Karl Barth, Missions to the Jews, and the American Response

Because its statement on non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate) absolved the Jews for Christ’s death and repudiated antisemitism, the Vatican II Council of 1965 is often considered a major turning point in the history of Jewish-Christian relations. From this point on, Protestants too began to reevaluate their relationship with Jews, including their missions to the Jews. As was the case in Europe, missions to the Jews were meant both to hasten Christ’s return and to assimilate the Jewish “other” into society. But unlike their older European counterparts, American missions began only in the late nineteenth century, when large numbers of Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States. Though many American Jews had always protested against Protestants’ attempts to convert them, most Protestant denominations did not abandon proselytizing efforts until the 1960s, after Nostra Aetate. However, several Protestant theologians argued against the evangelization of the Jews long before this time. Two of the most prominent were Reinhold Niebuhr and A. Roy Eckardt. But these men did not produce their work in a vacuum. How were their arguments linked to those of European theologians? I argue that one way of looking at the connection between these American theologians and their European counterparts is to examine Swiss theologian Karl Barth’s unique position on missions to the Jews and the influence it had on the work of Niebuhr and Eckardt. This project thus speaks to the history of Barth’s reception in America, but also to the interaction between different national segments of global Christianity on the issue of missions to the Jews.