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Broadcasting Mainline Protestantism: The Chicago Sunday Evening Club and the Evolution of Audience Expectations from Radio to Television

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2018


This article analyzes the broadcast activities of the Chicago Sunday Evening Club (CSEC), a mainline Protestant organization founded in 1908 and still active today. The CSEC began broadcasting its weekly meetings on the radio in 1922 and on television in 1956. Drawing on archival organizational records from the CSEC and from listener correspondence, this essay traces how the club's use of the new media of particular historical moments shaped its history as a public entity.

This study makes two claims. First, it argues that, though evangelicals and fundamentalists took to radio and television broadcasting with greater vigor, mainline Protestant groups did as well, and the persistence of a group like the CSEC offers a way to understand the challenges that broadcasting presented to religious organizations. Second, this article shows how audience expectations for religious programming evolved from radio to television. For many listeners, radio offered what they told the CSEC was a spiritual and even miraculous experience, and they marveled at being able to tune in to religious services from their homes. Television, however, prompted remarks often focused on visual style, and the club found itself struggling to compete with the newly emerging group of religious television programs not only on denominational terms (many were evangelicals and fundamentalists) but also on aesthetic terms. In contrast to radio, as many viewers wrote to the CSEC, television seemed to provide not a singular “experience” but rather spectatorial access to events taking place elsewhere. In the context of competition from the more telegenic programming of evangelicals and fundamentalists, these shifting audience expectations shaped both the history of the CSEC as a public entity and the broader history of mainline Protestantism in the mass media.

Research Article
Copyright © Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture 2012

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For assistance with an earlier version of this essay, I thank Neil Harris, Michael Carriere, Moira Hinderer, and Matt Millikan. Ani Sarkissian offered very helpful feedback on a more recent version. Robert Black of the Chicago Sunday Evening Club generously offered his time to discuss the club's activities. The staffs at the Chicago History Museum, the Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections helped immensely in locating materials, especially Frank Villella at the Rosenthal Archives and David Malone at Wheaton.

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25. Typescript, “A Few Typical Letters,” Box 2, Folder Minutes 1/30/29–5/27/31, CSEC-CHM; letter excerpted in CSEC General Report, December 9, 1925, 2, Box 2, Folder Minutes 5/25/23–5/27/26, CSEC-CHM; Naomi Questell to John Nuveen, letter excerpt in Minutes of the Trustees Meeting, June 16, 1948, Box 1, Folder 14, Chicago Sunday Evening Club Records (SC-47), Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections, Wheaton, Illinois (hereafter CSEC-WH); Clipping, “Attend Chicago Church by Radio,” Decatur Review, October 1923, Scrapbook vol. 11, CSEC-CHM.

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47. Taylor, “An Hour of Good News,” 30, 33, 46. On this trajectory of audience composition at the national level, see Johnstone, Ronald L., “Who Listens to Religious Radio Broadcasts Anymore?” Journal of Broadcasting 16 (Winter 1971/72): 91102 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Gerbner, George, Gross, Larry, Hoover, Stewart, Morgan, Michael, and Signorielli, Nancy, Religion and Television: A Research Report by the Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania, and the Gallup Organization, Inc. (Philadelphia: Annenberg School of Communications, 1984)Google Scholar.

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