Schlect presents paper at conference
Earlier this month, our fellow of history, Christopher Schlect, traveled to Sacramento to deliver a paper at the 2015 conference of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association. Schlect is now back in Moscow and presented an expanded version of the paper to NSA faculty and graduate students at NSA’s graduate forum on August 26. Here is a brief synopsis.
Print Culture and Protestant Culture in the Early 20th Century
Author: Christopher R. Schlect
A church’s bulletin is “excellent for cementing the thought of the people to the church,” claimed Herbert H. Smith. Smith marveled at how the faithful were transforming their religious communities though their printing activities. When he wrote these words in the early 1920s, most American Protestants received a printed bulletin when they entered a house of worship on Sunday mornings. At the time, this development was as new to their religious routine as arriving to worship by automobile. Churches enlisted small-time Hearsts and Pulitzers as religious workers who inked and turned the drums of table-top duplicating machines, turning out bulletins, calendars, newsletters, fliers and form letters. Thus they forged a new print culture that reshaped their communities in two important ways. First, mainstream Protestants moved away from personal ways of forming religious community to impersonal ones. Second, they cast aside their longstanding practice of ordaining women to formal ecclesiastical offices.
Historians have long observed how, at around the turn of the 20th century, print supported the construction of a national identity. Modern financing and distribution networks allowed publishers, writers and advertisers to set their values into print and place them on coffee tables from coast to coast. This paper describes a similar process at work in local church contexts. In the 1910s, savvy marketers began pitching their table-top duplicators to church leaders, who eagerly introduced them into their congregations. Pastors discovered that form letters and newsletters could reach parishioners more efficiently than traditional door-to-door visitation. Parishioners began identifying with one another through their shared experience of reading about local church life. They participated vicariously in church activities they had not personally attended by reading about them. In previous eras, the Protestant faithful had defined sacred communities around face-to-face Sunday gatherings—by hearing sermons, singing hymns, praying together, and by other ritual acts. Now, Protestants shaped congregational identity by printing paper, disseminating and reading it.
These developments also contributed to the rise of women’s ordination within mainstream Protestantism. By this time, Protestants were well familiar with theological and biblical arguments for women’s ordination; such arguments had circulated widely since the mid-1800s. This paper explains why their resistance to these old arguments crumbled in the 1910s and ‘20s. The shift had less to do with theological arguments, or with decline in conventional attitudes about masculinity and femininity, than with the rapidly expanding domain of church administration. Because the operation of small duplicating machines was a new activity, such work entered church life without any preconceived gendered associations with “man’s work” or “women’s work.” The gendered ambiguity of printing work opened new opportunities for women to perform what was considered an important ecclesiastical function. They performed this function in church offices, which emerged in church buildings as new workspaces that, by the 1920s, had eclipsed the traditional pastor’s study as the headquarters of local ecclesiastical activity. Thus the advent of print culture, and of the church workspaces that serviced it, opened new pathways for women to carry out “the Lord’s work,” work that Protestants invested with formal ecclesiastical dignity.