Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
December 20, 1962
NUMBER 33, PAGE 4,12b-13a

The History Of Religious Journalism


(Note: In this issue and in two subsequent issues, we give the full text of a lecture delivered at Florida Christian College last February by the editor.)

When Paul, from Corinth, wrote his first epistle to the Thessalonian church, he commanded them, "I adjure you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the brethren." Eight or ten years later, from his prison cell in Rome, he wrote to the churches at Philippi, Colossae and Ephesus; and to the Colossians he gave order, "And when this epistle hath been read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and that ye also read the epistle from Laodicea." In this practice, he was but following a procedure that was hoary with age when first the light of day made him blink his new-born eyes in the city of Tarsus in Ciliate. For the practice of writing and distributing religious literature did not begin with Paul, nor even yet with Moses, Paul's predecessor by a millennium and a half. Hundreds of years before Moses was born the production and distribution of religious writings was well known both in Babylon and in Egypt. Thus, for at least four thousand years we can trace a type of "religious journalism," even into the very beginnings of recorded history. The long tradition coining down tows from those distant centuries will have a great variety of religious literature (including, indeed, our own sacred sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments), and literature in an almost infinite variety of shapes and forms: inspired histories, letters, essays, psalms and poems, biographies; then the immense catalogue of uninspired 'writings, pamphlets, sermons, editorials, debates, tracts, dissertations and dramas.

Obviously we cannot trace the full course of "religious journalism" in one short speech of two or three hours. We must erect some bounds and limits to the scope of our study. We are going to lift one small sector of the vast area spread out before us, and subject it to a more detailed examination. We will deal particularly and exclusively with the "religious journalism" of the Restoration Movement, beginning with Walter Scott and Alexander Campbell, and coining on down to the latest journals of our own day. But even this field is so vast, and the periodicals which have flourished and then faded are so many that we are compelled to omit many of even great importance without so much as naming them. Let no one think, therefore, that what you shall hear tonight is a "history," or anything like a full account of the religious journalism of the Restoration Movement. Within the general stream of the Restoration, comprising both the churches of Christ and the disciples of Christ, counting all factions and segments of both groups, and counting also the factions which have bloomed for awhile and then withered and wilted away, the number of religious periodicals that have existed would have to be numbered in the hundreds — at least fifty or sixty of them, have achieved the stature of organs having well nigh national circulation. Out of this great accumulation, we will deal with less than a dozen journals.

Once again, let us further narrow the field. It will be impossible to even refer to, much less discuss, the long list of controversies and problems which have filled the pages of these journals through the one-hundred-and-fifty years of their existence. It would be a thrilling story, yet one that must remain untouched, to give the history of how some of these great papers were started, their struggles, their triumphs and their failures; their battles for truth, and sometimes, sadly enough, their battles for error. We would love to tell of the valiant men wha have guided their destinies and shaped their policies. All of this would make fascinating material for a lecture like this, but it must remain for another time and another man. In the course of this study I am limiting myself to one facet of the history of Restoration journalism, indeed, to one small area of one facet. But this one thing is crucial and vital. It has influenced perhaps as much as any single factor in all the thousands that might be mentioned. I will state my field of study in the form of a thesis. And here it is:

"An 'open forum' policy in religious journalism, permitting free, full ,and brotherly discussion of differences by men who hold diverse views on any given subject has generally tended toward resolving the differences and promoting unity; conversely, a `closed door' policy, permitting presentation of only one point of view, or 'one side' of controversial matters, rigidly excluding material on the other side, has generally tended toward the building of a sect and the promoting of discord and division." Christian Baptist

We begin our study with the Christian Baptist, founded by Alexander Campbell in 1823, and continuing on until 1830. In the preface of the very first volume of that organ Campbell wrote:

"We have learned that to make truth the sole object of our inquiries, and to be disposed to obey it, when known, serves more to guide us into it than all commentators. We have been taught that we are liable to err; we have found ourselves in many errors; we candidly acknowledge that we have changed our views on many subjects, and that our views have changed our practice. If it be a crime to change our views and our practice in religious concerns, we must certainly plead guilty." (Christian Baptist, Preface, Vol. I)

This set the tone for this first serious attempt in the field of religious journalism by a leading Reformer. His paper was to be the propagandist for no school of thought, no organization, no vested interests. He would seek neither to promote nor condemn anything at all, unless led to do so by the interest of truth. There would be no apology for any change in his convictions, or his practice; neither would there be any whining denial that he had changed. He hoped to address his paper to intelligent people; not to simpletons and sycophants. If the search for truth led him to repudiate or abandon some formerly held conviction or practice, he would not hesitate for a single minute to do so.

Campbell repudiated omniscience both for himself and for his co-workers; he was not infallible, neither was any other. Therefore, he recognized the possibility that something written or said, some position taken and advanced, might conceivably be in error. He would press his views with all the vigor and strength at his command; but would leave the door open for any honorable disagreement with what he had written. So he stated,

"If, however, on any occasion anything should be exhibited as a fact which is not a fact, we pledge ourselves to give publicity to any statement, decently written, tending to disprove any such alleged facts." (Christian Baptist, Vol. I, Preface)

And again,

"We have only to assure every one who may read this work, that any article, written in proper style, by any person, clergyman or layman, in opposition to any sentiment expressed, shall be received with pleasure and correctly inserted. We will give every opportunity to our readers to judge for themselves; for we have never yet been afraid to publish the remarks of our warmest opposers; nor could we ever yet see the propriety of laying an embargo on the ears of those who hear, lest they should be misled." (Christian Baptist, Vol. II, page 6)

To Campbell the search for truth was like knighthood's search for the Holy Grail. There was no price too great to pay; no labor too arduous or exacting; no sacrifice too demanding if in the end the holy truth of God shone forth. Social prestige, ecclesiastical preferment, praise and popularity of men meant nothing to him. He truly lived by the axiom later set to verse by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"Though love repine, and reason chafe, There came a voice without reply,

'Tis man's perdition to be safe, When for the truth he ought to die."

The results of this total dedication to truth were clearly seen in the brief history of the Christian Baptist. Her pages were filled with controversy, but through it all there was a steady climbing out of the darkness of sectarianism and denominational shibboleths; a fixed and true course toward the primitive purity of the New Testament church. Campbell commented on his "open door" policy by saying:

"Many of those who have opposed us in one way or another have been convinced." (Christian Baptist, Vol. V, Preface.)

(To Be Continued)

F. Y. T.