A New Dispensation

by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)

When Lloyd Douglas took over as pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in North Manchester, Indiana (USA) in the spring of 1903, he did not consider it business-as-usual. He may have been in a little town, but he intended to shake things up. Just months after he arrived, he began publishing a four-page weekly newsletter. It is typical (now, at least) for congregations to have newsletters, but this was on high-quality paper and had a photograph – not just a drawing – on the front cover. In 1903, it was unusual even for local newspapers to include photographs. (The image below is from Douglas’s earliest scrapbook, p. 15, in Box 5 of the Lloyd C Douglas Papers at the Bentley Historical Library.)

“This paper is to herald the arrival of the ‘new dispensation,'” he wrote. “It has been advisable to issue it [the newsletter] at this time because many of us feel that we have begun a new epoch in the life of the church. We have decided to work harder, to pray more.” [Underlined in the original, and “pray more” is double underlined.]

Later in this same issue, he shamelessly borrowed Admiral Horatio Nelson’s message to the British fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805: “Remember that we are starting in on a ‘New Dispensation,’ and we must say as was said to Britain’s sons: ‘England (The Church) expects every man to do his duty.’”

No doubt his enthusiasm was contagious, but he could also get carried away, issuing orders to “the troops,” forgetting that most of them were older – indeed, far older – than he was.

The following week, he wrote: “Those of our readers who attended last Sunday’s services need not be told that there is a ‘great awakening’ in our work. It was manifest in many ways. There were visitors attending who have not been in our church for months; there were members with eyes open to the comfort of the stranger; there was soulful singing and a spirit of deep devotion to be noticed. These are elements of success, and as they continue to be practiced we will observe an increasing attendance at church services. The work is now but fairly started…” Nor did he intend to see it slack off.

“Where, indeed, shall we begin to tell of the transformation at work in the Sunday-school?” he asked later in that issue. “The Bible Class has suddenly grown to a size which warrants a division…. There were people in Sunday-school last Sunday who had thought long ago that they had outgrown it completely, but they say they are coming again.”

Douglas’s arrival in the sleepy little town of North Manchester was about as abrupt as that of a tsunami. He had lots of energy and an endless supply of ideas. But there was only so much he could do in such a small town, especially in a place where everybody knew him as a youngster; so his ministry didn’t really take off until he left for his next pastorate in 1905. But we can see signs of his later genius even here. The newsletter is an example. He wrote each article of each issue himself, and he did it in an intimate voice as if he were speaking to you, the reader. When his parishioners died, he himself wrote the obituaries for the newspaper, and he did it with all the passion and eloquence of a novelist. On at least two occasions he preached a sermon series on weeknights, as if he were a big-name evangelist. He seemed surprised when the young people of his congregation did not flock to his new Sunday afternoon catechism class.

But he wasn’t “all work and no play.” While he was in North Manchester, he pulled some strings to help get Dr. F. M. Porch of Louisville, Kentucky, the position of pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in nearby Columbia City, then wooed and won his daughter – Bessie Io Porch – and made her his wife. He also wrote a book. It was a busy two years!

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C Douglas, fill out the form below:

Author: Ronald R Johnson

I am a Christian author and philosophy professor who speaks and writes about everyday spirituality. I also write funny, suspenseful novels that aren't philosophical or religious... or are they? Learn more at www.ronaldrjohnson.com.

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