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The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline

Elesha J. Coffman
Published by Oxford University Press in 2013

Reviewed by Philip D. Byers, Graduate Student in History, Washington University in St. Louis

For the latter half of the twentieth century, the ubiquity of the word “evangelical” in common parlance bore little correlation to the degree to which social commentators and water-cooler politicos actually understood the movement. Thankfully, diligent work by a generation of American historians has helped ameliorate the situation, and in this spirit, Elesha Coffman has published an exemplary work that should prevent the term “mainline” from languishing in similar misapprehension. Using the mainline’s most esteemed periodical as a narrative mechanism by which to trace the movement’s history, Coffman raises fascinating questions about religious authority and influence in the United States. The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline is thus both a helpful study of an influential force in American religion and an opportunity for reflection by those who aspire to cultural leadership of any kind.

Coffman introduces her book by situating it within relevant scholarship examining the mainline tradition. Acknowledging the standard-setting study of historian William Hutchinson along with dozens of additional scholarly treatments, Coffman identifies her project’s unique approach: while most previous work has focused on mainline thinking, this book focuses on the mainline itself. In Coffman’s words, this requires examining “the idea of the mainline, as distinct from mainline ideas” (4). Coffman posits that a cultural history of The Christian Century is the best method by which to accomplish this task, grounding her interpretive approach in the overwhelming scholarly consensus regarding the magazine’s influential role in twentieth-century Protestantism. To inform her scholarship, Coffman engaged in the first extensive study of The Christian Century’s archives.

Though the magazine was founded in 1884 as The Christian Oracle, a Disciples of Christ publication, Coffman begins her study at the turn of the twentieth century. This period possesses two-fold significance. First, the magazine took the Century moniker in 1900, and though important changes in ownership and editorial approach were still to come, this name change signified the assertive optimism so characteristic of the magazine in the decades that followed. The above-mentioned ownership change, in 1908, marks the second noteworthy development, as four Chicagoans purchased the floundering publication. One of them, minister Charles Clayton Morrison, became the editor, a post he maintained for nearly forty years. Fifty years after the purchase, a retrospective in the Century identified this moment as “that time that the personality of The Christian Century began to emerge” (13). Writing in clear and effective prose, Coffman’s approach to this cultural history is simultaneously chronological and topical. Given Morrison’s outsized role in the history of the periodical, Coffman devotes the first chapter to examining the religious, social, and intellectual world in which Morrison and his contemporaries were trained. Though the Century eventually became an “undenominational” publication, chapter 2 illuminates the publishing history of the Disciples of Christ in order to give cultural context to the Century. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the relative “success” of the magazine, as early struggles to gain subscribers yielded to subsequent cultural prominence. Moving to the 1930s, chapter 5 describes some of the internal fissures that emerged within liberal Protestantism. Chapters 6 and 7 conclude the study by focusing on two mid-century points of emphasis at the magazine, the quest for Protestant unity (1940s) and the response to the rise of neo-evangelicals (1950s).

Beside its obvious historiographical merit, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline affords careful readers from all disciplines ample material for consideration. One salient theme to consider is the correlation between the Century’s rise to prominence and its tendency to function as an echo chamber. As the Century, and the mainline tradition with it, gained increasing amounts of cultural capital, the magazine seemed to grow blind to some of its own foibles. Take the thorny relationship between Morrison and contributor Reinhold Niebuhr. While the magazine and Niebuhr moved apart ideologically over the course of several decades, Coffman explains that what really galled Niebuhr was not the Century’s positions but rather its inability to recognize its own biases. Niebuhr critiqued Morrison for “reducing theological liberalism to a method, for liberalism manifestly had doctrines and presuppositions of its own” (132).

Coffman makes similar observations at other points. In one of his numerous anti-Catholic essays, Morrison “missed the irony of identifying as menacing the exact traits that he wished to promote among Protestants” (150). The chapter on the quest for Protestant unity outlines the significant criticism the Century received for embodying the worst of sectarianism, with one subscriber writing to the editor, “At a time when there is more agreement than has been expressed in decades, who talks division? Answer: The Christian Century” (199). With success came a sort of editorial myopia.

Another point of interest is the Century’s approach to Fundamentalism. Coffman depicts an editorial staff with no consistent posture toward the movement, vacillating between irascible criticism (belittling or disparaging Fundamentalists) and self-satisfied triumphalism (ignoring Fundamentalists altogether).1 Neither approach proved shrewd. Cultural leaders, especially those with advanced degrees, would do well to consider this example and pause to reflect: What current social forces do we deem unworthy of honest attention? Are there any seemingly retrograde movements on the contemporary scene with the potential to tap into a sympathetic populace?

Surely the book’s most prominent and accessible value is as an extended reflection on the nature of cultural authority and leadership in the United States. Coffman highlights this theme early in chapter 1, writing that the democratic nature of the United States meant that editors “could advise… but they could not compel,” an arrangement that “predisposed them to become leaders without followers” (14). The motif recurs through the course of the book. Coffman describes a magazine that had less success appealing to average parishioners than to non-Christian cultural elites, an oft-dysfunctional relationship between the movement’s leaders and its lay-folk, and an editorial tendency to pursue “interpretive” rather than “photographic” representations of Protestantism.2 Coffman concludes her study by noting that the mainline sought to be “a leading tradition that also counted the majority of Americans as its followers,” a futile pursuit in a “reflexively populist environment like modern America” (216).

This topic is especially germane in light of the recent work by University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter. In To Change the World,3 Hunter posits that the key to cultural change is “faithful presence” at the center of culture rather than its periphery. Pairing Coffman’s study with Hunter’s theory is an invigorating exercise, for the mainline leaders who defined The Christian Century certainly occupied positions of influence at the center of twentieth-century culture, and purposefully so. Coffman details in several instances how some of the Century’s influence can be traced to its strategic presence on university campuses through an emphasis on library subscriptions. Intending to target the “Christian intelligentsia of all the churches,” Morrison and his editorial team sought a platform in the heart of elite American culture.

This cultural presence was significant enough that the term “mainline” only entered the popular lexicon in the 1960s, what Coffman identifies as a signal of “the tradition’s demotion from putative establishment to one brand in the marketplace” (219). In other words, before the 1960s mainline cultural influence was enough that no separate term was necessary – simple “Protestantism” sufficed. And yet, there is that aforementioned distinction between “mainline ideas” and the “idea of the mainline”; the latter flourished while the former never quite took hold. Coffman alludes to the contrast that any student of twentieth-century American Protestantism wants to consider: conservative evangelicalism clearly experienced greater growth and popular appeal, but is popular appeal equivalent to real cultural influence? It would be irresponsible to reach definite conclusions about Hunter’s thesis based upon a work of history that never intends to engage it, but it makes for fascinating reflection nonetheless.

What can be ascertained without equivocation is the changing nature of the Century’s mission beginning under the guidance of Martin Marty, and this material again is great fodder for consideration. Marty perceived a changing religious landscape in the United States and helped initiate what Coffman labels the “decoupling [of the Century’s] role as religion’s intellectual vanguard from its quest to win America” (205). Quoting a Marty editorial at length,

We cannot judge because we are captives of alien values. We cannot save because our paradise seems to be coextensive with the secular American Dream. We cannot lead because our ethic too often simply sanctifies and sanctions the American Way of Life.

Coffman writes that Marty “admonished his tradition to ‘enjoy the luxury of its minority status’…. Pull back from cultural contention, he counseled, and forget statistical growth. God was not calling Protestants to save the nation” (206-207).

Merely as a snapshot of mid-century mainline Protestantism, this section of Coffman’s final chapter is enthralling, but for added intellectual stimulation the persistent contrast to evangelicalism rears its head again. Lacking context, one could easily mistake Marty’s editorial for any of the scores of essays and blog posts authored by twenty-first-century evangelicals. Whether this is an indication of the continuing influence of mainline thinking, the inevitable lot of establishment-seeking religious movements, or some unidentified force at play, the obvious similarities between the two movements are compelling.

For these values and many more, Coffman’s book is an illuminating read. Rather than permitting the mainline to suffer in the purgatory of imprecision, Coffman conveys a living tradition of extreme complexity, “a set of denominations, a mode of religiosity, a social network, and an attempted religious establishment” (6). Her readers will be the better for it.

Cite this article
Philip D. Byers, “The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 300-303


  1. For examples from several decades and editors, see pages 59, 185, and 199.
  2. For interfaith connections, see page 79 and the section discussing the “Four C’s” (The Christian Century, Commonweal, and Commentary) on page 208ff; for the role of the layperson, see page 165; for photographic vs. interpretive, see 53 and 200ff.
  3. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Philip D. Byers

University of Notre Dame
Philip Byers is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame.