History of the SCE

History and Practice

(reprinted from the CSSR Bulletin 32:2 [2003], with the kind permission of the CSSR)

Edward Leroy Long, Jr., James W. Pearsall Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics and Theology of Culture, Drew University, Madison, NJ
Christine Gudorf, Department of Religious Studies, Florida International University, Miami, FL

The Society of Christian Ethics has a current membership of some 850 men and women drawn primarily from among ethics professors in universities, colleges and seminaries, but also including persons whose work involves social policy analysis and/or social policy responsibilities in other settings. Membership requirements emphasize academic credentials (usually requiring the doctorate) but do not set any conditions regarding a faith commitment or an ecclesiastical/religious identity. Student membership can now be held for up to ten years by anyone matriculated into a doctoral program in ethics (before 2002 only by those ABD, up to a limit of five years).

Although formally 44 years old in 2003, the Society grew out of meetings of Protestant seminary professors of ethics who met together several times without a formal charter in the 1950s as an Association of Seminary Professors of Christian Social Ethics. Those early meetings were attended by a small group of one to two dozen persons (estimated to be about a fifth of the persons in the field at the time), and were held in academic settings, including Yale Divinity School, Union Theological Seminary in New York, the College of Preachers in Washington, Oberlin Graduate School of Theology, Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, and Eastern Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. The Edward W. Hazen Foundation provided a grant of approximately $350 each year to subsidize attendees’ travel and housing expenses.

The Society has not had the same name throughout the 44 years. Through special efforts made by Professor Das Kelley Barnett (its most energetic sponsor) to obtain a larger participation in the life of the association by seminary professors, a larger more structured organization was created at a meeting at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington in January 1959. That group adopted the new name The American Society of Christian Social Ethics. Five years later the adjective Social was dropped amid some debate, following the argument that all ethics is social in nature The adjective American was dropped in l980 because it was recognized that a significant number of the Society’s members were Canadian. Since 1980 the name, Society of Christian Ethics, has remained unchanged despite several unsuccessful efforts to change the name to The Society of Religious Ethics. Those efforts have never been successful despite the fact that nothing in the program planning of the Society has ever required a specifically Christian commitment as a condition for inclusion and there has been some significant attention to ethical thinking in other religious traditions. The Society is incorporated in the state of Tennessee; its bylaws require an annual assessment by external auditors in accordance with Tennessee law.


The membership of the Society has changed over the years not only in size but also in composition, especially its gender and denominational composition. At the very start the membership was almost completely male and was drawn largely from those teaching in seminaries, including many clergy. The 1960 membership roster listed 116 males and 1 female; by 1964 there were 140 members, including 2 females; at the twenty-fifth anniversary in 1983 there were 664 members, about 50 female. Today the membership is approximately 35% female. In the first years the membership was predominately white. There were six African-American members in 1960 and fifteen by 1983, but the proportion of African-American members has not kept pace with the growth of the Society, and remains under 50.

One of the most significant developments has been the shift from the early almost completely Protestant composition of the Society to one that now includes a large number of Roman Catholics (both priests and lay theologians), several Orthodox Christians, and a small number of Jewish scholars. After Vatican II, a few Roman Catholic moral theologians began to attend the meetings and the number of Roman Catholics who became members grew steadily from 1963 on, until Catholics are by far the largest single denomination in the SCE.

Not only have Catholics, Orthodox, and Jewish persons become members, but individuals from all of these groups have become officers of the Society. As an example of the Catholic influx, in 2003 the President, Vice-president (president-elect)) the Executive Director, half the Board of Directors, and both the Co-editors of the Journal of the SCE were Catholic. By the twenty-fifth anniversary in 1983, the greatest number of members were teaching in colleges or universities rather than seminaries, and this proportion has continued to gradually rise since then as public universities developed departments of Religious Studies.

During the first twenty-five years of the Society’s existence nearly forty-five percent of the members were located in the East (New England, Middle and South Atlantic states) and about 12% were located in the West (Mountain and Pacific Coast States). Between the twenty-fifth anniversary (1983) and the year 2001 the percentage of members living in New England, the Midwest, and Pacific coast states has undergone very little change, but the middle Atlantic States in contrast have lost almost 5 percentage points, while the south Atlantic and western plains and mountain states have gained slightly. The Canadian membership has remained almost the same numerically (about thirty), but lost ground percentage-wise. The biggest gain has been a three fold increase in overseas members which now numbers around three dozen.


The governance of the Society evolved slowly at first but has subsequently changed very little. By-laws were drafted starting in l961 and adopted in l964. These provide for the following elected officials: a president and a vice-president who serve for one year; twelve directors, three elected each year to serve a term of four years; and an executive secretary (since 1994 called the Executive Director) who serves four years. Later the position of archivist was added and was held for many years by the same person. During the early years nominations for these positions were drawn up at the annual meeting by a committee which met on location and submitted a list which contained no alternative choices. Nominations from the floor were allowable, but were seldom made. As the Society became larger and more diverse, elections changed. Beginning in 1975 multiple choices were offered for membership on the Board of Directors and since 1977 at least two names were submitted for the vice-presidential office–the presumptive president the following year. Currently, the nominations committee is selected a year in advance and submits its report to the membership months before the annual meeting.

The Society now holds one three day national meeting each year in early January. The current program consists of two to three plenary sessions (often with presentations by invited experts from outside the Society’s membership), seven concurrent sessions on topics submitted for consideration by members, a presidential address, the meeting of several ongoing interest groups, and a popular “Breakfast with an Author” for the discussion of 20-25 recently published books by members. An annual business meeting is held for the election of officers, for the approval of a budget, and for possible changes to by-laws and the Constitution. One sectional branch, on the West Coast, holds a shorter meeting each year.

Annual Meetings

While the Society has always met in January, the date has shifted from late January to an earlier week-end, now carefully chosen to avoid Martin Luther King’s birthday. The length of the meeting has grown longer over the years and the program larger and more complex. The first several meetings consisted of three of four plenary sessions and one overnight. The last few years the length of the meeting has expanded to a full two and a half days with auxiliary meetings both before and after the formal program. The total number of participants, both presenters and conveners, on the program has also increased. In the early years the number was in the teens; a decade later, in the thirties; by the mid l970's in the sixties. The highest number of participants in the first twenty five years was 111. The 2003 meeting had over two hundred participants listed in the program. The Society now must hold its meetings in large commercial conference facilities rather than on campuses. Attendance is now around 500 and has gone as high as 550 in 2001.

The substantive content of the annual programs across the years has been rich and varied, so much so that it is difficult to overview it simply. The themes of several books that became classics after publication were first shared with the Society as papers. Probably the greatest number of papers have dealt with foundational issues–that is, consideration of the biblical, historical, philosophical, theological and social-scientific grounding of the discipline.

Another group of papers has sought to understand oppression and to suggest ways to overcome it. These papers have dealt with 1) African-American liberation and racism; 2) feminism and the oppression of women; 3) gay and lesbian matters, and the situation of native Americans, both in the States and in Canada.

Issues of war and peace have appeared prominently on the program, although the delineation of the issues has changed over the years. Nuclear weaponry, deterrence theory, just war teaching, the relevance of the pacifist witness, the legitimacy of intervention, and the problem of violence in general have all been discussed both as abstract theory and as current policy issues. Such discussions have occurred from the very first years; the 2003 program featured one plenary and five concurrent sessions on the use of violence.

Many members of the Society have been interested in the nature and function of law, an interest that extends into and relates to the study of political action and the protection of human rights. An equally important focus of attention has been economics, including globalization, technology, and the care of the environment. Biomedical ethics has been prominent on the program, engaging both professors and members employed in the healthcare sector.    

Sessions on the programs have provided for dialogue between Protestants and Roman Catholics, between those in Western and Eastern branches of Christianity, and between Christians and Jews. Some attention, modest but increasing in amount and importance over the years, has been devoted to understanding ethical thinking in other religions of the world. A scattering of papers has dealt with the relation between ethics and liturgy, and of ethics with higher education. Sexuality has been a recurring topic and attention to it has increased, mirroring its prominence in ecclesial and social discussions.


Early in its history the Society took actions to develop its own publishing agenda, first ambitiously conceived as a journal of high scholarly quality to be published on a regular schedule. But it took a long time to bring the ideal to fruition. Several committees were formed during the 1960s to consider the possibilities of producing some Society publication, and the first effort was a Newsletter. Subsequent publications included bibliographical essays on specific topics, the first of which was on Black studies. This appeared almost a decade following initial discussion of publication possibilities. Meanwhile, Charles Reynolds, with support from the University of Tennessee, undertook to publish a Journal of Religious Ethics and asked the Society to provide active encouragement for the venture. The editors and editorial board were almost all members of the Society, but the Journal did not at that time become the SCE’s official organ. Meanwhile several additional bibliographical essays were prepared and distributed..

By 1975 the Society ceased distributing mimeographed minutes and selected papers from the annual meeting and produced a printed volume entitled The Selected Papers. By 1981 this publication was renamed The Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, and an editor was appointed by the Board to serve for a three year (later five year) term. Meanwhile, the Society provided a small grant to help the launching of The Journal of Law and Religion, the relationship of which to the Society was analogous to the friendly but unofficial relation enjoyed at that time by The Journal of Religious Ethics.

The Annual from its inception was not a proceedings, but a double refereed selection from the papers delivered at the annual meeting. As the number of papers delivered at annual meeting increased over the years, so did the number of pages in The Annual, which selected roughly one third of the meeting papers for publication. In 1996 the Editorship of The Annual became a Co-editorship, and at the end of that five year term, another Co-editorship began. By 2001, the size of The Annual was fast approaching 500 pages. With the support of the Report of the 21st Century Committee in 2002 The Annual became the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics; in 2003 the JSCE began publishing two issues a year, shifted from camera-ready to type-set publishing, and made plans for a book review section in 2004.

As the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Society approached in 1983 Edward LeRoy Long, Jr. was asked to write a history of the Society. This was prepared in camera ready form on a then quite primitive computer available at that time and published in 1984 with help from the Journal of Religious Ethics but under the imprint of Religious Ethics, Inc. It bore the title Academic Bonding and Social Concern. That volume, now out of print, provides very detailed elaboration of the story given in such condensed form in this account.


At the end of its first decade the SCE explored the possibility of becoming a member of the American Council of Learned Societies. It was discouraged from going forward with a formal application by the then president of the ACLS on the ground that the range of the Society’s interest was too narrow and its identity too young. At the time the Society suspected that behind that response may well have been the common suspicion of religion as a scholarly field that has been a general problem in higher education. Nevertheless, there was a potential problem in granting ACLS membership to but one of the plethora of professional groups concerned with aspects of religious studies. Moreover, the American Academy of Religion was emerging at the time as the presumptive parent group for all aspects of religious studies and hence would have been a more natural choice for ACLS.

That rebuff did not deter the SCE from working with other learned societies in subsequent years. It became very active early in the creation of the Council for the Study of Religion and several of its delegates to that body have been elected to key offices. The SCE had a role in the International Congress of Learned Societies in the Field of Religion that was held in Los Angeles in September of l972 but declined to move its annual meeting that year to coincide with that of the Congress. Over the years many members of the SCE have participated in the ethics section of the American Academy of Religion, but there has never been a formal working agreement between the two groups. Similar informal interchange has occurred over the years between the SCE and the Society for Values in Higher Education, particularly when the latter was called The Society for Religion in Higher Education.

Public Witness

The primary purpose of the Society has always been to support and encourage academic achievement but from time to time its members have become so concerned about a public issue as to consider taking a stand. This has often prompted a discussion about the appropriateness of doing so, but when a glaring social problem arises the reservations are often shelved (not necessarily with everyone’s approval). A member of the Society was pivotal in getting the session which the SCE sponsored at the Congress of Religion (Los Angeles, 1971) to pass a resolution criticizing the American bombing of North Vietnam. The Board sent greetings in 1971 to the American Civil Liberties Union on its fiftieth anniversary. In 1971, when the trial of Father Berrigan and others took place the Society created a task force to consider the threat to academic freedom and civil liberties. The task force polled the membership for ideas and reactions and eventually a paper was written which was printed by the Department of Church and Society of the Presbyterian Church with the title U.S. vs. the Harrisburg 8: Conspiracy Persecution for Illegal Dissent. The Society made its voice heard in urging the nation’s bicentennial celebration to avoid becoming a self-congratulatory binge. It passed a resolution supporting the move to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. It publicly supported both academic freedom and its past president, Charles Curran, in his dismissal from The Catholic University of America, expressed deep concern over the Vatican’s treatment of Hans Küng, and expressed opposition to a surge of militant racism. More recently it opposed the 1991 Gulf War and defended needle exchange programs to prevent the spread of AIDS.

When the 4-H Center in Washington, which had been the SCE’s single most frequent meeting site, closed its doors to a group open to gay and lesbians as well as to Amnesty International, the Board decided not to meet there again unless the Center revised its policy. Perhaps one of the most thoroughly considered and important actions of the Society with regard to the conduct of its own life was to draft a policy concerning sexual conduct which provided sanctions against members engaging in any misconduct while participating in the Society’s life, a policy later incorporated into a broader policy covering all aspects of professional conduct.

21st Century Committee

As the 20th century drew to a close, the Society appointed a committee, the 21st Century Committee, to conduct a self study as it looked to the future. That study, which involved an extensive survey of the membership, reaffirmed the basic identity and practice of the Society at the same time that it clarified a number of shifts that had taken place within that identity and pointed to some necessary adaptations to changed conditions in the Society and the larger community. The 21st Century Committee Report recommended a number of changes which have already been implemented, including a Society website (www.scethics.org) listing annual meetings, programs, Presidential Address, a searchable but not downloadable directory of members, email and listserv information, and subscription information for the JSCE. Recognizing the increased size of the Society, a half-day extension of the annual meeting was recommended and implemented, as was a suggested writer’s group. The most ambitious proposal was the establishment and funding of four Working Groups with four year mandates to cultivate conversations and working relationships focused on Hispanic Christian Ethics, African and African-American Christian Ethics, Jewish and Christian Ethics and Islamic and Christian Ethics. Partly as a result of this proposal the newly formed Society of Jewish Ethics met in conjunction with the SCE in 2003, with its program co-ordinated with that of the SCE and printed in the SCE program.