John T. Elson dies at 78; Time writer posed question ‘Is God dead?’

John T. Elson, whose 1966 cover story for Time magazine -- provocatively titled “Is God Dead?” -- produced record-breaking newsstand sales with its perceptive analysis of a debate that animated Sunday churchgoers as well as theologians, died Sept. 7 at his home in New York City. He was 78.

Elson had emphysema and heart problems, said his wife, Rosemary.

During four decades at Time, Elson edited or wrote for every department except business. He was religion editor when he undertook an assignment to examine the arguments of a small group of radical theologians that churches, in Elson’s words, “must accept the fact of God’s death, and get along without him.”

The April 8, 1966, issue was the first in Time’s history to feature only words on the cover: “Is God Dead?” in large, red letters on a black background. The story elicited more than 3,500 letters, an unprecedented response. It also broke a 20-year record for newsstand copies sold.

“The story brought a brimstone of controversy, but given the depth of the reporting, few could argue that the writer had not done his homework,” former Time managing editor Jim Kelly wrote in an appreciation of Elson published on the magazine’s website.

The story, which had been under consideration by Time editors for nearly a year, was driven by a growing awareness that the secularized world of the 1960s was causing theologians to rethink traditional concepts of God.

To write the story, Elson read 40 books and drew on interviews with more than 300 people -- ranging from Simone de Beauvoir and Billy Graham to a Greek janitor and an Israeli streetwalker -- conducted by 32 Time correspondents around the world.

The resulting 4,000-word essay was erudite and witty, beginning with Elson’s first line: “Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no.”

Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, on April 29, 1931, he was the son of a Canadian newspaper reporter, Robert T. Elson, who later moved to the United States and became an editor of Time and Life. After attending St. Anselm’s Priory School in Washington, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame in 1953 and a master’s in English literature from Columbia in 1954.

He launched his Time career as a Detroit correspondent in 1957. Over the next 40 years, he wrote more than a dozen cover stories and edited hundreds of others. None, however, attracted as much notice as “Is God Dead?”

That story inspired clergy across the country to tackle the question in their sermons, including Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike of California, who “held up a copy of the magazine as he began a discussion of the subject from the pulpit of Manhattan’s St. Thomas Church,” Time reported several weeks later. Pundit William F. Buckley Jr. spoofed it in a National Review article titled “Is TIME Dead?”

Some readers were outraged that the story ran on Passover and Easter week. Others thought Elson was guilty of siding with the God-is-dead radicals. But the Time editor, a Roman Catholic who went to Mass every Sunday, believed that doubt was a healthy component of faith in God and ended the story with that idea.

“He was writing it on a very serious level. People took it on a very emotional level,” said Rosemary Elson, his wife of 55 years, who was a Time copy editor when they met.

If you read the last paragraph,” she added, “you would know what his opinion was. He certainly believed, but he was always questioning.”

In addition to his wife, Elson leaves two children, two sisters, a brother and a grandchild.