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The Century in Transition: 1916-1922

by Linda-Marie Delloff

Dr. Delloff is managing editor of The Christian Century and has had experience with the White House and the United Nations on Aging. This article appeared in the Christian Century March 7, 1984, p. 243. 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.


From the time it was established in 1884 in Des Moines. Iowa, The Christian Century had been published by and for members of the Disciples of Christ denomination. One day in 1916, as Editor Charles Clayton Morrison, an ordained Disciples minister, was making his rounds through the magazine’s southside Chicago office, he stopped at the desk of the employee in charge of subscriptions. He later recorded the experience in his unpublished memoirs:

Glancing at the open mail before her, my eye caught the letterhead of Oberlin College. Picking up the letter I found that Henry Churchill King, president of Oberlin [a prominent Congregationalist], was renewing his subscription. This interested me. I took up the little sheaf of letters and looked at the signatures. To my surprise, I found that Lynn Harold Hough [a Methodist], then president of Northwestern University. was also renewing his subscription. What does this mean? I reflected. I asked the young lady to run off on the tape the entire subscription list (not a big job!) and give it to me. My eye went through the whole list to see if there were other non-Disciple readers of such prominence that I could recognize them. I found perhaps 20. If I can recognize 20, there must be many others whom I do not recognize by name.

This revelation set Morrison on a train of thought that was to have far-reaching consequences. Long an adherent of unity among the denominations, he was receptive to any developments that might seem to promote that goal. He decided to try an experiment: in 1917 the magazine began to carry the subtitle “An Undenominational journal of Religion.” No announcement of the change was made; Morrison simply waited to see what the response would be.

Later he observed, “I knew that this subtitle was ambiguous. It would be interpreted by non-Disciples as we intended them to take it, and it could be interpreted by Disciples as implying the traditional claim that they were not a denomination. So the experiment was noncommittal.”

Morrison needn’t have worried about the reactions of his Disciples readers and financial backers -- whose opinion concerned him profoundly since the journal still operated tenuously, almost from issue to issue. They were uniformly pleased with the change, which they seem to have understood immediately in the real sense which Morrison intended -- i.e.. interdenominational.

Morrison and his colleagues Herbert L. Willett and Thomas Curtis Clark (until 1924 the only full-time editor besides Morrison) began, as they put it, “unobtrusively” to expand the Century’s news department to cover events in other denominations. In several years. this resulted in the popular “News of the Christian World” department, for which the editors began to line up correspondents across the nation -- and around the globe

The new product met with success, and the subscription rolls began to increase. The editorial style and point of view were gradually oriented to a larger and more diverse public. As a result of the change, the editors felt that “the amenities which a denominational organ naturally observes toward other denominations were now less binding. We became almost as frank and open in expressing editorial opinion on the doings of Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others as we had always been on those of the Disciples.”

In a few years -- and after an advertising campaign in other publications -- the journal had acquired roughly as many Congregational, as many Presbyterian, nearly as many Baptist, and twice as many Methodist subscribers as the subscription list of Disciples at the campaign’s beginning. Smaller denominations were represented in proportion to their membership.

In a relatively short time, non-Disciple writers and editors began to appear with great frequency. For example, in the teens Morrison signed on two columnists who both wrote nearly every week and who became immensely successful with readers. The first was Congregational minister William E. Barton from Oak Park, Illinois (who in 1911 had begun writing articles on the arts for the Century), whose pen name was Safed the Sage. Written in a formal, “antique’’ style, each of his short pieces contained a moral point, often expressed in sharp-edged wit. In 1919. Lynn Harold Hough, whose renewal form had so influenced Morrison, began his column, “The Lion in his Den,” Cast in a much more straightforward style than Barton’s, yet often containing a veiled and ambiguous meaning, Hough’s column provoked many letters to the editor. In addition to his column, he began to contribute regular articles on a wide variety of topics. (After leaving Northwestern, Hough had become pastor of a distinguished Methodist church in Detroit.) Also added to the staff was British Congregational minister Edward Shillito, who wrote a regular “British Table Talk” feature.

Several article series appearing in the magazine at the time indicate just how far Morrison was now able to reach for writers, both from other denominations and from the secular world. A 1921 series titled “Do the Teachings of Jesus Fit Our Times?” included authors Jane Addams, Joseph Ernest McAfee, Herbert Croly, Vida Scudder, Lloyd C. Douglas and Hough. Another series that year, “Some Living Masters of the Pulpit,” profiled noted preachers of various denominations. For a 1922 series, “The Future of the Denominations.” Morrison invited experts from a number of church bodies to comment on the situation of and prospects for their own groups. Frequent writers during the period included well-known adherents of various denominations: Harry Emerson Fosdick, Sherwood Eddy, Joseph Fort Newton, Joseph Ernest McAfee and John Haynes Holmes.

In their pursuit of church unity, the editors supported such cooperative ventures as the Interchurch World Movement, whose postwar object was “the careful survey of the fields and forces involved in the problems of world evangelization . . . . and the avoidance of any duplication by various denominations.” While recognizing that this was not “a fixed, and final form of Christian unity,” the editors applauded such cooperation.

As the Century expanded its denominational horizons, it also increased its coverage of all types of religious movements. For example, while the editors had often lamented the growth of fundamentalism, in the late teens their attacks became more vociferous. They wrote pieces with titles like “No Time to Revive the Old Revivalism,” in which they argued: “A wholesome evangelistic spirit is of the very essence of Christian experience and passion. But the very name evangelism has suffered through the perversions to which the fine art of soul saving has been subjected.” Or, on another occasion: “The only trouble with the fundamentalists is that they have missed finding the fundamentals.”

From 1916 into the ‘20s, the Century’s main preoccupation, not surprisingly, was World War I and then its aftermath. While the editors were never enthusiastic about the possibility of U.S. participation in the conflict, when it became an inevitability they wasted no time in expressing their support for President Woodrow Wilson’s decision. “War brings men duties,” they wrote in April 1917, just after U.S. entry:

America has not wanted war. We have deliberated while those who have become our allies have been fighting our battles. At last the most peace-loving president of America’s history has been driven to declare for war. He is a Christian man. He has believed, as most of us believe, that though war is a mighty evil, there are some evils even worse.

While the editors supported participation, they did so in the spirit of Wilson’s pronouncement that this was a “war to end all wars.”

It is our duty to hold to our hope of universal peace, even in the midst of war. . . . we may even now be taking the first step in the program of a League to Enforce Peace.

Even in the expression of such patriotic sentiments, one may discern hints of Morrison’s later repudiation of armed conflict and his firsthand involvement in the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact of 1928 -- a treaty designed to outlaw war. But at the beginning of America’s entry into the Great War, the Century betrayed no signs of a pacifist impulse. In October of 1917 the editors wrote the following:

The pacifist who still thinks that his abstract “peace” is of more value than civilization itself is now a sorry figure. Horrible as Europe now is, more horrible would be the moral degradation and spiritual deadness of a world which would fall to the level of the present Prussian government.

As the war ended and the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the editors felt betrayed by a president whom they had formerly supported totally. The treaty, they believed, was harsh and unfair. It “looked to the past and sought punishment, when it should have looked to the future and sought reconciliation.” They called the peace terms “unjust and vicious.” Their feelings about the treaty strongly influenced their view of the proposed League of Nations. While they called the latter “the one saving feature of the Treaty,” they expressed ambivalence about the concept because it was linked inextricably with that treaty.

Because of their increasing disillusionment with Wilson’s leadership, the editors were not crushed by the results of the 1920 election. While acknowledging that it could be “a moment of great peril to the fine fabric of social idealism which has painfully been woven in the consciousness of modern Christianity,” they chose to offer cautious support to the new Republican president, suggesting that they believed his promises to create some substitute for the League. “It is too easy to become cynical,” they argued, predicting that the nation would soon emerge from its “emotional slump.” They strove consciously always to maintain an open and optimistic attitude.

However, it took very little tune for the Century writers to become thoroughly disillusioned with Harding, whom they saw to have quickly abandoned his promise not to let America resume an isolationist stance. In 1922 they were writing that “at the close of the war we left our international task half completed” -- and the present administration had done nothing to achieve that completion. Further, the editors felt that the administration’s handling of the war’s domestic aftermath was deplorable. For example, even though they had supported the war and had chastised the pacifists, they had never condemned anyone’s right to express any opinion whatsoever on the topic. So they were outraged by the treatment of objectors. In January of 1922 a blistering editorial, “Political Prisoners and the Christian Conscience,” summed up their views.

The record of our attitude toward those who “for conscience’ sake” refused to support the war is a matter which Christian intelligence can no longer decline to contemplate. We passed laws depriving such men of what they had supposed were their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and press. We enforced those laws with a degree of passion in excess of that obtaining in any other country, not excepting even Germany itself.

And now the administration was still keeping many protesters locked up -- while the few it released were expected to pay their own deportation costs. This the Century editors regarded as intolerable. They were now writing frequent editorials with titles like “The Nation’s Declining Moral Credit.”

The editors’ views on the postwar situation shared attention with two other frequent themes: the need to rehabilitate the social gospel -- badly battered by the war -- and the necessity to impose prohibition and then to maintain its enforcement.

The editors never wavered in their fierce advocacy of the social gospel movement and felt its weakening to be one of the war’s great losses. They continued their pervasive coverage of its developments and wrote frequent theoretical treatises on its merits. Contributing editor Alva W. Taylor, an expert on the topic, wrote major articles as well as a regular column on the practice of social Christianity. During this period he paid special attention to the rampant labor problems that the nation was experiencing.

While the Century editors were generally prolabor, they were not blindly so. For example, in 1917 they wrote editorials condemning labor unions for discriminating against blacks. In 1919 they wrote of the labor movement: “Gone . . . for the moment is its responsiveness to moral obligation. The way in which organized labor tears up its solemn contracts without scruple is one of the most ominous aspects of the present situation.” They also wrote other pieces expressing a balanced view of the cooperation needed between labor and the capitalists. “It is no time for revenge,” they asserted in 1921 after a number of crippling strikes. “It is a time for understanding.”

On other social issues of the day the editors were equally forthright. For example, they were very vocal in their disapproval of capital punishment. “There is no evidence to show that capital punishment is at all superior as a means of handling . . . criminals. It is cheaper, but it breaks down the very thing that the community wants to build up, the sense of sanctity of human life.”

The editors were similarly outspoken in condemning the racism that seemed to have become more virulent with the wartime influx of blacks into northern industrial cities. While frequently adopting a paternalistic attitude, the editors were sincere in their antiracist ideals. As ready to criticize such discrimination in the churches as elsewhere, they wrote in 1917, “Even in the Church of God there are still the remnants of this ugly and unreasoning hatred. . . . Men called bishops in the church of God [have] voted against having any fellowship in the church with black men.” The editors also endorsed the woman’s suffrage movement, writing, “There is no occasion for delaying further the ratification of the suffrage amendment. . . .” By its ratification, “an ancient wrong will be righted.” They extended their demands for women’s rights to the church as well, arguing in 1919. “It is inconceivable that there should be a world movement for a full franchise for women in politics without there being at the same time a movement for full opportunity for women in organized religion. The recent meeting in St. Louis of women preachers who propose to ‘encourage capable and consecrated young women to take up the work of the ministry’ is a significant sign of the times.” This concern with prejudice against blacks or women was not pervasive among social gospel adherents, many of whom championed labor, for example, but had little to say about sexism or racism.

However, on the biggest social issue of the day -- prohibition -- almost all branches of the social gospel movement were in complete agreement, and the Century editors were among the most vocal, calling liquor the land’s “worst menace.” Having campaigned for prohibition since he assumed ownership of the Century in 1908, Morrison heated up his efforts as passage of the Volstead Act neared. There was no relenting after its passage, however, because of the widespread flouting of the act’s provisions. Indeed, until long after repeal of the act in 1933, prohibition was one of the magazines major preoccupations. The Century editors viewed the liquor industry as a corrupt, powerful cabal that exploited the worker mercilessly; they felt that the only way to solve the problem was to destroy the industry. (Interestingly, the labor unions of the day did not generally support the dry position.)

But the editors also maintained what today seems like a na´ve psychological perspective, portraying liquor as the cause of degradation rather than emphasizing that poverty or oppression might lead to drinking. They were also na´ve in believing that once all the saloons were closed, former drinkers would suddenly display miraculously improved character.

Morrison and his colleagues were unprepared for the widespread lack of cooperation with the Volstead Act, but they marshaled their forces anew, arguing that with stricter enforcement it was possible to solve the nation’s problems with “immoral personal behavior” -- caused in large part, they thought, by liquor.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this issue for the Century. Woodrow Wilson’s occasional seeming friendliness toward the liquor industry was one reason the editors began to suspect him. Similarly, after their mildly positive response to Harding’s election, they subsequently perceived him as too soft on the Wet forces. Such was the strength of their conviction on this issue that it strongly influenced their political allegiances.

By 1922 Morrison and his staff found themselves in the midst of several shifting tides. Their attitude toward the nation’s moral rectitude was becoming more exhortatory, their attitude toward war more chastened. Late in the year they wrote of the recent conflict in Europe, “We may not be ready yet to say that we did the wrong thing in going in on the side of what we thought was democracy, decency and the rights of men. But . . . we now know that there is something monstrously wrong about that method of arriving at just ends.”

Two points on which the editors did not waver were the centrality of social Christianity, and the need for unity among the denominations. These were their most cherished goals. Toward both of these pursuits the editors maintained the relentlessly optimistic demeanor that characterized their liberal faith and their progressive view of life. They condemned pessimism at every turn. In the last issue of 1922 they were proclaiming a pox on “negation.” ‘Building” is what they called for: “Our age awaits the era of the architect.”

In the later 1920s and the ‘30s Morrison and his colleagues were to prove themselves significant architects in a variety of liberal religious undertakings -- not all of them solely journalistic.


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