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Keep It Religious!: The Morrison Era at the Century

by Robert Wood Lynn

Dr. Lynn is vice-president for religion at the Lilly Endowment, Indianapolis. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 11, 1978, pp. 946-950. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock


On a propitious day 70 years ago, the new minister of the Monroe Street Christian Church in Chicago was asked to become the owner and editor of a small, insolvent journal called The Christian Century. As Charles Clayton Morrison (1874-1966) later recalled his response: "The proposal to ‘purchase’ flattered me more than the proposal to ‘edit’ because I did not have a dollar in the world." The invitation came from the Century’s "angel" at the time, who, beset by other financial obligations, was threatening foreclosure unless his loan of $1,500 was promptly repaid. "I was advised," Morrison remembered years afterward, "that the property could be bought from the sheriff for the amount of his mortgage. I secured a little help from friends, borrowed as much as I could and took charge."

When Morrison took the plunge and resigned from his pastorate, he was committing himself to a task which had defeated all of his predecessors. Four editors had come and gone in the previous eight years. In 1900 the backers of the Christian Oracle, a Disciples of Christ denominational sheet founded in 1884, had rechristened their journal in honor of the lustrous promise of the upcoming hundred years. But the first decade of that new era proved to be an extended season of disappointment for the Century. Its offerings as the champion of modern biblical criticism and progressive theology appealed only to a small circle of liberal mid-western Disciples. Even such a distinguished editor as Herbert L. Willett, professor of Old Testament at the University of Chicago, could not arrest the drift toward oblivion. The new editor’s regime represented the last chance for survival.

Decline of the Protestant Press

The Century’s problems were, in part, a reflection of the larger malaise then affecting religious journalism. After enjoying considerable popularity and influence in the early 19th century, the Protestant press had gone steadily downhill in the years following the Civil War. Admitted the editor of the Zion’s Herald in 1904: "The old-time religious paper is gone. . . . The decline of religious journalism in this country in recent years has been marked by the suspension and consolidation of religious papers." Several years later in a Century article Herbert Willett confessed his sympathies with the bored reader of the church journals: "As compared with secular journalism in our day, the ordinary religious paper is exceedingly dry reading. And it is not strange that many people regard time spent in reading it as either wasted or only saved by the lessening sense of duty fulfilled."

While this bleak self-appraisal was probably too harsh, it was accurate in stressing the increasing dominance of the general press. Some Protestant journalists hoped to woo back former readers by stirring up feuds with their rivals. But that tactic contributed inadvertently to the further deterioration of the Protestant press’s status. Rather than attracting new customers, these editors reinforced the general impression that church journalists had a seeming addiction to harangue and nastiness. James Russell Lowell spoke for many when he dismissed the religious sector of the Fourth Estate as "a true sour-cider press, with belly-ache privileges attached." That sort of criticism worried a generation of editors who wanted to reach genteel Protestants of the late Victorian period. They could ill afford the reputation of being disruptive and mean-spirited. Harmony, unity and the power of sentiment -- these were key words for such turn-of-the-century religious journalists as Lyman Abbott of the Outlook.

While Morrison agreed with Abbott and others about the need for journalistic decorum, he also knew that the troubles of the church press went far deeper than simply a decline in respectability and political power. The root issue was finally a religious one. Can the church press bring a Christian perspective to bear upon the affairs of the world? That was the question very much on the mind of the Century’s new editor. His predecessor and continuing co-worker, Herbert Willett, challenged Morrison and his fellow journalists to overcome the "vicious distinction" between the secular and the sacred:

The religious editor may safely leave to the secular press the mere detail of current events; but it is his business to point out the direction in which God is moving, as the facts indicate his presence in human institutions and activity. . . . All the facts which concern human welfare are religious facts, and the religious editor is bound to interpret them in some adequate manner.

Actually, Willett was calling for a return to an earlier tradition in American church journalism. In the usual antebellum religious newspaper, there was combined coverage of "general intelligence" and "religious intelligence." No absolute lines were drawn between presumably churchly matters and the activities of the larger world. By the 1900s, however, the format of most journals reflected an almost exclusive concern for "religious" items; the rest of the news was left to the daily or weekly press. What Willett was demanding went far deeper than merely surface changes in format or arrangement of copy. He believed in the integrity of a Christian world view and in the journal of opinion as a way of communicating it. The church journalist, in short, was called to be an educator of the Christian public.

Two Liberal Editors

In the course of his 39 years at the Century, Morrison developed his own distinctive interpretation of this calling. At heart he was the minister-teacher. And therein lies the clue to his power as an editor. Although Morrison did not indulge in easy talk about journalism as a way of ministering, he clearly believed that he had never -- as the saying goes -- "left the ministry." That enduring commitment becomes all the more evident when his editorial policies are compared with those of Lyman Abbott (1835-1922), the other leading liberal Protestant editor during the 50 years between 1875 and 1925. The similarities of and differences between these two men are quite instructive.

The two editors’ life experiences were astonishingly similar in certain respects. Both started their careers as ministers. Like Morrison, Abbott was called on to rescue a floundering church magazine. In 1876 he joined the staff of the Christian Union and stayed with that periodical (and its successor, the Outlook) for 47 years. Under his tutelage that journal developed into one of America’s leading periodicals in the period from 1885 to 1915. In those "confident years" (the apt phrase of Van Wyck Brooks), Abbott helped to shape the popular understanding of liberal religion, just as Morrison performed the same role later in the 20th century.

Each man feared the disastrous consequences of recurring "know-nothing" moods in American society. One way of combating manifestations of this spirit in Protestant churches was to encourage the expansion of liberal thought. Though Morrison became more critical of liberalism in all its variant forms, he was proud that his magazine had kept faith with the best of the liberal tradition and had maintained "its sympathy with modern progress in the realms of science, social ideals, biblical-interpretation and the spirit of prophecy in the living church." Similarly, each one relished his work as editor -- the comradeship with fellow staff members, the tasks of editing, and the continuing search for new talent and unknown faces. (In this connection, Morrison always took great pride in the fact that Reinhold Niebuhr was one of his "discoveries," even though the two men spent most of 30 years disagreeing with each other.)

Outwardly the careers of Abbott and Morrison resembled each other. Yet the editors’ inner visions of the religious journalist’s work took them down very different paths. One measure of the distance between them lay in the marked contrast in the two publics which they aspired to serve. Consider, for a moment, Abbott’s definition of his constituency. A decade or so after becoming editor of the Christian Union, he grew restive with the magazine’s church aura. It was not enough to reach out beyond the evangelical denominations to the other Christian communions. "I gradually began to realize" he wrote, "that Christianity is not only larger than any church, but larger than all the churches; that a man can possess the Christian spirit, not only if he is a Friend or Unitarian, but if he is a Jew or an agnostic." The new name, the Outlook, defined the magazine’s true mission: "It was an outlook upon the time in which we were living."

These changes may have disturbed some longtime readers, but they won a legion of new followers, including the president of the United States. When Theodore Roosevelt retired from the White House in 1908, he turned to the Outlook as the next best "bully pulpit" available. While the former president wrote only intermittently for Outlook over the ensuing years, his identification with it, and the contributions of other famous persons, added luster and attracted readers. The Outlook had finally become thoroughly respectable. It was likely to be found, said one observer of the time, on the "center table" of the better homes, "flanked by the Ladies’ Home Journal, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Essays and a novel by Edith Wharton."

Morrison’s commitments were quite different. Unlike Abbott, the Century editor always insisted on identifying his magazine as an "organ of the Christian church." In the early days that meant, in effect, the Disciples of Christ denomination. Within the first decade of his service, however, he discovered -- much to his surprise -- that the Century’s message had reached well beyond the Disciples and was attracting the attention of readers from other communions. While the journal eventually celebrated its "undenominational" character, it never, he proclaimed, "wavered . . . in its determination to stand within the church, to take as its subject matter those problems which presented themselves from the point of view of the church."

In one of the few humorous asides and personal reminiscences he ever allowed in his magazine, Morrison told of a Century colleague’s dream: several staff members were on the shores of Lake Michigan, watching helplessly while their chief was drowning in deep water, just before he went down for the third and last time, Morrison thrust up his hands and exclaimed (according to the dreamer): "Keep it religious! Keep it religious!" Morrison went on to comment about the meaning of this dream:

They knew that "it" meant The Christian Century, and that my exhortation was in keeping with the determination, shared by us all, against the temptation to break away from religious journalism and make the paper an organ of secular idealism. I speak of it as a "temptation," for that it truly was. Our public could easily have been expanded far beyond the church, our income greatly increased, and our secular prestige enhanced, had the collective abilities represented in our editorial staff been devoted to a freelance type of journalism.

Lyman Abbott had, of course, yielded to that "temptation" Was Morrison thinking about the Outlook when he wrote of the temptation of becoming an "organ of secular idealism"? In any event, he made sure that the Century did not lose its sense of responsibility to and for the church.

Morrison’s ‘Congregation’

Morrison’s foray into the interpretation of dreams suggests another point of divergence with Abbott. Over the long sweep of his career as editor of the Outlook, Abbott gradually shifted his psychic center of gravity from the ministry to the literary life. To be sure, Abbott continued to preach while he edited, even taking over the pulpit of Henry Ward Beecher’s old church in Brooklyn for better than a decade. Still, he did not recruit his staff for participation in a ministry. It would not have been easy for Abbott in his later years to do what seemed so natural to Morrison. When the Century’s chief asked Paul Hutchinson to be his associate, he told the new managing editor (as he recalled it) that "I was not offering him a job, but calling him to a ministry."

In the same vein, he declared: "I regarded my new work as a genuine extension of my ministry. I had resigned from the pastorate to become an editor, but I never lost my sense of being a Christian minister. My desk became my pulpit, and the subscribers were my congregation." While Morrison was at that "pulpit" many a Century reader had the sense of being in a congregation.

It was never a large congregation. Writing later in a mellow moment, Morrison commented: "I am frank to admit that for a long time the total body of subscribers would hardly have filled a good-sized church auditorium." Even after the circulation figures began to climb, the Century had to depend on small gifts from "struggling" ministers and college teachers, and from a few liberal-minded laypeople. The problem facing Morrison was a formidable one. As he put it: "How could a paper be sustained without official support, in a time when all religious journalism was becoming commercially unprofitable and a paper, too, whose message was addressed not only to a thoughtful minority, but to the still lesser minority of the liberal minded?"

But even though his "congregation" was of modest size, its single-minded loyalty to the Century afforded Morrison a remarkable freedom. Within the safe confines of that slim portion of the "thoughtful minority," he could be direct and unabashed in expressing controversial judgments which cut across the grain of conventional opinion. In contrast to Lyman Abbott (who could not -- or would not -- risk offending his more variegated audience), Morrison could enlist his journal in the service of a series of idealistic crusades, each of which inspired editorial fervor. More often than not during his tenure at the Century, the magazine was caught up in the romance of some cause, whether it was pacifism, ecumenism, the ideal of separation of church and state, the fight against the encroachments of an authoritarian Roman Catholic hierarchy, or one of any number of other movements.

Clearly, Morrison was no stranger to the spirit of ethical absolutism; the clarity and vigor with which he argued a case were often fruits of that spirit. In the course of his nearly 40 years at the Century, he grew in the reach of his interest and in the sophistication of his thinking. Yet deep down in the core of his being, he was -- along with others out of his generation -- the stern Protestant moralist who knew that the shape of God’s kingdom is visible and that faithful Christians could be obedient to its urgencies. Life was a serious matter, a challenge and trust not to be frittered away. His moral passion was writ large across the pages of the Century during those four decades. According to Harold E. Fey, one of his close associates: "He thought of The Christian Century as having a personality. This journalistic personality had no time for trivialities, for entertainment or small talk, for petty purposes.

Whereas Abbott was more willing to entertain the genteel middle-class reader and to celebrate the virtues of the status quo, the Century’s leader was intent on instructing the public. Again in Fey’s words: "He often said that the Century must deal with public issues and that it must ‘speak with authority.’ If the public did not sense the importance of the issue, then it was the Century’s business to hammer away until its importance was recognized."

And "hammer" he did. The result was a consistent educative style -- the presentation of ample information, stated in clear, nontechnical language and offered in the hope of reaching the mind and spirit of his "students." Some of his readers accepted him not only as editor and national leader, but also as teacher. In a time when there were relatively few continuing education courses for ministers, the weekly arrival of the magazine signaled the starting time for one of American Protestantism’s most unusual "classes."

Anniversaries and Evaluations

By the 1920s Morrison had gathered a corps of staunch admirers. Therefore, when the 20th year of his editorial pedagogy came along in 1928, a self-appointed committee of luminaries (including Harry Emerson Fosdick, Methodist Bishop Francis J. McConnell, a governor, a rabbi and a Baptist minister) declared that the Century had become such "an indispensable comrade in the struggle to establish an enlightened and liberal religion that we believe this anniversary merits an unusual celebration." The reader response to this simple declaration disclosed a poignant array of emotions about the larger significance of Charles Clayton Morrison’s ministry. One reader wanted some way to make it "possible for him to continue to teach independently as long as he is capable of doing so, without handicaps of any kind." Another "student" recalled the formative power of those early years:

Some of us remember how Dr. Morrison bought it on the auction block, then frightened away most of his few subscribers by his fearless tackling of hot issues, and finally drew to himself and into the family of The Christian Century a great host of like-minded men and women of all denominations.

Though the Century continued to grow in its third decade, it did not manage to elicit quite the same degree of intense movement-like loyalty on the part of its readers. Among other things, the theological battles of the 1930s intensified the differences between camps within the journal’s constituency. The cause of theological liberalism no longer evoked a deep sense of unity among all Century readers. Morrison’s own judgment that "liberalism was a kind of bridge leading to a new insight which would transcend liberalism" disappointed some of his older liberal admirers.

Even so, when the 30th anniversary came along in 1938, Morrison could look back on the magazine’s history with quiet satisfaction. Always the educator, he viewed the past as a succession of those great issues which he had sought to interpret to his public. The Century, in his judgment, had passed through two distinct phases. The first corresponded almost exactly with his first decade in the editor’s chair. In those years the journal had embodied the spirit of "aggressive liberalism": "The problem of that period was to reconcile the Christian faith and life with . . . scientific, historical and psychological knowledge. Some said it could not be done. They held to the literal text of the Scriptures, and were unmoved by the findings of scholarly research."

The second phase commenced after World War I. While the Century participated vigorously in the fight over fundamentalism in the 1920s, its more important assignment was the advocacy of the "social conception of Christianity." The aftermath of the war had revealed that " ‘Christendom’ was in a state of disintegration, that Protestant individualism and denominational parochialism" were hobbling the churches and that "our economics and our politics were organized in total disregard of Christian truth."

But Morrison was not content, on the occasion of the 1938 anniversary, to concentrate on the accomplishments of the past. The portents of war in Europe made him restless with any preoccupation with yesterday. "The work of the past has been done. The liberalism of thirty years of liberalism has triumphed. The social conception of Christianity is the accepted orientation of the modern church." The educator of American Protestantism was now ready to move on to other issues.

Today, 40 years after that statement was made, it is not yet self-evident that the "work of the past has been done." The debate over the authority of the Bible is still a very lively issue in most precincts of American Protestantism, if not in the groves of academe. Meanwhile, liberation theologians from the Third World and feminist and black theologians in this country have renewed the quest for a fresh "social conception of Christianity." In the luxury of retrospective wisdom it would be easy to second-guess Morrison on other matters as well. His ungenerous estimate of Roman Catholicism, for instance, left countless Protestants unprepared to deal with the swift pace of events in the 1960s.

But despite those blemishes the larger accomplishments of Charles Clayton Morrison remain intact. For he not only led his own journal into an era of greatness, but he also helped to fix the standards by which his successors at the Century and religious journalists elsewhere can judge their work.

His prescience in defining the fundamental issues before the churches, his confidence in the ability of the religious public to understand serious and complex matters, his skill as a popularizer -- those marks of his work in the past comprise a living journalistic tradition. And that tradition is worth remembering and celebrating on this occasion of the 70th anniversary of his refounding of The Christian Century.


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