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Chicago Sunday Evening Club (1908-) | Archival Collections at Wheaton College

Name: Chicago Sunday Evening Club (1908-)

Historical Note:

The Chicago Sunday Evening Club was formed by Clifford Barnes as an organization of Christian business leaders to promote the moral and religious welfare of the city and has been a spiritual forum and source of inspiration throughout the Chicago area since its founding. The first Sunday evening service was to be held in Orchestra Hall, February 16, 1908.

The Chicago Sunday Evening Club began as a non denominational religious activity intended for business persons traveling through Chicago by train. Chicago was one of the nation’s rail capitals with thousands of passenger trains coming to or through Chicago. Many trains were idled on Sunday leaving many individuals in the city until Monday.

Barnes and other leaders worked hard to develop a strong reputation for interesting speakers and well performed music, so much so that it began to attract Chicago residents as much or more than business people passing through. It was not unusual for the Club to average 2000-2500 people at Orchestra Hall every Sunday night. There was a different speaker every week, but some speakers were invited to return year after year. In those early years, some of the best-known names in American religion and public life were speakers on the programs, including social worker and reformer Jane Addams, William Jennings Bryan, Rabbi Stephen Wise, Booker T. Washington, and Reinhold Niebuhr. By the middle 1960's Martin Luther King was there on occasions.

In 1922, a powerful new means of communication tool was added to expand the Chicago Sunday Evening Club's audience. On Christmas Eve, the weekly programs began radio broadcasts live from Orchestra Hall. Overnight, the Chicago Sunday Evening Club gained a national presence, earning it the title of "The Nation's Pulpit." Estimates of listeners in the 1920s and 1930s often ran into the hundreds of thousands each week, allowing dynamic speakers like George A. Buttrick from Harvard University, Henry Sloane Coffin from Union Theological Seminary, and W.E.B. DuBois from Atlanta University, to reach an ever-widening national audience. WLS radio carried it first with WBBM having it for several years. While WBBM broadcast the Sunday Evening Club it was carried over the Columbia Broadcasting System to the nation. Sometime around 1950 station WIND (560 AM) took it over.

Weekly programs continued in Orchestra Hall with few interruptions, even after Clifford Barnes' death at the age of 80 in 1944. He was succeeded as President of the Chicago Sunday Evening Club by investment banker, John Nuveen, Jr. (serving from 1944-1955), and then by Joseph O. Hanson, the former President and CEO of Swift International (serving from 1955 to 1969).

With the rapid growth of television in the middle fifties this new medium seemed like the next logical step. Unfortunately, when the Chicago Sunday Evening Club began to be broadcast on WTTW in March of 1956 attendance at the Orchestra Hall meetings began to dwindle. This was hastened by the deterioration of downtown Chicago which began about 1960. Even though the Club continued having an impressive list of speakers, including names like Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Tillich, Ralph Sockman, and Elton Trueblood, the last three years of Orchestra Hall programs saw average attendance in the range of 200-300 people. This put financial strains on the Club’s resources because a long-term lease had been signed. In 1968 when the lease expired the Club ceased its meetings there. With the move from Orchestra Hall to WTTW the Club took advantage of new color television technology, but retained the original format of its program. The transition from the Hall to WTTW coincided with the Club’s transition in leadership with C. Bouton McDougal, a retired R. R. Donnelley executive, taking the helm until 1974.

The Chicago Sunday Evening Club was WTTW's earliest paid sponsorship program, which the station needed in its early days. The Club is the station's oldest continuing program. In the early 1990s, the Chicago Sunday Evening Club created a half-hour version of its hour-long broadcast in Chicago called 30 Good Minutes for the cable television market. This cable format brought about the development of new format for the Chicago Sunday Evening Club in which stories and personal reflections were added.

As the Chicago Sunday Evening Club approaches its 100th Anniversary the Club continues to feature some of the leading voices in religion, as well as the stories of everyday people whose lives reflect the rich tapestry of religious life in America.

Note Author: Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections staff

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