The Presbyterian Church’s response to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II is a little-known story, brought to vivid life Tuesday by Beth Hessel, new executive director of the Presbyterian Historical Society, during a luncheon sponsored by the society at the 222nd General Assembly (2016) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) .

Led by such Presbyterian leaders as Gordon Chapman, Presbyterians actively supported the General Assembly’s call to “Christian composure and charity” in the face of national hysteria about Japanese-Americans in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

Although Presbyterians opposed the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans into internment camps, “it was clear that the fight against forced deportation was a losing battle,” said Hessel, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on “Japanese Internment and PC(USA)  Response.”

An ecumenical effort led by Chapman, the Protestant Commission, had four purposes: 

  • To assist internment-camp prisoners with their spiritual needs and provide stipends for those who provided ministry in the camps;
  • To arrange for furloughed Japan missionaries to serve in the camps;
  • To take part in campaigns to influence public opinion about the internment of Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens; and
  • To serve as official mediators between the

U.S. government and internees in the camps and when they were resettled after the war.

“How Presbyterians responded then is instructive today,” Hessel said, “as we face hatred and race-baiting.”

In countless practical and political ways – pen pals, Christmas gift drives, hospitality for those interred and their families, testimony at Congressional hearings – “Presbyterians went out of their way to be a witness to the injustice and inhumanity directed at Japanese Americans.”

Hessel’s talk was a primary example of the historical society’s mission, noted Louis  B.  Weeks,  chairman  of  the  PHS  board of directors, himself a renowned Presbyterian historian. “The Presbyterian Historical Society is a ‘museum without walls,’” he said, even though PHS has a treasure trove of resources at its state- of-the-art facility in historic Philadelphia.

“We seek to be the intersection between Presbyterianism and national and world culture and history,”  Weeks told a crowd of about 150 guests. “We seek to be a faithful resource for Presbyterians and the PC(USA).”