1968: Church Unites, Country Divided
By Fred Koenig
Fifteen years ago the United Methodist Church celebrated John Wesley’s 300th birthday. It’s been 278 years since the first Methodists society formed. The 50-year celebration of the United Methodist Church seems like a minor milestone, but it marks the year the United Methodist Church got the united name as the church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren church.
In Missouri that merger wasn’t too much of an issue. There were few Evangelical United Brethren churches to merge with. Aside from adding United to the name, most churches took little interest.
“I was a student in Indiana, and there was a lot more to the conversation there,” said Rev. Hubert Neth, a retired Missouri Conference elder serving part-time at Grace UMC in Lee’s Summit. “We didn’t have as many issues in Missouri where there were EUB churches next door to Methodists, and you would have to absorb extra pastors.”
Although Neth served as a Jurisdictional Conference delegate in 1968, and later was head of the General Conference Missouri delegation, he was more focused on the world at large than church politics. The year was a time of turmoil. That year alone, 16,899 U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam. Both Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated that year. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1968, prohibiting discrimination by renters and sellers of property.
That year Neth’s appointment moved from Princeton, in rural northern Missouri, to Warrensburg, a collegetown with a nearby military base. The mix made for intense times.
“I had heard that the Bishop (Eugene) Frank passed around the sheet several times (at the cabinet meeting) trying to get someone for Warrensburg, and no one wanted it because of all the turmoil,” Neth said. He was in different place. “There wasn’t anywhere else I would have rather been. Those were the best years of my ministry.”
The church had a couple hundred college students involved there and that many military personnel as well. Neth’s visits included trips to the county jail and to the brig (military jail) at Whiteman Airforce Base. While there, Neth had to be a pastor to all.
“I did a funeral for one of our soldiers killed in Vietnam one morning and was at a peace rally on campus that day at noon,” he said.
One of the military members of the church who worked in an underground nuclear missile silo asked to talk to Neth one day. When they met in the church office, the soldier shared with him that he was going to tell his commander the next day that he couldn’t go back down in the silo. When Neth asked him how he came to that decision, the soldier replied that it was from listening to his sermons on Sunday morning.
“That was a sobering moment for me,” Neth said. “I could get up on Sunday morning, go say my words then go home and lay on the couch and watch a football game. For this man, those words led to a decision that altered the course of his life.”
Neth accompanied the man to the court martial proceedings, one of two he was involved with while at Warrensburg. He was impressed with the military procedure.
“They treated him with respect. They had a process for that type of thing, and they followed their procedure,” Neth said. “The local civilians down at the coffee shop belittled him more than the military personnel with whom he was serving.”
The church had a prominent role in the community in the late 1960s. Neth said the church was carried by the culture.
“Communist didn’t believe in God, so you could be a good non-communist by believing in God,” Neth said.
Neth said the Methodist Church was an excellent second choice for many people who were inclined Catholic or Baptist but had parted ways with that church for some reason. It also had a strong reputation for accepting anyone.
“We were a place where those who were a little different could come,” Neth said. “We were valuable for that reason.”