Action movement, which sought to encourage lay people to make practical applications of Catholic faith in everyday life.[24]  Like its Catholic Action counterparts the Christian Family Movement (CFM, for married couples), and the Young Christian Students (YCS, for those in school at any level), YCW intended to apply the Catholic Action “inquiry method” of “Observe, Judge, and Act,” designed by Belgian Canon Joseph Cardijn, to the situations of young laborers and clerical workers.[25]  Never intended to be a mass movement, YCW nevertheless operated, at the numerical high-point of its history in 1958, fifty-two small-group sections across the city of Chicago alone.[26]  YCW drew on the Church’s social teachings to develop an emerging theology of lay apostles, where ordinary men and women participated in what had once been seen as a clergy prerogative–as apostolic members of the Mystical Body of Christ.[27]

The first “cells”–as they were called–of YCW were established in Brooklyn, New York, after a series of Catholic Action lectures in 1938 and 1939 sponsored by the Knights of Columbus.   Young lay workers organized a small group “cell,” where members met once a week under the supervision of a priest to “observe, judge, and act” as young Catholic workers.  A report on these early meetings indicates that typical topics discussed included:  “the working environment, dancing, dress, dates and preparation for marriage, movies, family life.”  Each meeting began with the “observation:”  “members were expected to bring in facts about a specific topic chosen ahead of time.”  After a discussion of these observed facts, and a search of the Scriptures and tradition of the Church for relevant information, “the group would make a judgment.  Did the facts indicate a problem?  Should something be done?  What?”  The group then agreed upon actions.  Early actions by the Brooklyn cells included campaigns for decent movies, getting fellow workers to return to the sacraments, and trying to create a more Christian celebration of Christmas by placing displays in stores and encouraging the use of religious cards.[28]

As this range of topics and actions indicates, YCW even in its earliest American incarnations was not exactly a radical movement, and in fact worked within the emerging conventions and commodities of American middle-class markets–dancing, movies, clothes, and even Christmas cards.

As the movement expanded across the U.S., “cells” developed which more or less followed the letter and spirit of Catholic Action support for labor.  For one example, Wisconsin  YCW member Dodie Marino penned two widely reprinted pieces on her involvement in labor disputes (including a strike), and which demonstrated the ability of YCW members to engage the most intractable problems of the market economy.[29]  For another, the YCW women’s staff, under the title “U.S. Girls’ Biggest Problem–Loneliness,” defined “loneliness” to include the fact that “although women workers are one third of the labor force, they get only one-fifth of the nation’s wages and salaries.”[30]

Despite such forays into systemic analysis and action, however, YCW was far from the anarchism of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement, and most members would not have been mistaken for socialist fellow travelers.  In fact, the movement was intended, and probably served, as a Catholic hedge against Communist influence among labor.[31]   The U.S. version of YCW gradually stressed less the working class connections of Catholic Action than the benefits to individuals of participating in “small groups” of like-to-like service.  “In a small group the members gradually build a spirit of friendliness and common purpose,” explained one U.S. YCW Manual.  “They feel what psychologists call a ‘sense of belonging,’ since the small group belongs to its members–and they belong to it–in a way that rarely is possible in a larger organization.”[32]  Unlike in Europe, where YCW leaders had to persuade a large, relatively permanent and alienated working class to return to an established Church, in U.S. Catholicism the boundaries and allegiances of the working class were fluid, and the Church was one more voluntary organization in the market economy.  Over the course of its history, the focus on workers lessened within YCW, and being a lay apostle in the “Mystical Body of Christ” became a metaphor for joining the American middle classes.

A critique of this tendency appeared at the height of the movement in 1958, within one of YCW’s own publications.  The author, Fr. Keith Kennedy, was a YCW leader among Mexican workers in California.  Kennedy appealed for YCW to throw off “dilettante apostolicity,” and truly focus on “genuine love and ‘guts’ Christianity.  If [YCW] is merely to be a youth movement, even an apostolic youth movement, it is doomed, I fear, to superficiality.”  Rejecting the claim that there were not specific workers’ problems in the U.S., Kennedy listed low-cost housing, insurance, workers compensation, right-to-work legislation, displacement of migrant workers, and materialism.  These were problems that needed to be “seen, and touched, and felt, and smelled in the individual lives of workers and their families–of human personalities made in the image and likeness of God.”[33]  A dilettante apostolicity lacked depth.

Nevertheless, for the young people in the local “cells” of YCW across the U.S., the issues they faced, touched, and felt had as much to do with movies and marriage as with migrancy.  By 1957 fully seventy-seven percent of the youth involved in YCW were white-collar employees (like secretaries and store managers), while only fifteen percent were blue-collar workers.[34]   By 1962, a survey of YCW chaplains in Chicago concluded that “every priest interviewed saw the YCW as a youth movement. . . .  The priests did not consider YCW a ‘workers’ movement in the European sense of the phrase.”[35]  By 1964 the class realities were made explicit when the name of the organization was changed to “Young Christian Movement,” and by 1968 all of the Chicago cells had ceased operations.[36]

What had happened?  YCW was part of that process, as Andrew Greeley has observed with typical wit, by which the Catholic Church in America became “a church for immigrants who are no longer immigrants, a church for the poor who are no longer poor, a church for the uneducated who are now well educated.”[37]  Such changes were anything but inconsistent with Catholic theology, which since at least Aquinas has seen natural happiness and supernatural grace as part of a continuum.  All of life has its source in God, and all living things find fulfillment in God, but God intends for humans to be happy and to enjoy the gifts of nature and society.  Being a lay apostle in the Mystical Body of Christ was not incompatible with membership in the American middle classes.  Indeed, as the history of YCW suggests, belonging to such a small group youth ministry was a helpful step for Catholic young people to take in that upwardly mobile direction.

Youth for Christ: The “Old Time Gospel” in the Idioms of Popular Culture

Surely if any modern American youth ministry fits Joseph Kett’s stereotype of moralistic, purity-driven “training” of youth, we will find it among evangelical Christians.  The case of Youth for Christ, however, suggests that even among evangelicals the situation was more complex than Kett depicted it.

Youth for Christ (YFC) was one of three evangelical, nondenominational youth organizations founded during World War II (the others were Young Life and Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship).  Many others have followed since.  YFC had roots on the East Coast, but it grew most rapidly in the Midwest.  Organizer Torrey Johnson, pastor of the Midwest Bible Church, scheduled rallies at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall for twenty-one consecutive Saturday nights in 1944, and booked half-hour spots on radio station WCFL to coincide.  Billy Graham–at the time a twenty-five year old pastor in the Chicago suburb of Western Springs– preached the first sermon at the first rally, and in 1945 became YFC’s first full-time staff person as traveling evangelist.  Following these successful revivals, Chicago became the organizing center for Youth for Christ, and the pattern of radio-broadcast and rallies became Youth for Christ’s signature.[38]

YFC rallies followed a consistent pattern of  “Saturday night in a big auditorium, lively gospel music, personal testimonies from athletes, civic leaders or military heroes, and a brief sermon, climaxing with a gospel invitation to receive Jesus as personal Savior.”[39]  Joel Carpenter develops the portrait further:

Rally evangelists hammered at the sins of youthful desire, while creating an atmosphere of wholesome entertainment, patriotic affirmation, and religious commitment.  [Early YFC] meetings featured carefully orchestrated visions of innocence, heroism, and loyalty . . . all wrapped in a contemporary idiom borrowed from radio variety shows and patriotic musical revues.[40]

Over the decades, rallies gave way to local small group meetings of youth as the core ministry of Youth for Christ, but throughout its history YFC, like many evangelical youth ministries, has discovered that an effective way to reach young people has been to package “the old time gospel” in the idioms of popular culture.

Two developments within twentieth-century evangelicalism document this rapprochement between conservative Christian theology and American popular culture.  The first is the trickiest.  In gender politics, evangelicals would seem to be particularly old-school: the Promise Keepers came from somewhere.[41]   Yet even among ardent evangelical advocates of the politics of gender separation one finds fissures and accommodations with popular culture.  For instance, in a 1947 feature in Youth for Christ Magazine, “For Girls Only,” Dorothy Haskins argued that “becoming a Christian does place certain restrictions upon a girl’s conduct. [A Christian girl] does not wear clothes obviously styled as ‘man-bait.’  She conforms more closely to the rules of good conduct.” Addressing the question of why “Christian girls don’t pet,” Haskins concluded that “Girls are like jewelry.  Cheap, imitation jewelry in the dime story may be picked up and handled by anyone.  At exclusive shops, however, the jewels are kept in a glass case.  You may look, but only the owner may possess them.”[42]  Now, on one level this analogy is about as blatant an endorsement of mid-century American patriarchy as one can find: a woman is “owned” by her partner.  On another level, however, the analogy is consistent with the modern commodification of sexuality:  girls are like jewelry.  Thus, by 1997 one finds in Campus Life–the successor to Youth for Christ Magazine, a regular feature column on “Love, Sex, and the Whole Person,” where evangelical youth write in with laments such as “Im Addicted to Porn.”[43]

In short, although the intent of YFC and similar evangelical youth organizations was to promote teenaged sexual “purity,” the very structure of the organizations as intergendered groups created fissures in the ideology of the separate spheres.  Thus in a counterpart to Haskins’ 1947 piece, Don Jacobs addressed “Boys Only” with some recommendations of his own.  “Be definite in your dating,” Jacobs began.  “Active sports are good for dates.  The more strenuous the better,” he continued, “as long as she can take it. . . .  Be a committee of one to see to it that your relationship with the gals is going to be on the up and up always.”  On one level, again, Jacobs’ advice for boys to “be on the up and up” in their gender relations (all Freudian analysis aside) reinforced patriarchy and male control.  On another level, though, by encouraging boys to include girls in active sports Jacobs in fact was (within the evangelical world) demonstrating a progressive intent, more in keeping with attitudes in popular culture than in traditional Victorian gender ideology.[44]  Girls could, one presume, play basketball or volleyball with the boys at a YFC meeting–as they now do regularly in similar groups across the country.[45]

Countless other examples of evangelical embrace of popular culture exist–in education, in economics, and in politics, but the most dramatic example has been the rapprochement between evangelical youth ministry and popular culture in the area of music and entertainment.  From the outset, YFC leaders sought to update evangelicalism, which had grown conventional since the decades of Billy Sunday’s showmanship on the sawdust trail.[46]  Gospel music had always been tinged by the blues; in the forties, YFC infused it with the rhythms and instrumentation of swing.  The old-time gospel, furthermore, was broadcast.  Foreshadowing evangelical dominance of television decades later, YFC leaders routinely bought up air-time to broadcast their revivals on the radio.  The revivals were tailored accordingly: they moved quickly, and entertained as well as uplifted.  Preachers who spoke in the clipped cadences of radio newsmen were interspersed with magicians who performed their tricks.  Former dance band leaders shared the stage with MacArthur the gospel horse, who “moved his jaws to show ‘how the girls in the choir chew gum’ and . . . [who tapped] his hoof three times when asked how many Persons are in the Trinity.’”[47]

This accommodation of evangelical youth ministry to the styles and substance of popular culture has accelerated over the decades.  For example, evangelical sociologist Tony Campolo reports on attending an evangelical youth rally in the late eighties: “Taking the stage just before I spoke was a musical group called the Rez Band. . . .  The punk-rock types in the crowd were gyrating to the band’s drum beats. . . . [And] when the members of the band gave their testimonies of what the Holy Spirit was doing for them, the crowd cheered them with wild enthusiasm.”[48]  A similar scene could have been witnessed at “Christian contemporary music” concerts or evangelical youth rallies over the past two decades, where numerous bands and artists have successfully woven the old-time gospel into the newest musical idioms, even if at times the tapestry is so subtle that to some the gospel seems to be lost.[49]

In any event, as Joel Carpenter has recently argued, Youth for Christ (and evangelical youth ministry more broadly) represented the emergence in American history of a new evangelicalism:

Youth for Christ wed born-again religion to the style as well as the media of the entertainment industry.  From a fundamentalist perspective, the rally leaders were borrowing from the very dens of the devil–Hollywood and Radio City–to accomplish the Lord’s purposes.  Dressing revivalism in more fashionable attire and merging it with Americans’ growing concern for their fate in a troubled world, Youth for Christ pioneered a new evangelical outreach.  The rallies blended fundamentalists and other evangelicals into a broad coalition and showed how the movement might win a valued place once more in the public life of the nation.[50]

Youth ministry, in short, re-created American evangelicalism.

African American Youth Ministries: Forging Freedom

Youth ministry has also re-created U.S. political culture.  Nowhere was the role of Christian young people in social change more dramatically evident than in the civil rights movement.  Historian and sociologist Vincent Harding explains the well-known but still little appreciated dynamic:

[Young people] were in Little Rock, Arkansas, entering the school under the protection of the National Guard–but with no protection at all in the classrooms, locker rooms, and lavatories. . . .  They sat in at lunch counters, knelt-in at churches, waded-in at beaches, slept-in at motels. . . Suddenly it strikes us: It was a phalanx of children, teenagers, and young adults who did so much to break the back of the deadly, generations-old system of legal segregation. . . . Young people were the heart of the movement.[51]

And most of these young people were Christian, with roots in youth ministries, where they were nurtured in practices of prophetic social critique and constructive political engagement.[52]  Not all black churches had youth ministries with prophetic or political functions, but many did.[53]

For instance, the history of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore can demonstrate the ways in which African American youth ministries transgressed the boundaries between sacred and secular spheres to forge freedom for black youth not only during, but also prior to and after the civil rights movement.  Bethel was founded in 1786, and has housed a congregation continuously since.  In the twentieth-century, Bethel became the headquarters for Baltimore’s  “City-Wide Young People’s Forum.”  This agency, led in the nineteen-thirties by Juanita Jackson–who eventually became youth director of the NAACP, sponsored programs to “develop the intellectual and moral talents” of young African Americans.  The Forum also took direct action.  Along with members of the National Urban League, Bethel’s youth “picketed and boycotted the city’s chain stores, which refused to hire Negro clerks.  They also protested segregation at the Enoch Pratt Public Library, and held mass meetings to demonstrate against” two Maryland lynchings in 1932 and 1933.[54]  By 1937, the congregation mobilized to get black police officers hired in the city of Baltimore.  Meetings in the church’s 1,600 seat sanctuary were held to discuss the issue of representation on the police force, along with other political matters troubling the community.[55]  Through such meetings, and through Sunday sermons and Scripture readings, young black Christians learned and practiced “liberation theology” at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore well before it was given a name as a movement within Christian theology.[56]

Of course, Bethel’s young people from the thirties through the fifties were also involved in many traditional youth ministry activities, such as bible study, prayer, and song.  But in the context of segregation, even the most apparently innocuous events held social significance.  In 1956, for instance, Mayme Tilghman, president of Bethel’s Laymens’ League, involved many of the young African American women of Bethel as models in a fashion show.  Over two hundred attended.  Sociologist Lawrence Mamiya draws out the significance: “Long before the black consciousness movement of the 1960s, these social affairs underscored the insight that black was indeed beautiful.”[57]  For young people en route from childhood to adulthood, affirmation of their body as beautiful was a significant theological and cultural affirmation.  Another event in 1962, also led by Tilghman, demonstrated the creative way Bethel’s youth were taught patterns of economic empowerment.  Tilghman organized a Merchant Stamp collecting campaign, including a “licking committee” to paste loose stamps into books.  The campaign raised enough money to buy a school bus for the Sunday School and youth programs.  Through such social and economic activities, Bethel’s youth learned that freedom meant both freedom from oppression and for social responsibility.  As is well known, the “church [has been] the most economically independent institutional sector in the black community.”[58]

During the civil rights movement, Bethel was a fixture in the struggle to desegregate Baltimore.  Pastor Harrison J. Bryant involved youth in events such as the “March for Baltimore” on March 30, 1964, when 4,000 demonstrators, led by a young Dick Gregory, paraded throughout the city to signal their demand for equal access to fair housing and other benefits of life in modern America.  Leaders of the national civil rights movement visited Bethel where young people could meet them and learn from them.  Among them was the Honorable Thurgood Marshall, a Baltimore native who was prosecutor in the pivotal 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education which paved the way for desegregation across the U.S..[59]  Through the welcome of prominent guests, the youth of Bethel were connected to “kin” with significant success in public life.[60]  Such figures demonstrated for black youth that Christian faith had practical as well as spiritual benefits.[61]

Since the sixties, the challenges for youth ministry at Bethel changed, but a focus on bridging religion to practical problems continued.  In a 1998 interview, the church’s youth minister, Rev. David DeVaux, explained that “there’s no separation of the secular and the sacred here.  We try to teach youth about all of life, everything from Zechariah [a biblical book] to Puff Daddy [a contemporary hip-hop artist].”[62]  The potential of the latter became apparent to me when I attended the worship services at Bethel on December 21, 1998.  For the music before the sermon, the massive choir in the balcony at the back of the church began to sing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, set to the lyrics of Henry van Dyke,  Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.  After two verses of precise, staccato pronunciation of the lyrics, the organ crescendoed, and then the piano, drum, bass, and guitars joined in a gentle gospel blues arrangement of Beethoven’s beautiful melody.  Two young women appeared at the front of the church, dancing classical ballet in blue jeans and red turtleneck sweatshirts.  After a couple verses of gospel blues, the band took off on a driving hip-hop beat.  Up the aisles came an army of youth, dozens of them of all ages dressed in jeans and red turtlenecks, stepping, jumping, sprinting, and dancing with abandon.  Several did cart-wheels.  The members of the congregation sprang to their feet, clapping hands and swaying to the music, joining in the exuberance.  A young man took the microphone at the front of the church and began a theological-rap, as a choir of young people massed behind him, swaying and singing and shouting with adoration. The young man standing next to me turned my way as we shared in the beauty of the moment, and exclaimed, “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

DeVaux’s reference to Puff-Daddy, then, was not accidental.  Music has been a key bridge between the generations in African American churches.  The lineage is long, deep, and direct (though not uncontested) from the early spirituals, through the “freedom songs” of the civil rights movement, down to contemporary gospel.  As Lincoln and Mamiya suggest, “the music performed in black churches is a major way of attracting members and sustaining their spiritual growth. . . .  Among black young people . . . gospel music programs constitute the major drawing card” determining their church membership.[63]  Members of Bethel’s intergenerational choir, I learned, included the young people who also constituted a separate youth choir, “Joshua Generation.” The dancers formed the core of the church’s step team.

Bethel’s ministry with young people in the 1990s went considerably beyond music.  For instance, on the Sunday I attended Senior Pastor Frank M. Reid III–himself a son of the congregation–preached a sermon entitled “God Delivers us to Develop Us” that was a virtual incantation of the challenge to African American youth ministry since the passing of civil rights legislation.  Urged on by congregational responses of “Amen,” “Alleluia,” and intense spiritual experience (including speaking in tongues),[64] Reid preached: “The church is still filled with spiritual babies because we got stuck in the sixties and seventies with deliverance, and forgot the development.  But God wants us to develop into mature men and women.  God wants to birth greatness, strength, and security.”  The reference to God giving birth was subtle, but unmistakable, and was an effective way to broaden youth (and adult) images of God beyond the traditionally masculine images of Christian history.  In case his congregation missed it, Reid repeated the theme: “God is always a God of birth and giving.”  Quoting Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., Reid rang the changes on Christian freedom: “Only those who believe, obey; and only those who obey, believe.”  “With opportunity comes responsibility.”  “God delivers us, to develop us.”  It was a sermon that ranged across issues of gender, class, education, and economics.

Youth ministry at Bethel in the 1990s was also not restricted to music and preaching on Sunday mornings.  In the early ‘90s the church developed a  “Rites of Passage program for youth between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, structured like a college course, complete with syllabus, tuition ($400 per student), and course requirements of reading assignments and community service projects.  Topics discussed from a Christian perspective include guns and violence, money management and entrepreneurship, African American history, and selection of colleges.  Bi-weekly  meetings culminated in an Afrocentric Rites of Passage ceremony at the church on a Friday in Spring, followed by a Cotillion dinner at a nearby restaurant on Saturday.[65]  Mamiya summarizes the significance of these programs, “By creating its own rite[s] of passage based on African tradition, the congregation was again reasserting its resistance to mainstream American culture and returning to its African heritage.”[66]

Along with an emphasis on worship and rites of passage, Bethel established a scholarship program to assist youth who wished to attend college.  Administered by the Daniel Payne Scholarship Committee (Payne was pastor of the church from 1845-1849), this program began in 1975 with $50 scholarships to High School graduates.  By 1989, twenty-eight awards were given, totaling $28,000.[67]    By 1999, the total had jumped to over $60,000 annually in awards.[68]   These scholarships indicated the long tradition of “self-help” within African American congregations–with “help” understood not only spiritually, but politically and economically as well.

Along with scholarships, which obviously assist upwardly mobile black youth, Bethel also developed Teen PEP (Pregnancy Education Program), to educate young women about motherhood and to encourage fathers to take responsibility for their children.  Among Bethel’s numerous ministries in the late 1990s were others that reached out specifically to teens.   “Ezekiel’s Army” was a juvenile justice ministry seeking to prevent crime among male adolescents.  “Freedom Now” was a “Word-based counseling ministry for substance abusers and their families and friends.”  The church also sponsored a prison ministry which reached out to many black youth incarcerated in Baltimore’s penal facilities.[69]

In places like Bethel, then, before, during, and after the civil rights movement African American church members assisted black youth as they have sought to find a life-path of freedom. Through its youth ministries, which are woven into the fabric of congregational life, young people learned not only to pray and study, but also to participate in protests, and to take an active role in political life.  In the process, they re-created American culture–from its laws to its music, in ways that defy conventional stereotypes, and that pose a significant challenge to Joseph Kett’s paradigm for understanding the history of adolescence.

Re-creating America

All in all, then, a more nuanced picture of what has happened in the history of Christian youth ministry is emerging than the one offered by Joseph Kett.  Youth ministries, at the least, have been a key location of social change in American culture, and especially within American religious history.  Kett’s sample was simply too small, and he was largely insensitive to the sometimes subtle motivations and activities of religious groups.  All in all, youth ministries have proven quite creative and adaptable over the twentieth-century.  Even if they have not mobilized all youth to march forward on the same causes (a pattern probably not desirable in any event), on some issues, in some communities, real change has occurred.

Among confessional Protestants like the Lutheran Walther Leaguers, for instance, the example of sexuality and gender relations documents significant changes.  Over the course of the twentieth-century, Lutheran youth learned to pick and choose which gender-related advice to accept from their spiritual authorities.  Prohibitions against dancing were widely ignored, and eventually dropped completely.  Sexual behaviors once simply taboo, such as masturbation, received, if not endorsement, acknowledgment as less-than-the-horrid-sin some youth constructed it to be.  And by the 1960s, healthy sexuality was affirmed as a worthwhile goal, “now!,” and feminism began to appear in the League publications.  Such developments produced a backlash among some Lutherans, but also helped prepare the way for the ordination of women in the largest group of Lutherans in the U.S., The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, formed in 1988.

Among Roman Catholics, the critical issue was class, rather than gender.  The history of the Young Christian Workers in America documents how young Catholics in the U.S. increasingly identified themselves not as “workers,” but as “youth,” ostensibly to the chagrin of their spiritual authorities.  And yet, links between economic well-being and spiritual destiny were firmly grounded in Catholic theology and natural law teaching, and were, furthermore, fostered by the very programs and foci of most of the YCW programs.  Many of the market-friendly accommodations of YCW to American culture took on spiritual form in the embrace of voluntarism and cultural diversity that eventually became manifest in Vatican II, and (with some qualification) throughout the papacy of John Paul II.  At the least, Catholics were well-prepared through groups such as YCW to be full participants in the American middle-classes.

Even among evangelicals, Kett’s one-sided dismissal of youth ministry deserves revision in light of the last half of the twentieth-century.   Groups like Youth for Christ did manifest many of the culturally-confirming conventions that Kett associated with adolescence, but YFC also moved young evangelicals forward into a more energetic embrace of American popular culture, as the example of music demonstrates.  Indeed, if YFC recreated American evangelicalism, as Carpenter argues, it could also be argued that evangelicalism recreated American culture from the 1970s to the present.  The Presidencies of Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush would thus become, not a discontinuity between parties, but a demonstration of the enduring influence of a revived evangelicalism in American public life.

Finally, then, the example of African American youth ministry poses perhaps the most serious challenge to Kett’s dismissive treatment of Christian adolescents in history.  Among blacks, youth ministry has been anything but “intellectually bankrupt” or “culturally confirming.”  As the examples of the civil rights movement and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore demonstrate, youth ministries among African Americans could be not only prophetic, but politically and culturally potent.

To be sure, many local youth ministries operated throughout the twentieth-century in ways that were banal, and that perpetuated the purity program Kett rightly criticized.  But among some Walther Leaguers, Young Christian Workers, Youth for Christ members, and participants in the youth ministries of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, a more nuanced history appears, with complex interactions across American culture.  If youth ministries and Christian young people did not re-create America, they surely played a role in negotiating its future.  The details of that role are in need of on-going study, in diverse contexts, by historians attuned to the harmonies of theology and the rhythms of ritual, and attentive to the historical contributions and significance of children, youth, and the programs adults have created for them.[70]


[1]  Joseph Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (NY: Basic Books, 1977), p. 210, 194, 190, 248.

[2]  Ibid., pp. 248, 243, 253.  Many of these phrases Kett quotes approvingly from August de B. Hollingshead, Elmtown’s Youth: The Impact of Social Class on Adolescents (NY: J. Wiley, 1949), p. 149.

[3]  See Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), pp. 965ff.   I develop the significance of Ahlstrom’s insight more fully in my Youth Ministry in Modern America:  1930 to the present (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000).

[4]  I find particularly compelling the analysis of Edward Shils, Tradition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), as a way to theorize historical changes in tradition.  See especially Chapters Six and Seven of Youth Ministry in Modern America, where I utilize Shils’ theoretical perspective to describe, set in context, and analyze the functions of four youth ministry subcultures–Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and African American.  Within each, youth leaders communicated to young people theological language systems and ritually-inscribed social practices with centuries-old lineages, while also adapting these systems to the changing contours of American culture and to the demands of young people.  The systems changed more or less constantly throughout the twentieth-century, through what Shils has called “exogenous” and “endogenous” catalysts of change. From without, Christian youth ministries were changed by U.S. global involvement (most notably in war and trade), and by increasingly centralized and rationalized Federal, state, and local bureaucracies.  From within, Christians have corrected, rationalized, and imaginatively reconfigured their own traditions in dramatic ways in the late twentieth-century. Youth ministries were both affected by, and helped to create, these changes.

[5]  On this topic, see the excellent dissertation by Thomas E. Bergler, “Winning America: Christian Youth Groups and the Middle-Class Culture of Crisis, 1930-1965.”  Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 2001.

[6] This approach, which sees youth subcultures as venues for intergenerational negotiation, is also developed in Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America.  Ed. Joe Austin and Michael Nevin Willard (NY: NYU Press, 1998).  See also Paula Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (NY: Oxford University Press, 1977); James Gilbert, A Cycle of Outrage; America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (NY: Oxford University Press, 1986); William Graebner, Coming of Age in Buffalo: Youth and Authority in the Postwar Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990); Giovanni Levi and Jean-Claude Schmitt, eds., A History of Young People in the West.  Volume 1: Ancient and Medieval Rites of Passage; Volume 2: Stormy Evolution to Modern Times.  Tr. Camille Naish (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); Nina Mjagkij and Margaret Spratt, eds., Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and the YWCA in the City (NY: NYU Press, 1997); Grace Paladino, Teenagers: An American History (NY: Basic Books, 1996); and Judith Weisenfeld, African American Women and Christian Activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).  On the matter of “re-creating” America through vernacular, as opposed to elite, histories, see John Bodnar, Remaking America:  Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth-Century  (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1992).

{7]  I document the history in detail in Hopes and Dreams of All: The International Walther League, and Lutheran Youth in American Culture, 1893-1993 (Chicago: Wheat Ridge, 1993).  The title is from a Lutheran eucharistic prayer: “Gather the hopes and dreams of all; unite them with the prayers we offer.  Grace our table with your presence, Lord, and give us a foretaste of the feast to come.”  The commissioned work is based upon archival and oral history research, and is available from Wheat Ridge Ministries, 1 Pierce Place, Suite 250E, Itasca, IL 60413.  Phone 1-800-762-6748. Online http://www/                                          .

[8]  For a history of the publication, see my “Walther League Messenger,” in Popular Religious Magazines of the United States.  Ed. P. Mark Fackler and Charles H. Lippy (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995): 494-500.

[9]  For more general histories of some of the changes wrought through these negotiations, see Beth L. Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); and John Modell, Into One’s Own: From Youth to Adulthood in the United States, 1920-1975 (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1989).

[10]  “An der Verwaltungsrath der Walther-Liga, zu Haenden des Herrn Wilhelm L.[sic] Fritz, Secretaer” [“To the Walther League Board, into the hands of Dr. Wilhelm C. Fritz, Secretary,”] n.d., [1900], typescript copy, Box 22, Concordia Historical Institute Walther League Collection, St. Louis, Missouri.  90 linear feet of Walther League materials are available at the Institute.

[11]  See Der Vereinsbote 9(August-September, 1900): 10 for the precise wording of the resolutions from the convention.  The Missouri Synod as a whole did not recognize the right of women to vote in congregations for another fifty years.

[12]  P. E. Kretzmann, “That Vexing Question of Dancing and Related Subjects,” n.d. [c. 1939], typescript mimeograph, Box 27, Concordia Historical Institute Walther League Collection.

[13]  “Martha W. Smith to Jon Pahl,” 21 November 1991.”  I distributed surveys to and requested correspondence from several hundred former Walther Leaguers between 1991 and 1993.  Returned surveys and correspondence have been forwarded to the Concordia Historical Institute, Walther League Collection.

[14]  John Fischer, “Iowa West Highspots,” Walther League Messenger 64(April 1956): 19.

[15]  “T. J. Vogel to Edgar Fritz,” 21 March 1953.  Concordia Historical Institute, Box 43, Walther League Collection.

[16]  Elizabeth Zoller to Jon Pahl,” November 8, 1991, p. 7.  Typescript of homily included.

[17]  “Marilyn [Rook] Bernthal to Jon Pahl,” September 23, 1991, p.  3.

[18]  Paul G. Hansen, “It’s Your Problem,” Walther League Messenger 64(February 1956): 29.

[19]  Elmer Witt, “Life Can Be Sexual–Now,” Arena One (June 1967): 7-8.

[20]  Kathy Morkert, “The LCMS and Women,” Bridge (April 1971): 6.

[21]  See Todd Nichol, All These Lutherans: Three Paths to a New Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988), and the ELCA web-page,

[22]  For an examination of this backlash at work in an earlier period, see Betty DeBerg, Ungodly Women: Gender and the First Wave of American Fundamentalism, 1875-1925 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989).  For the definitive study of the present manifestation, see Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women (NY: Crown, 1991).  For a historical study of the dynamics within the Missouri Synod, see Mary Todd, Authority Vested:  A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod  (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2000).

[23]  This is the implicit plot (badly obscured by lack of editing) in Harvey Graff, Conflicting Paths: Growing Up in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).  See also Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) and Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).  A. Gregory Schneider, The Way of the Cross Leads Home: The Domestication of American Methodism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) dates this process too early, and defines it too narrowly, but clearly identifies the dynamics at work within one denomination.  See also Colleen McDannell, “Home Schooling,” in American Sacred Space.  Ed. David Chidester and Edward T. Linenthal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

[24]  For general historical treatments of the Catholic Action movements, see Jay Dolan, The American Catholic Experience:  A History from Colonial Times to the Present  (Garden City, New York:  Doubleday, 1985); Aaron I. Abell, American Catholicism and Social Action:  A Search for Social Justice, 1865-1950  (Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame, 1963); Debra Campbell, “Reformers and Activists,” in American Catholic Women:  A Historical Exploration.  Ed. by Karen Kennelly, C.S.J  (New York:  Macmillan, 1989), pp. 152-181; and “Labor and Lay Movements:  Part One,” U.S. Catholic Historian 9(Summer, 1990):  223-333, and especially “Labor and Lay Movements:  Part Two,” in Ibid., 9(Fall, 1990):  335-467.

[25]  See Michael de la Bedoyere, The Cardijn Story  (New York:  Longmans, Green and Co., 1958).  Among Cardijn’s writings in translation, see Challenge to Action:  Addresses of Monsignor Joseph Cardijn.  Ed. by Eugene Langdale  (Chicago:  Fides, 1955) and Laymen Into Action.  Tr. by Anne Heggie  (London:  Geoffrey Chapman, 1964).

[26]  There is a monograph documenting the history of the group, written by a former member.  See Mary Irene Zotti, A Time of Awakening: The Young Christian Worker Story in the United States, 1938 to 1970  (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1991), p. 153.

[27]  R. Scott Appleby, “Present to the People of God:  The Transformation of the Roman Catholic Parish Priesthood,” in Transforming Parish Ministry:  The Changing Roles of Catholic Clergy, Laity, and Women Religion  Ed. by Jay P. Dolan, et al.  (New York:  Crossroad, 1990), p. 27.

[28]  Zotti, Awakening, p. 15.

[29]  See Dodie Marino, “YCW in Our Factory,” in Apostolate 2(Winter, 1954): 20-26; “YCW Joins a Picket Line,” in Apostolate 4(Spring, 1957): 10-14.

[30]  YCW [Women’s] Staff, “U.S. Girls’ Biggest Problem: Loneliness,” in AIM 2(March, 1958):  4.

[31]  See for example, Jeremiah Newman, What is Catholic Action:  An Introduction to the Lay Apostolate  (Westminster, Md:  Newman Press, 1958), p. 23 who argues in typical fashion that the “alarming” growth of Communism made Catholic action necessary.

[32]  Bob Senser, Specialized Apostolates in Action  (Chicago:  CFM/YCW/YCS, 1959), p. 5.

[33]  Fr. Keith Kennedy, “YCW: A Workers’ Apostolate?,” in Apostolate 5(Spring, 1958): 15-20.

[34]  Zotti, Awakening,  p. 139.

[35]  “Two Reports on YCW City Chaplains,” in Apostolate 9(Fall, 1962): 5-6.

[36]  See “A Time To Begin: Introducing YCM,” typed page proofs.  (Chicago: YCM, 1967).  University of Notre Dame Archives, CYCM Collection, Box 20.

[37]  Andrew M. Greeley, “The Catholics in the World and in America,” in World Religions in America: An Introduction (Louisville, KY: Wesminster/John Knox, 1994), p. 95.

[38]  Bruce Shelley, “The Rise of Evangelical Youth Movements,” in Fides et Historia 18(1986): 49.  The office moved to Wheaton, Illinois in 1953, and Denver, in 1990.

[39]  Ibid..

[40]  Joel A. Carpenter, “Youth for Christ and the New Evangelicals,” in Religion and the Life of the Nation: American Recoveries, ed. Rowland A. Sherrill (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 140.

[41] For this movement, see the PK web-site,, as cited 2/04/03, and Rhys H. Williams, ed., Promise Keepers and the New Masculinity:  Private Lives and Public Morality  (Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books/The Association for the Sociology of Religion, 2001).

[42]  Dorothy Haskins, “For Girls Only,” in Youth for Christ Magazine 5(February, 1947): 6, 28.

[43]  Tim Stafford, “Love, and Sex, and the Whole Person,” regular feature, Campus Life 56(July/August, 1997): 42-44.

[44] Don Jacobs, “For Boys Only,” Youth for Christ Magazine 5(February, 1947): 7, 58-9.

[45]  Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity:  Christianity and Sports in America  (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2001), isolates the dynamic for an earlier period, through a paradigm that largely perpetuate’s Kett’s.

[46]  See my “Billy Sunday,” in Twentieth-Century Shapers of American Popular Religion, ed. Charles H. Lippy (NY: Greenwood Press, 1989): 410-416.

[47]  See Mel Larson, Young Man on Fire: The Story of Torrey Johnson and Youth for Christ (Chicago: Youth for Christ Publications, 1945), p. 41, and Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 165.

[48]  Tony Campolo, The Church and the American Teenager: What Works and What Doesn’t Work in Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), p. 41.

[49]  Quentin J. Schultze, et al., Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991) raises this possibility.

[50]  Carpenter, Revive Us Again, p. 162.

[51] Vincent Harding, Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), p. 59.

[52]  See for example, David Halberstam, The Children (NY:  Fawcett, 1998), who in somewhat breathless fashion narrates the story.

[53]  See Peter J. Paris, “The Religious World of African Americans,” in World Religions in America: An Introduction, ed. Jacob Neusner (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), pp. 83-89, who develops a helpful typology, based on his earlier The Social Teachings of the Black Churches.  (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).

[54]  Lawrence H. Mamiya, “A Social History of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore: The House of God and the Struggle for Freedom,” in American Congregations: Volume I: Portraits of Twelve Religious Communities.  Ed. by James P. Wind and James W. Lewis (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994),  p. 255.

[55]  “By the Grace of God: A History of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” Homepage of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,, as cited 2/03/03.

[56]  The rediscovery of this insight has been a chief feature of the past generation of scholarship on the African American Church.  See among many James Cone, God of the Oppressed  (N.Y.:  Seabury, 1976); Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll:  The World the Slaves Made  (N.Y.:  Vintage, 1976); Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness:  Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom  (N.Y.:  Oxford University Press, 1977); Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion:  The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South  (N.Y.:  Oxford University Press, 1978).

[57]  Mamiya, “A Social History of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore: The House of God and the Struggle for Freedom,” p. 257.

[58]  C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990), p. 241.

[59]  Mamiya, p. 258-261.

[60]  William R. Myers, Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry: Two Congregations in America (NY: Pilgrim Press, 1991) takes this idea of “kinship” as the key to understanding African American youth ministry.

[61]  On this theme of continuity, see Albert J. Raboteau, “The Black Church: Continuity within Change,” in Altered Landscapes: Christianity in America, 1935-1985 Ed. David W. Lotz (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989): 77-91.  On the role of churches in the civil rights movement, see among many Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (NY: Free Press, 1984); David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross:  Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference  (N.Y.:  Vintage Books, 1986); Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters:  America in the King Years, 1954-1963  (N.Y.:  Simon and Schuster, 1988); Adam Fairclough, “The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Second Reconstruction, 1957-1973,” in Modern American Protestantism and Its World, Vol. 9:  Native American Protestantism and Black Protestantism Ed. Martin E. Marty (Munich: K.G. Sauer, 1993): 188-205.

[62]  Jon Pahl, “Interview with David DeVaux,” December 16, 1998.

[63]  Lincoln and Mamiya, p. 380-381.  See also James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues:  An Interpretation (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1972); Wyatt Tee Walker, Somebody’s Calling My Name:”  Black Sacred Music and Social Change  (Valley Forge, PA:  Judson Press, 1979); and Michael W. Harris, The Rise of Gospel Blues:  The Music of Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church  (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[64]  Bethel is one of the A.M.E. (and A.M.E. Zion and Baptist) churches to be involved since the seventies in the“neo-Pentecostal” movement.  This movement, drawing on the dramatic growth of the Church of God in Christ in the U.S., has transformed many traditionally “decorous” black churches into congregations featuring vibrant, spirit-infused worship.  Speaking in tongues is not considered essential for membership in these churches, but it is welcomed as one of many spiritual gifts.  See Lincoln and Mamiya, pp. 385-88.

[65]  “Bethel AME Rites of Passage Syllabus,” p. 8.  In possession of the author, obtained from Rev. DeVaux.

[66]  Mamiya, p. 269.

[67]  Ibid.

[68]  “Interview with David DeVaux,” p. 3.

[69]  “Ministries of Bethel,” Bethel Home Page, pp. 1-3.

[70]  The prospects for this research are good.  The Society for the History of Childhood and Youth was formed in 1999, and holds bi-annual conferences.   Go to for the society’s web-page.  An H-Net on-line discussion of children and youth is also active, and sponsors a web-page for exchange of syllabi.  See for the latter,, as cited 2/04/03.

How to cite this article: Pahl, J. (2003) ‘Re-creating America: Youth ministry and social change, 1930-1999’, the encylopedia of informal education,

Dr. Jon Pahl is Associate Professor of Church History at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP).

© Jon Pahl 2003