My Reasons for Starting Renewal Magazine and The Movement It Failed to Sustain

I was hired by Don Benedict to create and run an exploratory program in journalism in Chicago beginning in the fall of 1961. This was an entirely novel opportunity and I do not exaggerate. Fortified by what was then a large endowment, Benedict could afford to experiment in an effort to renew and perhaps alter the trajectory of churches in the inner city.  It is not an exaggeration also to suggest I was uniquely qualified, not only with a degree from Union Seminary, but with over a decade of journalistic experience both at Exeter and Williams and on the New Republic. I plunged into the work and during the first months produced a series of radio documentaries on the inner city, covered the "murder" trial of Lee Arthur Hester and issued a special publication called the Albany Report which recounted the experience of Chicago ministers seeking to achieve racial justice in the deep South. I had spent the summer before coming to Chicago in the Student Interracial Ministry as assistant minister at Nashville's First Baptist Church, working for the late Kelly Miller Smith.  As a result I also toured Southern seminaries talking about the Nashville experience. All of this provides a clear backdrop for discussing the founding of Renewal Magazine and of the networks which at the time supported a measure of change in the churches. The impact of Dr. King and of those who were involved at the time was huge and the reason was not merely that the cause was just, but because the media of the time sensed the winds of change and were drawn to its agents. The story of Renewal cannot be told without noting the key role played by the interest of the media in the stirrings in a small but vocal part of the church. Renewal was the name the Society had for its newsletter. I took it and converted it into a single theme magazine appearing ten times a year. It began with an issue on capital punishment and went on from there. Single theme issues sold in bulk resulted in what was then a considerable circulation bump. Within a year it became common to sell issues in the tens and even hundreds of thousands. Because our theme was making the churches relevant and because there was at least some interest brewing in the unfolding years of the 1960s, Renewal prospered. The design of the magazine gave lavish place to original black and white photography and soon I turned each issue over to a particular photographer who exchanged work for a portfolio in effect. The same trade worked with established journalists, I became friends with many and many more agreed to write gratis. Lois Wille, Georgie Anne Geyer, Ron Bailie, Arlie Schardt, Chris Porterfield, Miriam Rumwell and Burk Uzzle are names that come to mind. Since then-powerful media like TIME and Newsweek had lively religion sections, I became what would now be the equivalent of a talking head on TV. Books resulted. And Renewal Magazine eventually expanded to include New York with the addition of the late Jim McGraw as New York editor. Looking back, it is possible to describe the network of progressive sorts who sought to move the churches as follows. The epicenter was then Chicago and the prime mover was Don Benedict. There were folk in national ecumenical and denominational circles who were sympathetic. By 1968 one could see, however, that this heady sense of a "renewal movement" was composed more of hope than substance. Denominations did not change in their fundamental allegiance to things as they had been. In the seminal book I produced in the 1960s, The Grass Roots Church,I think I correctly admitted exactly what H. Richard Niebuhr had said at Union in 1960 - we were lacking in theology, in a declension of reality that could move us beyond the flaccid dyad made up of fundamentalism on one side and a vapid cultural mainline on the other. It was obvious even then that the mainline would decline and the fundamentalists would rise. And the cities would decline in a dance of injustice building out to the sprawl that continued to ravage the metroscape for many decades more.  By the time a succession of assassinations, more numerous than generally remembered, had written the fate of the 1960s on the wall in blood, the die of the following decades had been cast. For someone like myself, a child of some privilege faced with what I regarded as a wholesale act of almost cosmic racism, and ending up with no purchase on even a right to speak in the new environment of polarization, I was at decade's end a self-exiled former editor of Renewal. It would take the remainder of the century to clear the theological deck of dross. And another ten years of substantial re-education to arrive at the views I now seek to share and propagate. 

Stephen's Remarkable Kindle Store

Follow Me on Pinterest


Daily Bread

The Slow as Molasses Press