by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
Over the past few posts, I’ve been telling you about the periodicals in which Douglas’s writing appeared during his Ann Arbor years (1915-1921); but his big breakthrough came in 1920, when he began writing for The Christian Century. And that fact is ironic, because in 1920 the Century was still struggling to become an important magazine. To some extent, Douglas added distinction to the Century even as it helped him become more prominent on the national scene.
(For most of what follows, I am indebted to Elesha J Coffman, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (NY: Oxford University Press, 2013).)
The Christian Century began as an unimposing little Disciples of Christ paper. In fact, the Disciples of Christ itself began as a nineteenth-century religious movement that was so democratic, it lacked a hierarchy and therefore didn’t have an official “organ.” There were hundreds of papers published throughout the United States in the 1800s by people of that persuasion, most of them with a very small circulation. The Christian Century was just one of many, many such periodicals. And, like most of the others, it had to fight hard just to survive financially.
In 1914, the magazine’s young editor, Charles Clayton Morrison, made the decision to seek a wider audience outside of his denomination: specifically, Protestant ministers and laypeople who valued education and who were willing to think deeply about religious matters. The weekly magazine was published in Chicago, and the people who ran it, including Morrison, were well-connected with professors at the University of Chicago, in both the religion and the philosophy departments. It made sense for them to seek out the more intellectual members of the Protestant clergy and to publish articles on topics that would be of interest to such a group.
I’m unable to say when Douglas began to read the Century. I do know that he was just the kind of reader Morrison was aiming at: one who was committed to higher education and to rethinking the gospel in terms of what was being taught in America’s state colleges. As I told you in an earlier post, Douglas was already following the work of Shailer Mathews as early as 1909, and Mathews led the Department of Religion at the University of Chicago. (He also wrote articles for the Century.) In fact, Mathews’ teachings had prompted Douglas to “go back to school” (first the University of Illinois and then the University of Michigan) and to revise his ideas about God; so Douglas’s career path made him a perfect fit for The Christian Century, not only as a reader but also as a contributor.
In 1919, a few wealthy members of the Disciples of Christ (including William H. Hoover of vacuum-cleaner fame), created an endowment for the magazine, and Morrison initially used these funds to begin advertising in a number of periodicals, including denominational organs like The Congregationalist and secular magazines like The Atlantic Monthly, both of which Douglas was writing for at the time. If the Century wasn’t on his radar prior to 1919, it probably was now.
At any rate, in the spring of 1920, Morrison announced an essay contest. This was just one of the ways in which he tried to increase his list of subscribers. He hoped to inspire ministers and thoughtful laypeople to write on the proposed subject. He would pick the best six entries, then readers would choose the first, second, and third-place winners from those six. (First prize was a whopping $50, second was $25, and third was $10. In fairness, Morrison himself apologized to the contestants for this pitiful remuneration.)
The event may or may not have increased the Century’s readership, but Morrison did snag a talented writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who was not yet known on the national stage. It was the beginning of a mutually-beneficial relationship.
To be continued…
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