Christian journalism

Yes, Mr. Craig, there was a Publick Occurrences

Issue: "New attacks on taxes," April 18, 1998

Dear editor, In a 1998 daily calendar which I use, there is a reference to an American newspaper published in 1690 called Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick. According to my calendar it lasted only one issue and was declared offensive and shut down. I am not sure what was offensive in the paper, or even if the story is true, but I must say I find your magazine offensive and must cancel my subscription.
-Herbert Craig, Alamogordo, N.M. Dear Mr. Craig,
If our cancellation folks are slow on the draw and you are still reading this, let me tell you that the story is true. I was such a laid-back editor of my sixth-grade newspaper, The Bugle, that the newspaper only had one issue and became known as The Bugle Blows Once. But Benjamin Harris, Puritan founder of Publick Occurrences, was a good editor - and the reason his newspaper appeared only once tells us much about good Christian journalism and the criticism it engenders. The story of Publick Occurrences really began in 1681, nine years before its issuing. There were no newspapers anywhere in Britain's American colonies at that time, but Massachusetts ministers united to plead for careful coverage of "Illustrious Providences, including Divine Judgements, Tempests, Floods, Earth-quakes, Thunders as are unusual ... Remarkable Judgements upon noted Sinners, eminent Deliverances, and Answers of Prayer." The ministers wanted stories about such sensational events because they understood that all occurrences are "ordered by the Providence of God," so that news stories are as much about God as about man. These Puritans also set the stage for honoring the journalists themselves. Their understanding that God is active in the world made journalism not trivial but significant; Cotton Mather wrote that "To regard the illustrious displays of that Providence wherewith our Lord Christ governs the world, is a work, than which there is none more needful or useful for a Christian." Such ministerial understanding attracted Englishman Harris, who had been persecuted and jailed in London for publishing a newspaper that covered all kinds of events, not just official announcements. Given another chance on this side of the Atlantic, Benjamin Harris made sure that his newspaper's four pages displayed a belief in God's centrality. Mr. Harris first gave his reason for publication: "That Memorable Occurrents of Divine Providence may not be neglected or forgotten, as they too often are." Then he cited "a day of Thanksgiving to God" for a good harvest and moved on to reporting on a tragedy averted as God "assisted the Endeavours of the People to put out the Fire," and a tragedy consummated when a man committed suicide after his wife died: "The Devil took advantage of the Melancholy which he thereupon fell into." Mr. Harris fell into trouble when he reported sensational news of Indian attacks and of adultery in the French court. British officials, hoping at that time for peace with France, did not want to arouse popular concern about insufficient defense preparations or about low morals in high places. Furthermore, since the English royal court was not a chaste place either, British officials probably did not want attention drawn to ignoble royal acts, particularly in the sensational way Benjamin Harris did: The French king liked to "lie with his Son's wife." Such facts about the depravity of man did not upset Puritans; Cotton Mather called Publick Occurrences "a very noble, useful, and laudable design." British officials, however, feared that the French would become angry if they found out that a newspaper given permission to publish was criticizing them. Four days after publication officials told Mr. Harris to put out his newspaper no more, unless he wanted new prison nightmares. The editor gave in. Even though Publick Occurrences lasted only one issue, its brief life showed the service that good Christian journalism could perform, and suggested some of its characteristics. Benjamin Harris wrote with biblical objectivity, the understanding that we can present an accurate picture of the world only if we acknowledge the centrality of God in it. He practiced biblical sensationalism, the view that journalists should aim at the heart as well as the mind, and should not shy away from showing the bad in the world-because when we do the goodness of God shines all the brighter. Just as British officials found Publick Occurrences to be offensive, so some readers find WORLD offensive. We take issues of tone very seriously, but we are glad to stand in a great tradition, even if it loses us readers at times-and we are grateful for the many who resubscribe, and tell their friends.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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