The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline -- A Review

THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY AND THE RISE OF THE PROTESTANT MAINLINEBy Elesha J. Coffman.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  X + 271.

            First, let me say what a joy it is to read a scholarly monograph that is not only well written but that draws you into the story.  Elesha Coffman has done just that with her study of the Christian Century and its role in creating a Protestant Mainline.  Perhaps it is her background in journalism that leads to this ability to tell a story.  Whatever the case, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.  It also helps that I am a long-time reader of the Christian Century and occasional reviewer of books for the journal.  Thus, I have some personal engagement with the object of study.  Further, I am a Disciples of Christ pastor, and this leading liberal Protestant journal began life as a Disciples journal.  Not only that, but when the long-time editor/publisher Charles C. Morrison sought financial support in the 1920s to expand the journal into one that was fully undenominational or ecumenical he turned to Philip Gray, a Detroit based financier and former partner of Henry Ford, who happened to be a leading member of Central Christian Church – the forerunner of Central Woodward Christian Church (the church I now serve as pastor).  So, as you can see – I have personal investment in this story.

            Although the Christian Century is no longer a Disciples of Christ journal, its ethos and mission, as Elesha Coffman makes clear, is rooted in that ethos.  Born in the 1880s as the Christian Oracle, the journal is an expression of what Disciples call the editor-bishop.  Disciples have been a non-hierarchical tradition, living without bishops (at least until recently), but they had editors who exerted tremendous influence on the movement, beginning with founders Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone.  By the turn of the century the Christian Oracle was seeking to push itself into a mix that was led by the Christian Standard and the Christian-Evangelist.  The Oracle – soon to be called The Christian Century, sought to provide a leftward, even modernist, vision for the movement.  This became clear by the time Charles C. Morrison joined with Herbert W. Willett of the University of Chicago, to purchase the journal in 1908 and enter the fray for the soul of the Disciples of Christ – emphasizing Christian (Protestant) unity and modern biblical interpretation.   In its early days as a journal there was a clear relationship to the University of Chicago Divinity School, where Willett, Edward Scribner Ames, and later W.E. Garrison (all Disciples) would teach, even as they contributed to the journal.  By the beginning of the 1920s it became clear to Morrison that the journal could not sustain itself as a Disciples journal, and began to move into the ecumenical realm, but even then the University of Chicago connection remained strong. 

The change of focus from Disciple to ecumenical was signaled in 1924 by the hiring of Paul Hutchinson, a Methodist, as Managing Editor (a position that Morrison originally hoped to offer to Reinhold Niebuhr.  Hutchinson would stay with the journal until his death in 1956, providing important editorial oversight to the journal.  As for Niebuhr, he has an important presence in the book, both as a writer for the journal in the 1920s and later as an embittered rival.  By the mid 1930s, after Niebuhr broke with his earlier pacifism, Niebuhr and Morrison parted ways over this very matter.  Morrison was not only a modernist/liberal; he was an ardent pacifist who sought to outlaw war.  He and Niebuhr would engage in a series of rather fractious debates on the pages of the Century, leading by 1941 to Niebuhr joining with John C. Bennett in forming Christianity and Crisis.  The break with Niebuhr signaled a fracturing within liberalism, one that was furthered by the introduction of Barth and Neo-Orthodoxy (a theology that Morrison disdained as biblical literalism). 

            In spite of these breaks with Niebuhr and others, Morrison (and this book is largely about his influence on the Century and then through the journal on the Protestant community), Morrison and his colleagues at the Century sought to represent to the world the Protestant message.  To Morrison Fundamentalism was a backward appendage that had no future.  As for Roman Catholicism, like many Disciples, even, perhaps especially, liberal ones, he had no love for Roman Catholics.   Morrison’s goal was to win the soul of America. Today we think of far right groups pursuing a vision of a Christian America, but Morrison believed that liberal Protestantism was the appropriate answer to both Roman Catholicism and Secularism.  He believed that Protestantism offered a moral foundation for the nation – thus he was a strong supporter of Prohibition.   

            The problem that Morrison faced, a problem that Coffman has described in some detail, is that Morrison’s primary audience was educated white male clergy (yes, I would have been a prime target for subscription efforts).  From the beginning the majority of subscribers have been clergy.  Efforts were made at times to recruit lay persons, but without much success, which as Coffman notes is related to Morrison’s distrust of the laity.   He would have loved it if laity would read the journal and become theologically and socially informed, but because this seemed problematic, he would have to reach them through the clergy who did read the journal.

What the journal lacked in popularity it gained in cultural capital.  It was recognized by many, including publications such as Time and Newsweek, as a leading, if not the leading voice of Protestantism.  Its subscription list may never have been large, but it was seen as an equal to The Nation and the New Republic.  It may not have had huge numbers of subscribers, but among those subscribing were the nation’s libraries – unlike any of its competitors.   

By the 1950s, as Morrison gave way to new leadership, the journal had new rivals to deal with – in the form of Christianity Today and Billy Graham.  Coffman devotes considerable attention to the origins of the rivalry (at first the Century sought to ignore CT, but in the end could not).  It did take on Billy Graham, at whom it directed rather harsh attacks, for they saw him as nothing more than a creation of marketers.  In the course of this discussion, we learn of the role that Martin Marty played in these early years as a staffer at the Century.  Revealed in this conversation is Marty’s long held desire to reclaim the name evangelical.  He makes the claim today and was making it forcefully then.  Because the rivalry with Christianity Today plays a significant role in the later chapters of the book, it might have been appropriate for Coffman to have revealed that prior to her entry into academia (she teaches church history at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary), she spent a number of years working for the parent company of CT, which probably should have been revealed. 

As the book comes to a conclusion around 1960, Coffman brings us to the primary point of the book – the recognition of a Protestant Mainline – a group of churches (the Seven Sisters) that had seen themselves, and had been recognized for quite some time as a Protestant establishment.  Ironically the term Mainline appears for the first time in a 1961 New York Times article.  These churches become the Mainline at the very moment they enter into decline.  Morrison’s dream of an American Protestant establishment seemed to appear, but it was largely a mirage.  Nonetheless the Century has had a significant impact on American life – both religious and non-religious.  It continues to have significant influence, though it has come back toward the center in recent years.  Many on the right celebrate the decline of the “Mainline,” but in many ways they seek the same status today as Morrison sought to claim decades before. 

One can quibble with aspects of the story.  One might find her rather detailed description of the altercation with Billy Graham and the Neo-Evangelical Movement as over the top, and an expression of her own theological leanings (it is clear that she has evangelical leanings in the choice of endorsers of the book and even her doctoral mentor), but it is part of the story.  You could read her as offering a critique of the Mainline in noting that it never achieved the level of influence it sought or believed it had, but there is truth in this critique.  Yes, Morrison’s dream never reached fulfillment, but the Century has played a significant role in proclaiming a liberal version of Protestantism and helped form the Protestant Mainline.  The numbers of subscribers, like the numbers of adherents in Mainline churches, may not be large, but both have continued to make use of their cultural capital to work toward the transforming of the nation and even the world in light of a particular theological vision.

You might quibble.  You might even get embarrassed at points, but you will find this, I am sure, an enjoyable read.  And as a Disciple, I can read the book and make a claim on the journal itself.  Disciples may not have a huge presence today, but the vision of an editor-bishop that defined early Disciples life, has continued to live on through the years even as the journal itself evolved beyond its Disciples roots.  While the journal may not officially represent Protestantism, it has long been an important and influential voice that many of us engage with.  Whether one is a reader or not of the Century, we are blessed to have before us a detailed history of the journal and its influence on church and society.   


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