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Brave New World

by Ronald R Johnson (

The University of Illinois

When Shailer Mathews traveled the United States to tell the general public about the new biblical scholarship being done at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, his message included a description of the new state-college system that was transforming the social landscape in America.

It had been happening all around us, he argued, and yet we were strangely unaware of it. During the Civil War, Congress had passed legislation mandating that each state set aside lands and funds for colleges, and the state-sponsored schools that resulted were quite different from the colleges and universities that had been in existence prior to that. The old colleges and universities were sponsored by religious organizations and taught a fixed body of knowledge that was assumed to be true for all time. These new schools were research institutions. The professors were engaged in state-of-the-art research, and teaching was secondary. This had a number of ramifications, but perhaps the most important, according to Mathews, was the fact that the teachers and the students in these schools looked at the world through new eyes. Part of the new worldview was a belief in the tentative nature of knowledge: since the members of the faculty were constantly making new discoveries, they taught their students to expect updates, at least once in a while if not constantly. Graduates of these institutions went out into the world with the tools to keep learning throughout their lives. And as they did so, and they participated in the workplace, especially in management and professional positions, they were transforming their society.

This brave new world they were creating was one in which facts were of supreme importance – not opinion, not feelings, not beliefs, but facts. Those facts were gathered systematically, according to procedures that, as much as possible, were developed to mimic scientific investigations. The old institutions of learning had stressed literature, history, and philosophy; the new institutions were – or at least strived to be – scientific. And the young people who graduated from these new schools were quietly changing the world.

Of all the things Mathews said, this touched Douglas most deeply. Douglas had been home-schooled. His mother and father were both educators, and they gave him a rigorous classical education: in other words, an education that emphasized literature, history, and philosophy (or in his case, theology). On more than one occasion, he hinted that he was not very happy with the education he received at Wittenberg College (a Lutheran institution), and he was especially critical of the seminary, saying it did not give him any of the hands-on training that was necessary for being a pastor. When Mathews talked about the new state universities and the influence they were having on American society, Douglas’s imagination soared. He not only wanted to understand what was happening in the state colleges; he wanted the kind of education they offered. Although he was in his late thirties, he wanted to go back to school.

When the YMCA told him they had created a position for him at the University of Illinois, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. Sometime later, when he was a pastor in Akron, he looked back on the years 1911 to 1921 and said, “I came to you from an experience of about ten years spent upon the campuses of two great universities [Illinois and Michigan], where I daily faced the new problem of a readjustment in religious thought, to make it consonant with the more recent disclosures of the philosophical and scientific world” (Lloyd C Douglas, The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955), p. 80).

Although Douglas was going to Illinois to evangelize students, his personal desire was to go back to school. It was a win-win situation for him.

But I still haven’t given you the whole picture on why Douglas left Luther Place Church to work for the YMCA. There was another factor involved, and it was more important than any of the others I’ve told you about so far. I’ll explain in my next blog post.

For a free PDF 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

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