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Georgia Baptist news journal The Christian Index celebrates 200 years

DULUTH, Ga. (BP) – Established with a focus on supporting missionaries as well as “present[ing] to our readers a compendious summary of the passing tidings of the times,” Georgia’s The Christian Index launched a movement 200 years ago that predated all other Southern Baptist state papers and Baptist Press as a denominational news source.

“The Index was there for the birth of the Cooperative Program, the Southern Baptist Convention, the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, the Woman’s Missionary Union, all seven of the SBC seminaries, the Georgia Baptist Convention, Georgia’s three remaining Baptist colleges and nearly every Baptist church in the state,” current editor Roger Alford wrote earlier this week.

Longtime editor Jack U. Harwell’s book, An Old Friend with New Credentials, was published in conjunction with the Index’s 150th anniversary in 1972 and provides background on its beginnings in Washington, D.C, as The Columbian Star.

When it first hit the presses on Feb. 2, 1822, the publication stated its “main design” was to “render the paper an authentick [sic] repository of missionary and other religious intelligence, as well as a medium for inculcating sound theological doctrines, and pure moral precepts,” Harwell reported.

Another former editor, Gerald Harris, spoke on The Index’s role in SBC history.

“While The Christian Index predates the Southern Baptist Convention, it has followed and reported every noble cause in Southern Baptist life since its inception,” Harris told BP. “For me, it was an unprecedented honor to be identified with a publication served by influential leaders like Luther Rice, W. T. Brantley, Jesse Mercer, Joseph M. Walker, I. J. Van Ness, Louie D. Newton, John J. Hurt, Jack Harwell and Albert Mohler.”

Mohler was editor of the Index from 1989-1993, before becoming president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a post he still holds.

“The Christian Index, founded in Washington, D.C., as the Columbian Star, has pride of place as the oldest continuously published religious news source in the United States,” Mohler told Baptist Press. “And the paper’s own heritage is just remarkable. Founded by missionary pioneer Luther Rice, edited by the titanic Georgia Baptist Jesse Mercer, and with the history of our churches and denomination revealed in its pages line after line. I was highly honored to serve as editor of The Christian Index and I celebrate this great anniversary.”

Outside The Index offices in Duluth, Ga., a placard commemorates the publication as America’s oldest religious newspaper. Kentucky Baptists’ Western Recorder, founded in 1825, closely followed The Index for that distinction. The Western Recorder ceased publications in March of last year.

“For 200 years, The Christian Index has consistently and accurately served Georgia Baptists and the SBC to provide convention news and encouraging stories of what God’s people are doing around the world,” said Thomas Hammond, executive director for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “No matter the medium, The Index has been a trusted source for news that every Christian will benefit from reading.”

The Index’s early years brought several moves and name changes. In 1827 the paper moved to Philadelphia upon being sold to William T. Brantley, who added the title of editor alongside his role as pastor of First Baptist Church there. Two years later it would be renamed The Columbian Star and Christian Index, signifying Brantley’s desire by to more closely identify the publication with its religious mission.

The name would be shortened to The Christian Index in 1831 before being sold to Jesse Mercer in 1833. Mercer moved it to Washington, Ga., and changed the name to The Christian Index and Baptist Miscellany. Soon thereafter its name would again be shortened and the paper moved to the town of Penfield, near Mercer University.

Circulation reached a peak of 138,000 in April 1968. By the end of the year, though, The Index had lost 10,000 subscribers through a combination of a rate increase as well as the reaction to an editorial Harwell wrote on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

King was murdered on April 4, a Thursday, and also the day before The Index went to press. Harwell went in early the next morning to rework the editorial page because he “felt that [MLK’s death] should not go unnoticed in the state Baptist paper of his home state.”

Although King wasn’t Southern Baptist, he held numerous conversations with Southern Baptist leaders on civil rights issues and had spoken in chapel at Southern Seminary.

Readership analytics for that time aren’t what they are today, but it’s almost certain the editorial became the most widely read and well-known item in Index history.

The Atlanta Constitution carried it on the front page the morning of King’s funeral. The Atlanta Journal did the same that afternoon. The city’s premiere radio station, WSB, recorded Harwell reading the editorial and played it off and on throughout the day. Every TV station in Atlanta, Harwell wrote, stopped by his office “to record on film my comments about Dr. King.” The editor also spent an hour on a talk radio station answering questions.

At the time of its 150th anniversary, subscriptions had climbed back to 134,000. However, circulation began to dip as The Index experienced the same challenges as all newspapers with the rise of the internet. Biweekly production of its print product ceased at the end of 2015, with the news journal going to an all-digital format.

In a recent column, Alford cited a broad range of Index readers among various language groups, thanks to a translator tool at the top of the site.

Metrics examining readership have changed and are largely determined by the competition of other media. Unfortunately, that can lead to unfortunate consequences.

“The role and impact of denominational papers like The Christian Index has changed through the years,” said Baptist historian Charles Jones. “In the era before the internet, and especially the days before radio and television, print media was the primary source of information.

“Papers like The Christian Index were considered a close family friend. Arriving each week, they were eagerly consumed from cover to cover, in part because there was little else news to read. Today with other sources of media competing for attention, religious news is often marginalized. Unfortunately, this has impacted the support for missions and denominational work.”

Scott Barkley, the author of this article, served as production editor of The Christian Index from January 2004-May 2018, at which point he was promoted to editor. Barkley remained in that role until December 2021, when he joined Baptist Press.