Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Christian Century: Past, Present, and Future

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Christian Century: Past, Present, and Future

Article excerpt

It must have been an extraordinary time to be alive in the 1890's, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth. Karen Armstrong nicely characterized the beginning of the twentieth century in her book, The Case for God, (1) by telling about the confident optimism and the cheerful buoyancy of the Second International Congress of Mathematicians, which convened in Paris in 1900. German mathematician David Hilbert announced that there were just twenty-three outstanding problems in the Newtonian system, and, once these twenty-three remaining puzzles were solved, we would pretty much know everything there is to know about the universe. Hilbert went on to predict a century of unparalleled scientific progress. Permanent peace and prosperity seemed to be within reach. There appeared to be no limit to what human beings could and would accomplish. Virginia Woolf visited an exhibit of post-impressionist paintings and wrote, "In or about December, 1910, human nature changed." (2)

That same year, 1910, a World Missionary Conference was convened in Edinburgh, with 1,200 delegates from around the world gathering to talk about interchurch collaboration in the global missionary enterprise. The chairperson was American Methodist and lay ecumenist John R. Mott. Among the distinguished delegates were Lord Balfour, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and William Jennings Bryan, who spoke eloquently about global education as part of the mission project. Bryan, years before his humiliation and tragic demise in a small Tennessee courtroom, combined a speaking tour of Scotland with his service at the conference. Also present was Robert E. Speer, one of the saints of Presbyterianism; the President of Doshisha University in Japan, Tasuku Harada; G. Sherwood Eddy, evangelist and YMCA worker around the world; and the Bishop of the Church of Sweden. Taking it all in, as well, was a thirty-six-year-old American delegate, a minister in the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, Charles Clayton Morrison. Two years earlier he had purchased a floundering journal, The Christian Century, and "re-founded it." He wired back to Chicago an editorial, published on July 7, 1910, in which he described sitting in the drawing room of his host--the delegates were housed in Edinburgh homes--taking tea, his host saying that the conference was "about the biggest thing that ever struck Scotland." In fact, Morrison reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury looked around at the assembly and observed, "If men be weighted rather than counted, this assemblage has, I suppose, no parallel in the history of this or other lands."

The conference identified sectarian division among Christians as the most formidable obstacle to the global advancement of the Christian. Hope and optimism ran high. Morrison wrote: "Everyone feels the presence ... of a power, optimism ran high. Morrison wrote: "Everyone feels the presence ... of a power, not ourselves, deeper than our own devices, which is making for a triumphant advance of Christianity abroad ... the delegates [are] thrilled by the sense that the conference foreshadows a new era for the church at home." (3) He concluded:

   The theme of Christian unity is running through the whole
   conference like a subterranean stream. It breaks through the ground
   of any subject the conference may be considering, and bubbles on
   the surface for a time. It is almost the exception for a speaker to
   sit down without deploring our divisions. The missionaries are
   literally plaintive in their appeal that the church of Christ
   re-establish her long lost unity. (4)

It is perhaps not possible for us to recapture the optimism and hope of the first decade of the twentieth century. Developments in physics, biology, and mathematics would make human life better, healthier, and more free than it had ever been. Modern transport would bring the nations of the world closer to one another and, therefore, more inclined to be peaceful. …

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