James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.
This article appeared in the Christian Century November 21, 1984, p. 1091. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
In the Christian Century, during the period of 1953 to 1961, the editors believed that the best way to propagate democracy was by example and through financial support, not by military might.
The Christian Century centennial history series moves now into what we could call the “modern era.” That designation is relative since “modern” means recent, and recent covers more time for some of us than for others. But as the current editor, I am exercising an administrative prerogative by beginning the “modern” years in 1953 -- the year that I first took seriously this weekly publication as it made its regular appearance in my seminary library in Atlanta. And in the same executive spirit, I am assuming that our centennial series should conclude with 1971, the year before I was appointed editor.
It is possible that like so many undergraduate students I had earlier run across the magazine in doing library research. But it was not until I enrolled at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology that I recall regularly seeing this rather foreboding periodical, whose cover each week notified readers of four or five topics that awaited within. Having spent the previous six years in various forms of journalism, my first impression was that The Christian Century could use a design artist. But my second impression was the one that stuck: Here was world Christianity presented with a sophistication that challenged the parochialism of my southern Methodism.
These memories of my seminary years returned as I began reading through issues of the Century, beginning with January 7, 1953. This history piece will cover the magazine through the end of 1961; the final series presentation will begin with 1962 and conclude with 1971. We will leave it to our succeeding editors to evaluate the magazine’s post-1972 efforts.
As 1953 began, Dwight D. Eisenhower moved into the White House. He was greeted warmly in the pages of the Century by editors who had earlier expressed some uneasiness over a military general’s assuming the chief-executive role. Editorials were unsigned, so it is not possible to determine if they were written by Paul Hutchinson, then coming to the end of his nine-year stint as editor; or by Executive Editor Harold E. Fey, who was to follow Hutchinson in the top position in 1956; or by some other staff member. But one can assert that in the editorial section, ‘‘the Century said’’ was a legitimate description.
When Eisenhower came to Washington, the Century welcomed him with praise for both his stern anti-communism and his evident piety, two qualities that would characterize the magazine’s attitude toward domestic and foreign affairs as well as religion and politics for some time to come. When the president was baptized and joined a Presbyterian church in Washington on confession of faith, the magazine saw this as an expression of a man who wanted Christian faith to affect his political life. By April the editors had become ecstatic about the new president, lauding his “magnificent” call for “a peace which is true and total” in Korea. Public expression of religious faith by a national leader was considered evidence of inner faith. There was no indication of cynicism, or any suspicion that religion might be used to curry public favor.
Throughout this Eisenhower era and into the 1960s, the editors reflected a liberal imperialism, best exemplified in public life by Adlai Stevenson. They believed that communism had to be stopped at every point, because American democracy was superior and was transferable to all parts of the world. The best way to propagate democracy was by example and through financial support, not by military might. Their resistance to communism, it should be noted, was still well to the left on the political spectrum. The shrillness of a Senator Joseph McCarthy and the bluster and name-calling of the House Un-American Activities Committee were consistently attacked by the Century. When one subscriber wrote to accept a trial offer on the condition that the editor and his staff sign a pledge that none was “or ever had been’’ a member of the Communist Party, Editor Hutchinson was so incensed that he didn’t just return the money, but told of its return in a long editorial: “We are Christians, not Communists; . . . our understanding of what it means to be Christian makes it impossible for us to be Communist. . . . [But] we shall not sign this oath” (June 10, 1953).
That incident provides a capsule view of how liberals viewed the communist issue in the early 1950s. Democracy was superior, and one reason for that involved the right of any citizen to refuse to reveal his or her private political convictions. When Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam of Washington, D.C., voluntarily testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Harold Velde (R., Ill.), to clear himself of charges of disloyalty to the country, liberal Christians found a new hero.
On July 22, 1953, Oxnam appeared in a crowded congressional hearing room to demand that the Velde committee clean up its files and stop attacking Protestant clergy on flimsy charges, some of which the Century suspected were trumped up by the ultraconservative American Council of Churches. Oxnam later published his testimony and described his experience in the book I Protest; a Century advertisement for the book hailed Oxnam for turning “the hearing into a forum on elementary justice and civil rights.’’
The early part of the decade was a tense time, with Senator McCarthy making his reckless charges and the nation on edge after a war in Korea against communist North Korea and the People’s Republic of China (often termed Red China, even in the Century, for most of the decade).
After an armistice was signed in the summer of 1953 the Century indicated its support of the United Nations action in Korea by asserting that “now that aggression has been restrained at great cost in life and material, it is to be hoped that communist expansionists have been taught a lesson and that no other test of like character will be demanded of United Nation members” (August 5).
The liberal-conservative division in American political life was to become sharply sectional through the rest of the decade after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing segregation in public schools, a traumatic moment in American history that the Century began to anticipate months before the decision itself. Despite its image as a northern liberal journal, the Century was patient toward the southern states --an attitude that probably had more to do with liberal optimism than with political realism. One author predicted before the ruling that segregation would be outlawed and that the way to make a reasonable transition into integrated education would be to start with first-grade children and allow the process to be completed over a 12-year period.
The court decision to “postpone for months hearings on the means and time-schedule by which school segregation is to be abolished” was greeted warmly by the Century, whose editors predicted that “this ruling will be calmly received in the south and . . . public opinion will swing behind efforts to give it honest implementation” (June 2). The editors added: “A great deal of what might be called the silent public opinion of the south has already marked off segregation as a doomed and dying social arrangement.”
Unfortunately, as the magazine discovered through the next decade, that silent opinion, although present, was slow to make itself heard in public policy. Six years later, as numerous editorials and articles indicate, the Methodist Church -- then the largest Protestant body in the nation, with heavy southern concentration -- was still struggling to resolve its own institutional segregation. Its Central Jurisdiction, formed as a separate structure for black churches, was sill in place, setting a bad example for public schools.
Martin Luther King, Jr., entered the Century pages for the first time in March 1956 when Harold Fey chronicled the boycott of the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, and King’s arrest in connection with it. By the end of the decade King had become the recognized civil rights leader and frequently wrote for -- or was quoted in -- the magazine. Later he became an editor-at-large. The Century, in 1963, was the first nationally distributed periodical to publish his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in its entirety.
In 1958, as the Century celebrated its 50th anniversary since its “refounding” in 1908 when Charles Clayton Morrison took over the fledgling periodical, James P. Wesberry, one of a large number of correspondents who regularly filed news accounts from around the world, reported that an Atlanta, Georgia, pastor denounced his fellow Georgians’ silence on the integration issue. Roy O. McClain of Atlanta’s First Baptist Church employed his prestigious platform to confess courageously that “college professors have been relatively quiet on the race issue, the pulpits have been paralyzed and the politicians are interested in getting votes.” The truth is, he charged, the South “doesn’t have a voice because the well informed people have been quiet” (January 29).
In his report, Wesberry illustrated what the only public noises from the South were like. Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin had responded to people wondering what would happen to federal lunchroom funds if the state refused to integrate its schools with the assertion: “I’m gonna tell [government officials] to get up their blackeyed peas, get up their taters, get up their stew pots, and get out of here. We can feed our children ourselves.’’ Wesberry concluded his report: “So goes the story of segregation and integration in this part of the world.”
As a pastor in that “part of the world” during this decade, I well remember those lonely voices amid the silence of public opinion. They were reassuring and gave the rest of us some hope that the future would be better. But we also knew that we were a long way from achieving the normal integrated patterns that the Century had hopefully predicted in 1954.
Ecumenism, long a concern of the magazine, flourished in the ‘50s, beginning with the high excitement before, during and after the World Council of Churches Assembly in Evanston, Illinois, in the summer of 1954. The magazine noticed little else during the period of the meeting -- partly a reflection of the geographical nearness of the event itself (a mere short train ride away), and partly because the 1947 Amsterdam Assembly had been relatively subdued following the end of World War II.
Evanston was to be exciting. The Assembly opened with rousing addresses by an American and a German, both stressing the theme, Christian hope. An indication of the enthusiasm generated by the gathering of world Christians can be seen in the closing session at Chicago’s Soldier Field, where more than 125,000 people gathered to celebrate, worship and prepare for another seven years of service and theologizing. Reporting on the meeting, the Century concluded that too much of the Assembly’s time was spent in theological disputes. What saved the meeting -- ironically, in contrast to later developments -- was the agreement on social action. ‘‘Could it be that if the World Council studied its theology less dogmatically and more in action from the saddle, so to speak, that the council would last longer and go farther?” the editors asked. Generally acclaimed, however, was the Assembly’s recognition of the two emerging continents, Asia and Africa, which could no longer be dismissed as a ‘‘colorful geographical fringe.’’
Acquiring its new name of the “Christian’’ century in 1900, the magazine still held out hopes that the world could be Christianized, fostering the same imperialistic evangelism that had characterized Protestant mission effort for 50 years.
Evanston was provided once again with a formidable list of the obstacles in the pathway of a Christian occupation [italics added] of these two continents, and we would not minimize them. The power of religious nationalism, the revival ot the ancient faiths, the fluid shell of a social culture which cannot be penetrated by the arrival of “another religion” or by attempts to replace something old with something new -- we knew these barricades are there. What we missed at Evanston was a call to move up into the breaches, to storm the citadels [September 22, 1954].
Earlier in the decade Century editors had reflected their midwestern parochialism -- and their prescience -- in evaluating the emergence of the National Council of Churches as a major factor in American religious life. Commenting on the NCC’s first assembly meeting in Denver, Colorado, in late 1952, Charles Clayton Morrison, then a contributing editor, defended the council as an “artifact, which does not belong to the nature of the church,” but which nevertheless deserved support from denominations as a vehicle for moving away from the divisions within the church caused by “human contrivances” (January 7, 1953). Separateness was a sin for which we pray to be forgiven” whenever ecumenical gatherings are held, he asserted. In this separateness, the newly formed council “represents the most comprehensive effort America Protestantism has yet made to return from its wanderings in the wilderness of sectarianism and find its home in the true Church of Christ.”
Morrison feared that denominational hubris would work against the new council. Soon after that, the editors saw danger for the NCC on another front: the proposed location of the NCC headquarters in New York City. Arguing against New York as the site, the editors pointed out that
New York’s Protestant population is only one-tenth as numerous as its combined Catholic and Jewish populations. This one factor should weigh decisively against choosing that city as the nation’s center of Protestant life. Numerical insignificance inevitably invests Protestant church life with a minority mentality [May 12, 1954].
This situation, the editors maintained, would carry over
into staff and leadership attitudes and “blight the realization of the Protestant mission in this land.”
New York’s “alien and demoralizing environment” was simply not conducive to a majority religion’s performing its proper function. Columbus, Chicago and St. Louis were all proposed by the editors as cities within the heartland of Protestant strength. That attitude reflects the strong Protestant-first mind-set of the magazine, which was to play such a strong role in the closing years of this decade when a Roman Catholic presented himself as a candidate for the presidency of the United States.
The likelihood of a Catholic president at first I appeared ominous to the magazine editors, who, in early 1959, warned against the possible influence of the “hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.” Tracing the interest of the bishops of the Catholic Church in obtaining federal monies for parochial schools, the magazine recalled that the church leaders had sought to obtain funding and avoid the “impending danger of a judicial establishment of secularism from public life.’’ In response to this warning, the editors pointed out that our laws do not “ban God from public life,” but they do ban the bishops from “the public treasury” (March 4, 1959). Clearly, the Century was concerned about a church hierarchy that it felt was not sensitive to ‘‘the pluralism essential for the separation of church and state.”
As the 1960 campaign opened, a Century editorial reported that John F. Kennedy had once turned down an invitation to dedicate a Baptist chapel because his church disapproved of his entering a non -- Roman Catholic sanctuary. The presidential candidate told the press that he had in fact declined such an invitation nine years earlier, explaining that he had been invited to represent his church, and since his church could not recognize the validity of the church involved, he had to decline. The Century noted that similar invitations might arise were he to be elected president.
In a two-part series examining “religion and the presidency” Robert S. Michaelsen, then a professor at the State University of Iowa in Iowa City, concluded that in time a non-Protestant might be elected, but not in “the near future,” since the American people seem to desire ‘‘an embodiment of themselves” in the ‘White House. Obviously, a Roman Catholic represented something other than mainstream America, so he could not “embody” the public.
Following Kennedy’s nomination, Protestants formed groups to resist his election. Norman Vincent Peale was at first involved in one such group, but soon withdrew, declaring that he did not believe religion should be a factor in anyone’s voting decision. In September, a few weeks before the election, Kennedy appeared before the Ministerial Association of Houston, Texas. His assertions that he was “against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools” and that “I do not speak for my church on public matters and the church does not speak for me” were enough to convince the Century that his election did not pose a serious threat to the sacred wall of separation. His statement in Houston, an editorial declared, “strengthens the evidence that Senator Kennedy could resist political pressure from his church” (September 28).
After Kennedy’s victory, a young Century associate editor, Martin E. Marty, summed up the election in a fashion that was to become his trademark for decades to come. Displaying his gift of cogent insight and summary observation, Marty observed that Kennedy’s inauguration symbolically marked the end of Protestantism as a national religion and its advent as the “distinctive faith of a creative minority.’’
That “distinctive faith” ventured down a different ecumenical path in 1960 with the proposal by United Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake that four major denominations -- his own, the Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ -- merge into one denomination. His proposal, made in San Francisco just before a National Council assembly, was quickly seconded by Episcopal Bishop James Pike, and the idea was dubbed the Blake-Pike proposal. From it grew the Consultation on Church Union, which, 24 years later, continues to move toward some form of uniting with less verve than at the start, but still reflecting some hope for overcoming the Protestant divisions that prompted the original proposal.
Strongly affirming the idea of a united church, the Century praised the potential and then turned its attention to the next World Council of Churches Assembly, this time in far-off New Delhi, India. Perhaps the world ecumenical mood had dampened a bit, or perhaps the great distance had an impact. Whatever the reason, New Delhi did not evoke the excitement that had surrounded the 1954 Evanston Assembly. Organized ecumenism was clearly in a muted stage. Nonetheless, the editors were unceasing in their support of ecumenical organizations. In an earlier editorial, they had strongly affirmed the National Council’s increasing tendency to issue proclamations and resolutions on social issues. Quoting a denominational paper’s editorial, the Century said: ‘‘If anxious Protestants would actually read and digest the documents of the National Council . . . they would come to admire rather than to suspect this bulwark of Christian Protestantism in America’’ (July 12, 1961).
Internally, Protestantism had divisions in addition to denominational ones. The popularity of the dynamic young evangelist Billy Graham at first drew news coverage and then, as his ministry grew, brought sharp negative criticism. In a November II, 1956, editorial, the editors wondered why Dr. Graham did not respond to public criticism from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr for not addressing “the race issue’’ in his preaching. It was not enough, the magazine observed, for Graham to write in a Lifr magazine article that ‘‘discrimination on the basis of race was unkind, [but] that Negroes should cultivate the virtue of patience.’’ Graham ignored both Niebuhr and the Century.
Norman Vincent Peale’s “positive thinking’’ was also harshly criticized in editorials and articles throughout the decade. But it was within the Century’s own family of authors that a particularly strong exchange occurred the next year. Reinhold Niebuhr on several occasions demanded that his German colleague Karl Barth be more forthcoming in opposing Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe. Following the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Niebuhr wrote a stinging rebuke of Barth, asking, ‘‘Why Is Barth Silent on Hungary?’’ The American writer observed that even the lowly party hacks in the Communist parties of Britain and France have been shocked but Barth himself has remained silent’’ (January 23, 1957).
And when Barth published a letter he had written to an East German pastor, counseling him to be neutral toward the communist government there, Niebuhr was harsh in his objection to Barth’s ‘‘above-the-battle Christian witness.’’ Barth had told the pastor that loyalty to a state does not mean ‘‘regarding the state as good or agreeing with its purpose.” To Niebuhr, however, it was necessary for Christians to ‘‘take our moral responsibilities in this world seriously and [that requires] hazardous political judgments’’ (February II, 1959).
This mood of anticommunism among American liberals made it difficult for the Century to engender much support for Cuba’s emerging revolution. Still, several long articles, including one by Managing Editor Theodore A. Gill, encouraged the United States to affirm the new government in that island as a welcome change from the oppression of Fulgencio Batista. Radicals of any stripe, however, were viewed with caution by the Century. For example, Editor Harold Fey disliked Chicago social activist Saul Alinsky’s confrontational methods of neighborhood organizing. The editors were still convinced that orderly and voluntary reform was the only method of social change that Christians should wholeheartedly support.
Almost as though in preparation for the coming civil rights struggle of the ‘60s, an American Baptist minister originally from South Carolina, Kyle Haselden, was named managing editor in 1960. He was to become recognized as a perceptive observer of the racial developments of the 1960s, a time when Martin Luther King’s patient march toward equality began to give way to more violent methods of direct confrontation. Haselden would become editor in 1964, succeeding Harold Fey, who had taken over from Paul Hutchinson in January 1956. Three months after leaving the magazine, Hutchinson died of a heart attack while on a trip with his wife in Texas. Fey is still a Century contributing editor.
When the decade closed, a longtime fixture at the Century also closed his career. Halford Luccock, whose column had long appeared under the byline of Simeon Stylites, died at the age of 75 on November 5,1960. He had begun his column as a “letter to the editor” in 1948, and it continued until just before his death. The column was a word of wisdom delivered with a touch of humor, and a gentle reminder of the human spirit’s foibles.
One of Luccock’s best was a 1954 column mourning the passing of the old tradition of Friday afternoon school poetry recitals. No longer, he lamented, did the assembly hall ring with the likes of ‘‘The Charge of the Light Brigade” or “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight.”
Today’s sophisticates may say “how terribly quaint.” It was more than quaint. It was storing the mind with music and imagination. People who learned to repeat poetry often kept it in mind for a lifetime. When a person does not know any poetry there is a dimension of mind and soul missing; part of the human heritage has been lost. . . . The Bible is [also] not in the memory of the multitudes. They do not possess its cadence or recognize its words. Few pastors would dare start to lead a congregation in repeating the First Psalm. Even the 23rd is a big risk. Half the congregation will still be feeding in green pastures while the more venturesome sheep have jumped on to eating at a table in the presence of their enemies [October 6].
That was Luccock’s way of gently telling us that the olden times had much to contribute. We are the poorer for letting such practices get away from us. Which suggests again the value of looking back on our history. Much is there that tells us of the future.