by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
From January through March 1909, two Washington, DC, newspapers (the Washington Herald and the Washington Times) gave an unusual amount of coverage to a dispute occurring among the membership of Luther Place Memorial Church. The church council wanted to make changes in the way the congregation was governed, and particularly in the way that finances were handled, but the pastor, Rev. Dr. J. G. Butler, was offended.
In January, the council asked Dr. Butler to announce an upcoming congregational meeting to discuss the issues, but he did not share the announcement with the congregation. A few of the council’s leaders resigned in protest, but since their resignations had to be brought before a congregational meeting, Butler surprised the council the following Sunday by announcing the resignations immediately after his sermon and asking all in favor to say “Aye.” This took everyone by surprise, since the leaders of the council, rather than the pastor, were supposed to preside over congregational meetings. But parliamentary procedures were ignored.
The next day, the story appeared in the local papers. This may not seem like the kind of thing that would make headlines, but (1) churches were considered much more newsworthy in the early 1900s than they are now; (2) Luther Place was considered one of the more significant churches in Washington, DC, and Dr. Butler was arguably the most highly-esteemed churchman; (3) the inauguration of William Howard Taft was just weeks away, but it was a boring story since Theodore Roosevelt, the current president, had hand-picked Taft as his successor (in other words, it was a slow season for news); and (4) perhaps most importantly, it was scandalous. And people on both sides of the conflict made it increasingly scandalous by hurling accusations against each other in the newspapers.
The congregational meeting finally did happen, but Dr. Butler presided over it and, again, parliamentary procedures were not followed. Butler accused the council of trying to oust him as pastor, and he asked for a vote of confidence for his leadership. Some tried to speak but were not given the floor. A lot of people walked out, saying they’d never come back. Of those who remained, the majority voted in favor of Dr. Butler. “The insurgents have been repulsed and are in full retreat,” he told the Washington Times a few days after the meeting (Times, Friday, February 5, 1909, p. 11).
The following Sunday he preached on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. “While we slept,” he said, “the enemy has been sowing tares. There are children of the devil in the church. We have the sheep and the goats among us. Examine yourselves this morning, and see where you stand – among the sheep or among the goats. Those who stand aloof and out of the church at this time of fractional disruption will stand a small chance before the judgment seat. There were factions and schisms in the old church at Corinth, and the Apostle Paul rebuked those responsible for rebelling against God… This church is not to be disrupted by factions and strife.” (Washington Times, Sunday Evening, February 7, 1909, p. 1).
The following Sunday he preached on Matthew 12:30: “He that is not with me is against me.”
This kind of talk did nothing to win people back to the church. The group that the press called “insurgents” or “dissenters” began meeting on Sunday mornings at Confederacy Hall, Vermont Avenue, between N and O streets northwest, which was less than two blocks north of Luther Place. A Congregationalist minister served as interim pastor until they could obtain a Lutheran pastor. When approached for a comment, Dr. Butler told the Herald, “The whole thing is a closed incident to me. These persons have left the church, and the church is getting along without them.” (Washington Herald, Monday, February 15, 1909, p. 1).
Dr. Butler was a fighter. When the War Between the States had begun in 1861, the permanent residents of Washington, DC, were by no means unanimous in their reaction. They lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line, south of two slave-holding states (Maryland and Delaware); the Confederate state of Virginia was just across the Potomac River; and Washington itself had a significant slave population. More than half of the capital city’s families came from either Virginia or Maryland. Geographically and culturally, they had more in common with the genteel South than with the abolitionist North. At the commencement of the war, it was not at all clear whether the village residents would be loyal to the Federal Government. (See Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington: A History of the Capital, 1800-1950 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), volume 1, chapters 9-11).
At that time, Butler was pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, and he did not mince words. Despite the general uncertainty, he did what he could to tip the scale in favor of the Union. In his sermons he opposed secession, and although some of his parishioners left the church in anger, many more joined. Vice President Schuyler Colfax frequently attended, as did a number of congressmen and high-ranking military men. Glad of Butler’s support, President Lincoln appointed him chaplain of both a military hospital and of the 5th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers.
Butler kept up that same fighting spirit long after the war was over, preaching and acting in support of the newly-freed slaves, establishing a health clinic at the church, and helping the poor and disadvantaged within the District of Columbia. And when there was a fire in the church, he rallied his congregation and got them to rebuild it. He was 80 years old at the time. It seems appropriate that, at the rededication of Luther Place following that rebuilding, President Theodore Roosevelt used fighting imagery to describe the state of American politics:
“The forces of evil are strong and mighty in this century and in this country,” he said, and he added that “the people who sincerely wish to do the Lord’s work will find ample opportunity for all their labor in fighting the common enemy” (President Theodore Roosevelt, “At the Rededication of the Luther Place Memorial Church, Washington, DC, January 29, 1905.” In A Compilation of the Messages and Speeches of Theodore Roosevelt, 1901-1905, Alfred Henry Lewis, ed. (Washington, DC: Bureau of National Literature and Art, 1906), pp. 548-550).
This fighting imagery was very much to Butler’s taste. He was a fighter to the end.
Unfortunately, in the final months of his life, when the members of his own congregation were trying to get organized to continue the work he started, he misinterpreted their intentions and fought back, even using the local newspapers to help him win. It was a sad end to a long and distinguished career – and it truly was the end, for on the morning of August 2, 1909, he collapsed on his bedroom floor and died of a heart attack.
The church council moved quickly. They wanted a new pastor charismatic enough to reunite the warring factions. So intent were they on this course of action that they took a huge risk. They passed over Dr. Butler’s son, the Rev. Charles Butler, his heir-apparent. They by-passed a close friend of Dr. Butler, the Rev. Dr. D. Frank Garland of Dayton, Ohio. They declined the opportunity to hear and evaluate distinguished ministers from the length and breadth of the land, many of whom would have been thrilled at the opportunity.
Only one candidate was invited: a young man who had been a minister for no more than six years and who had spent that time serving small-town parishes in the Midwest. He was thirty-two years old, but the Washington papers said he looked much younger. Within only a few short years, he had made a name for himself as a writer for the Lutheran Observer, and he was considered an up-and-coming progressive.
His name was Lloyd C. Douglas.
[To be continued…]
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