“Immortality: What Should It Mean to Us?” That is the title of the first Protestant Hour sermon broadcast on Sunday, April 1, 1945, five weeks before V-E Day. The preacher was E. T. Thompson, a Presbyterian professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Week after week since then, thousands of sermons have been preached on The Protestant Hour, which became Day1 in 2002.
It all began when leaders of major Protestant denominations and educational institutions formed the Southern Religious Radio Conference near the close of World War II to spread the gospel through the popular medium of radio. The leaders represented the Southern Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal denominations.
(The Southern Baptists participated only briefly, withdrawing in 1948 and moving their communications department to Fort Worth, Texas. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a moderate group that left the SBC in 1991, has been represented on the program since 2003, along with the United Church of Christ and other mainline denominations.)
A Production Center for the Future
WSB Radio in Atlanta agreed to air the program from the very beginning, originally broadcast live from its studio, and continues to carry the program today as a public service. Soon other stations in the Southeast U.S. picked it up. The program was independently organized in 1950 by the Conference, and by 1953 The Protestant Hour was produced from a custom-built 68,000-square-foot building on the edge of the Emory University campus. It was called the Protestant Radio & Television Center (PRTVC).
In a time of massive growth in the mainline churches, the center was built for a promising future. It counted among its many features a massive soundstage in the basement for film and television production. As governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter used the facility to practice speaking on television. Years later, President Carter would preach on a Day1 program as part of a series on “Faith and Global Hunger.”
Popular films such as Driving Miss Daisy were shot there. There were dressing rooms with showers, makeup vanities, and vaulted viewing stations with windows for producers and clients to observe filming. On each side of the V-shaped main floor were offices for staff and participating organizations. A chapel at the building’s center was acoustically designed for sound recording and even had its own custom-made Schlicker pipe organ. Numerous university and church choirs recorded music for The Protestant Hour there, as well as record albums. With the new facilities, the radio program took a leap forward in production values and has continued to maintain the highest standards since.
By the 1970s The Protestant Hour had achieved national recognition, boasting a network of over 600 radio stations and the Armed Forces Radio Network worldwide. Because the Federal Communications Commission then required stations to air public service programming at no charge, The Protestant Hour—with its national and ecumenical scope—was ideal for stations to carry.
While the PRTVC was built for the future, that future was short- lived. By 2000 the brick building, across Clifton Road from the Centers for Disease Control and Infection on the Emory University campus, was full of mold, asbestos, and failing electrical wiring, and no longer functioned for emerging technologies. The building was sold in 2000 to Emory University and later demolished, the property redeveloped.
In early 2001 the radio program headquarters moved with its production partner the Episcopal Media Center, which maintained offices at the PRTVC for five years, to smaller space on the Midtown Atlanta campus of All Saints’ Episcopal Church. In 2013 the operation moved to its current home on the campus of Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in the Buckhead area of Atlanta.
The Primacy of Preaching
At the beginning, The Protestant Hour featured a different preacher each week, but by the 1950s the producers decided to feature one primary preacher year after year to represent their denomination. This approach not only built audience loyalty but also ensured sermon quality. It gave The Protestant Hour an enhanced reputation by presenting popular preachers such as Edmund A. Steimle, John A. Redhead, Robert E. Goodrich, Samuel Shoemaker, and many others, who would generally preach for one whole quarter of each year.
One thing that has bound the preachers together for all the decades of continuing broadcasts is their belief in the importance of proclaiming the gospel. This was summed up in a sermon on September 17, 1967, by George T. Peters of the United Presbyterian National Board of Mission:
Preaching is a fantastic presumption. It is by preaching that Christianity is most conspicuously presented. Yet a pulpit-centered church is a dormant church. The only justification for a [preacher] standing in a pulpit is that the Lord of the church came preaching. The preacher’s task is frightening and sometimes lonely. The gospel is not preached in a vacuum; it is preached in the world. We are all called to preach.
Many preachers in the first two decades had a vocal style distinctive of the times, with a formal and somewhat stilted manner. Others employed a more enthusiastic, dramatic approach. Some had distinctive accents—a Scottish brogue among some Presbyterians, or a British intonation from Episcopalians. Southern preachers spoke with a rich, syrupy drawl. One thing these early preachers rarely did, unlike today, was to share personal anecdotes or information. As the years went by this trend changed, as did the culture at large.
Engaging Important Themes in the 1950s and 1960s
The 1950s were in full swing by the time the program became established nationally. People were moving from rural areas to cities and from cities to suburbs. By 1960 a third of the country’s population lived in the “’burbs.” By 1951 the program had 140 stations in its network, and the coordinating producers changed their organizational name to the Protestant Radio Conference.
Amidst the social changes of the 50s and 60s, Protestant Hour preachers were late in coming to the issue of civil rights, while most never quite let go of the fear and threat of atheistic communism. Well into the 1960s atomic weapons and communism gripped many preachers’ minds. They also agreed that moral decay was rampant within the country, rapid social change was causing problems in family life and society, and a lackluster laity burdened the church’s efforts to share the faith of Christ.
Racism was mentioned early on and then disappeared for a decade. William H. Wallace Jr., a Methodist minister in Oklahoma City, proclaimed, “We need to be stripped of our prejudice.... The Southern Christian white man needs to take the lead in this great problem before our nation at this time” (February 9, 1947). Ten years later, on January 27, 1957, Herman L. Turner, a Presbyterian pastor in Atlanta, said, “We must speak the truth in love. Prejudice against persons on the grounds of race is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ. The racial tensions will be eased by those who are willing to begin by making themselves the instruments of our Lord’s policy.”
At the height of the Vietnam war and the protest movement, Edmund Steimle—who could sound both critical and affirming of what young people were doing—took a positive approach in his June 25, 1967, sermon:
Thank God the young people of today with their long hair are willing to launch out into the absurd in the search for peace and justice. We will never know what Christ is up to until we are willing to obey in the face of the absurd command to follow, for example, to open up housing in our neighborhood to Negroes.
In fact, during this era it was Steimle more than any other preacher who made frequent reference to social problems on both a domestic and global level. He could lash out at popular culture, poverty, drugs, crime, and the comfortable pew that he thought too many churchgoers were occupying.
The hesitancy to speak of race relations ended abruptly in May 1968 with a series of sermons by preachers chosen by the National Council of Churches called A Crisis in the Nation. Diving right into the matter, Charles S. Spivey, executive director of the NCC Department of Social Justice, preached a sermon on June 16, 1968, called “Going to Hell.” He said, “Angry black youth today are telling the church to go to hell. That is where it should go as it is separated from the sins of today. We need to deal directly with racism in our local church and neighborhood, in our club, lodge, or union.”
As the program neared its second decade, there was a subtle shift as preachers chose themes such as marriage and family, the importance of Christian education, and the value of small and rural churches. One common theme was how to deal with personal suffering and anxiety. There was a consistent emphasis on a biblical text for the sermon—a reading or readings chosen by the preacher, rather than from a common lectionary as used by Day1 preachers today.
Uniformly, the theology of The Protestant Hour sermons was in the neo-orthodox tradition. Yet, for all the scholarly background of those who preached on the program, nuances of theology were unimportant when it came to preaching the grace of God to a world in need. It was less important to be academic than to press upon the listener the importance of making that leap of faith, acknowledging Jesus Christ as the savior of the world whose grace alone is sufficient for salvation.
Powerful Voices in a Unique Pulpit
The Protestant Hour over the years had few real competitors. The National Radio Pulpit aired on NBC, and the Lutheran Hour was produced by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and continues today. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America aired Lutheran Vespers, later called Grace Matters, but ended production in 2009.
Alongside traditional Protestant religion in the media, a new evangelicalism arose in the 1950s led by Billy Graham, whose crusades aired weekly on television and whose radio program, Hour of Power, aired on numerous stations. In 1950, 49 percent of Americans were church members, but by 1960 the figure had jumped to 69 percent.
The program’s success by the 1960s was due in no small part to the regularity of effective and engaging preachers such as Steimle, Redhead, Goodrich, and others regularly scheduled. Steimle had an ideal voice for the medium—rich and crisply resonant; listeners felt he was speaking directly to them. Redhead’s delivery, like that of a beloved grandfather, magnetically drew in the listener. Goodrich had a rich Southern voice with near perfect elocution. There could be no better voices suited for the radio medium. Mixed with the brilliant and relevant content of their messages, these giants of preaching gave The Protestant Hour its standard of excellence. Truly this was the greatest preaching of the second half of the twentieth century.
Growth and Change in the 1970s
At the beginning of 1970 the Protestant Hour network had grown to 540 stations, with the Armed Forces Network carrying the program on all military bases, ships at sea, diplomatic posts, and commercial stations where there was a large U.S. military presence. Theodore Parker Ferris of Trinity Church in Copley Square, Boston, delivered the first series of the decade and was the first preacher to talk openly and personally about sex: “I grew up with total secrecy around sex. It aroused my curiosity. It also moved the whole thing out behind the barn. Sex is both powerful and dangerous” (March 1, 1970).
Music on The Protestant Hour took a turn in a modern direction by featuring popular, youth-oriented folk songs like “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” and “Tell It Like It Is,” in addition to traditional Protestant hymnody.
Edmund Steimle bade farewell on July 28, 1974, after twenty years of annual series. In this final broadcast he said, “Every sermon is in part a prayer to the people to whom it is addressed. . . . I am grateful to you, the listeners, and for your letters and for putting up with me all these years and my fumbling, bumbling attempts to speak for God. We will need hope in the future. The world was rather tranquil when I started in 1955. And now the world is chiefly one of violence. You and I do know what the future does hold for us because of the truth of the resurrection. Praise and joy to you all in the years ahead.” He confessed, “For twenty years you’re the only congregation I have had.”
Though a Methodist laywoman preached early on, the first woman to preach a series on The Protestant Hour was Catherine Gonzalez, who alternated programs in the Presbyterian Series of 1975 with her colleague at Columbia Theological Seminary, Don Wardlaw. Their fifteen-week lectionary-based series was delivered as dialogue sermons.
A seminal moment in the history of The Protestant Hour came in late 1975 when the Presbyterian Church announced it would air a special Bicentennial Series with a different preacher, male, female, lay, and ordained, each week. The series, titled The Pilgrimage of a People: One Nation Under God, included Eugene Carson Blake, retired general secretary of the World Council of Churches, and two politicians, U.S. Senator Sam J. Irvin Jr. of North Carolina, famous from the Watergate hearings, and Governor Reuben Askew of Florida. The series also included Fred Rogers from the popular PBS children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, who played and sang several songs on his program. Few knew at the time that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. On April 24, 1977, Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Billy Graham, preached on “Why Have Homes?” She said, “The truly Christian home is the nearest thing to heaven we have on this earth. It is a place of refuge and restoration in a turbulent world.” Ruth Graham was a child of Presbyterian medical missionaries in China and remained a member of the Presbyterian Church.
At the beginning of 1977 The Protestant Hour station network had grown to a peak of six hundred, in addition to the Armed Forces Network, as a result of the FCC’s Sustaining Time mandate for public service programming at no charge.
In June 1979 the United Church of Christ participated in The Protestant Hour for the first time, with James R. Smucker, minister of the New York Conference of the UCC, preaching. After this first series their participation was intermittent until they returned on a more regular basis in 2002.
Each year almost from the program’s beginning, the denominational publishing houses, Cokesbury and John Knox Press, published the sermons of United Methodist and Presbyterian preachers. The Episcopal and Lutheran series were made available in pamphlets that could be obtained by mail or telephone through the PRTVC. The books helped reach people in cities and towns where The Protestant Hour was not heard on radio.
Challenges and Opportunities in the 1980s
Unfortunately, deregulation of the broadcast industry in the early 1980s led to a slow yet steady decrease in the number of stations in the Protestant Hour network.
The year 1980 marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of The Protestant Hour, and PRTVC staff and denominational producers decided to broadcast the best sermons from the past, which included C. S. Lewis presenting what would become his popular book The Four Loves. Lewis had recorded his then-unpublished work in the late 1950s in a hotel above Paddington Tube Station in London on a hand-carried reel-to-reel tape recorder with oversight by director Caroline Rakestraw. She suggested so many editorial revisions to Lewis’s text that he later reported to his secretary he had found her “quite amusing.” The classics also included Edmund Steimle, John Redhead, John Stone Jenkins, Robert E. Goodrich, Thomas L. Jones, J. Wallace Hamilton, and an original program produced for this series by Episcopal layman George Gallup Jr. of the polling organization.
The Episcopal Series for 1984 featured another classic C. S. Lewis work, Mere Christianity. Renowned actor Michael York, rather than Lewis, read the text that had originally aired on BBC Radio during World War II.
On April 22, 1984, Barbara K. Lundblad began sharing the Lutheran Series with John Vannorsdall and would eventually take his place as the annual Lutheran voice. She was then serving as pastor of the Lutheran Church of Our Savior’s Atonement in Manhattan. In 1997 she was appointed professor of homiletics at Union Theological Seminary. Barbara rapidly became a Protestant Hour icon and returned year after year as the ELCA preacher well into the current century. With her frequent references to growing up on an Iowa farm, Barbara was, and remains, a consummate storyteller, a deeply pastoral preacher, and extremely popular.
By then, it was not unusual for women to preach an entire twelve- week series. The Rev. Carol Matteson Cox, pastor of a church in the Bronx, New York, offered the United Methodist series for 1984. She dared speak of homophobia in her August 12 sermon: “In some areas of our lives all of us participate in the sin of overbearing pride. Perhaps the group most looked down on are homosexual persons.”
A new conservatism erupted as many people in the pews grew suspicious of the supposedly liberal national church headquarters, whose budgets they felt should be cut and repurposed to local churches. Many pointed a finger at national leaders for their progressive stances on issues related to race, peace, gender equality, the environment, hunger, and HIV-AIDS. This trend would eventually lead to the elimination of denominational funding for the program in the mid-2000s.
The first African American to offer an entire twelve-part series in the 1980s was the Rt. Rev. John T. Walker, Episcopal Bishop of Washington, DC. Born in Barnesville, Georgia, and brought up in Detroit, Walker was also the first African American to be admitted to Virginia Theological Seminary in 1951. He earned a world reputation for social activism and was a good friend of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
One of the best-known preachers of that generation, named by Time magazine as “the prince of the Protestant pulpit,” preached the Presbyterian Series in 1987. David H. C. Read, pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, preached a stunning series that pushed boundaries. A Scottish Presbyterian, he had served as Her Majesty’s Chaplain in Scotland. When he died, his New York Times obituary described Read as taking “an outspoken approach to controversial issues with a showman’s verve to the pulpit in one of New York’s most prominent churches.” He served at Madison Avenue Presbyterian for thirty-three years.
Having gained a national reputation as one of the finest moderate Southern Baptist preachers and authors, John Claypool felt called to become an Episcopal priest. With his warm, resonant voice he drew people to God everywhere he preached. Claypool first preached on The Protestant Hour in late 1988. He plumbed spiritual depths with words that one can hang on to for a lifetime. For example, “By choosing not to love, one is assured of never having to suffer” (September 25, 1988).
As the 1980s came to a close, Protestant Hour sermons remained mostly personal in their overall tone and message. William K. Quick, pastor of the Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Detroit, said in his February 26, 1989 sermon, “The church today is filled with people who outwardly reflect peace and contentment but whose hearts cry out for someone to love them just as they are: lost, confused, frustrated, sometimes frightened, guilty, and often unable to communicate even with their families.”
More Changes in the 1990s
For the church, the 1990s represented the climax of a long period of mistrust of national church headquarters. The issue of human sexuality was particularly divisive, and the ordination of women, now settled in all the mainline churches at a national level, had not yet won full acceptance in local congregations. Protestant Hour preachers for the most part chose to avoid dealing with these hot topics that were tearing the church apart. They stayed with biblical themes with personal, inspirational explication of the texts. Since the four participating denominations funded The Protestant Hour from national budgets, the program’s future was in real peril.
By the 1990s the program had unified with an opening theme song, a contemporary version of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and Don Elliott Heald—who had served as announcer for the Episcopal series for decades—became the host for all the programs; before his retirement in 1999, his voice had been heard on the program for five decades. He was succeeded as host by Rick Dietrich, a Presbyterian minister on the faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary. Longtime announcer Sherrie Miller, a former WSB Radio program host, began serving in the late 1990s, and Donal Jones began recording, producing, and editing the program, continuing today as director of audio and video production.
By the 1990s, the inherent “Southernness” of the program and the lack of women preachers had ended. On July 8, 1990, Barbara Brown Taylor preached for the first time on The Protestant Hour. Her series aired before she was named “one of the top twelve preachers in the English-speaking world” by Time magazine. Barbara, associate rector at Atlanta’s All Saints’ Episcopal Church at the time, had just completed her first book, The Seeds of Heaven, which she read as her sermons on The Protestant Hour.
In mid-1992 a major change in the program format occurred when the producers decided to stop airing one preacher or one denomination for a straight twelve weeks or so, but rather to feature a different preacher each week on a rotating basis among denominations, in order to create a more ecumenical environment. Preachers were asked to use the Common Lectionary as the basis of their sermons, since all participating denominations now followed it. The decision also arose in part because busy church pastors no longer had the time to prepare a dozen sermons for the program; they were now asked to preach three or four programs at the most, rotating with other preachers.
In 1996, as the World Wide Web came into public consciousness, The Protestant Hour developed a website that included program audio files and transcripts. In the years since, the website at Day1.org continues to expand its faith-building resources. A podcast version of the program has been offered through iTunes since the late 1990s and is now available on most podcast platforms.
A New Name, a New Day of Ministry
In 2000, the PRTVC board decided to sell the now decaying building on Clifton Road, get out of the landlord business, and focus on the radio program, whose affiliate roster had by then dropped to 130. The organization’s name was changed to The Protestant Hour, Inc. Peter Wallace was hired in 2001 to revitalize the program, and together with the denominational producers he did so with new theme music, a new website, and in 2002 a new program name, Day1, which refers to the first day of the week, Sunday, and offers a hopeful, fresh invitation to hearing God’s Word preached.
By the mid-2000s, despite affiliate growth to over 200 stations, denominational support had finally come to an end, and the Protestant Hour, Inc. merged with the Episcopal Media Center in 2004, reinventing itself as the Alliance for Christian Media. A new _Day1 Advisory Board composed of well-respected pastors, professors, and church leaders helped to promote the program to potential preachers, who now came from a much broader range of historic Protestant denominations including the United Church of Christ, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), National Baptist, American Baptist, Reformed Church in America, and others.
In 2005 host Rick Dietrich left to pastor a church, and Peter Wallace added hosting duties to his production responsibilities, expanding the program’s opening interviews with the preachers and adding a follow- up segment to discuss the sermon.
Over the seventy-five years of weekly broadcasts that comprise the Protestant Hour and _Day1 archives, the messages journey through the times in which we lived and in which the preachers preached. World War II brought out the intense need for faith in fearful times, and the growth of Communism put the church on the defense against an atheistic political system that sought to dominate the globe. After those years, the programs never spoke so plainly and passionately about global issues facing our church and nation.
Modernity arose in the fifties with its incumbent problems of vast social growth, which led us to the sixties and the Vietnam War and youth movements and sensitivity training. The generation gap tore families apart, and churches found their memberships dropping. As life became more complex in the later decades of the twentieth century, The Protestant Hour always tried its best to offer a message of faith and hope, encouraging the listener to trust in God, pray for a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, serve God in their daily lives, and know that no matter what comes our way, God’s grace is sufficient.
That message remains the same in 2020, as the _Day1 radio program celebrates seventy-five years of ministry, now not only on the radio but via various podcast platforms. The consistency of message—the approach to biblical interpretation, the assurance of a God who can love us through our self-doubt, our suffering, our divorce or illness, and the challenge to follow Jesus in every area of life—has never changed. It is truly a testimony to the heritage of Protestant religion and those called by God through human speech to make these gospel truths known.
Adapted by the Rev. Peter M. Wallace from a monograph by the Rev. Canon Louis C. Schueddig, D.D.