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Journalism Historians and Religion


Rise of the Corruption Story

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Breakthrough of the Oppression Story


16th-,17th-, and 18th-Century Moral Tales
Journalism Historians and Religion
Methodological Notes
Defending the Corruption Story

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As the research behind this book suggests, all interpretive journalism has a religious or philosophical component. Any story that goes beyond "who/what/ when/where/how" into "why" stirs up questions of meaning and causality. Those questions are essentially religious (or "world view," if we are scrupulous about restricting the term religion to beliefs pertaining to a deity). Therefore, historians should examine how presuppositions have influenced action, both in earlier times and in our own century as well; few, however, have. This appendix provides a brief overview of the oversights.


The tendency among journalism historians to stand apart from independent journalism's biblical base began early. American journalism's first two major historians, Isaiah Thomas and Frederic Hudson, were not Christian believers, and they tended to be embarrassed by the origins of American journalistic practice. Nevertheless, they did pay some attention to a historical record that in those days was too recent to forget.

Isaiah Thomas, author in 1810 of the massive History of Printing in America, worshipped liberty and economic progress. He saw America as the leading manifestation of both. He showed his commitment through courageous action as a leading Patriot printer and editor during the American Revolution. Thomas never showed much interest in the Bible; he had been apprenticed to a printer who cared little about Christianity and knew less.[1] (The apprentice may also have been understandably hostile to the Puritan heritage because his great grandfather was hanged as a witch.) Bored with catechisms, Thomas was in a rush to go on to things more exciting, in his case deism and an Enlightenment sense of having progressed "beyond" the Bible.[2]

Yet, Thomas' bias did not keep him from conscientiously recording specific detail concerning the religious connections of early printer/journalists. His listing of what was printed is valuable in itself. Titles such as "Speedy Repentance Urged," a news report/sermon about a murderer, "With certain Memorable Providence, relating to some other murders," show practical applications of a Christian world view.[3] But Thomas went beyond the bare essentials to comment about the religious underpinnings of journalistic pioneers such as Samuel Kneeland,[4] Richard Draper,[5] and others. Thomas sympathetically portrayed men such as Bartholomew Green, first printer and second owner of the Boston News-Letter, and "a very humble and exemplary Christian" with a "tender sympathy to the poor and afflicted."[6]

Thomas' history was standard for many decades. At mid-century, Joseph T. Buckingham and James Parton wrote about some journalistic personalities,[7] but the second general history, Frederic Hudson's Journalism in the United States from 1690 to 1872, did not emerge until the Gilded Age."[8] Hudson, like Thomas, tended to identify journalistic progress with religious regress, but his book was also like Thomas' in that concern for accurate detail and recording of crucial documents often seemed to overcome bias. For example, Hudson reprinted the entire first (and only) issue of Publick Occurrences, allowing attentive readers to see the way editor Benjamin Harris' stress on God's sovereignty affected his coverage of news items. Hudson also reprinted Andrew Hamilton's masterful speech at the 1735 Zenger trial, allowing readers to see the biblical basis of the Zenger defense.[9] Hudson even provided an autobiographical sketch of editor Nathaniel Willis[10] and briefly gave the history of some of New York's Christian newspapers.[11]

The third general history written in the 19th century, S. N. D. North's History and Present Condition of the Newspaper and Periodical Press of the United States, [12] was far below those by Thomas and Hudson in that it had a purely materialist emphasis. The first two historians both spotlighted the role of individual editors and their choices, but North-who had been commissioned by the U.S. Census Bureau to study newspapers for the 1880 census-saw the growth of newspapers almost purely in terms of industrialization and new technology. With statistical tables replacing discussion of ideas at North's inn, there was no room for discussion of religion's impact.


The first general history of journalism published in the 20th century, James Melvin Lee's History of American Journalism (1917), also reflected a developmental emphasis that ignored theological considerations.[13] It was methodologically similar to Thomas' century-old work in its tracing of printing's progress colony-by-colony (and territory-by-territory, and state-by-state, and so on, and so on). However, it lacked the patriot printer's fervor and pride. Lee apparently believed that "neutral" reporting was the highest journalistic calling. He was unable to appreciate journalists of an earlier age who saw world view context as vital. For example, Lee labeled the early l9th century-a time of great ideological debate in the press, with Christian-based publications dominant and editorial passion evident-as "the darkest period in the history of American journalism."[14] George Henry Payne's History of Journalism in the United States, [15] published only 3 years after Lee's, showed appreciation of the courage of some early Christian journalists. For example, Payne quoted Benjamin Harris' declaration on being sentenced to prison in England for publishing a work openly critical of the King-"I hope God will give me patience to go through with it"-and wrote that, "There is something of the best of American journalism in that simple declaration."[16] Yet, although Payne praised "the democratic tendency that came with Christianity,"[17] he was conventional in his criticism of Puritanism,[18] and evidently viewed religion as a vestigial organ of the body politic.

The next author of a general journalism history, Willard Bleyer, wanted that organ surgically removed. In his Main Currents of American Journalism (1927), Bleyer equated "Church" with "restrictions on freedom of discussion,"[19] and ignored differences among church traditions. Bleyer, essentially a developmental historian, had the elite Progressive belief that the "unthinking masses" were ruled by emotion and primitive faith.[20] The goal of journalists, as members of the enlightened class, was to point the way to social reform. Bleyer wanted to make sure that future developments in journalism would reflect the high points of the progressive past: In the 1930s he argued for professional licensing of journalists and for legal requirements that newspapers be run in what was defined as the public interest.[21]

Some popular critics and historians of the 1920s and 1930s also fostered hostility to the idea of Christian influence in journalism history. Oswald Garrison Villard, in Some Newspapers and Newspaper-Men, attacked Christian belief and twisted Bible passages to promote an early version of liberation theology. Villard wrote that "There are plain masses seeking a journalistic Moses to clarify their minds, to give them a program of reconstruction, a moral issue through which to rebuild a broken-down society."[22] George Seldes similarly examined recent newspaper history and saw press, church, and "big business" embracing each other adulterously.[23]

Both academic and popular progressive historians more and more seemed to consider Christianity a conservative ally of the upper class, and therefore a reactionary foe of the masses' drive for equality. A new publication during the inter-war period, Journalism Quarterly, showed some of the same tendencies and (probably reflecting the lack of interest among journalism professors) ignored the Reformation origins of American journalism. However, one article did go on at great length about an early deistic editor.[24]


Frank Luther Mott, the leading journalism historian of the 1940s and 1950s, expressed scorn for George Seldes' acceptance of inaccuracy. He wrote of one Seldes book that "the way to read our author is to forget about facts and concentrate on the gyrations of flashing mind and a violent set of emotions."[25] Mott showed, in his large, general text American Journalism,[26] that he never met a fact about journalism history he didn't like-and, therefore, the Christian heritage did receive some mention. Mott noted that from 1801 to 1833 "a phenomenon of the times was the `religious newspaper,' a weekly journal which printed some secular news [and] often competed successfully with the secular papers .... Many of these papers were conducted with great vigor and ability."[27]

Mott, however, refused to see religious influences as in any way significant for the larger development of journalism, and thus left many important stories incomplete. For example, Mott wrote that in the Courant inoculation debate Episcopalians were lining up on one side and Calvinists such as the Mathers on the other-but Mott did not see, or did not explain, how journalistic visions grew out of theological distinctives.[28] He did not explain the role of religion in the Harris or Zenger episodes, or in many other controversies as well. In short, Mott deserves great credit for his perseverance in scholarship, but his developmental perspective led him to believe that as newspapers became more "professional" they would leave world views behind. Thus, his discussion of more recent decades ignored religion entirely, except to note the existence of some ghettoized churchly publications. The tendency was still to equate the dominant American religious heritage with suppression of thought and opposition to press freedom.


It is no wonder, given Mott's scholarship but density, that a new, simpler textbook of the 1950s, Edwin Emery's The Press and America, now in its sixth edition, was able to sweep the field.[29] The Press and America was widely accepted not only for its ease of presentation, but because the text's liberalism, materialism, and emphasis on class struggle fit perfectly with academic orthodoxy of recent decades. Power, the book informed students, is "grasped by one class at the expense of another."[30] Politics is a battle of "the rights of property versus the rights of the individual."[31] The American Revolution began because journalists and others saw "the need for a realignment of class power.[32] In one astounding paragraph about the Revolution. The Press and America five times brought in "class struggle . . . class conflict . . . class struggle . . . class leaders . . . a class insisting upon a greater share of control."[33] This struggle continued into the early twentieth century, when "crusaders for social justice" fought against "unrestricted economic individualism."[34]

The book's historical materialism included a treatment of religion as superstructure and material as base. The Press and America termed Puritan theology "religious double talk" and equated it with the antebellum slavery debate as "the basket in which all the differences of peoples, regions, and ideologies could be carried."[35] The few mentions of religion showed the authors accepting stereotypes that historians who took theology seriously long had discredited. For example, The Press and America equated Calvinism with a gospel of prosperity, in which money is the sign of "having passed through the eye of the needle into the circle of the elect."[36] (In reality, Calvinists frequently warned about the snares of wealth: "Riches are no part of your felicity," Richard Baxter wrote; "riches are nothing but plentiful provision for tempting corruptible flesh."[37])

The Press and America, influential because it was so widely used as a textbook, was one of many works that emphasized the relation of media and society. Books by Sidney Kobre also tried to take into account cultural forces, but in practice Christian influence received only minor attention in his books, and the attention it received was as negative as that in Emery. For example, Kobre wrote of the problems faced by those "who dared defy the wrath of the Puritan clergy and the royal governor," as if those were one force.[38]

The few Journalism Quarterly articles that touched on religious/historical aspects during the 1950s and 1960s often mixed progressivism with theological know-nothingism. This approach probably reflected the general ignorance of, or antipathy toward, Christianity among many professional historians.[39] For example, Howard H. Fogel in 1960 was amazed that Cotton Mather campaigned for a colonial charter following the downfall of royal governor Sir Edmund Andros: "His agreement and acceptance of the Charter and his subsequent fighting for it seems remarkable considering how limited the role of the clergy in the government's affairs would be."[40] That was not at all remarkable, because Reformation political theory required a limited role for the clergy in government, but Fogel was echoing the prejudice that a free press must have emerged in a battle against "theocracy."[41]

A few other articles published during the 1950s and 1960s also looked at journalism history and religion. Henry S. Stroupe, in "The Beginning of Religious Journalism in North Carolina, 1823-1865," related the Christian press to religious reawakening.[42] Elizabeth Barnes described religion's role in an early 19th-century magazine, the Panoplist.[43] John M. Havas gave background on The Journal of Commerce.[44] Robert Lee assessed the relationship of Yale College president Timothy Dwight and an early Christian publication, the Boston Palladium.[45] Donald F. Brod in 1965 examined press coverage of the Scopes trial four decades before, but missed major issues.[46] A book by Stroupe profiled 159 antebellum religious publications of the South Atlantic states.[47]

In addition, a few dissertations and monographs produced during the late 1960-, and 1970-, provided useful information about some specialized Protestant publications. William Jesse Stone, Jr., in "A Historical Survey of Leading Texas Denominational Newspapers: 1846-1861," noted that in many Texas antebellum issues "the `news hole' content was often as much secular as sacred."[48] Alfred Roger Gobbel, in "The Christian Century: Its Editorial Policies and Positions, 1908-1966," examined that magazine's attempt to merge Christianity and liberalism.[49] Claude W. Summerlin, in "A History of Southern Baptist State Newspapers," narrated developments from 1802 through 1967.[50] Wesley Norton's published history of early 19th-century Midwest newspapers showed how they helped to shape public thought on a host of moral issues.[51] Robert W. Ross' So It Was True: The American Protestant Press and the Nazi Persecution of the Jews, showed that Protestant denominations publications reported news of Nazi atrocities, but could not quite grasp the full extent of depravity. [52]

Also worth noting are publications specializing in the Jewish and Catholic journalistic heritages in America. Two articles by Sidney Kobre on Mordecai Noah, and a biography of Noah published in 1936, were milestones before 1980.[53] In 1981, Jonathan D. Sarna produced a book-length examination of Noah's attempt to harmonize minority identity, national allegiance, and political editing.[54] Then came an intriguing article by Kathryn T. Theus on mid-19th-century Reform Jewish newspapers.[55] Other recent works deserving mention include Mary Lonan Reilly's examination of the history of the Catholic Press Association,[56] and M. R. Real's overview of specialized Catholic publications.[57] Robert Peel showed how the Christian Science Monitor was founded in response to sensational attacks on Mary Baker Eddy by McClure's and by Joseph Pulitzer's World.[58] In 1980, Harold H. Osmer's U.S. Religious Journalism and the Korean War examined the reaction of specialized religious publications to communism and containment.[59] A reference work, Religious Periodicals in the United States, profiled various publications.[60] Quentin J. Schultze has done fine work on Christian broadcasting; his recent article, "Evangelical Radio and the Rise of the Electronic Church, 1921-1948," showed how evangelical Christians, despite restrictive network and regulatory policies, built audiences through creative programming.[61]

These points of light were very welcome, but they still tended to examine what could be called marginalized religion. It was good to have information about publications of and about various groups, but only a few historians have been writing articles examining the impact of world views on the journalistic mainstream; their work is footnoted in various parts of this book. I do hope that my overview, as a whole, will encourage more detailed work on mainstream beliefs.

Journalism history textbooks, it should be noted, are not alone in having dropped down the memory hole Christianity's central role in American history. In 1986, a National Institute of Education study of 60 representative pre-college social studies textbooks found Christianity virtually excluded.[62] In books for Grades 1 through 4 that introduced children to an understanding of American society, researcher Paul Vitz and his associates found not a single word about Christianity. Fifth-grade history texts made it appear that religious life ceased to exist in America about a century ago. Fundamentalists were described as people who followed an ancient agricultural way of life. Pilgrims were defined as "people who took long trips." Some journalism history textbooks are more sophisticated but not different in kind. Should we laugh? Should we cry? No, we should get to work.

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1. Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America, with a Biography of Printers and an Account of Newspapers, 2nd Ed. (Albany, NY, 1874), vol. 1, p. xxiv. Masters were supposed to instruct their apprentices in matters theological as well as occupational, and Thomas reports that his master gave him "a weekly lesson . . . by rote merely." The master asked "the question from the catechism `What are the decrees of God;' I answered I could not tell, and then, boylike, asked him what they were. He read the answer from the book. I was of the opinion he knew as little about the matter as myself."

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., vol. II, p. 332.

4. Ibid., vol. I, p. 109.

5. Ibid., p. 147.

6. Quoted from the Boston NewsLetter, January 4, 1733.

7. Neither Buckingham [Specimens of Newspaper Literature: With Personal Memoirs, Anecdotes, and Reminiscences, (1850)], nor Parton [The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (1864)], provided any systematic examination.

8. Frederick Hudson, Journalism in the United States from 1690 to 1872 (New York, 1873).

9. Ibid., p. 89.

10. Ibid., pp. 289-293.

11. Ibid., pp. 296-305.

12. S. N. D. North, History and Present Condition . . . (Washington, DC, 1884).

13. James Melvin Lee, History of American Journalism (Garden City, NY, 1917).

14. Ibid., p. 143.

15. George Henry Payne, History of Journalism in the United States (New York, 1920).

16. Ibid., p. 21. Payne also described Harris reading the Bible while on the ship taking him to Boston. Payne himself showed a liberal deism in writing of how "humanity could be led to reverence the Deity through the simple processes of Eternal Law, unfolding and unraveling man's liberty, equality and happiness." (p. 11).

17. Ibid., p. 2.

18. Ibid., p. 11.

19. Willard G. Bleyer, Main Currents in the History of American Journalism (Cambridge, 1927), p. 2.

20. Ibid., p. 2.

21. See Bleyer, "Journalism in the United States: 1933," Journalism Quarterly 10 (1933), pp. 290-301, and "Freedom of the Press and the New Deal," Journalism Quarterly 11 (1934), pp. 22-35.

22. Villard, Some Newspapers and Newspapermen (New York, 1923), p. 314.

23. See George Seldes, Lords of the Press (New York, 1945).

24. For example, see Chester E. Jorgenson, "A Brand Flung at Colonial Orthodoxy," Journalism Quarterly 12 (1935), pp. 272-277. Jorgenson looked at what he saw as the positive side of colonial printer Samuel Keimer: In Keimer's deism "superstition has given place to science," and "Calvin's wrathful and petulant God" was no more. Jorgenson applauded Keimer for "extolling reasonableness rather than saintliness, nature rather than scripture, humanitarian service rather than the spiritual ascent of the individual . . ." (In this Jorgenson differed from Benjamin Franklin, quoted in Thomas, I, 233; Franklin sympathized with Keimer's expressed theology but observed that Keimer "was a great knave at heart, that he possessed no particular religion, but a little of all upon occasion.")

25. Review of The Facts Are in Journalism Quarterly 20 (December, 1943), pp. 335-336.

26. Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism (New York: Macmillan, 1950).

27. Ibid., p. 206.

28. Ibid., pp. 1617.

29. Henry Ladd Smith was coauthor of the first edition; Michael Emery is now coauthor.

30. Michael Emery and Edwin Emery, The Press and America, sixth edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1988), p. 13.

31. Ibid., p. 106.

32. Ibid., p. 58.

33. Ibid., p. 47.

34. Ibid., p. 245.

35. Ibid., p. 146.

36. Ibid., p. 20.

37. Richard Baxter, Chapters from a Christian Directory, ed. Jeannette Tawney (London, 1925), p. 50.

38. Sidney Kobre, Development of American Journalism (Dubuque, 1969), p. 3; see also pp. 5, 6, 24, 154. Kobre did write two articles on the remarkable Jewish editor of the early nineteenth century, Mordecai Noah; see Kobre, "The Editor Who Freed Hostages," Media History Digest 1, 2 (1981), pp. 55-57, 60.

39. My coauthored book Turning Point, with Herbert Schlossberg (Westchester, Il., 1987), notes some recent examples of academic bias.

40. Howard H. Fogel, "Colonial Theocracy and a Secular Press," Journalism Quarterly 37 (Autumn, 1960), pp. 525-532. Fogel wrote that "A theocracy, by definition closed and narrow, does not favor an inquisitive mind" (p. 527)but doesn't that depend on the type of theocracy, and on whether it is clericocratic or bibliocratic?

41. Ibid.

42. North Carolina Historical Review 30 (January, 1953), pp. 122.

43. Elizabeth Barnes, "The Panoplist: 19th-Century Religious Magazine," Journalism Quarterly 36 (Summer, 1959), pp. 321325.

44. John M. Havas, "Commerce and Calvinism: The Journal of Commerce, 18271865," Journalism Quarterly 38 (Winter, 1961), pp. 8486.

45. Robert E. Lee, "Timothy Dwight and the Boston Palladium," New England Quarterly 35 (1962), pp. 229239.

46. Donald F. Brod, "The Scopes Trial: A Look at Press Coverage after Forty Years," Journalism Quarterly 42 (Spring, 1965), pp. 219227. Brod's dissertation, "Church, State, and Press: TwentiethCentury Episodes in the United States" (University of Minnesota, 1969), was a more extensive examination of the Scopes trial and three other events concerning churchstate relations. For a different view of the Scopes trial, see my article "When World Views Collide: Journalists and the Great Monkey Trial," American Journalism 4 (1987), pp. 133-146.

47. Henry Smith Stroupe, The Religious Press in the South Atlantic States, 1802-1865. An Annotated Bibliography with Historical Introduction and Notes (Durham, NC, 1956).

48. William Jesse Stone, Jr., "A Historical Survey of Leading Texas Denominational Newspapers: 18461861," PhD. dissertation, The University of Texas, 1974.

49. Alfred Roger Gobbel, "The Christian Century: Its Editorial Policies and Positions, 1908-1966," PhD. dissertation, University of Illinois, 1967.

50. Claude W. Summerlin, "A History of Southern Baptist State Newspapers," PhD. dissertation, University of Missouri, 1968.

51. Wesley Norton, Religious Newspapers in the Old Northwest to 1861: A History, Bibliography, and Record of Opinion (Athens, 1977).

52. Robert W. Ross, So It Was True (Minneapolis, 1980).

53. Isaac Goldberg, Major Noah, AmericanJewish Pioneer (Philadelphia, 1936).

54. Jonathan D. Sarna Jacksonian Jew: The Two Worlds of Mordecai Noah (New York, 1981).

55. Kathryn T. Theus, "From Orthodoxy to Reform: Assimilation and the Jewish-English Press of Mid-Nineteenth Century America," American Journalism 1, 2 (1984), pp. 1526.

56. Mary Lonan Reilly, "A History of the Catholic Press Association 1911-1968," PhD. dissertation, Notre Dame University, 1970.

57. M. R. Real, "Trends in Structure and Policy in the American Catholic Press," Journalism Quarterly 52 (Spring, 1975), pp. 265-271.

58. Robert Peel, Mary Baker Eddy: The Years ofAuthority (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1977). Earlier works on the Monitor include Erwin D. Canham, Commitment to Freedom: The Story of the Christian Science Monitor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958) and John A. Klempner, "A Newspaper in Dissonance: The Christian Science Monitor Election Coverage, 1928 and 1960," Ph.D. dissertation, Michigan State University, 1960.

59. Harold H. Osmer, U.S. Religious Journalism and the Korean War (Washington, 1980).

60. Charles H. Lippy, ed., Religious Periodicals in the United States (Westport, Connecticut, 1986).

61. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 32 (Summer, 1988).

62. Paul Vitz, Religion and Traditional Values in Public School Textbooks (Washington, DC, 1986).