Some Final Notes about Ann Arbor

by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)

Photo taken sometime during the Ann Arbor years (1915-1921.) Douglas’s daughter Betty is on the left, Virginia is on the right, and their mother, Besse, is in the center. From Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C. Douglas (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1952).

In their book about their father, Douglas’s daughters Virginia and Betty say that the years their family spent in Ann Arbor (1915-1921) were happy ones. Douglas died before he could write his autobiography (he really didn’t want to do it anyway, and his book Time to Remember is only about his childhood), but in his proposed outline there was a chapter with the heading: “Ann Arbor – Happy Job!”

But Lloyd Douglas was never one to sit still, no matter how happy he was. There’s a scene in The Robe (chapter 22) that seems autobiographical to me. Marcellus, the hero of the story, has spent the summer in the Roman village of Arpino, telling the residents about Jesus; but now he’s leaving. “Aren’t you contented here?” they inquire. “Haven’t we done everything you wished?” “Yes,” he tells them. “That’s why I’m going.”

In the fall of 1921, Douglas accepted the call to be Senior Minister at the First Congregational Church of Akron, Ohio. And it’s fortunate that he did, because it was not until Akron that he began to formulate his ideas about the gospel and its place in modern life. He had learned a lot in the academic environments at the universities of Illinois and Michigan, but now he needed to get out among working people (both white- and blue-collar) and tell them what he had learned.

There are a few final notes I want to make about Ann Arbor, however.

His First Car

It was in Ann Arbor that he began his love affair with automobiles. The members of the church took up a collection in 1920 and surprised him with his own Model-T Ford. There was just one problem: could someone with his nervous disposition ever learn to drive it? Under her breath, his wife Besse whispered, “He’s never been able to mow the lawn in a straight line.” (We’re not talking about a power-mower. We’re talking about one of those old-fashioned manual push-mowers with the blades that extend between the two wheels.)

But Douglas learned quickly, and when he returned home from his “free lesson,” he declared his new car “a humdinger.” His daughters write, “He learned to be a very good driver and had no real accidents all the many years, although he became involved in hundreds of awkward situations” (Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C. Douglas (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1952), p. 111).

There is at least one literary reference that comes readily to mind here: Douglas’s novel Green Light was inspired, in part, by his experiences behind the wheel.

His First Honorary Doctorate

Douglas used this image for promotional purposes throughout his Ann Arbor years.

In 1919, Douglas was awarded his first honorary doctorate (a Doctor of Divinity degree), from Fargo College. There is surprisingly little information about it in his scrapbooks. Several years later, he devoted 14 pages to the funeral of Marion LeRoy Burton, who was president of the University of Michigan at the time of his death. Douglas was involved in the ceremony, so he saved clippings of obituaries, photos of the funeral procession, and remembrances of the late president. But of his own honorary doctorate, Douglas left little record.

What we do have is in his 1918 Scrapbook. There’s a letter dated April 9, 1919, from Fargo’s president, E. Lee Howard, who was a classmate and fraternity brother of Douglas’s at Wittenberg, asking Douglas to give the commencement address and to accept the honorary degree. There is a clipping from the Fargo newspaper talking about the upcoming commencement and announcing that Douglas would be the speaker and one of the honorees. There’s another clipping that tells about the ceremony, including the speech, but doesn’t mention his doctorate. And then there’s the printed program. That’s all. No other record of the event. Seems like kind of an important thing to skim over.

A New Church Building

(Some of the information that follows comes from clippings in Douglas’s scrapbooks and from his daughters’ biography, but most of the details are from A History of the First Congregational Church in Ann Arbor, 1847-1976 (Ann Arbor: First Congregational Church, n.d., but probably 1976).)

Because of Douglas’s popularity as a preacher, especially among university students, the Ann Arbor church wasn’t big enough. It was typical for people to be turned away if they didn’t arrive early enough to find a seat. Almost immediately, there was talk of enlarging the building. At first there was enthusiasm for the idea, but the First World War put a halt to it. After the war, they began making plans, but those plans were dashed in 1921 when Douglas announced that he was leaving. It took a year for the congregation to find a replacement for him, but it was not someone who packed the house. The building was starting to deteriorate, though, so costly repairs had to be done – always an uninspiring prospect for a congregation that had hoped for so much more.

In the late 1920s, the idea was revived again, only for the stock market crash and the Great Depression to put the project on hold once more. It wasn’t until Dr. Leonard Parr’s pastorship (1937-1957) that the expansion finally happened. A lot of people contributed substantial sums of money, and as I glance down the list of contributors, I see the names of many people who were active in the church during Douglas’s pastorate.

But it’s also ironic to see the name of Lloyd Douglas, who was by then a world-famous novelist. It’s ironic, I say, because he ended up contributing to the project that initially was planned because the church couldn’t hold all the people who wanted to hear him preach.

And this leads to a related subject…

The Douglas Memorial Chapel

Although I’m getting ahead of the story, I’ll mention it here because it was part of the church’s expansion. After his beloved wife Besse died in the 1940s, Douglas wanted to build a chapel in her honor at the Ann Arbor site. It took a while for the project to happen, however, and when Douglas himself died in 1951, his daughters contributed further funds to make it a chapel in honor of both of their parents. The result was the Douglas Memorial Chapel, a wing of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor. Its windows evoke images of Douglas’s life as a minister and writer. To this day, the chapel is used for weddings and baptisms, and it is open daily for prayer and meditation. In Green Light and Invitation to Live, Dean Harcourt always began each day alone in the sanctuary, communicating with “Headquarters.” I think Douglas would have loved knowing that the Douglas chapel is a place where people can still do that in the 21st Century.

Click here for a description from the congregation’s website.

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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