Where did all the liberal churches go? When? How? How it all began.

For many years of my life, I worked in media for national and international church organizations. I wasn’t quite a believer, but I was convinced that the world was in need of justice and love, and the work I did was calculated to bring that about. We were the left wing of the church, its liberal side, and our opposition was fundamentalist, evangelical, right wing, all that and more. At some point, I moved to Vermont and took my social action to the local level, as they say, working in a history museum. And a few decades later, I looked up and discovered  that something called the tea party had evolved and the only church anyone ever heard about was the right wing. The passionately devout people I had worked with who wanted to “make justice flow down like living waters” were no longer visible. The churches I’d known seemed to have disappeared. What happened; where had they gone?

For the next few days, I’m going to be in New York without a computer of my own, and so I thought I’d put a couple of posts up that take us back to the mainstream churches as they were in the United States at the start of the 20th century. Full of evangelical zeal, but also hungry for justice. Fascinated by the pagan “other” at the same time as they wanted to feed, clothe and convert him. Immersed in the new technologies, by photography and motion pictures. Setting out to change the world.

They were to be disappointed then, but now—now they seem to have nearly disappeared. I’m not planning to turn this blog into a search for them. That will come at another place and time. But this may be as good a place as any to start.


The Luminists

They said it couldn’t be done but there it was, a huge projector humming and buzzing with the wind from six fans to cool two 125 ampere lanterns. Six perspiring luminists labored over the mammoth mechanism, drawing one 5” x 7” slide through and then the next, projecting picture after picture on the 10,000 square foot eight-story-high screen. Thousands of people watched, horrified by the marriage of an Indian child bride to her elderly bridegroom, and thrilled at the baptism of hundreds of Indian villagers. Godfrey George Godwin was delighted all over again with the biggest lantern slide projector in the world: how wonderful that a magic lantern could paint the screen with facts. No one could distance themselves from this show. How could they fail to recognize the truth in the pictures in front of them?
G. G. Godwin loved photographs. He liked shooting them; he liked looking at them. Here was life captured and held fast—he studied it, was warmed by it, grieved for it and rejoiced with it. Above all, it was life he could take and infuse into the vision he wanted to communicate to the world. G. G. was a faithful and enthusiastic Christian and his vision was of a world saved by his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. His was not a Jesus he needed to appeal to for his own salvation: he had no doubt at all that he was saved. He had grown up in a Protestant parsonage, and sooner than he was able to read, sooner even than he was able to walk or talk, he had known that he was loved by God. No, G. G.’s Jesus was the embodied love of God who would save all the people photographed and—it went without saying—all the people looking at the photographs.
And so, on June 18, 1919, the first night of The Great Church Exposition in Columbus, Ohio, and every night thereafter for a month, the biggest lantern slide images in the world instructed Christians about the plight of the heathen and the missionary achievements of their church. The magnitude of the images moved the audience to exclamations of wonder. After the show, some of the gentlemen walked over to examine the projector. Thumbs-notched-in-suspenders, hats-tipped-back, they considered its mechanics while the six luminists, who were carefully shutting the machine down part by moving part, patiently answered their questions.
On other nights, a movie projector of similar girth ground out Lowell Thomas’s travelogues of the Holy Land. Many of the images were taken from an aeroplane and some even included war scenes. The audience, most of them churchgoers who were uncertain of the propriety of motion pictures and had seen very few, ducked and bobbed as the planes soared and dove across the screen. Their forebears had forbidden their children to read novels because they weren’t true. Movies made the line between truth and falsehood even more difficult to discern. But it had become clear that they must reconsider the medium since motion pictures, in the right hands, could apparently be used to report the truth. The right kinds of movies could be shown in church basements instead of peep shows and vaudeville houses.
A few people also began to understand that these pictures, with all their tricks of fade-outs, double images and odd and multiple perspectives, could be made to reproduce experiences of the supernatural and the transcendent. It was more difficult to say what that had to do with truth, if anything at all.