Vol. I, No. 1, of The Living Church: An Appreciation, of Sorts

A description of TLC’s digitization project appeared yesterday.

By Kirk Petersen

I enjoy telling people, usually to their surprise, that The Living Church has been published continuously since 1878. For years I’ve wanted to see the very first issue, but TLC didn’t own a copy. Thanks to modern technology and to the Bishop Payne Library at the Virginia Theological Seminary, we now possess digitized, searchable issues from the earliest years.

Volume I, Number 1, is dated November 2, 1878 — a 24-page issue edited by Samuel S. Harris, D.D., and John Fulton, D.D., who could not have imagined they were launching a publication that would endure for 144 years, and counting.

To be frank, the first issue provides few clues about why the magazine has enjoyed such longevity. To modern sensibilities, some of the editorial choices seem bizarre.

The cover is a full-page, text-only advertisement for Jansen, McLurg & Co., a Chicago bookseller that stayed in business until 1962. Few if any of the dozen-plus blurbs for books reveal any obvious religious theme. Page 2 is crowded with 17 small ads for books, jewelry, wigs, aprons, and more.

The absence of a picture leaves room for a thousand words. More than 1,200, actually.

Page 3 is the opening article — three oppressive gray columns of uninterrupted text, beginning with a tiny one-column headline and subhead: “News and Notes — ABROAD.” Not exactly clickbait. Similar walls of text consume 14 entire pages, and parts of several others. Throughout the magazine, the only illustrations or bold headlines are in advertisements.

Keep in mind that this is the very first issue of a magazine focused on what was then “the Protestant Episcopal Church.” How does the lead article begin?

“THE Eastern Question which was to have been settled by the Treaty of Berlin, seems to be as much a question as ever. The situation may be briefly summarized as follows: All Turkey is in a condition of lawlessness and discontent. Wherever Mahometan power is in the ascendant, the abuses against which Christian Europe protested, are even worse than before the late war.”

The geopolitical analysis continues into the second column of text, where we finally find an Anglican reference: “THE eighteenth Congress of the Church of England, held recently at Sheffield, deserves more than a passing notice.” The meandering paragraph includes the full titles of eight discussion topics from the program, starting with “Foreign and Colonial Missions, their Condition, Organization, and Prosperity.” Nothing specific about what was said, mind you — just the titles, and some vaguely snarky commentary.

Midway through the next page, we find our first mention of the Episcopal Church, under a tiny subhead: “AT HOME.”

“THE first event to be chronicled among our notes of home intelligence is the advent of this journal,” it begins. We learn that TLC is an evolution of a monthly Diocese of Illinois newspaper called The Diocese. “Under the direction of Dr. Leffingwell, The Diocese, afterward called The Province, became the brightest monthly newspaper in the country.”

The bright Dr. Charles Wesley Leffingwell edited TLC from 1880 to 1900, but you won’t find his full name in the article. The magazine also apparently was beginning a style of referring to bishops only as “Bishop McLaren,” “Bishop Burgess,” et cetera, along with identifying the diocese. (Quick: What’s the first name of the bishop two dioceses to the east or west of you?)

Despite giving short shrift to their names, TLC was unambiguously pro-bishop.

“No men, we believe, have higher views of the authority of Bishops than the editors of The Living Church. … the Bishop is, by virtue of his office, the canonical judge of everything. … The Living Church will gladly serve the Bishops, and will still more gladly strive to earn their approbation. Nothing we can do to help them in their apostolic work will be left undone. No man shall attack them in our columns.”

The current editors of TLC also hold many bishops in high regard, but we seek to “serve” only the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and the Almighty.

Here’s a passage that resonates today, describing the “two great parties arrayed against each other” in the Episcopal Church:

“There is still a Low Church tradition and a High Church tradition. … Out of the latter there has sprung the retrogressive tendency to [medievalism] in doctrine, practice and worship; out of the former comes the far more deep and silent tendency — full alike of peril and of hope — to reconsider all old questions in the light of modern criticism and scientific fact.”

Another foreshadowing of recent events:

“Yellow fever is a specific poison of exotic origin. Its habitat is within the tropics, and it is safe to say that it never originates within the United States. … The General Government should at once establish a Department of Public Health … to maintain a rigid quarantine against infected foreign ports, employing the naval forces, if necessary, to enforce it.”

Church governance meetings these days often begin with an acknowledgement that the meeting occurs on land taken without compensation from specific Indigenous tribes. This is part of a broader effort to atone for the church’s past sins. The first issue provides a window into the attitudes that gave birth to those sins:

“The Indians have been on the war-path again. Something ails them. What is it? What is the evil, and what the remedy? Possibly the evil and the ailment are not the red man’s only. … It is perfectly certain that whether the Indians are to blame or not, the authority which ought to control them is responsible for their behavior.”

I could go on, but it’s time now to end on a note more respectful to the editors who founded a resilient organization that helps sustain my body and soul. That first issue gave voice to an aspiration that still inspires us more than 14 decades later. It’s a guiding principle that has come to be known as communion across difference.

“On this first day of its existence, The Living Church desires to be distinctly understood. It is not, and under its present management it cannot be made, the organ of any school or party in the Church, and just as little will it be the enemy of any. In their work for Christ, it is the friend of all; and if in free discussion it finds reason to oppose the views or purposes of any of them, it will do so with a glad remembrance that we are all the sons of one beloved Mother.”

These days, of course, we also remember the daughters.



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