What Would Karl Wettstone Read? Liberal Protestantism and Popular Religious Reading

Paul Putz

Omaha World-Herald, 1927
Meet Karl F. Wettstone. If you're a consistent reader of this blog, you may have already met him. He was the president of the University of Dubuque who, Elesha Coffman has told us, launched an ill-fated attempt to end "commercialized" intercollegiate athletics at the school in 1925.

After his failure at Dubuque he made his way west to Omaha, Nebraska, where he assumed the presidency of the University of Omaha (then a Presbyterian school). Upon his arrival in Omaha the World-Herald sent a reporter to get the scoop on the new resident. Wettstone was an ardent golfer, the reporter discovered, and a member of the Kiwanis club. Wettstone also had some ideas about the "so-called wave of agnosticism among college students" (it was "mostly pish-posh"), and, most important for my purposes here, modern writers.

No fan of the Smart Set, Wettstone denounced H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis. The former was "not decent," and the latter had a "polluted mind." Wettstone could only make it halfway through Elmer Gantry before throwing the book away in "utter disgust." Such vitriol may lead one to believe that Wettstone was a theological conservative. But, as you may have guessed by my tone here, that assumption would be wrong. Instead Wettstone admired the writings of religious liberals Harold Bell Wright, Henry van Dyke, and Dr. Frank Crane, and he declared himself a follower of William James.

The World-Herald's profile of Wettstone fascinated me, partly because I've been thinking quite a bit about print culture, religion, and consumer capitalism, and how the authors one reads so often serve as markers of religious identity. Wettstone was a Presbyterian (PCUSA), sure, but what kind of Presbyterian? His choice of favorite authors seemed to serve as a short-hand to answer that question for interested readers. And it was not just Wettstone's list of favorite authors that helped to define him -- the description of flinging Elmer Gantry away in disgust was an especially vivid way to describe his literary preferences. That all of this was recorded in an article for a newspaper means we have all sorts of elements of print culture converging here, hopelessly entangled.

But what do Wettstone's author preferences mean? What do they suggest about his place within the typical categories for 1920s American Protestantism?

Despite their wide readership at the time, the writers that Wettstone cited as his favorites -- particularly Wright and Crane -- are not usually highlighted when scholars discuss early twentieth century American Protestantism. Van Dyke has been given the most attention, perhaps most recently in Matt Bowman's The Urban Pulpit: New York City and the Fate of Liberal EvangelicalismPastor of Brick Presbyterian Church in New York during the late-nineteenth century, Van Dyke left the pulpit in 1903 and took a position at Princeton University. Bowman describes his spirituality as a blend of romanticism, evangelical experience, and traditional Presbyterianism, and argues that van Dyke was a transitional figure in the move from a romantic evangelicalism to a fuller liberal evangelicalism represented by figures like Henry Sloane Coffin. Unlike Crane and Wright, van Dyke remained committed to and heavily involved in the organizational structures of his church. It was this involvement within Presbyterian denominational battles that has made Van Dyke relevant to historians. But for Wettstone and many other others, van Dyke's appeal came as much from his poetry and fiction writing as his opposition to J. Gresham Machen.

Crane and Wright in
 LIFE magazine in 1920. 
Crane and Wright, both former pastors, were a bit different. While van Dyke managed to write for a popular audience all while continuing his leadership role within a denomination, Crane and Wright severed their ties from churchly leadership in order to focus on their writing careers. Set adrift from easy categorization as churchly religious writers, they instead assumed a place as representatives of mainstream American popular culture -- or, if you took H.L. Mencken's position, the unthinking American masses.

Because Crane and Wright continued to emphasize broadly liberal religious themes and because they aimed to write for the "common man," both would probably fit within the world of middlebrow religious reading that Matt Hedstrom described in his award-winning The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century. This fit is not exact. Wright and Crane achieved their popularity before 1920, and thus before the creation of the Religious Book Week and Religious Book Club that Hedstrom documents. If anything, then, they probably represent a pre-1920s example of Hedstrom's argument that middlebrow (or, in their case, lower-middlebrow) religious reading, driven by liberal Protestantism, permeated and influenced the "invisible religion" that existed outside the structures of institutional church life.

Hedstrom does not mention Crane or Wright in his book, but Erin Smith recently devoted a chapter to Harold Bell Wright in What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America. Smith's book -- which I highly recommend -- is essentially a series of case studies stretching from the late-nineteenth to the early-twenty-first centuries, analyzing popular reading habits within a variety of religious communities. As Smith writes, her "larger claim is that popular religious reading involves aggressively personal appropriations of religious texts, bringing them close to make them over into our own image, to make them 'useful' in our daily lives." Her work is similar but distinct from Hedstrom. Like Hedstrom, Smith writes about middlebrow religious reading and networks. But her analysis extends beyond liberal Protestantism of the 1920s-1950s. Smith makes the case that popular reading habits are not specific to any identifiable religious group. Instead they provide a common ground across political and theological divides, presenting an alternative way of reading that stands in contrast to the New Critical approach that has been enshrined in universities as the literary orthodoxy.

Smith's chapter on Wright in WWJR? was one of my favorites in the book. She offers a bit of biography, documenting Wright's transition from pastoring Christian Churches in Kansas, Missouri, and California, to becoming one of the most widely-read authors in the early twentieth century thanks to works of melodramatic fiction like That Printer of Udell's and The Shepherd of the Hills. Wright's popularity was buoyed by an innovative marketing strategy and book distribution system. He was also, according to Smith, a social gospel novelist similar to Charles Sheldon. Deemphasizing formal theology and institutional religion, he lauded personal faith and highlighted themes of masculine service instead. If pure religion was defined in the emerging fundamentalist network through adhering to a particular set of doctrines, attending a particular Bible college, or possessing a copy of The Fundamentals (as Timothy Gloege argues), for Wright pure religion was to be defined primarily in altruistic actions -- and perhaps reading books that taught the same. In Wright, Smith sees an example of the way that liberal Protestants sought to individualize faith and remake American Protestantism for the consumer capitalist world.

Smith does not discuss Crane but many of her conclusions would apply to him as well, with the caveat that Crane was more sophisticated theologically. Nothing in-depth has been written about Crane or his readers, although I did recently write an article on him for Nebraska History. Mostly I focused on his four years serving as a pastor in Omaha in the 1890s, where he began the process of adopting theological modernism and working to make modern religious ideas accessible to the public, all while urging his congregation to run the church after the pattern of modern business methods. During his time in Omaha he became particularly fond of promoting his ideas through the newspaper. In 1909, after moving to Chicago and then to Worcester, he embarked on a career as a syndicated newspaper columnist. In that career he became a household name, lauded by his supporters as an American Socrates while denigrated by his opponents as a fully commercialized "religious Pollyanna" who was only popular among "the masses." Matt Hedstrom's Jamesian "laissez-faire liberal"  is probably the best category for someone like Crane.

To tally up the scorecard, then, all three of Wettstone's favorite authors were men who had been pastors before leaving the pulpit to extend their spiritual influence in other fields: melodramatic fiction writing for Wright, a Princeton professorship and poetry and fiction writing for van Dyke, and a syndicated newspaper column for Crane. All three sought to inspire and uplift individuals towards a pragmatic and sentimental religiosity. And in Crane and Wright in particular, we see an emphasis on writing for the common man rather than for intellectuals. That Crane and Wright were not churchmen and that they were so closely identified with commercialism makes Wettstone's admiration especially interesting, since Wettstone was a committed Presbyterian who also staked his reputation on fighting the tide of commercialization in collegiate athletics. It would interesting to know how a church leader like Wettstone compares to the profile of the typical readers of Crane and Wright.

We also still have the question of why Wettstone juxtaposed his favorite authors with Lewis and Mencken. Interestingly enough, I think Wettstone's religious sensibilities here can be further illuminated by the "polluted mind" of Sinclair Lewis. In a passage from Main Street, the protagonist (Carol), feeling intellectually isolated in the small Midwestern town of Gopher Prairie, finally finds someone else (Vida) who seems interested in art, literature, and intellectual pursuits. The two engage in conversation and begin discussing religion. When Vida asks Carol if she would like to teach Sunday School, Carol is hesitant. "My religion is so foggy," Carol says. Vida assures here that fogginess is no problem: "So is mine. I don't care a bit for dogma. Though I do stick firmly to the belief in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man and the leadership of Jesus. As you do, of course....And that's all you need teach in Sunday School. It's the personal influence."

Later the discussion turns to reading, and Carol tells Vida that she's been re-reading The Damnation of Theron Ware (here again we have a book helping to define one's religious sensibilities). "Do you know it?" Carol asks Vida. Vida responds: "Yes. It was clever. But hard. Man wanted to tear down, not build up. Cynical. Oh, I do hope I'm not a sentimentalist. But I can't see any use in this high-art stuff that doesn't encourage us day-laborers to plod on."

Even though they were religious liberals, for Wettstone and the fictional Vida the primary conflict, the primary "other" against whom they defined themselves, came not in the form of fundamentalism but in "high-art stuff's" modern cynicism about religion. They drew lines of battle, not to defend or critique the historical reality of Jesus's resurrection or virgin birth, but rather to defend the usefulness and importance of "religion" to inspire and influence the individual -- a purpose for which popular religious writers like Crane, van Dyke, and Wright (and numerous others) were quite useful. By picking those three authors, Wettstone could identify himself with an earnest, personal, and broad religious sensibility fit for mass consumption, rather than with the cynical or sophisticated or dogmatic.

Unfortunately, Wettstone and his religious sensibilities did not remain in Omaha for long. As in Dubuque, his tenure was fraught with conflict and he was run out of town. But that's a story for another day.