The People in the Pews at Ann Arbor

by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)

In the series of lectures Lloyd Douglas delivered at various universities as a representative of the YMCA, and in his “Sermonettes” in the Daily Illini (the student paper at the University of Illinois), we can glimpse Douglas’s emerging theology. There wasn’t a lot of meat to it yet, but one principle came through quite clearly: he believed that the new state universities were engaged in a day-to-day discovery of the truth.

Therefore, when he went back into active ministry in April/May 1915, it’s no coincidence that he accepted a call to be the Senior Minister at the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, adjacent to the University of Michigan. And what an opportunity this was! Many of his parishioners were members of either the faculty or the administration of the university. The list below is from a booklet Douglas published for university students in the fall of 1916. It’s available online; you can view it by clicking the following link: L.C. Douglas, Congregationalism at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor: Michigan Congregational Conference/First Congregational Church, 1916).

Here are the members who were in some way connected to the university:

The booklet then went on to list the students who were members of the congregation, from sophomores through seniors, as well as graduate students. There were several hundred names.

I look at it this way: Lloyd Douglas did his best thinking at the typewriter. He always typed out his sermons, even though (by all reports) he delivered them extemporaneously rather than just reading them. As he typed, he was keenly aware of his audience. When he rehearsed his sermons, usually on Saturday afternoons, he must have crafted them with these people in mind: the faculty and administrators I’ve listed above, as well as the hundreds of students in the balcony. From his daughters’ testimony we know that, after the service on Sunday mornings, he and his wife and daughters would walk home without speaking, but as soon as they got home, he debriefed, telling his wife Besse the specific reactions he saw on his parishioners’ faces to this or that part of the sermon. (His daughters give us a vivid description of this in the opening chapter of their book, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C Douglas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952).)

We also know that he was willing to change his mind, sometimes on very important matters, and that he usually did it by reflecting on something he himself had preached or published earlier. The progression followed this pattern: he would make a strong statement in a sermon or magazine article and then, on a later date, would disagree with that statement, sometimes even quoting what he had said on the earlier occasion, although he never told his audience that the person he was refuting was himself. He did this at a few key moments in his life, and (in my estimation) his later views were an improvement.

During his years at Ann Arbor, however, I believe we see this happening on a smaller, subtler scale. The years 1915-1921 were the core of Douglas’s education. He did some important thinking during this period, and he did it in full view of the faculty and administration of one of the Midwest’s most influential state universities. As he typed out his beliefs, he did so with this audience in mind, and when he delivered the message to them on Sunday morning, he was very tuned-in to their reactions, self-correcting as needed. The reactions of this audience were especially pertinent because he wasn’t just preaching the old, old gospel in the old, old way. He was trying to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to people on the cutting edge of twentieth century scholarship (both the sciences and the humanities) and bring it to bear on the lives they were actually living on weekdays. Although he was always trying to reach students, he now began to focus his energies especially on the faculty. They were the ones most on his mind as he prepared his sermons. (He told us this in his “Third Commandment” in an article called, “Ten Commandments for the College Church.” Click the link to see the article in full.) And by preaching to the faculty, he became more mature as a thinker and a representative of Jesus Christ to the modern world.

But he also knew he had a responsibility to reach the townspeople not involved with the university, and he did that, as well. I’ll tell you more in the next post.

For a free PDF copy 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 www.ronaldrjohnson.com.

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