Under the leadership of founder Amasa Converse and his family the Christian Observer absorbed more than fourteen other periodicals. Their names echo the titles of Presbyterian history: The Religious Remernbrancer, The Family Visitor, Religious Telegraph and Observer, The Protestant and Herald, and The Cincinnati Standard. Episcopalians and Methodists also had publications named Christian Observer. However, the present publication has a direct connection only to the Presbyterian publication in Louisville, Kentucky. Through the intervention of a Christian foundation the title was secured a decade ago and conveyed to the Christian Observer, Inc.
Even the Converse family itself, which was identified with the Christian Observer across four generations, varied when counting the issues and tracing the roots. All agree, however, that the patriarch of the family was Amasa Converse who was born at Lyme, New Hampshire on August 21, 1795. An ardent evangelist and church planter, Converse attended Phillips Academy at Andover and then Dartmouth before entering Princeton. In New Jersey he came under the influence of Dr. Archibald Alexander and developed the distinctive theological presuppositions which would guide the Christian Observer for the next 150 years.
Dr. Alexander and his associate Charles Hodge promoted Southern cultural interests and actively engaged in a range of publishing projects, recruiting promising young men to join them. According to the official history of the Christian Observer, Converse “was advised by Dr. Archibald Alexander, founder of the seminary, to seek a milder climate, since ‘you have learning enough to be engaged in your vocation.’ So Dr. Converse went on horseback first to North Carolina and then to Nottoway County, Virginia.” The religious situation in Richmond where Converse settled forms a fascinating tale too large for treatment here. In 1827, Converse took charge of the Visitor and Telegraph, turning it into the Southern Religious Telegraph in 1839 and merging it with the Philadelphia Observer (the continuation itself of the Religious Remembrancer). Presbyterian use of the name Christian Observer began in 1840.
Converse was enormously popular with Presbyterian laymen like T.J. Jackson as well as with theological giants like Virginia’s Rev. William White and William Holt Rice. Theological distinctions of the period may be confusing to contemporary readers but they were enormously important in their day. The principal parties were the Old School and the New School. Four synods in the North had blurred their distinctive Presbyterianism through cooperative programs with the Congregationalists. Since the Congregationalists were suffering a severe decline from their Puritan days, the association appeared to compromise New School theology. Key men in the Princeton-Richmond axis engineered the expulsion of the compromised synods.
As notorious for his sense of justice as for his theological orthodoxy, Converse ruined his position in Richmond by condemning the entire operation as an imposition on the church and a matter entirely outside the constitution of the Presbyterian Church. Other prominent leaders followed his direction and provided a constituency for the New School in the South. Several key congregations of the Presbyterian Church in America trace their origins to this tradition.
To unify Northern and Southern factions and to promote the strictly confessional party in the New School, Converse moved to Philadelphia. However, the New School could not hold together as a common ground for both the extreme right and left wings of the church. When the New School shattered well before the War, Converse championed the United Synod of the South. Interestingly, during the war, Converse helped Old School leaders publicly confess the excesses of their party and helped the United Synod agree to merge back into the main body on adopting the original Old School constitution. Through Converse’s efforts, the decidedly liberal wing of the United Synod in Western Tennessee and South Carolina was never able to exert the liberalism which matured in the North.
When Lincoln assumed power, he drew up a list of publications to suppress and key civilians to imprison. Under the color of national security, he effected a police state with varying success. As part of this plan, Secretary of War Stanton ordered the Christian Observer closed, its assets confiscated, and Converse jailed. The war measures had stiff opposition in strongly Christian areas like Philadelphia. The United States District Attorney rejected the order as unjustifiable and a violation of freedom of the press. Converse closed his doors, pocketed his key, and opened for business back in Richmond three weeks later.
A son, Francis Bartlett Converse, joined Amasa at the Christian Observer as a child. Once when fire destroyed the office, Bartlett, who had handled the address list since learning to write, sat down and immediately wrote out 3,000 names and addresses from memory!
During the War, the Christian Observer was distributed in the army. Popular legend claims that on occasion 100,000 copies circulated in the army at one time. The revivals which swept the army and kept the South from becoming another Ulster can be traced in substantial measure to the Christian Observer.
At the close of the war, the Christian Observer moved to Louisville, Kentucky. The present publication is still chartered in Kentucky. During the administration of Dr. Bartlett Converse, Rev. James Converse, Rev. Thomas Converse, and Rev. Francis Beattie worked with him as editors. Harry Pollard Converse is the third patriarchal figure in the early Christian Observer. Born in 1876, he attended Princeton and joined his father on graduation. In 1907, upon his father’s death, Harry Pollard became managing editor and held the post for fifty-three years.
Other branches of the family gained recognition for the invention of locomotives, steam engines, shoes, and many other mechanical devices. Taking his turn, Harry Pollard invented modern typesetting equipment and employed the latest methods to streamline operations and eliminate duplications. During this period the Christian Observer became the most widely-read Presbyterian periodical and kept its conservative direction. Other Presbyterian publications drifted into what is now The Presbyterian Outlook. The latter is identified with the Presbyterian Church (USA) while the Christian Observer continues its tradition of serving a wider constituency. Associated with the publication during this period were Dr. David Sweets and Dr. William Thomas McElroy.
In 1960, Miss Marys Converse became managing editor upon the death of her father. At this time, Dr. Samuel A. Cartledge of Columbia Seminary, Dr. Joseph M. Gettys, and Dr. Walter Lingle of Davidson College served editorial terms. The beloved Henry Wade DuBose of the Assembly’s Training School also served as a contributing editor for more than forty years.
These things characterized the Christian Observer throughout its history. The editors refused to permit challenges to the historic confession or to exclude from the family those who claimed to be Presbyterian. Each issue was designed to strengthen the Christian home and build the family. Ahead of its time, the Christian Observer gave special attention to women in the church. The Christian Observer functioned as a clearinghouse for all Presbyterian news. In all things Christ was preeminent.
The ministerial advisors and editors of the Christian Observer promise to maintain this tradition. Men and women from across the spectrum have come together to promote the Christian family and build the Presbyterian and Reformed Church to the glory of God. In the present post-denominational age, the Christian Observer reaches out to all self-affirming adherents of the historic Reformed faith. New methods are being developed to reach the modern audience.