Charles Clayton Morrison: Shaping a Journal’s Identity

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, January 18, 1984, p. 43. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In 1908 Charles Clayton Morrison took over The Christian Century, by then a publication floundering in financial distress, and eventually turned it into the most influential Protestant magazine of its time.

The year 1984 is a very special one for The Christian Century: it marks the original founding of the magazine (then called the Christian Oracle) in 1884. Although the July 4-11 issue will be our official centennial number, celebration of the event began with our January 4-11 issue and will continue throughout the year. One feature of the observance will be a series of staff-written articles tracing the history of the journal to the present. The opening piece in the series appears below. It is the first half of Managing Editor Linda-Marie Delloff’s two-part  treatment of the magazine’s earliest years under Charles Clayton Morrison, the editor who changed the journal from a Disciples of Christ publication to a broad-based nondenominational magazine.

Morrison is the most influential figure in the Century’s history; his story is the magazine’s story -- even today. An introduction to the magazine’s development must necessarily be an introduction to the man. In examining Morrison’s personal spiritual and intellectual journey, it is possible to see many of the currents shaping turn-of-the-century Protestantism -- currents which determined the identity of the journal as it assumed a prominent role in the progress of liberal American Protestantism. The magazine still retains essentially the character formed during those early years, and it is safe to say that the tradition established by Morrison will continue to influence the Century’s future. It is difficult to overestimate the tremendous strength with which this young, rural Disciples of Christ minister shaped an ongoing legacy.

As writers on religion in 19th century America have emphasized, that era in our nation’s history was one of undisputed Protestant hegemony. The country not only worshiped in Protestant churches, but embodied Protestant morals and mores in its social, cultural and political activities as well. Protestant clergy looked forward to the 20th century with confidence, expecting to continue to assume positions of community leadership. The predominant mood of Protestantism at the turn of the century was positive, optimistic and liberal -- and its leaders welcomed the modernism heralded by the new age: the spirit of rationality and scientific inquiry, the growth of social awareness, and the sense of an expanding world. Protestant liberals were bent on proving that genuine Christian faith could live in mutual harmony with the modern developments in science, technology, immigration, communication and culture that were already under way.

This anticipatory mood is captured in one participant’s narrative describing the renaming of a religious journal, the Christian Oracle, published beginning in 1884 by the Disciples of Christ denomination:

As the nineteenth century passed into the twentieth, the whole Christian world was in a mood of expectant optimism. The press was full of discussion and prediction of the wonders that would take place in the new era which the new century was ushering in. Dr. George A. Campbell, a Chicago pastor, was at that time editor of The Oracle. None of us liked that name. Campbell suggested that this new century must be made a Christian century. He accordingly proposed that The Oracle be re-Christened with that name. His friends . . . heartily agreed. And so in 1900 it was done. No name could have better symbolized the optimistic outlook of that period.

The writer of those words was a young Disciples minister, Charles Clayton Morrison, who in 1908 was to take over what was by then a publication floundering in financial distress, and eventually to turn it into the most influential Protestant magazine of its time.

When young Morrison completed high school in Jefferson, Iowa, in 1892, no one could have guessed that he would become a leader of his denomination and of liberal Protestantism in general. Indeed, he was a somewhat desultory student and had to do remedial work (especially in the classics) to qualify as a freshman. at Disciples-related Drake University in Des Moines. It was not until several years later that he became a keen student with wide-ranging scholarly interests. However, he was already deeply involved in his faith and supported himself at Drake by preaching at a Disciples church in nearby Perry. He had no other immediate plans than to continue in this semirural pastorate near his family’s home, but an unexpected call from the Monroe Street Christian Church in Chicago turned his course toward far broader horizons.

Morrison accepted the position at the small (less than half the size of the Perry congregation) west-side church in the city and became active in the Disciples community of the Hyde Park area located near the University of Chicago. There he continued his friendships with such distinguished Disciples leaders as Herbert L. Willett and Edward Scribner Ames, whom he had met when they came to Drake as guest lecturers. Willett, who taught at the University of Chicago Divinity School and who was later to become a controversial figure in the battle over the new “higher biblical criticism,” was already an editor at The Christian Century. Morrison also became friendly with the group of men who had supported the journal since its move from Iowa to Chicago in 1891, and who were responsible for the 1900 name change. These included the most prominent Disciples in the city, though even collectively they had never been able to guide the magazine into solvency.

After serving at the Monroe Street Church for several years, Morrison fulfilled a dream he had begun to develop when his intellectual sights had broadened during his last years at college: to embark on graduate study at the University of Chicago. However, as he recorded in his unpublished memoirs, “I chose the department of philosophy, rather than the Divinity School.” The reason for this decision, he wrote, was that “I had a theory that the problems of theology originated in philosophy, and I wanted to get to the bottom of things.” He continued in his description of those very important years of study.

However dubious this theory may have been, I found myself confronting the ultimate issues of the nature of the world and the nature of man in a more naked form than I was likely to face them in theology. Besides, philosophy seemed to be the most exciting field in the academic world at that time. The head of the department was John Dewey, who . . . had gathered a faculty of his own disciples around him. Together they were elaborating a philosophical position which boldly challenged traditional modes of thinking and came to be called “The Chicago School” of philosophy. In addition to my courses with Dewey I studied with James Hayden Tufts in the history of philosophy, James R. Angell (later to become president of Yale) in psychology and George Herbert Mead in what might be called constructive philosophy.

It is probably fortunate that Morrison chose to study philosophy rather than theology at that time. His work at Chicago forced his naturally good mind to confront challenges and explore areas he might have avoided at the divinity school. It also made him permanently aware that religion must coexist with other aspects of human life and that its study must coexist with other disciplines. It is evident that this period influenced Morrison’s permanent interest in exploring the relationships between religion and its surrounding culture, with the result that a unique feature of the Century came to be its openness to articles on topics -- political and literary, for instance -- that did not commonly appear in religious publications. The full realization of these tendencies came later. At the time he left graduate school Morrison was, by his own admission, thoroughly steeped in Dewey’s empiricism. Over the years he began to use that system as a foil for his increasing interest in theology.

After departing from the university, Morrison returned to the Monroe Street Church, where he ministered somewhat restlessly while the congregation and neighborhood changed with the large influx of immigrants. Since many of the newcomers to the neighborhood were not Protestants, his church was not growing and did not seem to have a strong sense of itself. When an opportunity for a new type of ministry presented itself, Morrison was quite willing to take a substantial risk.

There was a small but reputable paper published in Chicago called The Christian Century. Though avowedly representing the Disciples of Christ, it had never gained a general circulation in the denomination, despite the high respect in which its succession of editors -- four or five within the past decade -- was held. I learned that it was about to suspend publication unless a mortgage of $1,500 was paid off. The holder of this mortgage saw that his only hope of getting his money was to find another editor naïve enough to imagine that he could make a go of it where a succession of editors had failed. This man was employed in the shop where the paper was printed. Evidently to try me out, he asked me to edit the paper temporarily. This I did for several weeks in that summer of 1908. By September, I had become fully intrigued, and when the sheriffs deputy arrived to sell the “property” on the block I bid $1,500 and became the owner.

At this time the magazine had 600 subscribers at $2.00 each. It was to be many years, and to require the help of many generous donors, before the Century finally achieved some financial stability.

At the time of the purchase, wrote Morrison later, “I had no other thought nor ambition than to keep the Century within the Disciples denomination, both as to its editorial outlook and its constituency. . . . For eight years or so the subjects we discussed and our news page were oriented by our interest in Disciples’ affairs and problems.”

By no means did this focus lead to smooth sailing during Morrison’s first years in his new job; indeed, he was forced by the situation within his own denomination to alter his editorial philosophy -- a development that eventually shaped the magazine’s identity as a meeting ground and debating platform for controversial and opposing viewpoints.

Wrote the editor later in his memoirs:

At the beginning, in my journalistic innocence of what lay ahead, I had planned an editorial policy that would minimize but not avoid controversial subjects. It was my intention to devote the major portion of my writing to themes in the  general area of the “Christian life.” . . . It was my desire that the Christian Century should transcend the controversial patterns that had long characterized Disciple journalism.

Times were difficult for the Disciples, who were split over several issues. At the beginning of Morrison’s tenure, their most burning controversy involved the new higher criticism of the Bible, and much of the debate focused on Morrison’s coeditor, Herbert L. Willett, an acknowledged champion of the new academic discipline. Because of Willett’s controversial position, wrote Morrison, “another editor might have regarded him as a liability.” But Morrison was devoted to both Willett and his views. The new magazine owner filled the Century’s pages with editorials supporting his colleague and attacking Willett’s main detractor, the conservative Christian Standard (published in Cincinnati), the strongest and most widely circulated newspaper of the denomination at that time.

The controversy focused on whether Willett should be allowed to deliver a speech at the Disciples centennial gathering in 1909 in Pittsburgh. The Christian Standard argued No, calling Willett an “infidel” and a “betrayer of the Bible.” The Century argued Yes and began to attack the Standard in strong language. Willett was eventually upheld, without any damage to his reputation; the controversy may even have enhanced it. As Morrison noted, “Willett’s address was heard by the largest audience of the convention.”

The higher criticism continued to be an important object of attention during the next several years, and the Century consistently supported its practitioners, publishing their articles and reviewing their books.

Another controversy had exploded at the 1909 convention and began to occupy much space in the magazine: the issue of “open membership.” This debate concerned whether to accept as members of the denomination individuals who had not been baptized by immersion, the Disciples’ practice. Over a period of more than four -years, Morrison engaged in what he termed “a lover’s quarrel with my denomination” over this issue. His editorials consistently supported accepting into membership such individuals without requiring them to be rebaptized by immersion, while many denominational leaders argued that this was a totally unacceptable practice. The seriousness of this concern to the Disciples permeates the relevant portions of Morrison’s memoirs:

It should be made clear to the reader of these pages that the Disciples had no ecclesiastical structure above the local church by which this or any other issue could be settled by authority. They represented on a national scale the concept of a town-meeting democracy. In such a body, the denominational newspapers exercised a far greater influence than in other denominations. They provided a kind of parliament for the discussion of questions of interest to the denomination. It was strictly in harmony with the Disciples tradition for the Christian Century to direct the denomination’s attention to a serious inconsistency in its practice and to an egregious error at a vital point in its traditional ideology. (1) The inconsistency was stated thus: The Disciples churches by requiring the rebaptism of members of other churches who apply for membership in a local church of Disciples deny their fundamental commitment to the cause of Christian unity. (2) The error in their thinking which had seemed to justify this sectarian practice was an egregious misconception of the meaning of baptism.’

We could not have touched a more sensitive nerve. The Disciples had spent more argumentative ingenuity in convincing others (and, as I believe, convincing themselves) that the New Testament meaning of baptism was immersion in water, than upon any other subject. Their firm conviction on this subject amounted to hardly less than a fixation or a stereotype.

The Century launched a series of 20 long editorials under the title “The Meaning of Baptism.” In these Morrison challenged church father Alexander Campbell’s rendering of the Greek word baptizo and his argument that made immersion identical with baptism. This controversy led inevitably to a debate over whether other churches are “true churches of Christ and whether the members of these churches are baptized members of the Church of Christ.” To the Century, a negative answer to this question was theologically incorrect and came into conflict with the Disciples’ highest ideal: Christian unity. Morrison had long supported the attainment of such unity, and he recognized the baptisms performed by all other Protestant denominations. He had also been the first Disciples of Christ minister to practice open membership.

This issue again brought the Century into conflict with the denomination’s most influential papers -- the Christian Standard and the newly conservative Christian Evangelist, formerly the publication of well-known liberal editor J. H. Garrison. However, the Century also received much support from its readers, and throughout the period Morrison printed many favorable letters on the topic. Eventually open membership became the accepted denominational stance.

Thus for the first five years of Morrison’s tenure, the Century was a focus of controversy. Yet as a result of this period of strife, the editor and his journal both emerged stronger and more certainly headed toward the magazine s eventual transformation into a nondenominational publication.

During the years leading up to World War I the Century did address issues that reached beyond denominational boundaries. Many of these can be grouped under the general rubric of the social gospel, that movement having thoroughly captured the interest, of editors Morrison and Willett. In addition to major articles by and about such figures as Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch and Jane Addams, the editors printed many pieces with titles like “The Social Gospel and its Relation to Home Mission Expansion” and “Humane Missionary Work at Ellis Island.” They also ran a column titled “Social Survey,” usually written by Contributing Editor Alva W. Taylor, which noted and discussed developments in important areas: for example, child labor, the growth of slums, and the obligations of churches for community outreach. Titles of some notices in the column include the following: “Eight Hour Day Movement in Britain,” “Sanitary Dwellings in Austria,” “Retirement Pensions,” “Summer Vacation Schools,” “Will the Theater be Redeemed?” Basically, the column writer reported on as many developments of (or impediments to) the social-gospel movement as he could identify.

Another column, “The World is Growing Better,” had a similar purpose but reflected even more of the magazine’s optimistic liberal view of human and religious progress. In this space the editors carried items like “National Conference on Race Betterment,” “Vocational Schools for Chicago,” “Movie Censors Begin Work” and “British Fight Race Track Gambling.”

During these years the magazine adopted the subtitle “A Constructive Weekly.” The editors viewed their job as a committed ministry and believed that they were working toward building a positive society by calling attention to social evils and praising worthwhile social developments. One of the journal’s more interesting features during this pre- World War I period was a column called “Modern Womanhood” written by the Century’s first female editor, Ida Withers Harrison. Her concerns included women’s suffrage and the elements of making a decision on whether or not to work outside the home. In her innovative contributions she often profiled interesting women from various fields of endeavor, as in “A Tribute to Clara Barton” and “Women as Inventors.” She also ran excerpts from the work of female writers -- Zona Gale being frequently represented. Mrs. Harrison was a keen reviewer of books and plays which she identified as containing important social themes, especially those dealing with women.

From the first years of Morrison’s term as editor, all of the staff members revealed a strong interest in the arts and their relation to religion. The magazine published fiction containing social gospel themes and ran a regular poetry column titled “Poems of the Social Awakening,” carrying works by poets Edwin Markham, Vachel Lindsay (a Disciple from downstate Illinois -- a particular favorite) and the Century’s own Thomas Curtis Clark. (It also published a great deal of poetry on other topics.) The journal ran articles on “the religious significance of poetry,” and others with titles like “Shall Pastors Know Something About Art?” It published pieces by officials of Chicago’s Art Institute, as well as by and on local sculptor Lorado Taft, in whose work Morrison saw portrayed “lofty ideas” and “the supremacy of the ethical.”

Many of the books reviewed in the regular “Book World” column dealt with social issues, but the editors also included notices of academic theological monographs and of books on subjects not traditional for religious publications: literary criticism, philosophy and psychology. For example, books reviewed in the first months of 1910 included Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life; Education in the Far East, by Charles F. Thwing; a philosophical study titled Religion and the Modern Mind, by Frank Carleton Doan; Jane Addams’s The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets; The Immigrant Tide, by Edward Steiner; Medical Inspectors of Schools (a Russel Sage Foundation study); A. Modern City (a scientific study of that phenomenon), by William Kirk; The Leading Facts of American History, by D. H. Montgomery; and Jack London’s collection of short stories, Lost Face.

One important aspect of the editors’ social concern was their- concentration on a topic that would preoccupy them for many years: prohibition and the evils of liquor. Articles in this area carried such stirring titles as “Goliath Rum on the Run:” The Century editors argued repeatedly that the use of liquor destroys social units -- especially the family -- and keeps people from realizing their natural potential.

In these prewar years the Century gradually turned its focus away from the Midwest and even began to include. international coverage. Until 1914 the magazine’s main global focus was. on foreign missions and related topics. But in that year the editors began to write frequently about the war in Europe, publishing a series of editorials with the titles “God and War,” “Prayer and the War,” “The President and the War” and “Human Progress and the War.” Though the position of the editors at this time was generally antiwar, it did not incorporate the pacifistic elements that were to characterize their post -- World War I attitudes. Indeed, Morrison wrote in an editorial:

There are some things better than life. There are some things gloriously worth dying for. There are some things gloriously worth giving your son for, and your husband and your father, and suffering for yourself in poverty and heart-break all the rest of your days. Truth and honor and the well being of others and the ideal of a better social order for future generations -- these are all worth while for a man to lay down his life and for a woman to give up her husband or a mother to give up her son. To help establish these supreme moral goods is the great business of living, and if it takes life to establish them our humanity has always been heroically willing to give, life without stint and without whining.

It is not soft sentimentality, therefore, that moves us to deplore this present war. Our hearts revolt at it because there is no worthwhile moral issue at stake. It is a mad war, an irrational war, a hysterical and frenzied slaughter. And the thing wherein humanity suffers most is not in the mere shedding of blood, but the halting and inevitable turning back of those movements which during the long period of peace have been making for a new humanity, a new social order.

In other words, Morrison did allow that some wars could be worth fighting -- but not this one. He deplored what he saw as useless bloodshed with no “supreme moral good” at stake. On the eve of developments that would lead to America’s entry into the war, Morrison was speaking for a large segment of American Protestantism in his view that one of the greatest of this war’s tragedies would be the destruction of social progress -- a near-fatal blow to the social gospel. He was, of course, correct.

The years after the war were to see Morrison launch renewed efforts to reinvigorate the weakened movement. In the meanwhile he supported Woodrow Wilson’s conduct in foreign affairs and broadened the magazine’s perspective on the areas in which those affairs were taking place.

At the same time -- in 1916 -- he quietly relabeled the Christian Century “undenominational.”