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by Elesha Coffman

A Long Ride on the Mainline

100 Years of The Christian Century.

Like most American success stories, The Christian Century had a humble beginning. According to the oft-retold official account, the intelligent but chronically insolvent periodical was about to go under in 1908. Impending mortgage foreclosure sent it to the sheriff's auction block, where Charles Clayton Morrison, a Disciples of Christ minister and editorial neophyte, redeemed it with a scraped-together payment of $1,500.

So began the saga of man and magazine, together rising to prominence over the next four decades. When Morrison stepped down as editor in June 1947, both Newsweek and Time recapped his career at the top of their religion sections. Newsweek called Morrison a "fiery, forceful man" who had increased from 600 to 40,000 the circulation of "the most important organ of Protestant opinion in the world today." Time lauded the Century as "Protestantism's most vigorous voice" and "a beacon of level-headedness in a fog of misty thinking." [1] Historians' praise for the Century has been just as lavish; Robert Moats Miller, for example, ranks it as "Protestantism's most influential periodical" and Donald Meyer commends it for "keeping the passion vital in the ranks of the ministry." Nearly 3,000 libraries keep the Century on hand for research and leisure reading, more than any other religious magazine can boast.

The centennial of the Century's rebirth marks a fine occasion to revisit its history. Because the Century's story in so many ways parallels that of the Protestant mainline, the narrative becomes a tale of two establishments, each shaping the other. The Century and the mainline grew up together. They speak the same language. Neither is easy to define, but they shed light on each other, illuminating a sector of American religion that—with some notable exceptions—is oddly ignored by contemporary scholarship.

Martin Marty, a contributor to the Century for more than fifty years, once reflected, "The turn of the century in American religion came not in 1901 but in 1908." That year saw the formation of the Federal Council of Churches, the adoption of the Methodist Social Creed, the graduation of Roman Catholicism in America from mission to canonical status, and, of course, the re-founding of The Christian Century. In the Century's case, though, 1908 made less of a difference than one might expect.

For one thing, the magazine already had almost 25 years of history behind it. Founded in Des Moines in 1884 as a Disciples of Christ denominational weekly called the Christian Oracle, it moved to Chicago in 1892 and was re-christened The Christian Century in 1900. Morrison knew much of that history and had participated in it. An Iowa boy, he had come to Chicago in 1898 to serve an urban church and study philosophy under John Dewey at the University of Chicago. He had been among the friends of the Oracle who disdained that moniker and voted for the optimistic new name. Beginning in 1900, he wrote a column for the magazine, "The Christian Life," and he remained a contributor through his assumption of the editorship.

This back-story helps explain why Morrison retained the Century title in 1908, even though some other members of the magazine's circle expressed unease about both its grandiose aspirations and the legacy of failure it carried. The Century had run through four or five editors and nearly as many bankruptcies by the time of Morrison's purchase. Nonetheless, Morrison liked the name and could hardly have been intimidated by its buoyancy. One of his moves as editor was to introduce a column of upbeat news items titled, "The World Is Growing Better."

Morrison was similarly undisturbed by the magazine's denominational heritage. As he later wrote in his unpublished autobiography, for nearly his first decade behind the editor's desk, he "had no other thought or ambition than to keep The Century within the Disciples denomination, both as to outlook and constituency." In those early days, the magazine—or "paper," as he called it—published article after article about the Disciples centennial in 1909, controversies at denominational institutions, the proper relation of baptism to church membership, and other insider topics.

When Morrison looked back on his transition from full-time pastor to full-time editor, he called it the pursuit of a new profession but the same vocation. In other words, he left the pastorate, but he never left the pulpit. His editorials could be preachy, and the Century's articles frequently moved, like sermons, between exposition and exhortation. Morrison derived this conception of his journalistic role from the Disciples tradition, in which it is often said, "We don't have bishops; we have editors." Historically averse to bureaucracy, Disciples spread their message and adjudicated their disputes in print, tasks in which Morrison and his early co-laborers engaged eagerly.

Overall, Morrison's acquisition of the magazine in 1908 produced more continuity than change. The Century's roster of contributors repeated familiar names. It continued the course set by previous editors, namely the promotion of new biblical scholarship, ecumenism, and the Social Gospel within the Disciples movement. Its financial troubles also continued. Morrison worked so hard to keep it afloat that he was hospitalized for exhaustion in 1915. As the enterprise could not stay on this trajectory forever, larger changes eventually came, but these never included a repudiation of either the Disciples heritage or the editor-bishop aspect of its ethos.

The Century's editorial positions clearly identified it with the liberal side of the fundamentalist-liberal split, the side that evolved into the mainline. Morrison's sense of his editorial mission as pastoral and prophetic, as well as his envisioning of his readership as a congregation, also fit what historian Peter J. Theusen has called the "logic of mainline churchliness." [2]

Within the constellation of ideas encompassed by this phrase, Theusen highlighted three: "a reasonable tolerance of ethical differences, a thoroughgoing commitment to ecumenical cooperation, and an all-embracing conception of the church's public role." Morrison, who always thought of himself as a churchman and of his magazine as an instrument of the church press (though he never thought of the church he served as "mainline"), would have been delighted to be identified as tolerant, ecumenical, and public-minded.

Over time, Morrison's vision of his congregation expanded along with his ambitions. The next key date for the Century was 1917, when the magazine changed its tagline, "Published Weekly by the Disciples of Christ in the Interest of the Kingdom of God," to "An Undenominational Journal of Religion." Surprisingly little fanfare accompanied this alteration. The last issue of November bore the old motto, and the first issue of December bore the new, with no editorial explanation.

Morrison offered an explanation much later, in an anniversary reflection published in 1928. According to his story, around 1917, Morrison happened to be strolling by the business manager's desk when his eye chanced upon a list of subscribers. Much to his surprise, he noticed the names of "several well-known churchmen who were not Disciples." Ostensibly without intention or even awareness on the part of the staff, the Century had outgrown its denominational borders.

The magazine had not expanded in all directions equally. By the end of the decade, it counted among its subscribers considerable numbers of Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Episcopalians, almost all from the Northern branches of these churches. By Morrison's 20th anniversary as editor, Methodists constituted the largest group of subscribers, even though the Century had for a while avoided marketing to them, on the assumption that Methodist periodicals already effectively served that audience.

Morrison's account of the magazine's growth told volumes. "The question [of expansion] is difficult to answer," he wrote, "because it really came about by the gradual acceptance of the paper by progressive opinion in all denominations as an organ of their own ideals. We did not try to make it such. There was no editorial genius who projected The Christian Century in its present church-wide and world-wide scope. Like Topsy, it 'just growed.'"

Several varieties of soft imperialism peeked through these statements. By progressive, Morrison meant what historians label Progressive, the array of ideas and reforms promulgated by a cadre of mostly white, Protestant, middle- to upper-class, well-educated activists between the 1890s and the 1920s. Muckraking journalists belonged to this camp, as did presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, urban crusaders such as Jane Addams, and, of course, one of the movement's intellectual architects, John Dewey.

At their best, Progressives battled corruption, promoted women's rights, improved living and working conditions for laborers, cleaned up the nation's food supply, and sought to make the world safe for democracy. At their worst, they marched around with supposedly scientific agendas and told everyone else to get with the program or get out of the way. The frenzied patriotism surrounding World War I, a general inattention to racial injustice, the failed experiment of Prohibition, and the insidious legacy of eugenics are among the stains on the Progressive record.

As far as Morrison was concerned, however, Progressivism indeed promised progress, and only the uninformed or recalcitrant would resist it. Granted, Morrison wrote of "progressive opinion" in 1928, before the mixed fruits of these efforts had fully ripened, but 80 years later, Progressivism and mainline Protestantism remain entwined. The logic identified by Theusen includes a penchant for bureaucratic, top-down reform that strengthened through the civil rights era and continues today.

The phrase all denominations, amplified by church-wide and world-wide, conveyed a different set of imperialistic assumptions. Morrison had in mind the denominations he had just listed as those whose members read the Century: Disciples, Congregationalists (today's United Church of Christ), Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Methodists. He might also have counted Reform Judaism, because one of its leading rabbis, Stephen Samuel Wise, was among the group of Morrison's friends who organized a letter-writing campaign in honor of his editorial anniversary.

Morrison emphatically did not mean Roman Catholics, toward whom he harbored a lifelong animosity, or fundamentalists, who for him stood as the paragons of uninformed, recalcitrant opposition to progress. As for Pentecostals, holiness churches, the Orthodox, or members of the Southern branches of the Century's constituent denominations, they did not enter his line of vision as he looked out on the church from his Dearborn Street office window.

Pointing out the limitations of the Century's audience is not merely an exercise in retroactive judgment, but a necessary clarification of terms. When Morrison wrote of "the church" or (as he frequently did) of the ideals or "mind" of the church, he simply did not mean all Christians of his era, or all Christians in whom a student of American religion might be interested.

Put differently, the "undenominational" in the magazine's tagline was not synonymous with universal, and in some respects it meant nearly the opposite of nondenominational. The logic of mainline churchliness incorporated "church" in both the familiar sense, designating a world in which pastors, congregations, and theology dominated the landscape, and in the sociological sense, designating religious organizations with aspirations of universality and cultural authority. Denominations, as units of community and loci of social action, mattered immensely, and some—principally the rich, white, Northern ones—mattered far more than others.

Despite these biases, it would be unfair to judge Morrison too harshly for the Topsy reference in his anniversary reflection. The Century's track record on race is strong. The magazine dared to criticize its usual allies in labor unions and liberal churches when these institutions denied blacks equal rights, and it was one of very few journalistic outlets that loudly decried the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In June 1963, the Century became the first national site of publication for the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" penned by one of its contributing editors, Martin Luther King, Jr. A quotation from this article hangs in the magazine's foyer today as a reminder of one of its greatest editorial achievements.

The second quotation hanging on the wall of the Century foyer was penned by its other most famous contributing editor, Reinhold Niebuhr. His association with the magazine constituted a high-water mark, when the magazine achieved its founding goal to be a place of free and far-ranging debate. It also caused a crisis from which the Century never entirely recovered.

Morrison discovered Niebuhr around 1922, through his "Christian America" column in the Evangelical Herald and through a letter published in The New Republic espousing pacifism. Morrison did not print the first Niebuhr piece he received, an article titled "The Church versus the Gospel," but he strongly encouraged the young pastor to try again.

Niebuhr next submitted a piece with the working title "Romanticism and Realism in the Pulpit." Morrison liked it so much that he ran it as an unsigned editorial, making Niebuhr's the official voice of the Century. Owing to personal differences, Niebuhr never joined the Century staff, but Morrison begged him to contribute as many articles as he could write.

As early as 1928, Niebuhr began to sound notes that clashed with the chorus of other Century contributors. In a column titled "The Confession of a Tired Radical," he indicted liberals like Morrison for failing to see that all groups of people pursue their own interests. There is no disinterested benevolence, Niebuhr argued. Genteel discussion will not produce a peaceable kingdom. Niebuhr stressed these points even more forcefully in his 1932 book Moral Man and Immoral Society.

Century book reviewers took Niebuhr to task for this and the other books he produced in the 1930s. One reviewer called him unchristian, another accused him of taking "morbid pleasure" in making religion seem absurd, and a third faulted him for chasing his subject down a "blind alley." Yet Morrison remained as eager as ever to print Niebuhr's articles. In 1939 the editor proudly included Niebuhr and liberals' other theological nemesis, Karl Barth, among contributors to the inaugural round of what would become the magazine's marquee decennial series, "How My Mind Has Changed." The Century might never have represented the entire breadth of American Protestantism, but it was hardly a monolith.

Niebuhr did eventually break with the Century, jaggedly, in 1941. His advocacy of America's entry into World War II, in direct opposition to Morrison's pacifism, hacked at the ties that bound them, as did Niebuhr's simmering resentment over the bad book reviews. Morrison's long personal relationship with Niebuhr, however, made him loath to let go. He declared in a private letter, "I still treasure the memory of our friendship and am deeply pained that you seem willing to allow it to be shattered." Niebuhr responded coldly, "I say a friendship has ended."

Beyond this loss of relationship, Niebuhr's departure had serious ramifications for the magazine. A few months before the angry exchange of letters, Niebuhr had founded Christianity and Crisis, "A Bi-Weekly Journal of Christian Opinion" that claimed to dispense with pieties and get down to the sometimes dirty business of theologically informed political engagement. The journal looked a lot like The Christian Century, targeted the same audience, and, according to religion scholar Mark Hulsether, adopted as its basic mission "to convert as many Century readers as possible and neutralize the rest." [3] For the first time since a slew of religious magazines had bowed out in the 1920s, the Century had competition.

Christianity and Crisis posed more of a symbolic than a financial challenge. Its budget was tiny, it carried no advertisements in the early years, and its subscriber base numbered just 8,000 at the end of the war, around one-fifth the circulation of the Century. But as long as C&C shared coffee tables and library shelves with its older brother, the Century could not plausibly claim "church-wide and world-wide scope." The Century's banner did not stretch far enough to cover all of America's northern, liberal, Protestant élite, let alone any Christians who did not share those characteristics.

Other competitors for the title of America's leading Protestant periodical appeared soon afterward. Appealing more to the pews than the pulpit, Norman Vincent Peale's Guideposts rolled out in 1945 and quickly became the most widely circulated religious periodical in the country. Its 2008 circulation of 3.3 million made it one of the top 20 magazines in any genre. Other than in circulation, though, Guideposts never challenged the Century.

Christianity Today was a different story. In 1956, Billy Graham legendarily awakened in the middle of the night with a vision for an evangelical answer to the Century. He especially wanted to speak to and for conservative clergy in liberal-trending denominations. Graham was not so combative as to aim at converting or neutralizing the other magazine's readers, but Christianity Today's first editor, Carl F. H. Henry, acknowledged that his periodical sought to give the Century "a run for its biases." Like Guideposts, though on a less meteoric trajectory, Christianity Today immediately eclipsed the Century's circulation.

It is not reasonable to draw a straight line from Christianity and Crisis to Christianity Today, as if the latter could not have risen up to challenge the Century without the example of the former. These two magazines, as well as Guideposts, originated at different points on the landscape of American Protestantism, promulgated different messages, and responded to different needs among their readers. Nonetheless, each stood as a repudiation of the Century's dreams of universality.

Competition—for cultural authority as well as for circulation—necessitated language to distinguish the various parties. C&C represented the Christian realists, Guideposts the positive thinkers, and Christianity Today the evangelicals. As of the late 1950s, though, the Century's bloc did not have an agreed-upon label. Representing an imagined center compared with which all other positions were peripheral, the Century had never really needed to label its own constituency. At various times it had adopted words like liberal, modern, social, and ecumenical, but these functioned more as descriptors than as labels. For several years after the launch of Christianity Today, the Century fought for custody of evangelical, forwarding the word's European heritage, but eventually it yielded to common usage. Finally, around 1960, the outside world settled on the term with which the Century has since been interlocked, mainline.

For such a familiar and seemingly clear term, mainline had a very murky provenance. It originated in the railroad world, where, as two words (main line), it described the most direct or most traveled stretch of track in any rail system. Colloquially, in another form (Main Line), it referred to the wealthy northwestern suburbs of Philadelphia, which were served by the main line of that city's transit system. By the 1950s, according to sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, another form of the word—Mainliner—had come to mean "upper crust," "old family," or "socialite." [4]

Exactly how and when the word mainline jumped from discussions of suburbs and socialites to discussions of certain upper-crust churches remains a mystery. An early instance of this usage appeared in a 1960 New York Times article headlined, "Extremists Try to Curb Clergy; Moves to ban social issues causing Protestant rift." In this piece, the "extremists" were wealthy, conservative Southern and Midwestern laymen who asked clergy in their churches (Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Episcopal) to quit making liberal pronouncements on social issues and instead "stick to the Gospel." The reporter described the denominations served by the beleaguered clergy as "mainline," "moderate," "liberal," and "old-line."

Without actually defining the mainline, the reporter communicated a lot about it. The term designated entire denominations or churches, not individuals. (Think of how seldom one hears of "mainliners," compared to how frequently one hears of evangelicals, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, or Catholics.) The mainline was old, moderate to liberal, and socially progressive. Its churches were "major." Its clergy were "leaders." Its challengers hailed from the heartland and the Sunbelt. It was identified strongly with the National Council of Churches. Moreover, it commanded the respect of The New York Times, and, like the Times, it influenced national agendas.

Scholars who seek to get beyond such an impressionistic portrait of the mainline typically name denominations. The standard list—those churches the late historian William Hutchison called the "Seven Sisters"—includes the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the American Baptist church, the Congregationalist (UCC) Church, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Disciples of Christ. [5] Some studies of the contemporary mainline drop the Disciples, which have now shrunk to under 1 million members. Occasionally the Lutherans are excluded, with the explanation that they either joined the club late or followed a trajectory different enough from the others that they should not be lumped together. A recent book by Glenn Utter, Mainline Christians and U.S. Public Policy, adds to the standard seven the Reformed Church in America and the Roman Catholic Church. [6] Even this most basic attempt to define the mainline encounters ambiguity.

Institutional definitions have not always been sufficient to describe the Century's mainline constituency. Other attempts to define it center on theological positions, ecclesial politics, worship styles, or cultural markers. Depending on the conversation in which distinctions are drawn, the mainline churches might be those that accept homosexual members, ordain women, support abortion, protest war, have governance structures above the individual congregation, follow liturgies, or ring America's courthouse squares with tall steeples.

Religion scholar Peter W. Williams, in his textbook America's Religions, has given the fullest description of the mainline. [7] He admitted that mainline is not a technical term but found it a useful name for religious expressions consonant with most or all of twenty characteristics including membership in the Seven Sisters denominations, middle to upper social class, northwestern European ancestry, use of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, low tension with American culture, and patronage, particularly by clergy, of The Christian Century or Christianity and Crisis.

The rest of Williams' chapter on mainline Protestants mainly covered bureaucratic structures and theological and social conflicts. The contrast between this chapter and the next one, on conservative Protestants, which brimmed with famous names, scandals, pop culture references, and single-issue political efforts, was striking.

Mainline and conservative Protestants do not just have divergent views on common topics. The categories in which people think of them scarcely overlap. Mainline is church; evangelical is lay or parachurch. Mainline councils speak; evangelical celebrities speak. Of course, evangelicals have churches and the mainline has laypeople. Likewise, evangelicals have meetings (if not exactly councils) and the mainline has celebrities, but it is a matter of what comes to mind first, what scholars and journalists think to go looking for. The logics differ.

No handy pocket definition of the mainline, analogous to David Bebbington's four-point definition of evangelicalism, exists (a point that is significant in and of itself), but Theusen's logic of mainline churchliness might come closest to meeting this lexical need. In varying ways, The Christian Century has embodied all of his key characteristics—ethical tolerance, ecumenical commitment, and an embrace of the church's public role—for the past 100 years.

The sticking points for the Century, and the mainline more broadly, came when these core principles seemed to be in conflict. Ethical differences that were allowed, even welcomed, during discussions sometimes got swept under the rug when the time came to make public pronouncements. Continuing the cycle, public pronouncements that better represented the views of some religious bodies than of others could impede ecumenical endeavors. Most vexing, what common ground could committed ecumenists find with Christians whose ethics or conception of the church's public role caused them to eschew World Council of Churches-style ecumenism?

One of the few watercooler stories that still circulates about Morrison highlights these difficulties. In the early 1960s, editorializing on developments in the WCC, Martin Marty and another young Century editor urged Protestant leaders to take Orthodox concerns about that institution more seriously. Morrison, whose old age and blindness generally kept him away from the office, stormed in to register his complaint about the editorial. The young bucks threw his own definition of the church at him, arguing that, if the church exists wherever the character of Christ is formed, then the Orthodox are part of the church, and pains should be taken to keep them at the ecumenical table. Morrison fumed, "But if we wait for the Orthodox, I won't live to see Christian unity!"

Morrison's magazine has not lived to see Christian unity or a truly Christian century. Its antagonism (lessening all the time) toward some branches of American Christianity might even have impeded these goals, but it presses on. It has recently returned to its roots as a publication for ministers, adding columns on preaching the lectionary and increasing coverage of pastoral matters. The imperialism associated with pretended universality has abated. The Century serves churches, rather than an imagined single church, as the voice of a creative minority. It is mainline, not broadly mainstream. And yet, like the Protestant mainline, it has far too rich a heritage simply to fade away. As it moves into a new century, it still merits our respect.

Elesha Coffman is assistant professor of history at Waynesburg University in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. She has just completed a dissertation at Duke University on Charles Clayton Morrison's years at The Christian Century.

1. "Voice of the Century," Newsweek, June 23, 1947, p. 72; "Man of the Century," Time, June 23, 1947, pp. 75-76.

2. Peter J. Theusen, "The Logic of Mainline Churchliness," in Robert Wuthnow and John H. Evans, eds., The Quiet Hand of God (Univ. of California Press, 2002), pp. 27-53.

3. Mark Hulsether, Building a Protestant Left (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1999), p. 26.

4. E. Digby Baltzell, Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class (Free Press, 1958), p. 201.

5. William R. Hutchison, "Protestantism as Establishment," in Hutchison, ed., Between the Times (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), p. 6.

6. Glenn Utter, Mainline Christians and U.S. Public Policy (ABC-CLIO, 2007).

7. Peter W. Williams, America's Religions (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2002), pp. 355-357.

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