History of EPA

by Doug Trouten

To understand the birth of the Evangelical Press Association, it is helpful to understand the defining characteristics of the evangelical movement and its historical emergence, which help place the history and present status of the Evangelical Press Association in context.

The Emergence of Evangelicalism

Evangelicalism emerged as a religious force in the United States during the 1940s. Evangelicalism can be defined as:

A movement in North American Christianity that emphasizes the classical Protestant doctrines of salvation, the church and the authority of Scriptures, but in the American context it is characterized by stress on a personal experience of the grace of God, usually termed the “new birth” or “conversion.” Estimates of evangelical strength in the U.S. and Canada run as high as 50 million, making it one of the major expressions of Christianity in North America.

During the years between the Civil War and World War I, evangelicalism “was dethroned as the reigning religious perspective of American society.” American society changed profoundly during this period. Increased immigration meant increased religious pluralism, along with increased population concentration in urban areas. A philosophy of social progress and evolution gained acceptance, while seminaries developed “higher criticism” which challenged evangelical claims to the unique authority of Scripture.

This set the stage for the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, which dominated American religion in the first three decades of the 20th century:

Those in traditional Protestant denominations who welcomed the fast-paced changes in American society and tried to adapt the Christian faith to these changes were called “modernists.” They tried to retain the traditional Protestant hold in America by modifying the traditional doctrines of the Christian faith in order to reconcile them with science, evolution and religious pluralism. The fundamentalists resisted changes in American society and defended a supernatural Christianity by emphasizing an infallible Bible and Jesus Christ as the divine savior. This threw them into conflict with American society and made them appear outdated and irrelevant.”

Marsden argues that the Second World War played a pivotal role in America’s religious attitudes. “Whereas the First World War brought to the United States a temporary, wild enthusiasm for its international mission, it soon led to disillusion and a period of cultural pessimism. The Second World War, on the other hand, led not only to America’s role as a world leader, but also to a widespread revival of faith in America and America’s religions.”

Conservative Christians encouraged that change. Marsden notes, “…fundamentalists were sparking a wartime revival. In impressive youth rallies in many American cities they were filling famed sports arenas, such as Madison Square Garden, or Soldier’s Field.”

Religious activity was a mainstay in many American households. A national survey conducted shortly after World War II revealed that two out of three Americans attended religious services on at least a monthly basis, while 42 percent attended each week. According to other polls, 95 percent of Americans said they believed in God, 90 percent said they prayed, and six out of seven viewed the Bible as the divinely inspired word of God. Americans joined religious groups in unprecedented numbers, with memberships increasing from about half to over 60 percent of the population in the decade following the war.

That revival of faith in America’s religions benefited conservative Protestantism more than liberal Protestantism. The opposition of liberal clergy to U.S. intervention in the worsening international situation became very unpopular after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when support for the war seemed tied to the very survival of civilization.

Compared with the ideal, American liberal culture seemed to many thoughtful people to be deeply flawed; compared with the alternatives–especially that presented by Adolf Hitler, who combined modern technology with a horrible lack of moral principle–the American way of life seemed worth fighting and even dying for.

Billy Graham was among those who saw an opportunity for evangelicalism to regain lost ground. Graham was one of many fundamentalist Protestants working to bring the movement into the American mainstream.

Their overriding motive was to convert people to Christ, but to do this they needed to regain respectability. Graham encouraged conservative scholars, seminaries, and publications to defend the integrity of biblical revelation and oppose liberal Protestant thought, but in intellectually sophisticated ways. …The larger group of conservative Protestants, who still held to the traditional fundamentals of the faith but were trying to reenter or stay in the mainstream, came to be called “neo-evangelicals” or simply “evangelicals.”

The evangelical movement gained cohesion and identity with the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942. (Today, member denominations in NAE include the Assemblies of God, the Baptist General Conference, the Brethren Church, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Church of the Nazarene, the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Evangelical Free Church in America, the International Pentecostal Church of Christ, the Mennonite Brethren Churches USA, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Salvation Army, and many others.)

The founding of NAE, in turn, led to the founding of many other evangelical organizations in the 1940s, among them the National Sunday School Association (1943), World Relief (1944), the National Religious Broadcasters (1944), the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies (1945), and the National Association of Christian Schools (1947).

Journalist Arthur Matthews suggests that many of these organizations may have been created out of a sense of “isolation and impotency on the part of [evangelical] individuals.” At the founding meeting of NAE an organizer explained, “Evangelical Christianity has suffered nothing but a series of defeats for decades. …One by one, various forces have discredited or attacked [evangelicals] until today many of them are on the defensive. The hour calls for [a] united forum for evangelical action.”


The Birth of the Evangelical Press Association

That same call would be brought to the editors of evangelical periodicals a few years later by James DeForest Murch, Ph.D., editor of the NAE magazine United Evangelical Action. Murch met with a handful of editors at the convention of the National Sunday School Association in the fall of 1947 and began to talk about an association of evangelical editors. Murch then called together a pro tem committee in Chicago on May 6, 1948. Some 35 editors met at the Congress Hotel in Chicago to officially organize the Evangelical Press Association, adopt the doctrinal statement of NAE, and create a statement of purpose. A motion was made by Carl L. Howland, seconded by Dr. J.H. Walker, “that an evangelical editors association be set up. The motion was later amended to include publishers, and prevailed.” On April 4-6, 1949, the first annual convention of EPA met in Chicago.

An EPA news release from that initial convention reports, “Editors, publishers and reporters representing 103 evangelical periodicals with a combined circulation of 4,000,000 united in Chicago on April 4, 5 and 6 to adopt a constitution and to elect first permanent officials of the new Evangelical Press Association.”

The founders of EPA had several objectives in mind:

  • EPA was formed to promote fellowship; that is, to foster a sense of camaraderie among evangelical editors, and to help overcome a sense of isolation. “Fellowship” here means the establishment of personal and professional relationships of a supportive nature.
  • EPA was formed to provide a united professional voice for evangelical publishers during a period in which evangelicals as a group were demanding a “place at the table” in American society. A “united voice” means that the organization would speak on behalf of its members, including intervention for its members in matters affecting the entire industry, such as postal concerns.
  • EPA was formed as a doctrinally united voice for periodical publishers. It was a voice for people adhering to conservative evangelical beliefs, such as justification by faith alone and the inerrancy of Scripture. In keeping a sentiment common at that time, EPA stood in opposition to Roman Catholicism. EPA also opposed the more liberal beliefs of non-evangelical Protestants of the day. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy created sharp divisions within the Protestant church, with evangelicals believing they were battling for the very truths on which their faith rested. EPA was formed as an alternative to continued involvement with mainline Protestant organizations. Members exchanged dogmatic adherence to nonessential doctrinal points for a united front against a perceived threat to group interests.
  • EPA was formed to facilitate the acquisition and adoption of professional journalistic skills, techniques and standards in the changing field of evangelical magazine publishing. “Professional journalistic skills” means the journalistic, production and business techniques being employed by for-profit, nonsectarian periodicals of the day.
  • EPA was formed to provide services for members that would be unduly burdensome for members to secure on their own. One example would be a news syndicate.

Each of these initial purposes will be examine in some detail, to provide a broader understanding of the nature of the EPA.

Fellowship

The production of periodicals is a deadline-intensive industry largely dependent upon the whims of readers and advertisers. If journalists tend to gather for fellowship, it may merely be proof of the old saying, “Misery loves company.”

Press clubs created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries primarily served a social purpose, rather than focusing on industry-specific business goals. Many press clubs in the U.S. had as many nonwriters as writers among their members, and “the chief purpose of the press clubs became social.” Sim agrees that the early press association “had as its principal purpose the encouragement of social contacts among the editorial brethren.”

Such social secular press associations have existed since the mid-19th century, but fearful of monopolies and concerned that trade associations would foster their development, America’s newspaper publishers resisted formal business-oriented organizations until the 1920s and 1930s. Still, Barnhart writes that as early as the mid-19th century, journalists were coming together “to consider the best methods of advancing the interests of the fraternity. The editors, like the clergy, had a call.”

Fellowship is, in fact, the first purpose mentioned in the statement of purpose adopted by the founders of EPA in a formation meeting held May 6, 1948. EPA, they said, would “promote the cause of evangelical Christianity” and “enhance the influence of Christian journalism” by “providing Christian fellowship among members of the Association.”

This would be facilitated, in part, by “sectional conferences for editors of general church, Sunday School, youth, missions publications, etc.” where editors of like publications could meet and form professional and personal bonds.

Minutes from an executive committee meeting of the association held in 1949 show that the association was broken into a number of such subgroups, including denominational publications, missionary publications, Sunday school publications, youth publications, children’s publications, institutional publications, publishers, Bible institutes and college papers, general publications, and book publishers.

This purpose was repeated in a list of “outlined purposes” for the organization adopted at the initial business meeting of the group, held April 5-6, 1949. EPA was being formed to “provide comradeship among those in the editing and publishing field holding a common faith in the evangelical Christian position.”

The importance of professional fellowship was again emphasized in an address to the 1953 convention by EPA’s then-president Hart Armstrong, who said,

I feel that we need one another, for an editor’s life is often a lonely and unappreciated existence. Cannot EPA be a clearinghouse for friendship and fellowship which will increasingly mean more and better contacts among us? I can bear personal testimony to the importance of certain friendships which have come about largely through EPA channels and which have meant a great deal to me. Let’s have more of such things, even though it may mean some additional time spent in letter writing and developing of contacts.


United Voice

Speaking as a group was an early interest of EPA members. Indeed, while the initial convention was concerned primarily with the creation of the EPA as an organization, members attending the second convention in 1950 adopted resolutions on a wide range of issues.

The growing influence of Roman Catholicism in the United States was a matter of particular concern within EPA. That concern mirrored a similar anxiety in American society at large, a concern evident more than a decade later in anti-Catholic responses to John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

However, while Andrew Greeley has argued that much of America’s anti-Catholic bigotry was motivated by nativism, it is likely that evangelical objections to Catholicism had more to do with doctrinal differences than with the ethnic backgrounds of Catholics, for evangelicals and Catholics have very different answers to such basic doctrinal questions as “What must a person do to be saved?” and “What is the source of authority for the Christian life?”

The 1950 EPA convention addressed Catholicism in two resolutions. One urged the United States to stop efforts to establish formal diplomatic ties with the Vatican, arguing that such an action “was a violation of the American principle of the separation of Church and State.” A second resolution on “Roman Catholic Hierarchy Action” recognized the right of Catholics to propagate their faith and to hold public office, but expressed concern over the “persistent activity and influence of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the field of government, education, labor, business, press, radio, movies, etc.” and suggested that “Protestants, who constitute a large majority of the United States population, could meet and overcome Catholic encroachment by uniting to be heard on such subjects.”

EPA members also passed resolutions calling for religious nonprofit periodicals to be exempted from a proposed postal rate increase, opposing the federalization of public school funding, and endorsing a bill “to prohibit the interstate advertising of liquor.”

The following year (1951) saw another resolution opposing the appointment of a presidential envoy to the Vatican and a resolution asking national leaders to “seek and maintain righteousness.” Also approved was a lengthy resolution passed in anticipation of the Korean conflict, which called for continued observance of the Sabbath during wartime preparations, urged military leaders to keep young men from temptations and “evils of bodily and moral defilement,” and calling on the U.S. to provide for the evacuation of Korean Christians and Korean non-Communists” in the event of a U.S. withdrawal from Korea.

Appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican was still an issue of contention at the 1952 convention, but this year saw a movement away from hard-hitting political issues and toward more general spiritual resolutions, including a resolution on “concerted evangelical action,” one on “crime and unrighteousness,” and another on “spiritual awakening.” EPA records do not suggest a reason for this change in direction, but it is possible that EPA members were reluctant to deliver political demands while the U.S. was occupied in the Korean War.

In these resolutions, EPA members are seen defending their own financial interests (postal rates), acting as a conservative moral and political voice in American society (liquor advertising and school funding, respectively) and struggling to keep from being eclipsed by other expressions of Christianity (anti-Catholic resolutions).

Resolutions were eventually dropped completely, and are no longer a regular part of EPA business meetings.


Publications of Like Doctrine

A sense of doctrinal opposition to other religious groups was clear from EPA’s beginning. In 1950 Murch, who was then president of EPA, offered what he called the “Ten Commandments of the Evangelical Press Association.” With classic Cold War rhetoric, one of those stated, “We should warn against the enemies of our faith, including the menaces we face today: Liberalism, Romanism, Communism, Stateism, and Super-churchism.”

Murch also saw EPA as a group in opposition to the Associated Church Press (ACP), a Protestant press association which predated EPA by some three decades. He wrote, “the liberal slant of the ACP rendered its program inadequate for evangelicals.”

Murch said that the Associated Church Press, “has long been considered the professional organization of Protestant journalism. In common with all such organizations it has been under ‘liberal’ leadership and its program reflected liberal thought and guidance. At the time the NAE came upon the inter-church scene the conventions of the ACP had little to offer in the technical field and were majoring in the Social Gospel propaganda.”

A concern for doctrinal unity was evident from the moment of the EPA’s creation. Though EPA encompasses groups ranging from Pentecostal to Fundamentalist whose differences are sometimes so pronounced as to preclude regular fellowship, by comparison to their modernist counterparts in American Protestantism, these groups were more similar than dissimilar. Still, the differences were sharp. Norm Rohrer, the third executive secretary of EPA, recalls, “It was something of an astonishment to us Mennonites to see the Reformed people drink a glass of alcohol now and then. The Christian Reformed smoked cigars.”

One of the first actions of the founders of EPA was the adoption of a “statement of faith” which stated fundamental doctrines to which all adhered, a statement originally drafted by the National Association of Evangelicals.

At the first business meeting of EPA editors, that doctrinal statement was organizationally written in stone when the approved constitution of the group stated that the doctrinal statement was “not subject to change.”

The adoption of an official statement of faith set EPA apart from ACP, which did not have–and still does not have–a doctrinal statement. (The gulf between the two organizations has apparently narrowed over the years. The EPA and ACP held a joint convention in Indianapolis in 1988, and the immediate past director of ACP, John C. Stapert, is a former president of EPA.)

There was an early concern that evangelicals not be seen as lagging behind their mainline Protestant counterparts. In an address to a dinner meeting at the 1951 convention, Dr. H.J. Kuiper urged EPA members to improve their content and technical presentation and to create their own news service, so as to “fulfill our task of being the head, and not the tail.” In a statement that reveals much of the doctrinal disputes of the day, he added, “We should not be dependent on modernist sources for our news and pictures. Much they produce is not usable. Let’s rise and do something on this. Let us not be the tail.”

Some Protestants at the time were also concerned that their efforts were being outstripped by Catholics. Baptist editor Benjamin P. Browne wrote, “Our Roman Catholic friends are wise enough to be training right now in their parochial high schools in New York City over 1,000 journalists, most of whom they expect to put to work as reporters on daily newspapers. If one wonders why so much news is slanted favorably toward Roman Catholic activities and so little toward Protestant, this may be part of the answer.”


Professional Journalistic Skills, Techniques and Standards

A need for the development of Christian writers skilled in the techniques of traditional journalism was felt even by Christian leaders outside of the groups which would form EPA. In an address delivered at the Christian Writers and Editors Conference in Philadelphia in 1948, Benjamin P. Browne, executive director of the division of Christian publications of the Board of Education and Publication of the American Baptist Convention, said, “There is a serious dearth of writers and editors trained to serve Christian publications and dedicated to writing with a moral and Christian purpose.” He continued, “However, there are hopeful signs in schools of journalism, and the religious field of journalism is gaining prestige. A number of institutions have established majors in religious journalism. Several seminaries are now offering courses in religious writing.”

The idea that EPA would be a forum for the exchange of professional skills and standards was present at its founding. The initial statement of purpose indicated that EPA would serve its members “by rendering practical assistance and stimulating mutual helpfulness” as well as “by encouraging higher ethical and technical standards in the field of Christian journalism.”

Business meeting minutes from the EPA’s first business meeting list as one purpose, “To provide a medium for exchange of mechanical and tactical know-how in the publishing field.”

Specific areas for such an exchange were spelled out in a 1950 executive committee meeting:

A list was made of subjects which covered problems common to all that could be used in the general discussion features, as follows: (1) Fiction; (2) Editorials; (3) Feature Writing; (4) Art and Layout, Typography and Photography; (5) Devotionals; (6) Religious News; (7) Editorial Production and Management; (8) Business Management; (9) Department Material and (10) Special convention features.” It was also suggested that each convention include an exhibit of all member publications, which was another mechanism for sharing ideas.

Such skill-building topics occupied the agenda of many conventions. Larson notes, “In a sense the annual conventions were short courses to bring the editors up to the minute in what was going on in the various aspects of editing a magazine.”

A call for modernizing the presentation of reading material made by evangelical periodicals was made in a keynote address at the 1951 convention by Roland Wolseley, Ph.D., a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Journalism, who said,

The format of religious periodicals is improving in its technical presentation, but it is not yet up to the level at which it might be and at which it must be to be most effective. …I believe the religious press can regain much of its earlier power but it cannot do so with internal squabbles and refusal to see that techniques of journalism are vital to its success.

Adopting the techniques of secular journalism was one of the goals of founder Murch, who wrote, “Secular standards and methods must be adapted, adjusted and converted to fit evangelical needs.”

But the idea that evangelical periodicals should borrow presentation methods from nonsectarian publications was somewhat controversial at the time, and EPA provided a forum for discussion on this issue. The 1953 convention included a panel discussion on the topic, “How can a religious journal committed to a conservative policy make the best use of modern journalistic techniques?”

In this discussion Banner editor H.J. Kuiper, Ph.D., noted, “…the big question in modern journalism seems to be ‘Give the people what interests them most, and if there is anything that doesn’t particularly appeal to them, don’t give it to them because they will turn away and not read.’ Don’t you think our ideal should be to give the people what they need?”

To this Christian Life editor Bob Walker replied, “…[W]e take the view that our job is to influence people. And I think that this question can be more or less resolves [sic] in the question, “Are we willing to take the steps necessary to influence people?” Secular journalism has for its purpose that of making money. That is not our purpose. Our purpose is to influence people-influence them in a way that we believe God would have them influenced. …I believe that a magazine that is going to influence people must speak the language which they understand. It must speak it in the most forceful and aggressive way.”

Though the idea of adopting secular journalistic methods was somewhat controversial, endorsement of the practice was clear from the program of the inaugural convention, which included a designer who “used top secular magazines to illustrate his points,” an address by the editor of Domestic Advertising Magazine, and an opening speech by William F. McDermott, longtime religion editor at the Chicago Daily News, who urged EPA editors “to get the individual life and the personal story behind things. These carry more interest and will carry the message much more powerfully….”

An incentive for the acquisition and implementation of such skills and for the pursuit of excellence was the annual EPA awards contest, honoring the best work done by EPA members. This was implemented in 1954 with three awards: Best Editorial Program; Most Thought-provoking Editorial or Article; and Outstanding Circulation Campaign.

EPA members also worked to adopt a statement of ethics. A “committee on a code of ethics” reported to the convention in 1952 with a proposed code couched in religious language. Among other things, it called on an editor to be “deeply conscious of his responsibility to be obedient to the will of God,” “unreservedly committed to the evangelical Christian faith,” and “scrupulously Christian in his dealing with all concerned in the production and distribution of his publication.” (Tellingly, the language of this proposed code of ethics assumes that the editor in question is a man, even though at least two of the editors present at the initial meeting which led to EPA’s founding were women.)

A code of ethics formally adopted in 1954 echoes some of this religious language, but deals more substantively with ethical issues common to secular and religious periodicals alike, such as fairness, prompt correction of errors, accuracy, and plagiarism.

The concept of editorial independence was also present in EPA from its beginning, even though many members represented publications that were the official voice of religious denominations and organizations. Recalling the meeting to form EPA, Murch later wrote, “After prayer and thoughtful discussion it was unanimously agreed, however, that the EPA should not be NAE-related. The principles of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, wider evangelical coverage and denominational responsibility were determining factors in the discussion.”


Cooperative Ventures

Murch, whose vision led to the creation of EPA, edited a magazine titled United Evangelical Action, and indeed this was a driving motivation for the creation of the group. Murch and other founders expected EPA to facilitate cooperative ventures among its members by “suggesting concerted and timely emphasis upon important issues.”

Walker, who attended that initial organizing meeting, recalls, “[Murch] felt that NAE should have some sort of support from the Christian community. There were a number of magazines in the evangelical marketplace, and he felt that they should join in their efforts to present the gospel of Jesus Christ in the best possible way. By getting together and encouraging one another, we might achieve that purpose.”

Creating a shared source of news stories and syndicated articles was an early interest of EPA. The initial meeting of editors set as a goal “to work in the direction of providing news and photo services, an exchange of cuts and copy, and a syndicate for stories and illustrations.”

This call was repeated at the business meeting of the first convention, at which participating editors purposed “to provide exchange or syndicate services.” At a 1950 meeting of the EPA executive committee the group’s leaders “agreed to start syndicate activity on the basis of news only.” The 1951 convention urged the executive committee to “continue to study the news and photo service project, and seek ways and means for putting this into operation as soon as possible.” Such a syndicate was actually launched for a trial run in September of 1951.

The Evangelical Press Association Today

The Evangelical Press Association (EPA) is a professional trade organization for the evangelical periodical publishing industry. It “embraces more than 400 periodicals, organizations, and individual members. Its publications have a combined circulation of some 20 million readers.” EPA no longer publishes its weekly news service; EP News was first licensed, then sold in 1994, to a member organization.

EPA continues to provide a variety of services to its members, including:

  • An annual convention, offering “speakers of national stature, the annual awards contest, the annual membership meeting and election, tours, and workshops designed for editors, writers, graphic artists, and business personnel from beginners to veterans.”
  • An annual contest, which provices “member publications recognition of outstanding work, as well as helpful critiques of their periodicals.”
  • “Person-to-person publication evaluation” and “mentoring service,” both attempts to match experienced editors with beginners for education and transmission of professional ideals.
  • A scholarship program, internships, and the “EPA On-Campus” program designed to provide encouragement and training for students who may be tomorow’s EPA members.
  • Postal Counsel: a cooperative venture with other religious press associations which lobbies the government and postal service for favorable treatment for non-profit periodical mailers.