National Council of Churches Is Formed

The National Council of Churches was established from the merger of the Federal Council of Churches and seven other U.S. interdenominational federations. It became the leading body of ecumenical cooperation among Christian faith groups in the United States.

Summary of Event

From late in the nineteenth century, Protestant groups increased their strength and influence by working together in federations, even at times when theological tensions were intense. Groups like the Foreign Missions Conference of North America (1893) and the Federal Council of Churches in the United States (1908) were expressions of this early Protestant unity and cooperation. In the World War II era, the Department of International Justice and Goodwill of the Federal Council of Churches Department of International Justice and Goodwill of the Federal Council of Churches was a center for Protestant discussions of global peace and stability. It established the Special Commission on a Just and Durable Peace Special Commission on a Just and Durable Peace , chaired by John Foster Dulles, a Presbyterian layman who later served as the country’s secretary of state. The Special Commission authored a brief statement popularly called the “Six Pillars of Peace.” [kw]National Council of Churches Is Formed (Nov. 29, 1950)
[kw]Council of Churches Is Formed, National (Nov. 29, 1950)
[kw]Churches Is Formed, National Council of (Nov. 29, 1950)
National Council of Churches
Religious organizations
Christianity;interdenominational cooperation
National Council of Churches
Religious organizations
Christianity;interdenominational cooperation
[g]North America;Nov. 29, 1950: National Council of Churches Is Formed[03330]
[g]United States;Nov. 29, 1950: National Council of Churches Is Formed[03330]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Nov. 29, 1950: National Council of Churches Is Formed[03330]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Nov. 29, 1950: National Council of Churches Is Formed[03330]
Dulles, John Foster
[p]Dulles, John Foster;Federal Council of Churches
Horton, Douglas

The major expression of ecumenical cooperation in this period was the creation of the World Council of Churches World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948; 147 churches from forty-four countries joined together, 29 of them American. The World Council of Churches dedicated its early years to the assistance of war orphans and refugees, but its work eventually expanded to broader issues of poverty and social injustice. The awakening of ecumenism in America was tied closely to religious movements and events elsewhere in the world, most particularly to the creation of the World Council of Churches. Aware that they had been duplicating efforts and wasting resources, Protestant groups across the country saw the virtues of union.

The framework for union was drawn up at a meeting in Atlantic City in 1941 following years of planning, and nine years later, on November 29, 1950, a merger was concluded in Cleveland, Ohio, between eight major Protestant interdenominational groups, creating the National Council of Churches (NCC). This group included the Federal Council of Churches, the Foreign Missions Conference, the Home Missions Council, the United Council of Church Women, the National Protestant Council of Higher Education, the Missionary Education Movement of the United States and Canada, the United Stewardship Council, and the International Council of Religious Education. Douglas Horton, chair of the Committee on Message, took the lead in composing a message, “To the People of the Nation,” announcing the birth of the ecumenical group.

The NCC’s original membership comprised twenty-nine churches, also known as conventions or denominations. Twenty-five of them were Protestant and four were Orthodox. The Roman Catholic Church was not a member of the NCC, although it would develop a close association with various NCC bodies and would hold membership in the council’s sister groups in Australia and Brazil. In 1950, the NCC had a combined membership of 33 million people in 143,000 congregations. Five African American churches were included, three Methodist and two Baptist. The four Orthodox churches were the Russian Orthodox Church of North America, the Syrian Antiochian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Greek Orthodox Archdioicese of North and South America joined later, as did other churches.

The NCC continued the major work of the founding agencies through various internal bodies. The Division of Christian Life and Work, for example, became the primary organ for social thought and activism, formerly the focus of the Federal Council of Churches. Doctrinal differences between NCC member groups and churches proved less problematic than had been predicted. At the first World Faith and Order Conference, delegates were able to reach consensus on a statement, “The Church’s Message to the World—the Gospel.” From its inception, the NCC linked with domestic and worldwide ecumenical organizations in all forms of interdenominational cooperation.

The group’s Statement of Faith defined the NCC as “a community of Christian communions which, in response to the gospel as revealed in the Scriptures, confess Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, as Savior and Lord.” The member communions universally accepted the Statement of Faith and set about to work in common belief and mission. While holding certain commonalities, each member communion at the same time was unique and had a distinct heritage and body of teachings and practices. The NCC’s communions reflected the diversity of Christian styles and practices across the United States, and in its staff and programs, it strived to be inclusive and respectful of that diversity. Liberty and democracy were key concepts in the philosophy of the organization from its founding.

The NCC is governed by a constitution and bylaws, and its governing board is led by a president and executive committee and consists of representatives from the member denominations. The council’s primary policy-making organ, the General Assembly, meets annually and is composed of representatives from the member communions. A smaller governing board meets more regularly through the year and acts on behalf of the assembly. The Council is headquartered in New York City and maintains a public policy office in Washington, D.C., opened in 1945, where it has representatives active on Capitol Hill.


Over the years, most of the work of the NCC has been accomplished through five ecumenical commissions that pull participants from both council and non-council denominations. The Communication Commission comprises professional communicators who work in film, broadcast, and print media. The commission’s work groups collaborate on service projects intended to meet both spiritual and societal needs. They include the groups on Media Advocacy, Network Television Programming, and Worldwide Faith News.

The remaining four commissions are the Education and Leadership Ministries, Faith and Order, Interfaith Relations, and Justice and Advocacy. Commission members work on a variety of issues, from racism and poverty to global conflicts and the physical environment. The Washington office informs Congress on a wide range of social and political issues, making clear the views of the NCC’s large ecumenical community. It is a staunch and consistent advocate of social justice and lobbies Congress for international humanitarian and developmental assistance. It also addresses domestic issues of refugee resettlement in the U.S. and provides ongoing input on moral and ethical aspects of issues that come before Congress. At the same time, the council keeps its constituents abreast of legislative action, public policies, and global needs.

From its birth, the purpose of the NCC has been to develop and coordinate services on behalf of its members. Among its early projects were the creation of church school materials and the compilation of a wealth of statistics and information about the member churches, organizations, and agencies around the world. The council has a long-standing tradition of Bible translation and theological scholarship and publication. Most notably, it is responsible for the translation and publication of the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a translation that is used widely in divinity schools, churches, and private homes around the world. The Uniform Sunday School Lesson Series, also produced by the council, has been a standard reference for more than a century. The Council sponsors workshops, conferences, and publications and invites contributions from theologians and scholars of all denominations. The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (periodical) compiled and published by the Council, is the most complete database of information on religious life in North America.

Council members participate in relief and humanitarian efforts through their sister organization, Church World Service Church World Service (CWS). CWS works collaboratively with local congregations and agencies to bring material assistance to those in need. More specific, it educates and advocates in both the public and private sectors, provides disaster relief, and engages in long-term planning and development assistance throughout the world.

Perhaps most important, the NCC serves as an umbrella group for the ongoing cooperation of a large number of faith groups throughout the country. Beyond its membership, the council generally has good relationships with other Christian communities such as the Catholics, evangelicals, and Pentecostals, and works with them effectively to achieve common objectives in areas such as social justice and humanitarian aid. At the same time, it promotes harmony through education and interaction with non-Christian groups such as Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. The council is affiliated with hundreds of secular and faith groups at all levels throughout the world. The World Council of Churches has some members in common and works cooperatively with the NCC; however, it is not linked to it budgetarily or administratively. National Council of Churches
Religious organizations
Christianity;interdenominational cooperation

Further Reading

  • Hartman, Susan M. The Other Feminists: Activists in the Liberal Establishment. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. Discusses the relationship of feminist thought to the work of the National Council of Churches.
  • Marty, Martin E., ed. Missions and Ecumenical Expressions. New York: K. G. Saur, 1993. A collection of essays including the history of the Federal Council of Churches and a case study of the NCC.
  • Smith, H. Shelton, Robert T. Handy, and Lefferts A. Loetscher. 1820-1960. Vol. 2 in American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation with Representative Documents. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963. Discusses a variety of religious expressions such as revivalism, liberalism, orthodoxy, and ecumenism.
  • Walsh, Andrew D. Religion, Economics, and Public Policy: Ironies, Tragedies, and Absurdities of the Contemporary Culture Wars. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000. Focuses on liberal and conservative Christian thought and the economic policy debates of the 1990’s.

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