The late 1960s was a very tense time for the country. The war in Vietnam was extremely divisive. Riots had occurred at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, and in several cities. Students protested at their universities. Flower children and hippies took drugs and defied authority. Religious institutions were often viewed as part of the problem rather than the solution, and a number of people stopped going to church. Old values and certainties were no longer as clear or meaningful.
In the midst of these larger political and cultural conflicts, the Reformed Church in America experienced its own disagreements about identity and mission. Reformed Church members disagreed about Vietnam, the role of women, the best ways to address poverty, interpretation of the Bible, and the optimal degree of ecumenism. These conflicts exploded at the 1969 General Synod, and before it ended delegates had considered seriously a motion to dissolve the Reformed Church in America.
As I research the history of the Reformed Church since World War II, I have interviewed about seventy-five retired ministers, missionaries, and elders. As we talked about their careers, a number of eastern clergy identified the synod of 1969 as a defining moment in the life of the denomination and often in their own ministries. When I spoke with other ministers, more often from the Midwest, they frequently did not remember the synod, even though they were listed on the roster as delegates. When I mentioned some of the events of the synod, they recalled being there and perhaps a few details, but clearly it was not a defining moment for them. I wondered why the responses were so different.
The year 2004 marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of this synod, and John Coakley, professor of church history at New Brunswick Theological Seminary and director of the Reformed Church Studies Center, agreed to sponsor a conference about it. We organized the conference around the themes of ecumenism, race, war and peace, reconciliation, and general observations. We invited ten people to speak either about the synod or something that developed out of it, such as the Black Council or the Committee of Eighteen. Each prepared a ten-minute presentation on a particular topic. They presenters did an excellent job of combining anecdote with analysis while keeping within their limits.
There was time for discussion about each of the topics. Several members of the audience had also attended the synod as delegates or staff, and they offered more memories and observations. It was an exercise in group oral history.
It was also quite an emotional day. History definitely was not boring or irrelevant at this conference! One participant said that as he heard the events of the synod being described, all the feelings he had experienced at the synod arose in him again. Another participant said that as he prepared his presentation, much of the anger he had felt in 1969 and 1970 bubbled up again. Another participant spoke of how the Reformed Church had failed him at this synod. These were painful moments of recollection. But there was also humor. Some participants remembered fondly those who played key roles in the synod. One speaker thanked another for something she had said to him. I was profoundly moved by the commitment to the church and to each other that these speakers demonstrated. They loved the Reformed Church. They embodied integrity and loyalty.
I invite you to read the various presentations and the summaries of the discussion. And if these reflections spark your own memories of the synod of 1969, I invite you to write or talk about them with me or others. Thank you for engaging in this group history project with us.