United Methodist Communications celebrates 75 years
By Susan Passi-Klaus*
In 2015, United Methodist Communications celebrates its 75th year of telling the church’s story, both within the church and to the world.
Though it has evolved through many name and structural changes, the denomination’s communication agency has initiated a very long list of “firsts” throughout its 75-year history. From mimeograph machines to cloud computing, reference cards to databases, sound sheets to CDs, flannelgraphs to infographics, filmstrips to high-definition video, posters to digital ads, the denomination has come a long way in communications.
75 Years of Communicating faithView the interactive timeline of United Methodist Communications' 75 years of telling the church’s story, both within the church and to the world.
In tune with the times
Someone once described the 1940s as the decade that “had it all” – with the invention of the color TV and the jeep. Bugs Bunny made his debut, the microwave oven was invented and duct tape first hit hardware store shelves. Jackie Robinson was the first African American in major league baseball, and Chuck Yeager was the first to break the sound barrier.
Many – but not all – families had telephones. Newspapers were the primary carriers of information. Radio news was just taking off, and televisions were out of reach for most.
Scientists, inventors, futurists and others knew that a communications revolution was already in the works, but that the surface had only been scratched. The bishops of the newly unified Methodist Church, formed by joining the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Protestant Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, saw the importance of mass communication as well.
In the 1939 episcopal address, they called for “general Methodist intelligence and promotion through well-planned and well-executed publicity,” saying that people were “Methodistically informed” only in the most meager way.
A communications office is born
The church leaders made their point. For Methodists, 1940 saw the first formal introduction of an agency responsible for communications. On Oct. 1, 1940, the Rev. Ralph Stoody carved a milestone when he opened the “Commission on Public Information” office in New York, known more informally as Methodist Information or MI.
With just $25,000 as an annual budget, the frugal Stoody furnished it at 50 percent off by bargain shopping at the campaign offices of unsuccessful presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie. Stoody determined there should be three offices – in New York, Chicago and Nashville, Tennessee.
Maud Turpin, who had operated a secular press bureau for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, ran the Nashville office, while George B. Ahn Jr., a local preacher with a journalism degree, was in Chicago.
Telling the church’s story
The agency’s initial focus was on disseminating news by getting feature stories into newspapers and major magazines, placing personalities on radio programs and even putting segments on theater newsreels.
Asked about her office hours, Turpin once said she had none. “We don’t observe hours; we just do our work.” Their hard work met with success.
An estimated 65 million people watched the “Crusade for Christ” newsreel in theaters around the nation to promote the denomination’s $25 million campaign for post-World War II relief and reconstruction.
More than 200 independent radio stations aired Methodist-produced series, and NBC's weekly radio program, “National Radio Pulpit,” featured the Rev. Ralph W. Sockman of Christ Methodist Church in New York.
LIFE magazine ran a 14-page photo essay about the Methodist Church in 1947. In 1964, TIME magazine featured a photo of Bishop Gerald H. Kennedy on the cover with an accompanying story about issues facing General Conference.
The productive 1940s set a precedent of cultural relevance influenced by trailblazers and visionaries. There were promotional campaigns and public relations training. Offices were added in San Francisco (1946), Washington (1956) and Dayton, Ohio (1968). A network of conference and area public relations specialists was developed.
As radio became an important communications medium, the General Conference would form the Radio and Film Commission in 1948, which would eventually become TRAFCO with the addition of the word “television.” In 1952, the Commission on Promotion and Cultivation was created to oversee general church promotional efforts; it eventually became the Office of Interpretation.
The 1972 General Conference joined the two divisions with Methodist Information, and the resulting agency was named United Methodist Communications.
As the decades have progressed, the communications agency has continued to seize innovation to convey the message of The United Methodist Church, telling its story to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Undoubtedly, there are additional “firsts” to come.
Dan Krause, who recently took the helm at United Methodist Communications, envisions more forward thinking as the agency moves beyond its diamond anniversary.
“Our capacity to communicate continues to change as technology changes,” said Krause. “As we focus on our future and vision as an agency, we will be considering how to communicate more effectively in ways that are relevant for a global church.”
Some information cited from Keeping Up with a Revolution: The Story of United Methodist Communications 1940-1990 by Edwin H. Maynard.
*Susan Passi-Klaus is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.