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Advocate turns 175

By Michael C. Wolfe

Editor’s note: Wolfe is the author of the Advocate’s comprehensive hardcover history book, “In the World, Not of the World: 175 Years of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate,”  which will be available at Annual Conference. Here, in celebration of the Advocate’s anniversary, Wolfe recounts some of the history that made the Advocate what it is today.

This year is the 175th anniversary of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate.

Since its very first edition, June 24, 1837, the paper has tried also to live in the world but not of the world. It has been a difficult task.

The paper launched in a time of conflict and controversy as a voice for Southern concerns. Titled the Southern Christian Advocate until 1948, the paper was not merely a state but a regional paper, and it never considered itself merely for Methodists.

This voice for Southern concerns was shaped in its early days by the issue of slavery. Until 1865, the Advocate would never speak against slavery as an institution. The newspaper existed in a culture that made it extremely difficult and even dangerous to speak against slavery. And yet, at times the paper pushed the envelope of this culture.

William Capers, the first editor of the paper, was the driving force behind the famed Mission to the Slaves, the largest Protestant mission in the 1800s. Capers and his fellow workers urged for more humane treatment of slaves, including marriage, legal rights and Christian education. For almost 30 years, the Mission and the Advocate prodded Southern leaders to recognize African-American slaves as human beings loved by God. While the paper never questioned the slaves obligation to serve their master, the paper pressed for slave owners to take responsibility for the slaves wellbeing, including proper food, clothes, rest, medicine and care in old age. Few other voices in South Carolina made such suggestions, and the Advocate took criticism for its stand.

During the Civil War, the Advocate followed closely the events of the war and supported the Confederate cause until the end. However, the paper never allowed the war to overwhelm the primary focus of proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Political and war news were always on Page 2. From the fall of Fort Sumter to the burning of Columbia, the first page carried articles about prayer, Bible study, temperance and missions.

The Rev. Edward Myers, editor during the war, wrote, The first duty of all is ¦ to give attention to personal religion ¦ no excitement, no interest in public affairs, should be permitted to interfere with our habits of devotion or to interpose between our souls and God. ¦ Patriotism is a noble virtue, but it is not religion, nor can it be substituted for it “ and it will be a sad exchange, if we pass through this furnace finding ourselves very pure patriots and indifferent Christians. 

Following the war, the Advocate sought to expunge its past sins by aggressively moving into the Progressive Era. Issues such as temperance, education and missions dominated the paper. These were the years that saw the rapid growth of Methodist colleges in South Carolina. Epworth Children s Home was founded. The Sunday school curriculum was first organized. And the Advocate was a major player in these events. It is fair to say that without the voice of the Advocate, United Methodist colleges in South Carolina and Epworth Children s Home would not exist today. These were the years when South Carolina Methodism “ pushed by the Advocate “ was at the height of its power.

Beyond this statewide growth, American Protestantism was also experiencing an upsurge of work in overseas missions. Methodists believed in the evangelization of the world in our generation.  Optimism was everywhere, and progress seemed unstoppable.

However, even as the paper pressed for these grand causes, not everyone was included. African-Americans were ignored during the Progressive Era and had to find their own way forward. Poor whites in the mill villages did not fit the new educated middle-class mood of Methodism, and many left the denomination to found the Pentecostal and Holiness churches. Women were denied many positions of leadership, but created mission societies where they could serve God.

While the paper had its eye on progress, it seemed blind to many aspects of the culture.

World War I brought an end to the optimism of the Progressive Era. The Depression, which started early for South Carolina, deepened the mood of doubt. The Advocate had to regain its feet after stumbling over its blind spots. To the utter shock of the Advocate, a growing number of Americans turned their backs on temperance. A lost generation  no longer believed in a Christian civilization and mistrusted all higher causes. In response, the paper took on a more intellectual tone. With Reinhold Niebuhr stalking across the national stage, the South Carolina paper explored subjects of war and peace, justice and compassion with great depth and integrity. By the end of the second World War, everyone knew they had entered a new world.

Dr. David Peele, editor during WWII, wrote an article only a few days after Hiroshima: Did a war ever close before in such a fashion? … Did ever before the fiery breath of indignant nature melt cities from their foundations and strike terror and awe into the hearts of all mankind? ¦ Men were given a glimpse at the fringe of omnipotence and fear fell upon them. ¦ Hardly had the news of the use of the atomic bomb come over the loud speakers before one had the feeling they were living in a new age. ¦ 

The Advocate entered fully into that new age in the 1950s and 1960s. Integration in South Carolina came like judgment day,  proclaimed the paper. The civil rights movement filled its pages. The Rev. McKay Brabham led the paper as editor and took much heat for
his positions. The Orangeburg Massacre shocked churchgoers. And step-by-step, Methodists came to see the mistakes of the past.

The newspaper was also a strong supporter of the union of churches and the creation of The United Methodist Church in 1968. Youth culture was a new topic to explore. South Carolina Methodism seemed able to absorb so many changes. But the Vietnam War and the peace movement would prove to be the paper s fall. Subscriptions plunged and the editor was forced out in 1971 following a war protest incident.

The last 40 years have been hard on the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, as they have been on the denomination as a whole. A loss of one-third of its membership has been a blow that has sent the church reeling in uncertainly. Similarly, the paper s circulation and influence has diminished. Hardly any leader remains today in Methodism who can remember a time when the UMC was a growing denomination. In these hard years, the paper even came into deep conflict with the conference. Many felt the Advocate had become too severe a critic and was oppositional to the denomination. Like the church itself, the paper seemed close to shutting down altogether at one point. Many United Methodist newspapers across the nation did cease publication in recent years or were forced to merge with other journals.

And yet, the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate has survived. It has survived to become the longest running independent United Methodist paper in the nation. And there is a feeling among many that Methodism is making a turnaround. There is a new fire in denominational worship. There is a new call to mission. The church is again talking about evangelism and bringing the good news of Christ to the world. Paraphrasing Bishop Scott Jones, instead of being pulled in a thousand directions at the edges, we are looking for the center “ the extreme center of Jesus Christ.

The Advocate is still there, pushing and prodding “ a loving critic to keep us going in the right direction; an independent voice, not controlled by the conference or any church, to keep United Methodists focused on what is important.

As many say, it is hard to live in the world and not of the world, but that is the calling of Jesus.

Jesus calls to us: The work is still ahead. There is much to do, and we must hear the call. And the Advocate will be there to push us all along. Every month, another edition to tell us about missions, people, good causes, educational opportunities and timely issues. May the Advocate be with us another 175 years pointing the way to live in this world but never of this world.

Wolfe is senior pastor of Advent UMC, Simpsonville.

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