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Remembering Rev. Franklin Littell (1917-2009)

I just read the obituary of a man who made an important contribution to Jewish-Christian relations and the field of Holocaust studies. His writings made a powerful impact on my thinking and I bowed my head and breathed a prayer of thanks for his life and work. Then a thought occurred to me and I wondered how many evangelical Christian pro-Israel activists today have even heard of Rev. Franklin Littell? Too few, I suspect. So I’d like to introduce him.

Franklin Hamlin Littell was born in 1917, graduated from Cornell College in Iowa and earned a divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. Shortly thereafter he visited Germany on his way to a religious conference for young people in Amsterdam.

While in Germany he attended the 1939 Nuremberg rally, out of curiosity. Later in life, he recalled having been appalled by its open racism and its religious glorification of Aryans. When Hitler made an almost godlike appearance, bathed in a halo of lights, Rev. Littell was so repelled that he got up and left the stadium.

Rev. Littell later earned a doctorate in theology from Yale and, after teaching at the University of Michigan, joined the United States high commissioner in occupied Germany as the Protestant adviser on de-Nazification.

Franklin H. Littell, left, Methodist minister and supporter of Israel, with Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister, in 1981. Credit Dith Pran/The New York Times

He has been described as “the father of Holocaust studies.” During his long career, Littell started Holocaust studies programs at several colleges and universities, beginning in 1959 at Emory University in Atlanta, where he set up what is believed to be the first graduate seminar. In 1998, he and his wife created an interdisciplinary master's program at Stockton State College in New Jersey.

His best-known book was “The Crucifixion of the Jews,” in which he expressed his view that Christianity is essentially Jewish. Jesus, Paul and Peter, Dr. Littell said, would have been executed at Auschwitz.

Dr. Littell also became an enthusiastic supporter of Israel, in part because he believed that its very existence refuted theologies that foresaw or favored the withering away of the Jewish people. He rejected the theology of some Christian backers of Israel that Jews must ultimately become Christian.

Soon after the Six-Day War in 1967, Dr. Littell started an organization called Christians Concerned for Israel, to promote pro-Israel views in Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. In 1978 Littell, along with Sister Rose Thering and Rev. David A. Lewis, founded the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel (NCLCI), which lobbied against arms sales to Arab nations and campaigned against the United Nations resolution, adopted in 1975 and since repealed, that described Zionism as racism. NCLCI was the first, and as far as I know, is still the only pro-Israel organization that includes Evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics.

I am twenty years younger than Rev. Littell and, as someone who has spent a lifetime engaged in Jewish-Christian relations and Holocaust studies, I am grateful for his pioneering work in these fields. In the 1950s, when I first began looking for information on the Holocaust, there was very little to be found. Even in the mid-1970s when I first discovered The Crucifixion of the Jews, it was quite possible for a serious student to have read most of the literature available on these topics. Today the bookshelves overflow and many colleges offer courses in Holocaust studies.

In recent years a number of us in the Evangelical world have been invited to participate in Holocaust education seminars at Yad Vashem. As such programs continue our churches and Christian schools will be in a better place to continue the work begun by Rev. Littell and others of that pioneer generation.

The Evangelical community has long been interested in Israel and its role in Bible prophecy but we are late-comers to serious studies in Holocaust and Jewish-Christian relations. It is my hope and prayer that I can contribute to building programs to educate our next generation of Evangelical Christians in this important field. I recommend beginning with an introduction to the work of the late, beloved Franklin Littell.

JoAnn Magnuson has been involved in Jewish-Christian relations for over 30 years. She has participated in many Jewish-Christian dialogue program and has worked on projects to bring interfaith understanding to Evangelical churches. She has written materials on the history of antisemitism and has taught classes on Holocaust education to a variety of Christian groups. She has led over sixty tours to Israel and in recent years has headed U.S. Protestant delegations to March of the Living in Poland. She has worked with Christians in Eastern Europe to bring teaching into their churches that will foster a positive view of the Jewish people in a part of the world where antisemitism reigned for many years. In recent years she has served as Interfaith Relations Director for Bridges for Peace in the U.S. and as Coordinator for the Presbyterian Committee to End Divestment Now. She served as U.S. Project Coordinator for Christian Friends of Yad Vashem, a joint project of Yad Vashem and the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

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