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Behind the Scenes

by Ronald R Johnson (

At the University of Illinois, Lloyd Douglas worked at the new YMCA Building on the northwest corner of Wright and John streets, at the western edge of campus. He taught classes, wrote anonymous articles about the Y for the Daily Illini (the student-run newspaper), tried to get students to join the Y, and organized events featuring visiting speakers (most notably the organization’s leader, John Mott). Although he was busy, he was surprisingly low-key. He wasn’t in the news nearly as much as he had been as a pastor in North Manchester, in Lancaster, and in Washington, DC.

And there was a reason for that: Douglas had taken this job to get out of “active ministry” for a while and think things over. But he wasn’t the kind of man who needed to get completely away from it all in order to ruminate; rather, he did his best thinking when he knew he had to answer to the public, especially on a deadline. He no longer had to compose two sermons each week (for a.m. and p.m. services on Sundays), but he still wrote articles for religious periodicals (The Congregationalist now, instead of the Lutheran Observer), and he still taught classes at the YMCA and spoke at “smokers” designed to increase YMCA membership. (The university Y shamelessly imitated the fraternities, inviting young men to come and see a “lantern show” of Ben-Hur, for example, and hear an inspiring talk by Lloyd Douglas while enjoying a dessert and cigar.)

The newly-erected YMCA Building at the University of Illinois. Note the horse hooked up to the hitching post. From The Promise of Association: A History of the Mission and Work of the YMCA at the University of Illinois, 1873-1997 (Champaign, IL: University YMCA, 1997)
The same structure today. It’s no longer the YMCA Building, though; it’s Illini Hall. I took this picture in February 2015. There were no horses parked out in front.

But he wasn’t nearly as much in the public eye as he had been from 1903 to 1911. He spent time at the library across the street (that’s not a church steeple in the image below; it’s the campus library)…

…and he soaked up the campus culture. He spent most of his time with students, of course, but he was especially impressed with the faculty. Years later he wrote, “I had some exceptional opportunities to develop along the line of a liberal interpretation of religion during my work at the University of Illinois, where I came constantly in contact with a forward-looking group of very intelligent people who comprised the first sizable party of persons I had ever known who were both mentally solvent and religiously inclined. Up until that time only an occasional man of my acquaintance had qualified as [a] high grade intellectual and disposed toward a devout interpretation of religion. I discovered that it was possible for a man to be both religious and preserve his intellectual morality” (Douglas to Dr. Frank C. Ransdell, December 15, 1927. In Douglas Papers, Correspondence 1926-1930, Box 1, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan).

The most important work Douglas did at the University of Illinois was behind the scenes. He talked to people, and listened, and studied, and thought. Our best glimpse of the shifts in his theology comes from newspaper articles about the series of lectures he delivered at other universities during the second semester of the 1911-1912 school year. I’ll tell about that in the next post.

To receive 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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