Theological Publishing: In Need of a Mandate

by Barbara G. Wheeler

Barbara Wheeler is president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City and director of Auburn’s Center for the Study of Theological Education.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 23, 1988, p. 1066. 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.


Surveying the distressed and distressing state of serious theological publishing, the churches are challenged to give their presses the support and the resources they require and deserve, for few denominational officials regard theological publishing as a critical element in their church’s mission.

There is a widespread tendency to take book publishing for granted. People assume that the publishing of serious books -- unlike other cultural activities such as serious music, dance, theater, art and even television and film, all of which are widely acknowledged to require philanthropic support -- will happen more or less automatically, the natural result of the supply of manuscripts meeting the demand of interested readers.

But recent publishing developments suggest that this assumption is no longer true. Changes in the structure and economics of book publishing have diminished the chances that the smaller markets formed by readers with specialized interests will be served. The mainline Protestant audience of academics, clergy and laity who read books on a variety of theological subjects (biblical studies, ethics, pastoral ministry, church history, systematic and constructive theology) make up one such market. Currently the market is served by an assortment of publishers: presses sponsored by the mainline denominations, large and small commercial publishers and some university presses. Various factors, however, make it no longer clear what publishers will be willing and able in the future to produce serious theological books for a mainline Protestant audience.

Two years ago, troubled by mounting evidence that denominational commitment to and resources for serious publishing were decreasing, Christopher Walters-Bugbee, editor of Books and Religion, and I decided to study the situation. With support from a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., which viewed our study as part of its larger investigation of mainline Protestantism, we interviewed representatives of those firms that publish theological books and studied the catalogs that their houses have produced over the past 30 years. We focused particularly on the denominational publishers. Though book publishing for a mainline Protestant readership has always been a shared effort between denominational and independent publishers, the former have been the core of the enterprise. During the past 20 years, most of those houses have faced serious difficulties. One (Seabury) has been sold, another (Judson) has drastically reduced its book publishing activities, and several others have become considerably weaker. They have accepted fewer ambitious projects, have published fewer books overall and have not considered themselves financially secure.

Therefore, to assess the state of denominational publishing we visited the largest mainline presses (Abingdon, Augsburg, Beacon, Fortress, John Knox, Pilgrim and Westminster) and interviewed their directors, editors, and business and marketing executives. We also interviewed most of the denominational officers to whom the directors of these presses report. We met with publishers and editors from the independent houses that are increasingly active in Protestant theological publishing, including large trade houses (Harper & Row) and small and medium-sized privately owned presses that specialize in religion (Cowley, Eerdmans, Crossroad/Continuum) , and we visited three diverse university presses (Chicago, Indiana, Mercer) that publish religious books.

Denominational presses have a long and intricate history. By the middle of the 19th century, impelled by the Second Great Awakening’s evangelical energy, almost all Protestant -denominations had established boards to publish tracts, materials and books for the burgeoning network of Sunday schools and other educational institutions. Most contemporary denominational publishing houses trace their origins to these early educational boards.

The fortunes of the Protestant church-owned presses oscillated until the 1940s, when the work of American theologians began to command international attention and sales of theological works mushroomed, reaching a broad national and international audience. The popular audience for religious books also expanded dramatically. In 1949, four of the five best-selling nonfiction books -- excluding books on canasta -- were religious titles, and though independent publishers produced many of these books, the popular interest in religion benefited the denominational publishers as well. Building on a cultural mood hospitable to religious ideas, the denominational presses developed diverse and energetic publicity programs during a two-decade period of unprecedented prominence and success. In several denominations, presses grew into publishing houses of considerable size and wealth to meet the denominations’ needs for a wide variety of church goods.

By 1970 the boom had ended and the denominational presses felt pressure from two sides. First, the cultural climate had shifted. Though many religious books continued to sell well, those intended for mainline Protestants did not. Almost simultaneously, the presses had to cope with a severe national economic recession. Suddenly, several prominent and recently prosperous presses were in serious trouble. The Century (April 28, 1971) wrote ominously of "decline but not demise" in Protestant publishing. For some, even demise was a prospect. In the late 1970s, adverse conditions led the board of trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association, owner of the venerable Beacon Press, to vote to sell the press. (The board was later dissuaded by the denomination’s larger governing body.) In 1983 the Episcopal Church sold Seabury to Winston Press. Several other houses faced extinction, but survived in a reduced state.

In the past ten years economic conditions have improved, but the mainline audiences that in the 1950s were easy to reach with both popular and more serious and specialized books have dispersed. Thus even the more stable presses work in difficult circumstances. The strains of publishing for a market that is relatively small and difficult to reach show in the new priority placed on fiscal stability. In several houses religious publishing has been reconceived. In the 1940s and 1950s publishing was chiefly a cultural activity, driven by editorial and educational considerations; now it is first of all a business, in which "product lines" (to use the terms of one denominational publisher) are "developed" and marketed.

At greatest risk in this uncertain situation is serious theological publishing. The denominations that sponsor presses have an immediate need and ready market for congregational items -- curriculum materials, Bible study guides, official documents and handbooks, and popular literature that nurtures piety. There is much less pressure to produce books which, though by no means unique to

the mainline, are one of its distinguishing marks: studies that conjoin affirmations and questions of Christian faith, on the one hand, and the methods of critical reflection and scholarship from a wide range of fields, on the other. Traditionally, some studies that are seriously theological in this sense have been produced as scholarly works; others, just as serious and original, have been framed for a wider audience of thoughtful lay readers. Though audiences for both kinds of books still exist, it is not clear whether denominations will exert the effort required to serve them. The readership for serious books crosses denominational lines, so the internal communications channels that churches have developed will not serve as the primary medium to sell serious books, which require special, more expensive marketing strategies. And because the readers for such books do not form a denominational constituency, a denomination has few political incentives for directing its publishing efforts in that direction.

Compounding concern for the future of serious theological publishing is the fact that, currently, four of the seven largest mainline presses face complete reorganization as a result of denominational mergers. Westminster and John Knox will combine their operations, and Augsburg will be joined with Fortress. The fate of Fortress is particularly important. Over the past 20 years it has become the workhorse of theological publishing. Judging from the 1985 catalogs of all seven denominational publishers, Fortress published over 40 percent of the total list of serious theological books. The effects of its pairing with Augsburg, a financially powerful press whose major success has been in popular publishing, are difficult to predict, but the prospect has caused considerable anxiety among authors. Last summer New Testament scholar Helmut Koester wrote to Lutheran scholars and church leaders across the country urging reconsideration of "new plans" that might do "serious damage" to Fortress, which he characterized as "an important instrument of theological scholarship" of which the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America should be proud.

Some of those who take this instrumental view look on book publishing chiefly as a source of revenue, and indeed, some presses do contribute what surplus they have to the denominational treasury or to special causes such as clergy pensions. Though most presses do not make such contributions, there is still pressure, says one director, to "chase dollars" at the expense of "serious, substantive publishing." Other church leaders think the press should be chiefly a service center for the denomination, producing materials closely matched to denominational program priorities and specifically designed for use in the denomination’s congregations. One executive who supervises publishing says the primary purpose of his denomination’s press is to supply the church’s "crying need for identity."

A much smaller group of executives and elected officials think a publishing program that aims to reach not only the denomination’s members but also the broader public is itself an important form of the church’s mission. However, this group is divided. Most of those who understand publishing as mission think the denomination’s role is to improve upon the independent publishers’ popular offerings, producing "more responsible" devotional and self-help books. Serious theological publishing, said an executive who takes this view, is an "elitist" undertaking to which substantial church resources should not be devoted, since it benefits only a few. Only a handful of interviewees disagree with him. Unitarian Universalist President William Schulz is one. "A denomination does not deserve to be taken seriously," he insists, "if it does not have a commitment to serious publishing as a contribution to a broader, corporate religious view." Lurking in the majority view of mainline leaders that serious theological publishing is optional -- something that a denomination may do provided that the effort pays its way and consumes none of the denomination’s mission funds -- are some deep and dangerous assumptions. One is the prevalent and persistent fallacy that market forces will ensure that any books that have an audience will get published. Those who continue to argue in this vein say that as the denominational publishers have weakened, others have turned their attention to the Protestant mainline. It is the case that large- and middle-sized for-profit publishers and university presses as well as a number of new small presses now publish substantial numbers of books by mainline Protestant writers. But commercial publishing is hardly a safe haven. Independent presses operate increasingly in a market dominated by what veteran editor Ted Solotaroff has called "the literary-industrial complex."

One element of the complex, according to Solotaroff, is the handful of large corporations that have bought long-established, prestigious publishing houses in order to transform them into more profitable producers of best sellers. The other element is the chain bookstores, which sell a limited number of books, including best sellers at discount, often crowding out of the market the independent bookstores that have traditionally sold a wide variety of books of high intellectual and literary quality. Some of the independent publishers, such as Harper & Row, which have already been acquired, have continued their commitments to theological publishing, but they remain vulnerable to sudden changes in direction and ownership. Some firms can fend off acquisitions because families, universities or religious orders own them, but even they are affected by the workings of the "complex," especially by the difficulties of selling through chain stores, which have little interest in books that, however high their quality, appeal to a limited audience. Thus, though independent firms currently play an important role in serious theological publishing, there is no assurance that they would fill the gap if denominational publishers were to abandon the field. Nor are university presses in a position to take over the responsibilities of strictly religious publishers. Many operate with academic boards that direct them to publish studies in religion but not in theology. And most, as relatively small publishers of "good books," encounter the same financial and marketing problems that the denominational presses face. A second dangerous assumption, embedded in the complacent and sometimes disdainful attitudes of denominational leaders toward theological publishing, is that the present challenge confronting the mainline denominations is not fundamentally theological. What denominational leaders want most from their presses -- greater revenues and materials specific to the denomination’s "own" programs -- strongly suggests that they view Protestant renewal chiefly as an organizational matter: build a stronger organization, one with increased financial resources and more evangelistic "team spirit," and decline will be arrested. The combination of chauvinism, mechanism and pietism built into this approach seems to contradict essential elements of the liberal Protestant character, especially its commitments to free and open inquiry, ecumenical theological ventures, and the critical exposure of what Paul Tillich called "distortions" of all kinds, including those built into its own structures.

We began our study convinced that denominational presses needed scrutiny and advocacy because they can be one important means among others for a renewed sense of Protestant purpose. But the publishing situation is also a revealing symptom of what has gone wrong in mainline Protestantism. It seems that denominations that do not understand their obligation to publish a wide array of challenging theological ideas for the broadest possible audience have forgotten some of the central insights of the Reformation traditions in which they are grounded.

These two presses are very different. Fortress, which was one division of the Lutheran Church in America’s separately incorporated Board of Publication, under two decades of strong leadership has drawn on wide European connections to build a high-quality program (especially strong in biblical studies and theology) that has had a central role in Protestant publishing. Beacon’s history has been more mercurial. In the 1940s it was a widely respected source of both general trade books and works of liberal philosophy and religion, publishing figures like Albert Schweitzer, James Baldwin and Arnold Toynbee. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, it lost its sense of editorial direction and its finances faltered. But in the past seven years it has re-established itself with a talented staff and strong denominational backing, and again offers a varied list of philosophy, current affairs, social criticism, liberal theology and belles-lettres. Alone among the denominational presses, it has successfully "crossed over" into the general market for books of good quality.

Different as these two presses are in history, structure and focus, they have certain features in common, features that suggest what a denominational press requires to do substantial, serious theological publishing.

Most critical is clarity of mission and unambiguous support from the sponsoring denomination. The publishers that have made distinguished contributions have consistently exhibited seriousness of intent and the determination, in the words of Clayton Carlson, vice-president of Harper & Row, "to do what no other set of publishers is well placed to do: leaven our hurly-burly world of religious publishing with a clear standard of excellence." Further, they have understood their mission broadly, as the obligation to publish for the widest possible audience. For these presses, publishing is not chiefly a "service center" for the denomination, but a ministry to the religious and intellectual world beyond (as well as within) the denomination’s bounds.

High standards and breadth of scope, along with firm denominational support, give a press concrete advantages. Important authors in a specialty field like theological studies choose a publisher on the basis of its reputation. They want editors who can recognize and help shape excellent work, and they want their books to appear in the company of other important contributors. And authors want to know that -- and this is where denominational support is critical -- the publisher will remain committed to a high standard well into the future, keeping their work and others’ in print as long as possible. Denominational commitment is also crucial for the press itself. Many serious projects take years to develop, and they cannot be undertaken if there is a chance that, by the time they come to fruition, the denomination will have withdrawn its support.

Resources must back up a strong, denominationally ratified sense of mission. Though serious publishing can "pay its own way" if properly managed, nonprofit presses have difficulty obtaining the operating capital that a business like publishing requires. Most denominational houses have come to rely for that kind of support on staples such as hymnals, service books and curricula which after their initial development produce regular income and require little attention. Several church executives question these arrangements and suggest that the income stream that these projects produce should be diverted to more denominational purposes. If church officials or publishing house executives act on that suggestion, they will cut into the support base that makes serious denominational publishing financially secure.

Not even fervent advocates of serious publishing favor lavish denominational subsidies. Publishing is much more than the Printing of good books; it also entails building a public for those books. The requirement to sell what one prints is a powerful incentive to build a public. Thus denominational publishers, in light of the struggles of Fortress, Beacon and others, are healthiest when they are a little bit hungry. But if they are starved, cut off from a regular, easy-to-earn source of capital for expansion and new projects, they will not continue to exist. Finally, serious publishing requires both freedom and enlightened oversight from the denomination. This requirement has been the most difficult for the denominations to meet. Though editorial freedom is essential for good publishing, denominations, like other large organizations, are not used to granting subsidiaries they "own" a high degree of autonomy, especially when that freedom may lead to controversy. As a series of famous incidents has shown (for instance, Westminster’s decision in 1977 to publish John Hick’s Myth of God Incarnate, despite intense protests from some church members) , a denomination’s self-restraint in decisions about publishing particular titles is an essential concomitant of support for publishing. Presses are most likely to achieve distinction when they are permitted to work without interference in editorial judgments.

A denomination must do more, however, than simply leave its hands off editorial decisions. It must also structure its relationship to the press so that the press can operate easily. Budgeting and reporting requirements should be fitted to the rhythms of publishing; often routines designed for denominational agencies hamper the work of the press. Equally important is the matter of who sits on the board that oversees publishing. If the press’s mission is properly conceived, its public will be broader than the denomination’s membership. Therefore, some of the members of its governing body should represent the interests of that broader public. Again, denominations have difficulty disciplining themselves to make these special arrangements, for few immediate political rewards orient the press to the world beyond the denomination.

Werner Mark Linz, director of Crossroad/Continuum, summed up these requisites for serious denominational publishing in a formula: "Give the press a mandate, means and freedom. That’s all it takes." Recently, there have been some encouraging signs from denominational presses and their sponsors. Abingdon has opened a new office in Atlanta, specifically for editing academic books; Westminster/ John Knox has affirmed its interest in serious theological publishing; and Augsburg Fortress has sought to reassure those concerned about the future of the Fortress tradition. What is not clear, however, in these and ether cases, is whether the denominations stand behind these efforts, ready to give "mandate, means and freedom" for the extended time it takes to build a distinguished publishing tradition. In the ideal, one would hope for even more: for the mainline Protestant denominations to recognize that the work of serious theological publishing offers a splendid opportunity. At a time when these denominations feel that their social impact has declined, publishing is an important channel for their continued participation in the pluralistic conversation about intellectual, cultural and social values. Rather than begrudge their presses the support and resources they require, mainline denominations should promote them with enthusiasm.