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The Measure of a Magazine: Assessing the Influence of the Christian Century

  • Elesha Coffman


The Christian Century is generally regarded as the most influential Protestant magazine of the early twentieth century. But what does it mean to call the Century influential? Whom did it influence, and how? This article takes a historical approach, examining the size of the Century's audience, the nature of the magazine's impact on its readers, and the ability of those readers to extend the magazine's impact beyond themselves. The main source for this investigation is a cache of more than 2,100 unpublished letters collected in 1928 to celebrate Charles Clayton Morrison's twentieth anniversary as editor. In subscribers' own words, the letters illustrated the Century's role as a crucial link among readers with similar backgrounds and aspirations, as well as the limits of its reach beyond this cohort. The article argues that the Century was influential, but not because it converted (directly or through its clergy readers) large numbers of American Protestants to its progressive vision for Christianity. Rather, the Century was primarily influential in the process of mainline identification, both in the sense of defining which writers, institutions, and ideas belonged to the emerging mainline tradition and in the sense of offering readers an opportunity to identify with that tradition. A better understanding of the Century's influence during the Morrison era sheds light on the rise of the mainline. Additionally, a better understanding of the kinds of influence magazines do and do not exercise is helpful for anyone who looks to periodicals to provide a barometer of cultural trends.



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1. “Voice of the Century,” Newsweek (June 23, 1947), 72; “Man of the Century,” Time (June 23, 1947): 75–76; Meyer, Donald, The Protestant Search for Political Realism, 1919–1941, 2d ed. (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 53, 54; Voskuil, Dennis N., “Reaching Out: Mainline Protestantism and the Media,” in Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900–1960, ed. Hutchison, William R. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 77 .

2. A copy of the press release resides in the Christian Century Foundation Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois (hereafter referred to as CCF Archives). The retrospective is Linda-Marie Delloff, ed., A Century of the Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).

3. Delloff, A Century of the Century, 4. A handful of doctoral dissertations and master's theses have focused on the Century, but none has been published. One of these, John Theodore Hefley's “The Christian Century in American Culture, 1920–1941” (Ph.D. diss, University of Minnesota, 1952), includes several pages (15–18) of tributes to the Century from authors and academics, building to Hefley's conclusion that the magazine “has been a journal of admitted influence in intellectual, religious, and political circles.” Mark G. Toulouse has written several articles on the Century's history for publication in the magazine itself; these articles, as well as Toulouse's entry on the Century in Charles H. Lippy's edited reference volume, Religious Periodicals of the United States: Academic and Scholarly Journals (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), consistently stress the magazine's quality and influence. Passing references to the Century's eminence appear in such sources as Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 943; Fox, Richard Wightman, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 72 ; and Hutchison, William R., The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992), 115 . My goal here is not to refute these judgments but rather to point out how one flattering assessment of the magazine pervades this literature without examination or challenge.

4. For example, in “Religious Periodicals and Presidential Elections, 1960–1988,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Winter 1992): 89–105, James D. Fairbanks and John Francis Burke offer four reasons why “journals of record” such as the Century, Christianity Today, America, and Commonweal are politically significant: “1. Political information is often spread through a ‘two-step’ process. The views expressed in editorials and columns are read by a relatively small number of ‘opinion leaders’ who then relay what they have learned to friends and co-workers…. 2. Because of their standing as a voice for major constituencies of the Christian community, policy makers interested in cultivating these constituencies (or who personally identify with them) will sometimes look to these journals for policy guidance. 3. Each journal represents an important religious tradition and reflects the politically relevant values and assumptions of that tradition…. 4. Journals such as Christian Century, Christianity Today, America, and Commonweal not only illuminate church political stands and their underlying value premises, but also provide insights into the deliberative process through which these stands came into being.” These premises are stated rather than tested, and nothing is said about the magazines' audiences beyond a list of circulation totals.

5. “Celebrating Dr. Morrison's Twenty Years,” Christian Century (hereafter referred to as CC) (July 12, 1928): 873–74.

6. Testimonial to Charles Clayton Morrison (5 vols.), MS1255, Special Collections, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago. All letters cited in this essay can be found in these volumes, which are organized alphabetically but feature no page numbers.

7. Hutchison, Between the Times, x; Neuhaus, Richard John, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 202 .

8. On processes of identification, see Todd, Jennifer, “Social Transformation, Collective Categories, and Identity Change,” Theory and Society 34, no. 4 (August 2005): 429–46; and Cerulo, Karen A., “Identity Construction: New Issues, New Directions,” Annual Review of Sociology 23 (1997): 385–40. No definitive account of the origin of the term “mainline” applied to a segment of American Protestantism has been published, but one of the first uses of the term in this sense was John Wicklein, “Extremists Try to Curb Clergy,” New York Times, March 28, 1960, 1.

9. On Disciples publishing, see Garrison, Winfred Ernest and DeGroot, Alfred T., The Disciples of Christ: A History (St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1948); and Short, Howard E., “The Literature of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ),” in The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): An Interpretative Examination in the Cultural Context, ed. Beazley, George G., Jr. (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1973), 295–307. On Disciples Divinity House, see Blakemore, Wm. Barnett, Quest for Intelligence in Ministry (Chicago: Disciples Divinity House, 1970). Details of magazine purchase from Charles Clayton Morrison, “Autobiography,” k3. The autobiography was never finished or published. A copy resides in the CCF Archives.

10. On the Campbell Institute, see Jordan, Orvis F., “The Campbell Institute through Fifty Years,” Scroll 44, no.4 (March-April, 1947): 423 ; and Corey, Stephen J., Fifty Years of Attack and Controversy (St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1953). For an example of early circulationbuilding efforts, see the cover of the October 24, 1908, issue of the Century, one of the first issues published by Morrison.

11. Harold E. Fey, Presentation to Private Luncheon, Congress Hotel, Chicago, December 3, 1958. CCF Archives.

12. The strongest evidence for this desired peer status is the striking similarity in the look and organization of all three magazines. The Century also exchanged subscription advertisements with the Nation and the New Republic and sometimes referred to their editorials in its own. See, for example, “Independents and the Election,” CC (September 13, 1928): 1098–99.

13. Promey, Sally, “Taste Cultures: The Visual Practice of Liberal Protestantism, 1940–1965,” in Practicing Protestants: Histories of Christian Life in America, 1630–1965, ed. Maffly-Kipp, Laurie, Schmidt, Leigh E., and Valeri, Mark (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 250–94.

14. On this latter point, see especially “Browbeating the Protestants,” CC (October 11, 1928): 1217–19.

15. Pound, Ezra, “Small Magazines,” English Journal 19, no. 9 (November 1930): 689–704. On genres of magazines in the early twentieth century, see Mott, Frank Luther, A History of American Magazines, vol. 4 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), 289 .

16. Morrison, “Autobiography,” n6.

17. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observed this conundrum: “Intellectuals and artists are thus divided between their interest in cultural proselytism, that is, winning a market by widening their audience, which inclines them to favour popularization, and concern for cultural distinction, the only objective basis of their rarity; and their relationship to everything concerned with the ‘democratization of culture’ is marked by a deep ambivalence.” Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 229. On the chronic unprofitability of magazines of opinion, see Hulsether, Mark, Building a Protestant Left: Christianity and Crisis Magazine, 1941–1993 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 231–32.

18. “Voice of the Century,” Newsweek (June 23, 1947): 72.

19. All 1928 circulation figures are derived from N.W. Ayer & Son's American Newspaper Annual and Directory (Philadelphia: N.W. Ayer & Son, 1928), 1353–62. Some listed figures were exact, as reported by the publishers, and some (including the circulation for Our Sunday Visitor) were estimates.

20. On the importance of Chicago, see, for example, Hynes, William J., Shirley Jackson Case and the Chicago School, Society of Biblical Literature Centennial No. 5 (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1980).

21. Pearson, Alden B., “A Christian Moralist Responds to War: Charles C. Morrison, The Christian Century, and the Manchurian Crisis, 1931–1933,” World Affairs 139, no. 4 (Spring 1977): 296–307. For a recent study of elite and popular opinion, including an overview of earlier literature, see Gabel, Matthew and Scheve, Kenneth, “Estimating the Effect of Elite Communications on Public Opinion Using Instrumental Variables,” American Journal of Political Science 51, no. 4 (October 2007): 1013–28. See also Davis, Aeron, “Whither Mass Media and Power? Evidence for a Critical Elite Theory Alternative,” Media, Culture, and Society 25, no. 5 (2003): 669–90.

22. Without circulation lists, it is impossible to make definitive claims about the Century readership. The only sample available is the anniversary letters. There is no way to determine whether the 2,132 subscribers who wrote to congratulate Morrison were representative of the magazine subscribers as a whole, but they varied significantly in their social situations and displayed a wide range of connections with and reactions to the Century. Their geographic distribution also corresponds to state-by-state totals listed in the Century as part of a circulation campaign in 1925. To obtain a statistically significant sample of the population of letter writers, I coded every eighth letter in the collection. I gathered data on 254 of the 2,132 letters. This data included the name of the sender, home city and state, institutional affiliation and job title (if given), and various content codes.

23. Quote from Morrison, “The Event of the Month,” Christian Century Pulpit (October 1929): 23. Lay readers constituted 25 percent of the readership at the end of Morrison's editorship in 1947. See Hefley, “The Christian Century in American Culture, 1920–1941,” fn 3. It is unlikely that the percentage was higher in 1928.

24. In the sample of letters, 253 included names, and 22 of those were identifiably female. Many letter writers gave only initials and last names, but based on epistolary conventions and other information in the letters, it is unlikely that the initialed letters came from women.

25. Subscription figures from “Our Continental Campaign,” an insert that ran with unnumbered pages between pages 1180 and 1181 of the September 24, 1925, issue of the Century. Census figures from www., accessed March 11, 2011.

26. Only about half of the letter writers in the sample gave a religious affiliation. The sample included 22 identified Methodist Episcopal readers (plus an additional 3 readers from the Methodist Episcopal Church-South), 16 Congregationalists, and 11 Presbyterians. All other groups had fewer than 10 mentions. This lineup squares with Linda-Marie Delloff's findings in Delloff, A Century of the Century, 18.

27. Morrison, “Autobiography,” k1.

28. See, for example, “Browbeating the Protestants.”

29. Hutchison, Between the Times, 12. The study to which he referred was Fry, C. Luther, “The Reported Religious Affiliations of the Various Classes of Leaders Listed in Who's Who, 1930–1931 Edition,” Yearbook of American Churches, 1933 (New York: Round Table Press, 1933).

30. Shils, Edward, “The Order of Learning in the United States: The Ascendency of the University,” in The Organization of Knowledge in Modern America, 1860–1920, ed. Oleson, Alexandra and Voss, John (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), esp. 3031 .

31. The best source on Morrison's life is the unpublished autobiography.

32. Fosdick, Harry Emerson, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” in American Religions: A Documentary History, ed. Griffith, R. Marie (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 423 .

33. Also, American universities awarded only 532 Ph.D. degrees in 1920, another number that had been much lower. See Drowne, Kathleen Morgan and Huber, Patrick, The 1920s (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004), 33 .

34. Some letter writers in the sample were employed at a public university, but none relayed a story of first encountering the Century at such an institution.

35. Morrison describes the decline of these titles in section m of his autobiography.

36. In the sample, 37 of 254 letters expressed frustration or disagreement with the magazine.

37. The Century staunchly advocated Prohibition until the bitter end, and the magazine adopted a generally pacifist stance through the rest of the century. Wood's “decency” jab referred to the magazine's expressed discomfort with the frank discussion and sexual experimentation roiling American society in the 1920s. For an overview of religious publications' reactions to such social upheavals, see Thaman, Sister Mary Patrice, Manners and Morals of the 1920's (New York: Bookman Associates, 1954). The book, rather idiosyncratically, does not include the Christian Century in its analysis.

38. Scholarship on letter writing generally focuses on periods prior to the twentieth century and on Europe rather than America, but there are some very useful insights on gender and social mobility in correspondence in Barton, David and Hall, Nigel, eds., Letter Writing as a Social Practice, Studies in Language and Literacy 9 (Philadelphia: John Benjamins North America, 2000); and Goodman, Dena, Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2009).

39. Merrill D. Peterson, Coming of Age with The New Republic, 1938–1950 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), 9, 11, 129. That male correspondents expressed more emotion toward Morrison than did female correspondents would seem to be the opposite of what Robert Orsi found in letters to St. Jude, regarding which Orsi wrote, “The saint's male devout approach him more formally, seemingly content to use the Shrine's written prayers in their petitions, and they do not imagine Jude with the passionate detail that women devout do.” Orsi, Thank You, St. Jude: Women's Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), xi.

40. For summaries of several media effects theories, see Paletz, Daniel L., The Media in American Politics, 2d ed. (New York: Longman, 2002), 117–29. See also Nord, David Paul, Faith in Reading (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 133–34.

41. Carey, James W., Communication as Culture (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 1336, esp. 18–19. Taylor & Francis published a revised edition of the book in 2008, keeping Carey's ideas current. See also Packer, Jeremy and Robertson, Craig, eds., Thinking with James Carey: Essays on Communications, Transportation, History (New York: Peter Lang, 2006). Oddly, despite Carey's use of theory of religion, he is not often discussed by religion scholars. Durkheim's foundational ideas on ritual appeared in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (1915; repr., New York: Free Press, 1965).

42. Cohen, Charles L. and Boyer, Paul S., eds., Religion and the Culture of Print Media in Modern America (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008).

43. “Magazine Covers in Black and White,” On the Media (November 2, 2002). Transcript at, accessed August 26, 2011.

44. George Marsden, for example, defines the mainline as “the major American denominations such as American Baptist (Northern Baptist), United Methodist, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., United Church of Christ (including earlier Congregational), Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, some Lutherans, and others associated with the Federal Council of Churches and its successor, the National Council of Churches.” Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 8 fn 1.

45. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People; Handy, Robert T., A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971); Hutchison, Between the Times, 3; Plotke, David, Building a Democratic Political Order: Reshaping American Liberalism in the 1930s and 1940s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996). See also Wuthnow, Robert, Meaning and Moral Order: Explorations in Cultural Analysis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), esp. 347 .


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The Measure of a Magazine: Assessing the Influence of the Christian Century

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