Jonathan's Wake - a Personal Reflection

Jonathan's Wake was a Movement Whose Aim was Largely Misunderstood Because of the Massive Discontents of the Late 1960s. The Aim is the Same Now as Then

Here is part of a small collection designed to recall a time when some of us engaged in direct action to achieve renewal and reform of mainline Protestant churches in the United States. The specific effort that I helped create was called Jonathan's Wake. I am tagging items Jonathan's Wake and will put what I have found up as time permits.

This item was posted by Richard L.York.

Jonathan's Wake Stirs Late Awakening

I remember Dick along with Steve Richardson, Tony Nugent and other members of the Berkeley Free Church from Detroit and a later trip I made to Berkeley. This group was in some respect the most visible part of the Jonathan's Wake aggregation that showed up at the Hotel Tuller in Detroit in December, 1969, and turned the National Council of Churches' General Assembly at Cobo Hall into a confrontational event whose resonance continues to be felt.

I suppose the main feeling would be a growing sense that we were onto something and a parallel knowledge that there was vastly more resistance to change in the denominations than we believed at the time. One of the most interesting indicators of this resistance was a simple study I did soon after Detroit for my friend Bob Lynn when he was at the Lilly Endowment.

I wrote every head of the major denominations and asked if they thought there would be church union within 10 years. All said yes save one. The one was correct. And his reason was correct. This correspondence is archived here.

I also have noted Jonathan's Wake in a more personal way in the page My Books.

My sense then and now is that the participants in Jonathan's Wake not only combined different styles, but also differing agendas. These generally overlapped to the point that there was general support for most of the actions and objectives.



More on Berkeley Free Church


I will confine the following to my own specific memories of a reparations struggle which began in the spring of 1969 and culminated in an extended demonstration at a General Assembly of the National Council of Churches at Cobo Hall in Detroit in December of that year. As far as I can find, this small but important effort to change the course of ecumenism in mainline American Protestantism has been forgotten or repressed or simply lost.

When my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary, held a symposium on reparations recently, there was no mention of this incident. Today the mainline denominations, who were at the time involved in negotiations to unify under the banner of the Consultation on Church Union, are each plying an autonomous course. I think their palpable resistance to change in 1969 prefigured their current, predictable decline in numbers and influence.

I was a Presbyterian delegate to the Consultation on Church Union and joined others in Atlanta in the spring of 1969 to discuss uniting the mainline denominations. At the meeting, Oscar McCloud, a classmate from Union, suggested he and I hold a public meeting to discuss issues of mutual concern, by which we meant how all this unity talk related to racial justice.

At that meeting I, spontaneously proposed that the Black community seek reparations from the white denominations. And that the white denominations pay them. I had, prior to this time, concluded that the then-large endowments of the various churches were a liability in terms of achieving church union and that they ought to be given away. And I had by that time written The Grass Roots Church in which I proposed a radical restructuring of churches at the local level, a restructuring that assumed the effective replacement of denominational by ecumenical structures.

The immediate reaction to this proposal was a speech by a Black clergyman named Mance Jackson, saying that I as a white person was not qualified to be proposing an agenda for Black persons. I felt I was being hung out to dry. No one rose to my defense. I thought Jackson's logic was understandable in terms of the anger of the time, but nonsensical in terms of the actual issue under discussion.

A week later in Detroit, Jim Forman made national headlines by proposing exactly what I had proposed the week before. Here s Google's page referencing Jim Forman and the Reparations Struggle of 1969.

On April 26, 1969, in Detroit, Michigan, Forman presented the Black Manifesto at the National Black Economic Development Conference. Sponsored by the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organizations, the conference adopted a manifesto that demanded Protestant and Jewish organizations pay $500 million in reparations to the African American community. In his speech, Forman called upon blacks to join in a black-socialist-led armed struggle to overthrow the United States government.

A month later, Forman interrupted services at New York City's Riverside Church to demand that the congregation pay reparations for the past damage inflicted upon people of color by white America. According to Larry Neal in The Black Seventies, this act not only made national front-page news, but marked "one of the high points of nonviolent action" during the conservative years of U.S. president Richard M. Nixon's administration.


The only existing references to my efforts are my own short biography at the Civil Rights Veterans site and what I have posted here.

After the Forman move, which was highly publicized, I decided to keep organizing my own effort to achieve church unity via the transfer of resources from the denominations, to be used as reparations as Forman proposed.

My main impulse was two-fold:

1. To prepare the way for a viable ecumenism and

2. To forward the cause of racial justice.

Since I was then living in Stockbridge, MA, where Jonathan Edwards had been an exile, I decided to call the little movement I organized Jonathan's Wake.

In the fall of 1969, I announced that a movement called Jonathan's Wake would go to Detroit in Devember to the National Council of Churches General Assembly in Cobo Hall to press an agenda for church renewal and ecumenism that would involve the transfer of endowments from the denominations to the Black Economic Development Conference for use in achieving justice in impoverished Black communities.

With the help of a friend, Fred Lord, and the support of my colleague of many years, Will Campbell, we showed up in Detroit with a contingent of from 50 to 100 persons, depending on how you counted other groups that were sympathetic. We headquartered in the Hotel Tuller downtown. It was a more reasonable place to stay than the Pontchartrain Hotel where most of the church delegates were housed.

We had considerable publicity at the time. But it soon became apparent to me that very few really understood the purpose or reasoning I was pushing. I really did see the financial wealth of the individual denominations as the main reason they would cling to their identities and avoid true local ecumenical engagement.

But most people had other agendas, the most prominent being opposition to the Vietnam War. This helps explain why my own opposition to Johnson and the Vietnam War was based in large part on the war's preemption of the promise of the 1960s, the beloved community and the visions of Dr. King.

The Jonathan's Wake protest turned out not to be a reasoned effort to get the church folk to consider the implications of their denominational finances for ecumenism, but a series of dramatic interventions on the floor of the meeting.

The most dramatic was the action of folk from California who poured something like blood on the rostrum. I did not see it but it grabbed the attention.

Finally, we managed to propose a condition that came to a vote, far from what I had sought. It had to do with not asking the state (police) to intervene in church disputes. The measure passed on a majority vote and was defeated when William Thompson, head of the Presbyterian group, won a two-thirds vote on a point of order.

At this point I considered everything lost, the concept, the effort to sway the denominations, and most likely my own future as a person concerned with renewing the church. I ran through the hall yelling Crucify me now.

Here is a sonnet I wrote recounting this a few years ago:

When I ran crying crucify me now
Across the floor of Detroit's Cobo Hall
Excessive legalism took a bow
Denominations sidestepped one more call
None dared say Jesus complex but the thought
Could not have been too far from many minds
But all it was was me just feeling caught
Like one condemned when time finally unwinds
I think I cared about a unity
That no one wanted and few want today
I think I cared about a harmony
Whose price few have the least desire to pay
I'm twice the age that Christ was when he died
Still railing at the temple he defied

Immediately after, I ended up consoling a young woman who came up in tears and said she understood for the first time that denominations were the problem. That is as close to understanding why I was there as anything.

In retrospect, reparations as a legal or moral issue was secondary to my concern for church renewal. If I had to judge now, I would say that some equivalence to reparations is always required in the face of continuing injustices toward one group by another. It really amounts to figuring out when both sides can agree that things are square.

In retrospect, my caring about church union and ecumenism has transformed into the religionless Christianity that I think Bonhoeffer prefigured without exactly embracing. It goes without saying that I would love to see the churches take seriously the understandings in mu book "The Grass Roots Church", even now. But I have few illusions that the denominations, battered by predictable attrition and ongoing internal culture wars, will willingly cede even a radically shrinking power.

Who is killing the church? Might it be G-d?

I see the unfolding Obama era as a chance to forge and develop a secular spirituality based partly on the implementation of his non-proselytizing notion of local ministries sponsored under religious auspices. This could be huge and that would make Barack the achiever of a renewal that churches were unwilling or unable to bring about by decisive acts of their own.

Get Triadic

The Slow as Molasses Press