This article analyzes the broadcast activities of the Chicago Sunday Evening Club (CSEC), a mainline Protestant organization founded in 1908 and still active today. The CSEC began broadcasting its weekly meetings on the radio in 1922 and on television in 1956. Drawing on archival organizational records from the CSEC and from listener correspondence, this essay traces how the club’s use of the new media of particular historical moments shaped its history as a public entity.
This study makes two claims. First, it argues that, though evangelicals and fundamentalists took to radio and television broadcasting with greater vigor, mainline Protestant groups did as well, and the persistence of a group like the CSEC offers a way to understand the challenges that broadcasting presented to religious organizations. Second, this article shows how audience expectations for religious programming evolved from radio to television. For many listeners, radio offered what they told the CSEC was a spiritual and even miraculous experience, and they marveled at being able to tune in to religious services from their homes. Television, however, prompted remarks often focused on visual style, and the club found itself struggling to compete with the newly emerging group of religious television programs not only on denominational terms (many were evangelicals and fundamentalists) but also on aesthetic terms. In contrast to radio, as many viewers wrote to the CSEC, television seemed to provide not a singular “experience” but rather spectatorial access to events taking place elsewhere. In the context of competition from the more telegenic programming of evangelicals and fundamentalists, these shifting audience expectations shaped both the history of the CSEC as a public entity and the broader history of mainline Protestantism in the mass media.
- © 2012 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture