The American Flag in Methodist Worship: A Historical Look at Practice
By Karen Westerfield Tucker
In the weeks following September 11, our shock and horror was joined by a nationwide upswelling of patriotism. This patriotism took many forms: tributes to the thousands who died horrible, needless deaths; defensive postures against the threat of terrorism at home; support to our troops in harms way; and even protests against excessive and ongoing military involvement in resolving the crisis (although some may have difficulty viewing this as patriotism). As we as a country wrap ourselves in the red, white, and blue of national pride, there has been interest among some United Methodists to locate the symbol of that affection in our space for worship. Is the placement of "Old Glory" in the chancel appropriate? What has been the previous practice?
From at least the mid-nineteenth century onward, the flag has often appeared inside and outside Methodist churches and at church gatherings during periods of national crisis. Such is not surprising, given that the United States and the Methodist denomination were born at roughly the same time and grew up together: Methodist identity has been strongly linked with the nation and its ideals of democracy and liberty. Methodist writers throughout the nineteenth century, for example, saw the country as their "parish" and urged Methodists to play a key role in the establishment — and perpetuation — of the "Christian nation." Nowhere was this connection between duty to God and duty to country more obvious than in the Methodist Episcopal Church during the 1860's. An article originating from the New York Tribune, and printed in the New York edition of the Christian Advocate, reported:
It [the Methodist Episcopal Church] was the first religious body to pledge its unswerving loyalty to the government after the attack on Fort Sumter. It was first to telegraph congratulations to the government on the surrender of Lee. In the cause of the nation it gave a hundred thousand men to war for the Union. The national flag has waved from its spires, and draped its pulpits, and the national struggle has kindled to the highest fervor the characteristic enthusiasm of the sect.
Inspiration for the use of the flag as a sign of loyalty to the Union cause came from the highest levels of the denomination. Bishop Matthew Simpson, an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, gave numerous impassioned speeches in which he took up the flag to the cheering and applause of those gathered: "Our fathers followed that flag; we expect that our children and our childrens children will follow it; there is nothing on earth like that old flag for beauty. Long may those stars shine!" By a "rising and unanimous vote," the 1864 General Conference followed a practice already adopted by some annual conferences and approved to "set the Stars and Stripes over the church during the [entire Conference] session." The maker of the motion, J. B. Corrington of the Southern Illinois Conference (which at its 1863 meeting resolved that its ministers should "enjoin patriotism from the pulpit and enforce it by the Discipline"), demonstrated the loyalty particularly characteristic of members of the Methodist Episcopal Church residing near or below the Mason-Dixon line. On one Sunday a pastor in Newport, Kentucky, "had his church ornamented with U. S. flags and brass eagles; his hymns were the Star-Spangled Banner, the Red, White, and Blue, and Hail Columbia." In Missouri, a silk flag with "God and Liberty" on one side and "Sustain the Union" was made by "five excellent Union, Christian, Methodist ladies" and displayed at several annual conferences and at the 1864 General Conference.
After the nations war, flags remained or were placed in many church edifices, North and South. In 1894, the North Nebraska Conference passed a resolution stating that "it is consistent and highly proper to have the national flag displayed in the audience room or floating over the house of worship on national holidays or when meetings are held with reference to subjects of national interest, and we deem it especially fitting and proper for all Methodist Episcopal churches as considerate recognition of our religious and national blessings and liberties." At the next years annual conference, they agreed to send a memorial (resolution) on the "United States flag in our churches" to the 1896 General Conference, and did so; but no action was taken by the General Conference.
The surge in patriotism around the two world wars saw an increase in the interior and exterior installation of flags. Church sponsorship of Boy Scout troops also was a factor in the presence of a flag on the premises; in some cases, it was the Boy Scout troop that donated a flag to the congregation. During the Korean conflict, Methodists expressed interest in displaying the United Nations flag as well as the American flag. But this then raised a series of questions: How was the U. N. flag to be positioned in relation to the American flag? How were these to stand in relation to the so-called "Christian" flag, introduced in the 1890's to "balance" the American flag and as a means of reminding the congregation that the "Kingdom" was at least equal in importance to the "nation"? Methodist E. M. Conover of the Interdenominational Bureau of Architecture had earlier addressed the matter of placement of the American and Christian flags. He observed, "It is rather humiliating to a Christian to find that any symbol intended to signalize the universal Christian religion should take a secondary position to a national emblem." Conover was not alone in his concern about subordinating Christian (or intended Christian) symbols to a national flag. Others were also troubled by the blending of religion with nationalism, remembering the German helmets in World War I emblazoned with "Gott mit uns" ("God with us"). But it was the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam conflict that forced many churches to reconsider the placement of flags in the worship space. More recently, because of the international ecumenical movement and advances in technology, it has been the greater sense of global Christianity — Christians linked by baptism to the Kingdom that transcends all nations — that has caused many United Methodists to rethink the use of the flag. Can the flag, which to many symbolizes economic and military might, stand near the cross with its meanings of humility, servanthood, and selfless sacrifice? Does "Old Glory" in the congregations place of worship conflict with the glorification of our unbounded, nationless God? Can the prophetic word — and even Gods word of judgment — to a nation be heard when that nations flag stands in a place of honor?
1"The N. Y. Tribune and the M. E. Church," Christian Advocate (New York) 41 (4 January 1866) 4.
2Account of the "war speech" at the Academy of Music in New York City on 3 November 1864, cited in George R. Crooks, The Life of Bishop Matthew Simpson of the Methodist Episcopal Church (New York: Harper & Brothers 1891) 381, 385.
3"The Old Flag," Zions Herald and Wesleyan Journal 35 (11 May 1864) 74.
4Minutes of the Southern Illinois Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, for the Year 1862-1863 (Cincinnati: Printed at the Methodist Book Concern 1863) 37.
5Frank Moore, ed., The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, vol. 4 (New York: G. P. Putnam 1862) 22.
6Charles Elliott, South-Western Methodism. A History of the M. E. Church in the South-West from 1844-1864, ed. Leroy M. Vernon (Cincinnati: Poe & Hitchcock 1868) 312-13.
7Minutes of the Thirteenth Annual Session of the North Nebraska Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church held at Omaha, Nebraska, October 4-8, 1894 (Published by the Secretaries) 25.
8Minutes of the Fourteenth Annual Session of the North Nebraska Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church held at Fremont, Nebraska, October 2-7, 1895 (Fremont: Published for the Secretaries by Fremont Tribune Print 1895) 21; and Journal of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, held in Cleveland, Ohio, May 1-28, 1896, ed. David S. Monroe (New York: Eaton & Mains; Cincinnati: Curts & Jennings 1896) 146.
9Carl D. Soule, "Use of the United Nations Flag," The Pastor 14 (April 1951) 25-26.
10Editorial note in Earl C. Fryer, "The Two Flags," The Pastor 11 (October 1947) 13.
Karen B. Westerfield Tuckeris Professor of Worship at Boston University School of Theology.
Copyright © 2002 by Karen B. Westerfield Tucker. Used on Discipleship Ministries' website with permission of the author. The article may be cited or reproduced in whole or in part for a one-time educational use as long as the copyright notice is included.
Editor's Note: You might also want to read Should We Have Flags in the Church? The Christian Flag and the American Flag by Hoyt Hickman.