How 20th-century mainline Protestants shaped immigration policy

And how that policy shaped the 21st-century mainline church

In the standard account of immigration politics in the 20th-century United States, Protestants played a key role in pushing for the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely restricted entry by predominantly Catholic, Jewish, and Eastern Orthodox people from southern and eastern Europe. Historians sometimes depict that legislation as continuing a long-standing effort to preserve what many native-born Americans saw as the nation’s Protestant character.

Nicholas Pruitt demonstrates that this traditional narrative is at best incomplete. Open Hearts, Closed Doors details how key mainline Protestant institutions pushed for more open immigration policies in 1924 and in the four decades of subsequent debate that culminated in the Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. As the book’s subtitle ominously implies, Pruitt argues further that one unintended consequence of this Protestant liberalism has been the admission of large numbers of new residents with diverse religious traditions that, in the end, contributed to the diminished influence of mainline Protestantism in American society.

Pruitt, who teaches history at Eastern Nazarene College, provides reams of evidence from religious periodicals, “home missions” reports, and testimony on pending legislation to document the transformation in attitudes of leading Protestants. For example, a Methodist bishop thundered in 1926 that “America is a Protestant nation and always will remain so,” while a later Methodist leader, in 1960, endorsed legislation that would open America’s gates to people of many religions and regions, “commensurate with our national ideals and international long term interests.”