Barton Swain reviews Elesha Coffman's "The Christian Century + the Rise of the Protestant Mainline"

The first known use of the word “mainline” to describe the largest Protestant denominations and distinguish them from their growing evangelical and fundamentalist counterparts appeared in the New York Times in 1960””at the very moment when mainline Protestantism began its rapid decline. You don’t call something “mainline” or “mainstream” unless its supremacy is being disputed (think of the “mainstream media”). And the supremacy of older, more socially prestigious churches within American Protestantism was being directly disputed in the mid-1950s. It’s impossible to speak with precision about what constituted mainline Christianity, but in general the mainline churches de-emphasized doctrinal differences; were Northern and Midwestern rather than Southern; promoted social causes rather than personal conversion or repentance; and virtually always took the liberal line in politics. By 1960, liberal Protestantism enjoyed almost nothing of the authority that had seemed unassailable 15 years earlier.

In “The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline,” Elesha Coffman charts the half-century ascendancy of liberal Protestantism in American society from its beginnings in northern seminaries at the turn of the 20th century to its brief triumphant moment immediately after World War II, when it had no effective rival. She does this through the lens of the magazine that, in the absence of any formal governing body, was effectively this strand of Protestantism’s voice and conscience: the Christian Century.

Read it all (if needed another link is there).


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3 comments on “Barton Swain reviews Elesha Coffman's "The Christian Century + the Rise of the Protestant Mainline"

  1. Dick Mitchell says:

    Excellent review.

  2. Adam 12 says:

    One gets the impression that the sacrificial giving that sprang from popular piety created a pool of assets (endowments, well-funded pulpits, showplace churches) that was exploited by a clerical elite with political agendas and an old-boy system. It is helpful to see the current crisis in TEC in this light. The case of the Riverside Church is also instructive when viewed retrospectively, as it had all the equipment that would psychologically induce devotion and high worship, but instead was used as a prestigious social platform to undermine the very financial benefactions that brought it into being. May I suggest one lesson in this…always give to effective Gospel ministries and never endow anything.

  3. wmresearchtrianglenc says:

    TEC, the Anglican Communion (AC), and many denominations have, for many decades now, simply failed to effectively grasp the message written on the wall: people are not bound to remain where they are and have the option–as the article here notes–to depart for “mandatory verities” or even “Starbucks”. In the case of the AC and TEC, my impression is that Canterbury now appreciates the gravity of the situation facing AC that is largely the result of conservative Anglicans being treated with less than Christian charity (I submit as a result of nothing less than fear) from popular-culture-following individuals, whether clerical or laity. However, even though Canterbury may now appreciates the gravity of the situation (I believe TEC does not reflect this appreciation), the solution has to be based upon taking effective measures to correct a wrongful situation and taking ineffectual measures will, understandably, simply result in a continuation of choices made to depart for “mandatory verities” or “Starbucks”.