by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
I’ve told you that Douglas began writing for The Christian Century in 1920. It started with a contest, centered around an intellectual named John Spargo.
Spargo, an Englishman, had begun preaching in the Methodist Church at the age of 14, and his sermons were printed in the newspapers. But he became aware of social inequities and eventually left the church to become a socialist lecturer and writer. He moved to America, and it was there that he developed “an evolutionary, spiritual understanding of the processes of social change” that put him at odds with other socialist thinkers. He never gave up his faith in God, and he insisted on combining socialism with Christianity, “a true synthesis” that “was his most unique contribution to socialist theory in America” (Markku Ruotsila, John Spargo and American Socialism (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 61, 68).
In the May 20, 1920, issue of the Christian Century, Spargo published an article that was meant to bolster the confidence of Christian leaders. The main point of his wide-ranging essay was his belief that the church would never be obsolete. He admitted that, in earlier years, he and his socialist friends had wondered what use they would make of the elaborate cathedrals “after the revolution,” when there would no longer be a need for churches. But now Spargo realized that the church would always be a vital and necessary part of social life, even if capitalism ceased to be.
That was the point he was trying to make.
Unfortunately, he digressed near the end of his essay to say that preaching, at least as it was being done in most mainstream churches in 1920, was relatively insignificant and would not endure. In predicting that the church would live on after the revolution, he did not mean that the typical Sunday morning church service would endure. He felt certain that preaching would no longer be necessary, because it was already proving itself worthless. Music and worship were vital to Christian life, but preaching wasn’t:
The pulpit is an anachronism in the modern world. Preaching comes down to us from a past age, when few possessed Bibles and fewer still could read them for themselves. It was necessary then when the believers assembled together to have someone read and explain the Word to them. Today when almost every person can read for himself, when Bibles can be purchased for a few cents, there is no need for such a service. The average man in the pew is quite as capable of reading the Bible and interpreting any passage which interests him as the average minister. That is probably the reason why the old-fashioned expository sermon and the sermon on doctrinal subjects are rarely heard in our cities nowadays…. The old hour-long interpretation with its illustrations arranged as ‘Firstly,’ ‘Secondly,’ ‘Thirdly,’ and ‘Finally Brethren’ has given place to the fifteen minute ‘snappy talk’ upon some topical subject or some abstract question. The old time ‘Lyceum’ lecture has supplanted the sermon.John Spargo, “The Futility of Preaching”
Not only did he say that the “average man in the pew” could read the Bible as well as “the average minister,” but he went on to say, “The average minister is a poor guide in matters sociological,” meaning that sermons now tended to be on subjects that were best left to the sociologists. He was really just trying to say this: that the church’s role was not to meddle in politics and social reform, but to remake people into followers of Jesus; and if people became followers of Jesus, then they would behave in socially-responsible ways (Ruotsila, pp. 138-139).
I say this digression was unfortunate because the editor, Charles Clayton Morrison, seized upon it and made it the primary focus, ensuring that readers would misunderstand Spargo’s comments and even take offense. Morrison was good at his job. He was trying to increase the circulation of his magazine, and one of his methods was to identify potentially controversial statements in the articles he published, then provoke his readers into responding. He wanted the magazine’s articles discussed for weeks afterwards in the “Letters to the Editor” section, and you can see him stirring the pot again and again, throughout the 1920s.
I don’t know what title Spargo had originally given to his essay, but he did say later that Morrison changed it. The piece was published under the provocative heading, “The Futility of Preaching.” Morrison put it on the front page, and he included a quotation that would surely anger his readers (most of them ministers or lay leaders):
It is very doubtful, to my mind, whether all the preaching that will be done in America during the next twelve months, let us say, will add as much to the well-being of America as the work of one honest, efficient farmer, or as that of a humble schoolteacher in some ‘little red schoolhouse.’Ibid.
And if that wasn’t enough to get his readers’ attention, the editor announced a competition:
Mr. John Spargo in his extraordinary article on “The Futility of Preaching,” in this issue of The Christian Century, has flung down the gauntlet to tradition and to those who hold that it is by ‘the foolishness of preaching’ that the Kingdom of God is to be brought in. Without doubt the article will arouse decided if not violent reactions from our readers. These reactions should be directed into rational formulations, and in order to encourage such a discussion of the radical question Mr. Spargo has raised, The Christian Century will give a prize for the strongest and most effective article it receives on the other side. The article should be not a detailed reply to Mr. Spargo but a constructive, non-controversial setting forth of the essential place of preaching in the life of the church and in social and ethical progress…. For the best article the prize will be $50. For the second best, $25. For the third best, $10…. It is hardly imaginable that this brilliant and original utterance of the distinguished socialist philosopher will fail to stir to their roots the convictions of the ablest writing men—and women—among our readers.Charles Clayton Morrison, The Christian Century, May 20, 1920
Over sixty readers took the bait, out of which there were six finalists. One of them was Lloyd Douglas.
To be continued…
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