By Herbert F. Vetter
In 1966 I accepted an advance of one thousand dollars from a Boston publisher who invited me to submit a manuscript on a specific subject: THE RELEVANT REVEREND. I accepted the assignment and now at last—with images added for online enhancement—publish what I wrote fifty years ago concerning what was then described as “the perplexed profession.”
“You’re irrelevant!” is the charge I heard when I began my life as a parish minister in the 1950s. “You religious leaders are irrelevant to the crucial struggles of life today.”
Many of our novelists from Sinclair Lewis to John Updike portrayed this theme. The Reverend Elmer Gantry was worse than irrelevant; he was deceitfully and absurdly irreverent. In the churchgoing scene of Updike’s Pigeon Feathers, a poorly paid but resplendent robed man strives to console us with scraps of ancient epistles and halting accounts, hopelessly compromised by words.
Even able clergy spoke of their American colleagues as “the perplexed profession.” Confusion swinging downward into chaos was seen as a characteristic shared by the rabbi, priest, and minister. James Gustafson, one of the sharpest observers of “The Clergy in the United States,” reported in Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences that the clergy often represented a historical tradition that in many respects was dissonant with contemporary knowledge and principles of practical life in the age of technology. They were no longer clear about their authority. He reported that, no matter what their faith and tradition, the American clergy stood between an ancient tradition and a living culture in which God was remote, if not dead.
In countering this publicly declared crisis of the clergy, I began the task of examining what I considered the substantial and exciting contributions made by our religious leaders throughout the past generation from 1930 to 1970. In case after case the facts revealed that the reverend simply was not irrelevant. Indeed, a new creativeness had burst through the formal proprieties of this old profession. I invite you to join me in considering what I discovered half a century ago when I researched profiles of ministers, priests, and rabbis who made a potent impact in the decades of America’s phenomenal rise to world power.