by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
By the summer of 1909, Lloyd C Douglas was going places. He was a frequent contributor to the Lutheran Observer, was often mentioned in the local newspapers, and could easily attract a crowd to hear his sermons and speeches. He was invited to speak at churches and events throughout the region and was a favorite with young people, especially at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and a group called Christian Endeavor. In fact, both of these latter groups were trying to get him to work for them. And he was giving it serious consideration.
But no one – not even Douglas himself – could have predicted where he would end up next. For in the summer of 1909, the Reverend Doctor J. G. Butler died, leaving a vacancy at the Memorial Evangelical Lutheran Church in Washington, DC.
The church was five blocks northeast of the White House on a crossroads called Thomas Circle. At the center of this circle was a garden and statue of Major General George H. Thomas. Bisecting it east and west was M Street, north and south was 14th, with Vermont and Massachusetts, in opposite diagonals, forming an X through its center. The Memorial Church sat atop a pie-slice wedge on the circle’s northern side.
Riding around Thomas Circle in a horse-drawn carriage and viewing the church straight-on, one could simultaneously peer down both Vermont and 14th streets, which ran along either side of the church. The building itself, conforming to those boundaries, was triangular. Its front was narrow, with a central entryway and high steeple, then it became increasingly wider, with smaller towers on either side at the structure’s back. Its outer surface was red sandstone, and the Gothic towers were green. And in front of the entrance, facing Thomas Circle, was a replica statue of Luther-at-Worms, holding a massive Bible, his face heavenward as if saying, “Here I stand.” When that statue was added in 1884, people began to call it Luther Place Memorial Church.
It was the Reverend Dr. John George Butler who first dreamed of this place and made it a reality. The War Between the States was still raging—indeed, Confederate cannons were within hearing distance of the nation’s capital—when Butler laid plans to build a unique Lutheran church in Washington, D.C. It was to be a living memorial, expressing gratitude to God for preserving the nation and freeing the slaves. In the front would be two “reconciliation pews” representing Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. On either side of the sanctuary, the theme of reconciliation would continue with windows memorializing heroes from outside Lutheranism: Luther, Melanchthon, and John Huss would share space with Wesley and Calvin. And looking down upon all this, with outstretched arms of approval, would be an art-glass reproduction of the Thorwaldsen Christ.
Butler was already well-known as pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Washington, DC. During the war, President Lincoln appointed him chaplain of both a military hospital and a regiment. After the war, Butler got people all over the country excited about his idea for the new church, and donations poured in, making it financially possible. The church was built and began operating in 1873. Butler resigned his post at St. Paul’s to become the pastor of Luther Place Memorial, and from that place his name went out even farther than before. He served as chaplain of the House of Representatives for six years (1867-73), then of the Senate for seven years a decade later (1886-93). He did what he could to help advance black men in the ministry. For twenty years he taught homiletics and church history at the Howard University Divinity School, and he helped establish the Church of Our Redeemer in Washington, DC, a segregated congregation for African Americans.
He was a towering figure in the nation’s capital, and Douglas had no way of knowing that he would be the man’s successor. But through a series of coincidences, that’s what happened. (To be continued.)
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