Getting Depressed By Yearbooks, Again (Sort of)

By Jeff Gill

Being a bit of a history geek, I was tracing developments a century ago in the congregation I serve. This had me reading through old Yearbooks, 1914, 1915, 1918, 1923 (they’re all easy to find on Google Books, just look for Christian Church, American Home Missionary, and Yearbook as search terms).

It was kind of, well . . . depressing, in an unexpected way.

Perhaps you remember Derek last year talking about getting his new Disciples Yearbook:

He was, at least at first, a little bummed out. The numbers (with the help of a stats geek friend of his) are cratering for the objective measures, at least, for our institutional life. We’ve gotten a newer Yearbook in the last few weeks, most of us, and the rate of descent is still, in Tom Wolfe’s description of the Mercury astronauts returning to earth, that of a ring of car keys flung onto a parking lot pavement. Anyhow.

Statistically, things 100 years ago were quite different. “Men and Millions” is the big thing back then (yeah, yeah, we’ll come back to that in a moment), and the relatively anonymous writers of most of the content, speaking quite self-consciously as the voice of our Brotherhood (okay, okay, I’m getting to that), are optimistic about being able to mark those millions in almost every category, if not now, then by the end of the decade or so. Remember, this is when a) “The Christian Century” was mainly our sandbox as a publication, and b) we were quite sure we were IN a Christian century. That theme’s been done, but it’s worth noting again.

Today, we have a million of just about nothing. A quarter mil in worship on an average Sunday, maybe realistically half a million members, but that’s probably not true today and won’t be tomorrow. Say 450,000 tops.

As “Men and Millions” was firing up to bring together the multitudinous, various, fractious programs of missions and education and “church extension” (as we called our building campaign and church planting program back then), there is clearly excitement in those long-deceased voices speaking from the page.

“Chief among the benefits accruing to the Society from the Men and Millions Movement is the wide and sympathetic hearing its work was given. Never have the great claims of the American Christian Missionary Society been presented to such multitudes as from the platform of the movement… The Joint Apportionment Committee was devised by the General Convention to mollify evils of competition growing out of multiplied missionary agencies. The Society has from the first championed the work with enthusiasm and its representative has served the committee this year with devotion. The present apportionment plan has failed to correct both the missionary myopia and the ‘lopsidedness’ in our churches. It begins to appear that if the churches are to be apportioned at all, the work should be done by a committee close enough to the local churches to be conversant with their ability… The remarkable results of the ‘Emergency Drive’ of the Men and Millions Movement not only revealed the large financial ability of the Disciples but points the way to better methods of calling it forth. Here again appears the wisdom of the county unit policy in our organizational scheme. The Joint Apportionment Committee is recommending through the Men and Millions Movement, The World-wide Every-Member Canvass, for an all inclusive budget for all the missionary, educational and benevolent agencies, to which the Society gives hearty approval.”

It goes on like that, pages and pages of it, in between the charts and lists and tables.

Sure, it’s dated language. Very Roaring Twenties, the religious side of The Great Gatsby, the not-so-creepy side of Elmer Gantry. But allowing for all that, the thing is: it’s so hopeful. So optimistic. And so certain that things will go a certain way.

And it’s not that they’re just affirming a status quo or a social quietism, either. Recommended reading lists for Sunday school teachers include Jacob Riis, author of “How the Other Half Lives,” and social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. The wording is most emphatically dated, but the passion is present to minister in minority communities of a wide variety of settings, from Bohemians in Cleveland (no, not those Bohemians) to Philippinos in California.

What the authors of this material don’t know, or are averting their eyes from, is the looming shadow of World War (the book “Preachers Present Arms” came to mind repeatedly); the racism and slavery behind what is called “Negro poverty” is unmentioned, although lynching is decried and economic opportunity is called for; and the eruption in 1920 of the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy” may have begun in Presbyterian circles, but it was clearly visible to Disciples leaders of the day: not so in these pages.

In the authorial tone of the century old Yearbooks, even though self-evidently written by many different hands and with an assortment of styles, the Stone-Campbell churches are one. The Restoration Movement, even though by 1906 clearly divided already between the “a capella” and instrumental branches, is spoken of as a single unified force whose drive and capacity will only flourish as that unity of purpose and action is focused.

The fracturing, of course, was already going on, between cooperatives and independents, progressives and traditionalists, northern and southern ways of being church and doing missions. The role of most minority groups was still, even with the best of intentions, that of being the object of mission efforts, not as autonomous subjects themselves; the role of women was . . . well, it’s complicated, but the Yearbook’s narrative still seems to have much in common with Matthew 14:21, telling us about great things, “not counting women and children.”

Really, it’s amazing how much unity we had for how long, given the depth of the divisions that soon would be revealed. And it’s also got to be the case, I believe, that the shock of what the institutions of our “Fellowship” (or Brotherhood) realized they had supported through the war-fervor against “the Huns” (oh yes they go there, and they go there hard, “threat to civilization” and all that, “enlist now, young men”…), all of which had to have made many if not most of our leaders say “we have to stop pretending.”

Because the tone does start to change in the late Twenties. You can blame it on the Depression, but it starts well before October of 1929. There’s plenty to praise and congratulate one another about in those years, but the relentless boosterism, the almost-manic sunny optimism, recedes. We lose some optimism, but get a bit more realism in our outlook. Sharing good news into America, across the world, is going to be hard, and we probably won’t figure it all out by 1999. The Disciples are starting to come to grips with just how fractured the world is, and that as a movement for wholeness, it’s going to take more than just a plea for unity based on the New Testament model that, frankly, we ourselves didn’t all agree on in detail.

Like Derek, I got depressed, but this time it was from reading those warm, cheery, happy, sunny, not just hopeful but utterly certain Yearbook reports from 1915 and vicinity. Then I had to think about it a while. And as he ultimately realized last year, in the end, we are as Christians, as Disciples of Christ, given a very particular gift, and that is to preach the Gospel to our particular context, in this specific era. (He said it with seven points and different language, but that’s how I took it.)

Who knows how our reports and Mission First! plans will look in 2115. It’s actually kind of helpful to ask that question of my own calling, this congregation’s mission, our denominational issues today. After smiling at the insouciance of 1915’s vision of the future, what will my take on where we’re going right now sound like in a hundred years? And does that tell me anything about what’s really moving towards wholeness in my plans if I ask it from that point of view?

That’s not exactly taking God’s perspective, but it’s getting closer.