Douglas’s Development as a Writer from 1915 to 1921

by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)

As busy as Douglas was during his years in Ann Arbor, both as a pastor and as a public speaker, he also spent a lot of time developing his craft as a writer. I’ve already mentioned his weekly column in the Ann Arbor Times-News and his occasional articles in The Congregationalist magazine. But he also had other avenues for his writing.

Just as he had done in his other pastorates, he continued to supply the local newspapers with printable summaries of his sermons. There’s an art to this. You don’t just hand them your sermon and expect them to print it verbatim. Douglas was a master at summarizing and pulling out the best parts of his sermons, so that the local editors didn’t have to trim them down. As a result, he was able to place before the public, week-after-week, the things he was telling his congregation.

He also continued to draw on his connections with the YMCA by being a frequent contributor to their monthly magazine, The Intercollegian (which briefly joined with similar organizations under the title, The North American Student). The earliest submission that I can find was in 1915, then there were a few in 1917 and 1918, but during the 1919-1920 school year, he was in every issue, and his articles were featured prominently on the last page – except for February 1920, in which it appeared on page one.

Also in 1919, the YMCA’s publishing house, Association Press, printed a booklet of his called The Fate of the Limited. “The Limited” was the name of a train, and the booklet was a parable about where society was headed, just after the war ended. The train had passengers from a variety of social groups, and the story was all about their different reactions when the train became stalled.

Douglas was still quite upset about the war, and still dead-serious about getting young people to do something important with their lives. The first page of The Fate of the Limited gives you the idea:

And here’s the last page:

But Douglas also had his more humorous side.

In the fall of 1919, he wrote a series of anonymous limericks in the University of Michigan’s campus newspaper, the Michigan Daily. These humorous poems gave advice to freshmen. In one, “Concerning Discipline,” a “newcomer” gushes about the guys from across the hall stopping by for a visit and how he chattered about his accomplishments in high school. “The Old-Timer replies”:

My friend, this means you’ve spilled the beans;

I shudder at your story.

No doubt these men will come again,

But when they do, be sorry.

[Why should he be sorry? Because of a little thing called “hazing”:]

Last year a lad – he was not bad,

Just talkative and flighty –

Addressed a loud and merry crowd

On State Street in his nighty.

But Douglas wasn’t aiming exclusively at students. During his years as pastor in Ann Arbor, he also began a new tradition. For three years in a row (1916-1918), and then again a few years later, he published small Christmas-themed gift books that approached the season in a way he couldn’t do from the pulpit. Here are summaries of each:

The Inn Keeper (1916): about an inn that’s always full on December 24th and even gives Santa one of the best rooms, but a mysterious visitor always has to be put up in the stable because there’s “no room in the inn.” To be honest, this booklet seems like a rough draft. I’m not sure what Douglas was trying to do, but (for me, at least) it doesn’t work. I think he was trying to say that we still shuffle Jesus off to the periphery because we’re too busy focusing on Santa Claus, but he tries to do it all through innuendo. The most interesting part of the booklet is the guest list for the 24th and 25th. See how many of them you can decipher. (I’ll give you the first one: Miss L. Toebough = mistletoe bough.)

After this whimsical treatment of the season, his booklet the next year was much more sober. For in December of 1917, the world was at war…

Christmas – One Thousand Nine Hundred and Seventeen Years After (1917): The following two-page spread establishes the mood. He’s speaking with a young woman at the card shop:

“Merely because I don’t happen to have a starred service-flag in my window doesn’t mean that I can face Christmas with a merry heart,” he wrote. “For, as long as my neighbor displays one in his window, it is almost equivalent to having one in mine – in its effect upon my holiday mood…. Maybe we had better not try to go to Bethlehem at all this Christmas. Perhaps a journey to Calvary would be more appropriate.”

The Dilemma of Santa Claus (1918): This booklet begins as a humorous and insightful description of the negotiation process children go through with Santa between Thanksgiving and Christmas; it transitions into a poignant and thought-provoking consideration of what happens in children’s minds when they learn the truth about Santa; there’s a short section about how, as parents, we appreciate him even more when we see the light of Christmas in our children’s eyes; and it concludes with the “dilemma” – the fact that Santa Claus is German, and everything German is hateful right now. (The war ended in November.) He admits that he and his readers will need to forgive the Germans someday. But he reminds us that children neither know nor care what nationality Santa is.

As far as I can tell, he didn’t publish another Christmas booklet until An Affair of the Heart (1922), which was during his years in Akron, Ohio. That one focused on the miraculous details of the Christmas story (the choir of angels, the wisemen following the star) and drew his readers’ attention to the most significant miracle of all: the fact that, two thousand years later, we were still talking about the child born in that manger.

Whether in the local paper, in magazines, or in holiday booklets, during the years 1915-1921, Douglas was doing the most important thing that anyone can do if they’re serious about being a writer: he was writing. Most importantly, he was writing for audiences. He didn’t just write things and hide them in his desk drawer; he wrote things for publication. Not that he earned much money from these pieces; he didn’t. But he developed the writing habit and began to build an audience that looked forward to his next article or booklet.

But there were two other publications that he wrote for during these years, and each one played a particularly important role in his development: The Atlantic Monthly and The Christian Century. Over the next few blog posts, I’ll tell you about each of those periodicals and the specific ways in which they helped his career as a writer.

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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