by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
That was the text of Lloyd Douglas’s sermon at Grace Lutheran Church in Muscatine, Iowa (USA), sometime in the spring or summer of 1905. They were considering calling him as pastor, and they ended up doing so; but he turned them down. He was on his way to bigger and better things than they could offer him in small-town Iowa.
His sermon topic, taken from John 1:46, says it all. He had spent the last two years as the pastor of another small-town church in North Manchester, Indiana, and he was ready for a break-out.
“Nazareth,” he said, “is for us whatever fetters and binds. It may be a town; it may be poverty; may be disease; may be the one black stain on the escutcheon of a family. Nazareth may be a long vista of years when education was denied; may be an occupation, hated and scorned.”
It was an odd choice of topic, for he was speaking to people in a little town in Iowa, and for Douglas, who had always hoped to make his mark on the larger society, this place was a backwater. It’s strange that he even accepted the invitation, knowing that it was for the purpose of calling him to be their pastor. But it’s even stranger that he stood before them and hinted that they were living in a modern-day Nazareth. He was always trying to reach young people, and it almost seems like he was saying to some imaginary boy or girl in the pews, “Don’t lose hope. I grew up like you, but I’m moving on… and so can you!” His sermon was not aimed at those who were complacent; it was meant for the restless ones in his audience – people just like himself.
For even though he did (for whatever reason) make the trip back to Iowa (he had served as a student pastor at a church in Des Moines in 1902), he was even at that moment being wooed by another congregation in Lancaster, Ohio. This, too, was a small-town church, but it was close to Columbus (a larger metropolitan area that was also the state capital), and it was growing. Douglas wanted to contribute to that growth. But until he got a solid offer from Lancaster, he felt he needed to keep the poor souls of Muscatine, Iowa, on the hook. And that is the only reason I can give for the fact that he was now, on this Friday evening, preaching to them about how boring it was to “come from Nazareth.”
But whatever his listeners thought the sermon meant, or however they might have applied his message to their own lives, it is clear how Douglas applied it to himself. He had been born and raised in Nazareth, but he was determined to get out of it, one way or another. And so this rather odd sermon was a sort of Declaration of Independence, even if nobody who heard it on that occasion knew what he really meant.
He concluded with a note of warning – whether to himself or to his hearers is not clear. He said, “There are responsibilities attached to any departure from Nazareth. The reconstruction of environment brings added capabilities and commensurate burdens. The road leading from Nazareth may pass the cross.”
Be that as it may, he was ready to go; and a short time later, he did, for he was offered the job in Lancaster and moved there in the summer of 1905. But the two years he had just spent in North Manchester were not wasted, for even though he was restless to leave such humble surroundings, his work in that little town had already shown signs of his future greatness.
[The sermon discussed above is described in an undated newspaper clipping on p. 31 of Scrapbook 1 in Box 5 of Douglas’s private papers at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. The sermon was entitled, “Environment: Its Limitations and Possibilities.”]
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