As he stood on the verge of history as the leader of the first live religious radio broadcast, Reverend Edwin J. Van Etten, rector of Pittsburgh’s Calvary Episcopal Church, had low expectations of the historical moment. He confessed, “I thought there would be some fluke in the connection and that the whole thing would be a fizzle!” (Spencer Miller Jr., “Radio and Religion,” Annals of the Political and Social Science
, Vol. 177, January 1935). This month marks the ninety-first anniversary of this momentous occasion, and almost a century later, it appears that the preacher couldn’t have been more wrong.
The city’s trailblazing KDKA aired the landmark service on Sunday, January 2, 1921, just two months after the station gained the distinction of being the first to broadcast the results of a Presidential election. Following the election, the station set their sights on religion. The religious service aired months before the first broadcast of a baseball game or one of the legendary boxing matches of Jack Dempsey, making religion, as much as anything else, intricately connected to the growth and popularity of new media in the twentieth century.
However, the rector of Calvary, like many established ministers when confronted with new media, didn’t trust the new “wireless” technology, and he did not see much use for the nascent medium. Therefore, another clergyperson from his staff preached the Sunday service, and the church refused to make any special concessions for the listening audience. Furthermore, to prevent Calvary’s parishioners from being distracted by the presence of the new technology during worship, the church compelled the radio station’s two broadcast technicians to be outfitted with choir robes (Hal Erickson, Religious Radio and Television in the United States, 1921-1991: The Programs and Personalities
(Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1992)).
To Van Etten’s surprise, the new media broadcast was praised by listeners. One distant parishioner from over four hundred miles away in Massachusetts welcomed the religious use of the new medium. Similar to Calvary’s parishioners, the distant worshipper made certain that she was “prepared to await the start of the service," and she was not disappointed. “For the first time in twenty years, I heard a full church service,” she said. “The voice of the pastor thrilled me as few things have….” When the service concluded she exclaimed that she “felt at peace with the world, ‘the peace that passeth all understanding’” (Spencer Miller Jr., “Radio and Religion,” Annals of the Political and Social Science
, Vol. 177, January 1935). Together, Calvary and their remote parishioner reshaped worship, church community, and a new practice of “church” for the twentieth century.
This reception of new media and religion in 1921 caused Van Etten, Calvary, and countless churches across the nation to ponder both new media best practices and their theological implications. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Lerone A. Martin, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of American Religious History and Culture at Eden Theological Seminary in Saint Louis, MO. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact email@example.com.