by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
It was officially 98 degrees in Washington, DC, that day (107 degrees on “the street kiosk”), but the members of Luther Place Memorial Church must have stopped fanning themselves when they heard the announcement. It was Sunday, July 2, 1911, and as their young pastor, Lloyd C Douglas, ended his sermon and was about to begin administering the sacrament, he said these words, according to the next day’s Times Herald. They are remarkable for their brevity:
“This morning I celebrate the feast of the Lord’s Supper with you for the last time. Probably, too, it will be the last time I shall officiate in this capacity in our church.”
In less than half a minute, he told them two important pieces of information: (1) that he was resigning as pastor, and (2) that he was leaving the ministry of the Lutheran Church. He continued:
“For I have concluded, after most thorough and prayerful attention to a call to the University of Illinois to become religious work director of the Student Christian Association, that it is my duty to accept.”
A little less than two years earlier, he had been given an opportunity to lead this flagship church in the nation’s capital, and now he was throwing it all away to become a campus minister.
From the Washington Post:
“Hardly had the minister concluded his resignation when members of the church surrounded him and pleaded with him to give up the call. The officials of the church were loudest in their insistence that he remain, declaring that he was as much needed in this city as in his new field. To these claims Mr. Douglas replied that he had already accepted the call from the Young Men’s Christian Association and could not alter his decision now.”
From the Washington Herald:
“‘It seems clearly God’s own call,’ said one of the leading members afterward. ‘We are honored, though the regret in having Mr. Douglas go, just as he has really got well started with us, is sincere and universal in Luther Place Memorial Church.’”
From the Washington Times:
“‘I leave my church here with much regret, but I feel that my duty lies in the new field,’ said the pastor. ‘My relations with the church here are most pleasant and only the urgency of the call leads me to leave.’
The reporters at the Washington, DC papers had not yet become either as aggressive or as persistent as they would be in later years, for they all seemed to suspect that there was more to the story, but none of them pursued it. Douglas was giving up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at Luther Place, and his new job at the YMCA was a downward move, although he did his best to make it sound important.
A letter he received from the White House put it in perspective. The note came from Charles D Hilles, secretary to President Taft. “While I congratulate the University on securing your services,” Hilles said, “I very much regret that we in Washington are to lose you. I have no doubt that your pre-eminent success with young men fits you for the task you are about to assume. If I did not know of your fondness for such work, I should be unable to account for your departure from the fine old church in Washington.”
There it was: yes, we know you’re fond of working with young people; and yes, we know you’ll do well. But even taking those factors into consideration, we are “unable to account for your departure.”
It was a different day and time than the one we live in now. No one seriously pressed him about it. But their suspicions were correct: there was more to the story.
For although Douglas had strong feelings about the YMCA and had even been considering working for them when the Luther Place opportunity fell in his lap, this career move was about far more than that. Lloyd Douglas was at a crossroads – mentally, spiritually, and professionally. For reasons known only to himself and his wife Besse, he could no longer continue on his current trajectory. Over the next five blog posts, I’ll tell you about those reasons.
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