Material History of American Religion Project

Religion in the newsmagazines

Here is a fairly typical religion page from the media, the August 26, 1940 issue of Time magazine. The three stories on the page are historically notable. In the first, Henry Luce’s magazine runs one of the first stories about declining church membership statistics, and account that sets the tone for most similar coverage for the next half century. The second story contains a vivid depiction of a 1940 Georgia camp meeting. Finally, the report of the Congregational and Christian Church’s national convention in Berkeley, California demonstrates how prominent social leaders from politics and business were in pre-WWII denominational affairs.

Sad statistics

After four years spent tabulating statistics from every congregation in the country, the Bureau of the Census last week released a U.S. religious census for 1936 (first since 1926). It made sad reading for the devout. Though church membership had risen in the decade from 54,576,346 to 55,807,366, the percentage of increase was well under that for the population as a whole. Worse still, church expenditures had dropped from $817,214,528 in 1926 to $518,953,571 in 1936, and the value of church buildings from $3,839,500,610 to $3,411,875,467.

New sects swelled the total number of religious bodies from 213 to 256, though the number of church buildings was reduced during the decade from 232,154 to 199,302. The Roman Catholics, largest single church, showed an increase of 1,309,934 (total: 19,914,937 members). Jewish congregations rose 559,942 to 4,641,184. Most major Protestant churches showed a decline: Baptists from 8,441,030 to 8,262,287; Methodists from 8,070,619 to 7,001,637;Presbyterians from 2,625,284 to 2,513,653; Episcopalians from 1,859,086 to 1,735,335; Disciples of Christ from 1,377,595; the Congregational & Christian Church from 994,491 to 976,388; Quakers from 110,422 to 93,697. Gainers included the Lutherans (3,965,152), the Evangelical & Reformed Church (675,804 to 723,877), Christian Scientists (202,098 to 268,915), Seventh-Day Adventists (110,998 to 133,254), the Salvation Army (74,768 to 103,038).

Smallest sect reporting was the Friends (Primitive), whose lone congregation had 14 members. Most remarkable sect: the Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists (16 churches, 201 members), who believe that Adam & Eve were infused with a "good seed" from God, that God received a "bad seed" from Satan. Since everyone is born of either a good seed or a bad seed, and nothing can be done about it, this church does no gospel preaching, no missionary work.

Salem Revival

Revivals are as much a phenomenon of U.S. civilization as quilting bees or railsplitting. Georgia has been a revivalist stronghold ever since pioneer Evangelists John Wesley and George Whitefield saved souls there in the 1730s. But lately revivals have not done so well, even in Georgia. Few years ago famed Old Salem Campground, 32 miles southeast of Atlanta, a scene of Methodist evangelistic meetings since 1828, had to turn interdenominational to survive. Last week, as it wound up a rousing ten-day camp meeting, seemed to have hit the sawdust trail for a comeback.

To Old Salem’s "tents" (pre-Civil War frame shacks in which tenters sleep on straw-filled bunks) went 300 campers, including many a family which has attended Salem camp meetings for generations, looks upon them as its annual vacation. On Sundays brick-red dust smoked up from the dirt road into Salem’s 65 acres as thousands more arrived to hear a thunder of evangelists, headed by a redheaded, blue-eyed, 81-year-old Methodist, Dr. Bascom Anthony.

Old Salem’s days began with reveille at 7 a.m. and a raising of the U.S. flag in front of the tabernacle. A "morning watch" from 7:30 to 8:00 was followed by breakfast, children’s classes at 9:30, preaching service at 11:00, lunch at noon, rest hour, afternoon service at 3, a two-and-a-half hour recreation period. After supper there followed a final service at 8, taps at 10:30.

Old Salem’s is a sociable gathering, with the air of a happy rural community. Placed shrewdly at a time in the Georgia farm calendar when it is too early pick cotton or pull fodder, too late for plowing, the camp meting gave Georgians a chance for chatting as well as churchgoing. Campers downed prodigious meals of friend chicken, country ham, barbecued beef, Brunswick stew, stuffed eggs, potato salad, corn on the cob, pie, watermelon, iced tea, lemonade, Coca-Cola. Even after such meals, old Dr. Bascom Anthony could stir his congregation.

For 81 years tireless, organ-voiced Bascom Anthony has called men to Christ. Nowadays he does much of his preaching and praying seated in an armchair, with his eyes shut, but the oldtime spirit is still there. Says he: "I like to think of the Lord standing right there. He’s there but we can’t see Him—I like to think of Him saying to me, ‘How are you going to represent Me, Son?’ and I’d say, ‘Best I know how, Father.’"

A homespun exhorter, Preacher Anthony told his hearers at Old Salem to rear their children in ways of work ("If I had my way, I’d not raise a boy in Georgia who had not looked at the south end of a mule going north"), urged honesty as the best policy ("When you talk to God, tell him the truth or keep your mouth shut"), livened his homilies with anecdote ("Up in Johnson County, they named a girl Blasphemy and called her ‘Phemy’ for short"). One of his prayers that send "Amens" echoing round the tabernacle:

"Help us to be men enough not to stand for one minute these dictatorships who would overthrow al we believe in. Don’t let liberty perish from the earth. Don’t, Don’t, DON’T allow freedom of conscience to vanish from the earth."

Congregational Convention

Last week the biennial convention of the Congregational and Christian Church met in the big brick First Congregational Church of Berkeley, Calif. Firmly rooted in town-meeting tradition, the individual congregations of the C. & C. Church do their own thinking and talking. For this independence the retiring moderator, Dr. Oscar E. Maurer of New Haven, Conn., took his fellow churchmen to mild task. "Much of our work," said Moderator Maurer, "fails in effectiveness because we so generally prefer to do it separately, each in his own way."

Dr. Mauerer’s predecessor as moderator, famed Statistician Roger W. Babson, jumped on this statement with both feet. Cried white-goateed, spicy old Businessman Babson, 1940 Presidential candidate of the Prohibition Party: "Congregationalism was the original Protestant denomination that fought for democracy, namely delegates from each church. Now they have only one delegate from five churches, and they say they haven’t hotel space for more. All nonsense." Businessman Babson then presented a resolution for the "Democratization of Congregationalism." Politely but firmly the convention pigeonholed it.

The 980 delegates mildly condemned President Roosevelt’s appointment of Myron C. Taylor as his personal ambassador to the Vatican, pledged to aid war refugees, agreed that Congregationalist ministers’ salaries (average: $1,640) are too low. Between sessions, they made earnest "trips of social exploration" through San Francisco’s Japanese and Chinese section, toured migrant camps (said the prospectus: "Delegates to watch under bridges and beside roads for migrants, and show friendly spirit and talk to them").

Two laymen led the field in the election for moderator: a staunch New Dealer, 71-year-old ex-Governor William E. Sweet of Colorado, and a 35-year-old Maine Republican, Ronald Bridges, brother of New Hampshire’s Senator H. Styles Bridges. Sweet won by 16 votes. Slight, precise Congregationalist Sweet retired from a thriving brokerage business in Denver in 1920, "to give my full time to politics and religion," believes in the "application of the Christian religion to social and economic life."

Source: Time, 26 August 1940, 40.

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