Dante for Dentists: The Resurrection of Christian History Magazine

by Elesha Coffman

Back before I started graduate school, and thus (ironically) before I had any idea what I was talking about, I edited a magazine called Christian History. Each quarterly issue focused on a person or theme, ranging just in my short years on staff from St. Antony and the Desert Fathers to the Huguenots, Dante to Historiography, religion in the American West to Thomas Aquinas. The magazine occupied a unique position as a bridge between the academy and “the rest of the world,” as most of the authors were scholars while most of the readers were—if I remember our market research aright—pastors, teachers, and dentists. A few years after I left, the magazine was shuttered for lack of revenue. I was sad to see it go.

Long story short, the organization that launched the magazine nearly 30 years ago, the Christian History Institute, has resurrected the title. They have already published a 100th issue (many subscribers kept all of their back-issues, so numbering mattered more than publication date), a timely history of the King James Bible, and they are now seeking input on future issue topics. I pass this information along both because some readers of this blog might wish to check out the magazine and because the topical survey offers insight into the interests of non-scholarly readers. The potential topics survey recipients were asked to rate are:

George Muller
Amy Carmichael
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
History of Worship Music
The church’s involvement in the abolition of slavery in America
Vatican II’s impact on the worldwide church
History of Catechism (Early Church, Luther, etc.)
History of Presbyterianism
The Christian face of Ellis Island
Philip Schaff, the “father of church history”
The modern history of Christian charity
The African Church Fathers: Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement, Origen, Athanasius
History of Baptism
Charlemagne, 9th century Holy Roman Emperor
Women mystics of the middle ages: Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena
George Fox, William Penn, and the Quakers

I have no idea which topics will score highest or actually be published in coming years. If I were still editor, I would have drafted a rather different list, though this one has several strong entries. Overall, the list reaffirms two things I learned through my experience at the magazine:

1. There are people outside the academy who care about religious history—and you can find a lot of them in churches. It is a persistent concern of mine that religion scholars’ fight for credibility in the (presumed) secular academy has cut them off from a still strongly religious public. I’m not saying that the public with an appetite for rigorous yet accessible church history is huge, but Christian History enjoyed a circulation of just under 50,000 when I was there, and that’s a whole lot more people than a university press can get to read a monograph.

2. 2. 2. Lay readers do not need to be pandered to. For every History of Worship Music Christian History delivered right over the plate, it also pitched a curveball like Solzhenitsyn. We used to call the latter “broccoli” issues, but we served them up the best we could, and the percentage of subscribers who intended to renew stayed in the 90s. The proposed topic that polled the best during my tenure was Aquinas—and my readers were overwhelmingly evangelical Protestants.

I wish the folks at CHI luck, reconnecting with that audience of educated non-specialists we academics too often fail to reach.


Anonymous said…
I read CH for a while; in fact, I'm certain I have some back issues. Lots to think about in this post and glad to hear about an audience that can be and wants to be reached.

Curtis J. Evans

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