Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation

Tracing the Roots of Mainline Protestantism

November 25, 2013

By Dr. Elesha Coffman, Assistant Professor of Church History, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, and author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline, available through Oxford Scholarship Online.

The Christian Century

As I was beginning this project, a very accomplished historian asked me, “Where did that term, ‘mainline,’ come from?” While I knew a fair amount about the liberal Protestant tradition I proposed to study, I did not know where its name came from. A colleague ventured, “I think it has something to do with railroads in Pennsylvania”. In fact, the term does relate to railroads in Pennsylvania – Philadelphia, to be precise – but it also conveys much about the tradition’s distinctive features and putative place on the landscape of American religion.

Mainline Protestantism, named after the railway serving Philadelphia’s tony northwest suburbs, emerged in the first half of the twentieth century from the modernist side of the Fundamentalist-modernist controversy most famously waged at the Scopes Monkey Trial. The tradition did not, however, have a name at that point. It did not need one. The white, university-educated churchmen who led the country’s most prestigious denominations (Baptist, Congregational, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian) and religious institutions (such as the University of Chicago Divinity School, the Federal Council of Churches, and the magazine on which I focused, The Christian Century) represented their religion as standard-brand, establishment Protestantism. In other words, their church was the church. These men’s access to political power and favorable media coverage confirmed their status as shepherds of the nation’s soul. After World War II, though, Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism jostled for influence, and the Protestant establishment proved fragile. Just as its rise peaked, and its long decline set in, the tradition got a name synonymous with WASP elitism: mainline.

Though my book is first and foremost a cultural history of The Christian Century, the flagship publication of the Protestant mainline, telling the magazine’s story from 1900 to 1960 necessitated forays into a number of related topics, including higher education, liberal theology, religious publishing, militarism and pacifism, ecumenism, and interfaith dialogue. Through Oxford Scholarship Online, it is easy for researchers to home in on the portions of the book relevant to their own studies, or to read it as a narrative full of successes, setbacks, and strong personalities. OSO is a powerful tool that helps readers get the most out of OUP’s high-quality scholarship, and I am glad that my work is a part of it.


Discover more: the 'Introduction' to The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline is now free and available to read for one month.