280: The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline by Elesha J. Coffman

by Gerard


280.4097309041: Coffman, Elesha J. The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 223 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-993859-9.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 200: Religion
  • 280: Denominations and sects of the Christian Church
  • 280.4: Protestant churches and Protestantism
  • +0973: United States
  • +09041: 1900-1919

The Christian Century was founded as a Disciples of Christ devotional magazine in 1884 as a publication that sought to reconcile the American people’s faith with the rapid acceleration of technology and culture at that time. But by 1908, the magazine could not sustain itself and went into foreclosure. Luckily it was sold at auction to Chrles Clayton Morrison and he began the long journey to rehabilitating the periodical. Along the way, he helped to shepherd the spiritual world in the United States through discourse with varied voices, vocations, and visionaries and Elesha Coffman’s Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline tells the story.

Coffmans’s history of the magazine, and consequently of those who ran it, speaks to an overarching theme of general spiritualism in the United States. There has always been an undercurrent of faith and devotion in the general populace. This is often referred to as the Protestant mainline, a label which differentiates it from the fringe, fundamentalist, or evangelical groups of Christians. By shifting the focus of the magazine from devotion to conversation, Morrison sought to ensure that mainstream Americans had a place for both their faith and their social leanings. The periodical itself touted a moderate liberal base of social reform, at times including pieces from Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Schweitzer, and Jane Addams. The Christian Century also inaugurated an age of religious ecumenism—initiatives aimed at tying churches together to create a more unified movement—and helped to create the National Council of Churches.

Coffman’s research is undoubtably thorough, but unfortunately is not very interesting. Tracing the roots of American mainline Protestantism inherently comes with a dash of Waspishness. The history of both the magazine and the time period is choc-a-block with middle-aged white men trying to achieve great things. The whole thing comes off as rather milquetoast. It doesn’t help either that this book is the formal publication of Coffman’s doctoral dissertation from almost five years ago. This book will find an audience in students of social religiosity and perhaps of Midwestern church organizational history, but not much else.