America's mainline: Gary Dorrien tells the history of Charles Clayton Morrison and the Christian Century.

Author:Dorrien, Gary

The idea that American Protestantism has a "mainline," or ever did, was born in irony. The mainline is usually identified with seven Protestant denominations, all of which were small in their heyday of the 1950s. Moreover, just after they acquired the name "mainline," they began to shrink. The idea of the mainline had a basis, but it had little to do with numbers. The mainline churches assumed a leadership role in American society, they built a large stock of cultural capital, they crafted a persuasive rhetoric about modern Christianity and America, they built an ecumenical national church, they were (and still are) overrepresented in the corridors of power, and they served as guardians of America's moral culture. One of the best ways to see how they did it is to track the history of the Christian Century magazine, the flagship of mainline Protestantism.

For many years I have been telling colleagues and graduate students that somebody ought to write this story. Nobody understood twentieth-century ecumenical Protestantism better than the founder and editor of the Christian Century, Charles Clayton Morrison. Though forgotten today, he influenced this tradition more than almost anybody. In addition, Morrison wrote an unpublished autobiography chock-full of insights about his ambitions for the Century and how he kept it going.

Academic fashions long ago turned against everything associated with the unfortunately named mainline. The mainline would have done slightly better to stick with its other names, "liberal" and "ecumenical." But denominations and formal ecumenism are hopelessly pass by any name, so Morrison and the Century had to wait for Elesha J. Coffman, whose graduate advisor at Duke, Evangelical historian Grant Wacker, realized what was odd about this situation. Thus, we finally have an account of the Christian Century's role in the rise of the so-called Protestant mainline, in a book that tells only part of the story, but does so splendidly.

Coffman, who teaches church history at Dubuque Theological Seminary, presses hard, with a nod to social theorist Pierre Bourdieu, on the concept of cultural capital. She argues rightly that mainline Protestantism richly illustrates both meanings of the term "mainline": principal, as belonging to the first rank, but also conventional, as belonging to the mainstream or middle-of-the-road. It is exceedingly difficult to be first rank and conventional at the same time.

The story begins with a tiny Disciples of Christ magazine, the Christian Oracle, founded in 1884 in Des Moines, Iowa. A typical denominational organ, it helped Disciples carry on their early nineteenth-century Restorationist heritage, which had Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian roots. The church's Presbyterian founders, Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, sought to restore the anti-hierarchical democracy of early Christianity; their efforts yielded a Disciples tradition advocating church unity and minimal church tradition. By the late nineteenth century the Disciples had a conservative wing and a liberal one, the latter especially in Chicago, where the Christian Oracle moved in 1900 and changed its name to the Christian Century. Eight years later the magazine folded, and young Disciples minister Morrison bought it at a mortgage foreclosure.

Like many Protestant ministers of his time, Morrison came from a clerical family of humble means, and he cherished the liberal theology movement for rescuing him from an unhappy choice between letting go of Christianity and trying to believe unbelievable things. Liberal theology taught that the Church had no future if it opposed modern science and biblical criticism, and the Social Gospel taught that Christianity has a mission to transform the structures of society in the direction of social justice.

From the beginning, Morrison wore his Social Gospel liberalism proudly, already writing in his distinctly forceful, clear, vivid, and arresting prose style. He later recalled: "By the end of my first year, the Christian Century had become something more than a journalistic organ; it was distinctly identified with a cause--the cause of liberalism."

The Century was pushy about its ecumenical bias. Morrison said that denominationalism was a spiritual disaster that prevented the Church from winning souls and society to Christ. The Church should be unified on the basis of Christ and his Gospel and nothing else. This was in fact conventional Disciples' theology, but Morrison called it ecumenism. He knew very well that the tiny and mostly conservative Disciples church did not provide much of a basis for the magazine. To succeed, he had to attract the audience of progressive ministers that he believed was out there. In 1917, the Century quietly announced that it was no longer a Disciples organ, having become "An Undenominational Journal of Religion."

Morrison never really acknowledged that he had a business model or even business acumen. In his telling, he gave himself wholly to a winning idea--Social Gospel liberalism--and the Century "just growed," like Topsy. What mattered was that he stuck to this idea, he had the independence to do so, and he resisted the secular temptation, enabling the Century to thrive while rivals struggled and crashed.

The Century pulled away from a crowded field of denominational periodicals and from the two gold-standard magazines of religious journalism, the Independent and the Outlook. Some denominational organs were ably produced, but all suffered from a headquarters mentality and a numerically small base. The Independent and the...

To continue reading