Biography of Famous Radio Preacher Charles E. Coughlin

About the famous American preacher Charles E. Coughlin, biography and history of the radio evangelical.


Charles E. Coughlin was 35 when he took to the airwaves for the 1st time, in 1926. A chain-smoking parish priest who presided over the Shrine of the Little Flower, a small wooden church in Royal Oak, Mich., he called his sermons "The Golden Hour," and hoped they would bring new members to his tiny pastorate.

They did. He received 8 letters after that 1st broadcast, and another radio appearance some weeks later brought in 100. Within a decade Coughlin became known outside his pastorate and he began peppering his homilies on Christianity and the virtuous life with vitriolic pronouncements on the state of the economy and the shortcomings of prominent statesmen, including Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt. By the early 1930s his strident, rasping brogue was heard every Sunday at 4 P.M. by over 30 million Depression-weary Americans, who wrote him 10,000 letters a day. In later years, his mail was to reach as high as a million letters a week, and he hired 4 secretaries and 106 assistants to handle it.

Coughlin's speeches were the essence of street-corner rabble-rousing, and they were mired in hate, bigotry, and economic and political ignorance, but they fed on the anger and anxiety of a nation with 15 million unemployed. A national poll in 1934 showed the "Radio Priest" to be 2nd in power and national popularity only to FDR, his archenemy, whom he referred to variously as "the great liar and betrayer" and "the scab President." Some 1,250,000 of Coughlin's supporters deluged CBS with letters of protest in 1936 when the network tried to tame one of his more vindictive broadcasts--an attack on the Versailles Treaty.

With fellow demagogues Francis Townsend and Gerald L. K. Smith, Coughlin formed the Union party in 1936, and unsuccessfully backed Congressman William Lemke for the Presidency. Soon after, NBC and CBS dropped his broadcasts, but an angered--and resourceful--Coughlin was able to sell his services to a mini-network of 47 independent radio stations throughout the nation, and his influence remained powerful. In a speech emanating from the studios of station WJR in Detroit, Coughlin claimed that 56 of the 59 members of the Soviet Communist party's Central Committee were Jews and that it was Jewish money that had started the Russian Revolution. And since Jews and communists were one and the same, he declared, the Jews were getting just what they deserved at the hands of Hitler. He said this in 1938.

A storm of controversy followed this broadcast, and a few of the stations in the radio empire he had assembled canceled his contract. Otherwise, his power remained unabated. In 1940, Coughlin was forced off the airwaves altogether by his Church superiors, but he continued to hold forth from his pulpit in Michigan. The Federal Government ordered him to discontinue his magazine Social Justice with the outbreak of W.W. II.

In 1966 Coughlin retired to his home in Royal Oak. He was distressed by the "atheistic teachings" of the Black Panthers, and the "sanctified murder" of legalized abortion. He was especially disturbed by the activities of radical priests like the Berrigans. "They're always talking about the rights of man," he said, "never the rights of God. It has become fashionable for priests to be activists." But then he added, almost as an afterthought, "I guess I was a pioneer."

Father Coughlin died in 1974--at the age of 83--after suffering from a heart ailment.

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