Seventy Years of the Century

by Harold E. Fey

Harold Fey was for many years editor of The Christian Century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 11, 1978, pp. 950-954. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Struggling against poverty, inexperience and the low estate of religious journalism generally, Charles Clayton Morrison, within 15 years, lifted an obscure publication to a position of influence in church and state.

It does not diminish a man or a magazine to believe that 1908 was, in the providence of God, precisely the right time for Charles Clayton Morrison to become an editor and for The Christian Century to become an "undenominational" magazine devoted to church and public affairs. Many Protestants were tiring of provincialism; their churches were breaking out of sectarian isolation. Some scholars were daring to speak the truth concerning the history and composition of the Bible, thus liberating some churches from literalism. Runaway industrialism had become so oppressive that the nation’s conscience was hurting. Exploited labor was stirring, hoping to find in organization a way to shorter hours, decent wages and improved conditions. Suffragists were marching to gain voting rights for women. Pioneer sociologists were uncovering the shame of city slums and the disgrace of child labor in field and factory. Proposals to prohibit the manufacture and sale of intoxicants were widely supported. The political arena was alive with humanitarian issues.

Seventy years ago not many people would have predicted that C. C. Morrison, a 34-year-old minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was destined to exert a notable ecumenical and intellectual influence on American Christianity. He had served churches in Iowa during attendance at and after graduation from Drake University. Then he moved to Springfield, Illinois, where he served a church and found a wife. By 1908 he was a pastor in Chicago and a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago. It was at this time that he began to write for The Christian Century.


This journal had been launched in Des Moines in 1884 as the Christian Oracle, a denominational weekly. By 1900 it had moved to Chicago. In that year its name was changed to The Christian Century. For the next eight years it limped along as a denominational publication under a succession of editors. Then, on October 10, 1908, "The New Christian Century" announced that Charles Clayton Morrison and William A. Kennedy had purchased the magazine from C. A. Osborn, a publications broker who had bought it "at auction last August on account of the foreclosure of a mortgage." New papers of incorporation were taken out. Morrison was to be editor. Others were associated with him, but he later claimed, with good reason, that he had "refounded" The Christian Century on that date.

Struggling against poverty, inexperience and the low estate of religious journalism generally, Morrison had within 15 years lifted an obscure publication to a position of influence in church and state. One of his earliest reports covered the establishment of the Federal Council of Churches, which took place a couple of months after the Century was refounded. Thus the life of the magazine henceforth paralleled the development of the conciliar movement in American Christianity. While there was never any official tie, the Century became a firm advocate of cooperation with the Federal Council and with its successor, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

The Century’s championship of the social gospel was related to its support of the Federal Council, whose famous "Social Creed of the Churches" was released at its first meeting as part of a report on the church and modern industry. Elements of the social creed became planks in the Century’s platform and, in time, in that of many churches. They included abolition of child labor, protection of workers against industrial hazards, shorter hours -- the 12-hour day was then common -- a living wage and arbitration of industrial disputes.

After Morrison became editor, his first campaign was a spirited defense of Herbert L. Willett of the University of Chicago, then a leading popularizer of the modern critical study of the Bible. Willett was under attack by some of his fellow Disciples as an "infidel." The Century defended him, published his articles and boldly exploited his identification with modern scholarship. For a time, Willett’s was the most prominent name associated with the Century. He helped establish the intellectual standards of the journal and contributed financial support. One of the founders of the Federal Council of Churches, Willett moved both the Century and the council in the direction they were to follow when he wrote: "I believe that the reunion of Christendom is the logical climax of all the reformations which have preceded it and the most pressing duty of the hour."

Soon after he became editor of the Century, Morrison joined the American delegation which attended the International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. He was therefore present when the modern ecumenical movement was born. This development, which led eventually to the formation of the World Council of Churches, emerged as a result of missionary statesmen’s discovery that sectarian divisions among Western Christians constituted the most formidable obstacle to the advancement of the Christian gospel abroad. The point was underscored on the domestic front in 1920 when the Interchurch World Movement collapsed, mainly because its participating American churches financed their own programs of expansion and left their ecumenical commitment to the tender mercies of nonexistent "friends of the churches."


During the first 15 years of his editorship, Morrison steadily widened the Century’s constituency and deepened its intellectual substance. It was not long before he discovered that his readers among Disciples were outnumbered by subscribers from other denominations. With this encouragement, he set out to stabilize financially an enterprise whose shoestring had at times showed signs of fraying. He found three laymen, all Disciples, who collectively provided a sustaining fund which undergirded the Century for the remaining years of Morrison’s editorship. Thus fortified, he began the search for a full-time managing editor. One day in 1923 the man he sought walked through the front door of the Century s offices.

He was Paul Hutchinson, a young journalist who was already the author of three books. Hutchinson was then associated with the Epworth Herald, published in Evanston, a Chicago suburb. He was a graduate of Lafayette College (Phi Beta Kappa) and Garrett Biblical Institute (now Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary). He had served for five years in China, editing the China Christian Advocate, chairing the China Literature Council and acting as secretary of the China Centenary Movement of the Methodist Church. In 1916 he had been a leader in organizing young people to re-elect Woodrow Wilson to the presidency of the United States.

Morrison printed the manuscript which Hutchinson had come to propose for publication and offered him the position of managing editor. Hutchinson accepted. Then began a collaboration of a quarter of a century which was fateful for both men, for the Century and for the Christian cause. Hutchinson was managing editor from 1923 to 1947 and succeeded Morrison in the editorship. He retired at 65, at the end of 1955.

Within three weeks after hiring Hutchinson, Morrison left for two months in Europe, leaving the magazine in the hands of his new managing editor. His confidence was abundantly justified. Hutchinson brought a professional scope and quality to the Century. His broad knowledge of foreign affairs, and particularly of American relations with Asia, earned respect for the journal from the secular as well as the religious press. He developed a corps of correspondents who supplied exclusive news coverage from cities at home and abroad.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson continued to write books, turning out a dozen or more volumes on such themes as the history of Methodism, world revolution and religion, the ordeal of Western religion, the leaders who made the churches and the modernization of China. His final volume, The New Leviathan, was a searching analysis of the trend toward totalitarianism which he saw operating in the U.S. and other governments. Following Hutchinson’s death in 1956, Morrison wrote:

There was a mild but wholesome skepticism in his mentality which made him look below the surface for hidden motivations. His perceptive mind was quick to detect both unconscious and deliberate intentions behind unctuous phrases. He hated cant. His composition was evidence of a tidy and honest mind. His manuscript came from his typewriter so clean that he rarely needed to change a single word. It was an exact mirror of his mind.


A measure of the influence the Century had achieved by the middle of the 1920s was the success which attended its support for the outlawing of war. Senator William E. Borah had tried and failed to incorporate a provision outlawing war into agreements establishing the World Court. In 1926 Dr. Morrison joined with Salmon O. Levinson, a Chicago lawyer, in campaigning for the renunciation of war and the branding as a crime its use as an instrument of national policy. In 1927 Aristide Briand, foreign secretary of France, proposed that the United States and France agree to renounce war on those terms. U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg suggested that such an agreement be broadened into a general antiwar pact. The idea found favor, and on August 27, 1928, high officials of 15 nations, meeting in Paris, condemned "recourse to war for the solution of international controversies" and agreed that solutions of all disputes "shall never be sought except by pacific means." Morrison was an honored guest at the signing of what came to be known as "The Pact of Paris" or the "Kellogg-Briand Treaty." There were many other nations that later added their signatures to those of the original 15.

Since the pact to outlaw war lacked measures of enforcement, attempts to invoke it when the Japanese invaded Manchuria came to nothing. It was cited by Justice Robert Jackson to justify the Nuremberg trials after World War II. But the agreement was vitiated when Kellogg said that the pact did not impair any nation’s right of self-defense. War departments promptly became departments of defense. Hindsight notes that the pact should have been linked with the minimal structure of world government which the League of Nations provided, and that it would have been more impressive had it been combined with measures for disarmament and with efforts to remedy the historic injustices which led to World War II. But Dr. Morrison always insisted that in principle the outlawing of war was right. Our threatened world could do worse than to renew that commitment made 50 years ago.

As the second major conflict approached, the Century held firmly to a policy of nonintervention until the attack on Pearl Harbor created a new situation. Morrison then bowed to what he called the "unnecessary necessity" of war. But the Century was not caught unprepared. Hutchinson had made the clergy wary of propaganda by reprinting chapters of the book Preachers Present Arms, by Ray Abrams, on the sorry record of the clergy in World War I. Morrison had attended the 1937 Oxford World Conference on Church and State; its theme, "Let the Church Be the Church," was the topic of many a wartime Century editorial. In 1942 American churches held a conference at Delaware, Ohio, on "a just and durable peace." The Century publicized its findings, and produced and distributed widely an 80-page handbook on what should be the shape of the peace at war’s end.

The Century was the first national publication to denounce the violation of the civil rights of Japanese-Americans by their arrest and relocation at the outset of World War II. It also deplored the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the struggle approached its conclusion, Hutchinson wrote the book From Victory to Peace. Morrison was present and approving in San Francisco when the United Nations was born. Following the war Hutchinson made a journey around the world, surveying for the Century and for Life magazine the wreckage and suffering of a world in ruins.


Throughout his 39-year editorship, Morrison wrestled with theological and ecclesiastical questions. At the University of Chicago he had encountered the instrumentalist version of pragmatism, which had been taught there by John Dewey. But before many years he moved away from a position which he believed led to humanism, though he never ceased to apply the empirical test to any system of thought.

Morrison was always sensitive to the direction of the theological winds; he was aware of the attractions of Barthian and Niebuhrian views but never embraced them. Hutchinson was more responsive to the positions of Reinhold Niebuhr, partly because of Niebuhr’s involvement in social and political affairs and partly because of his deep sense of the tragic role of sin and corruption in history. The Century published a great many articles by Reinhold Niebuhr over a period of some 15 years, until Christianity and Crisis was launched by Niebuhr and associates at about the time America became involved in World War II. The break, which was never complete, was prompted by disagreement over several issues, of which American involvement in the struggle was one.

Toward the end of 1938, Morrison responded editorially to attacks being made by neo-orthodox theologians on liberalism. He noted that liberalism had entered the religious scene after it was established in science, history and politics. "It began its operations," he wrote, "by questioning the truth of certain conceptions held by Christian people -- particularly the literal inerrancy of the Bible, the obscurantist dogmas concerning the origin of the Christian revelation and a cosmological view of the origins of the universe and of man.’ He observed that the critics of liberalism did not attack it in the name of the literal Bible, or the cosmology of Genesis, or an obscurantist dogma of Christian revelation. Rather, in the name of realism, they held that "human thought is dynamic, not static; that it is a movement, not a position; that Christian theology grows with the growth of life and changes when life presents it with new and unanticipated positions." What was that but liberalism, which had said it first?

The spirit of liberal thought is one of the most precious gifts to modern man which have come out of the intellectual struggle of past centuries. To hold it in disdain, to set it over against realism, to stigmatize it as incompatible with true Christianity, to proclaim its bankruptcy, is hardly less than a wanton act.

Morrison left no doubt that he must still be considered a liberal evangelical Christian.


The Century under Morrison had as its deepest and most lasting concern the health and unity of the church. His two most important hooks -- What Is Christianity?, a revision of his Beecher lectures given at Yale, published in 1940, and The Unfinished Reformation, the Hoover lectures at the University of Chicago, published in 1953 -- dealt mainly with the church. While the earlier volume was cast in a theological context, its main purpose is indicated in the following passage:

The fellowship of the body of Christ is incomparably the most precious thing in Christianity, as it is also its absolute and substantive reality. It is Christianity. To divide the body of Christ is sin, because it divides Him and makes his headship of the body a scandal in the eyes of the world [p. 275].

The unfinished Reformation, as Morrison saw it, was the ecumenical movement’s undertaking to finish the Reformation’s task of uniting the church. He detailed many signs of encouragement that this reformation was in process, among them the historical understanding of the Bible and the growing ecumenical character of Christian thought.

Morrison had no patience with a rootless ecumenism. He lived and died a minister of the Christian Church, as his father had before him. But his loyalty was discriminating. He moved away from the congregationalism of his disciples heritage toward a more integrated form of church structure which he sometimes referred to as "connectionalism" In the course of time he became ready to accept the historic episcopate. He was always eager to welcome and examine plans of union. The foundation of the United Church of Canada, bringing together Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians, delighted him because it crossed confessional lines. F. Stanley Jones’s proposed "federal union" of churches got a cooler reception. Under that scheme, each denomination was to keep its name and structure, but an entity was to be set over all denominations to which they would adhere. This superstructure was to be called the "United Church" The idea of leaving denominations intact did not appeal. Morrison was a draftsman of the later Greenwich Plan and was disappointed at its failure. He welcomed the Consultation on Church Union and was impressed with its deliberate and thorough theological development.


Morrison’s commitment to the social gospel was personal as well as institutional. During World War I he visited the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, three times in the interest of conscientious objectors. When Harold Gray, the conscientious-objector son of Philip Gray, an attorney for the Ford Motor Company, was transferred from Leavenworth to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, Morrison got Judge Henry of Cleveland to intercede with Newton Baker, formerly of Cleveland but then secretary of war, in the young man’s behalf. Baker immediately ordered Gray’s release. In gratitude to Judge Henry, a trustee of Hiram College near Cleveland, the elder Gray provided funds to build Gray Hall on the college campus. The son later wrote Character:Bad, a book on his experiences. Its title was derived from the inscription on his discharge paper. Although Morrison was not a pacifist, he supported the rights of conscientious objectors.

Dr. Morrison was always wary of mysticism, but with Dr. Willett he produced The Daily Altar, a widely used devotional book, and the useful hymnal Hymns of the United Church. In a 1933 book. The Social Gospel and the Christian Cultus, he sought to link social and cultural concepts in worship. He wrote:

We must construct new models, new pageantry, new hymns, new forms of prayer, new anthems of praise, new dramatizations, in which, for example, the labor movement may be caught up in the embrace of religion, the peace movement, the civic conscience, the community spirit, the family and every great aspiration of our time.

That winged vision, rising on the updraft of an earlier time, has valiantly beat its course through fair and stormy skies until now, 70 years after The Christian Century was refounded, it still summons us to move forward and finish the Reformation.