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The Minister’s Everyday Life

by Ronald R Johnson (

After the publication of Douglas’s book, Wanted: A Congregation, he continued to write articles for The Christian Century. Over the next three years, he published 18 essays in the Century:

“Mr. Bryan’s New Crusade,” November 25, 1920
“The Music of the Church,” January 13, 1921
“The Demotion of Death,” January 27, 1921
“What About Lent?” February 3, 1921
“Saving the Minister’s Soul,” April 14, 1921
“In RE Sermons on Wages,” May 12, 1921
“The Galilean Psychology,” January 12, 1922
“The Church’s Self-Respect,” January 26, 1922
“The Minister Between Sundays,” October 12, 1922
“The Human Preacher,” November 2, 1922
“The Minister in the Sick Room,” November 9, 1922
“‘Earth to Earth,’” November 30, 1922
“Sweetening Soured Saints”, January 25, 1923
“‘For Better, For Worse,’” March 8, 1923
“The Minister’s Mail,” May 31, 1923
“The Loyalty of the Laity,” June 26, 1923
“The Patriotism of Hatred,” October 25, 1923
“The End of the World,” December 27, 1923

As a cursory glance at this list will show, most of these were about some aspect of the ministry. When writing for the Century, Douglas considered other ministers his audience – particularly younger and less experienced ministers – and he tended to give advice. He gathered these thoughts into a book that was published in 1924 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. It was called, The Minister’s Everyday Life. Sounds fairly predictable, doesn’t it? He’s going to talk about preparing sermons, visiting the sick, etc. Except that Lloyd Douglas never said the expected thing.

The opening chapter compares the ministry to other lines of work, and he offers vivid images of what it’s like, for example, to be a telephone operator or a customer service representative at the local department store. And as someone who has spent years answering customer service calls over the phone, I can tell you that he nailed it. Most ministers wouldn’t have been able to do that.

I’ve been trying to convey to you, through these blog posts, what was distinctive about Douglas. The Minister’s Everyday Life is a good example: he talks about what it’s like to be a minister, and yet he sounds like a normal person with a great sense of humor and lot of common sense. Here are some examples:

If you want to know what hell is like: “…accumulate a miscellaneous assortment of unpaid bills” (p. 87).

On visiting someone in the hospital: “If a prayer can be offered without unduly exciting the patient’s alarm for himself, the minister may make a definite contribution here. It is much better to say, ‘Shall we offer a prayer together – you and I – for courage and strength?’ than to suggest: ‘Would you like to have me say a world of prayer for you?’ If prayer is offered, convince the patient that he is responsible for it, wants it, and is helping to present it” (p. 120).

About raising kids: “…the lot of ‘the preacher’s kid’ is not always an unmixed delight. [Douglas himself was a PK, remember.] The same sort of fawning solicitude which is the minister’s portion by virtue of his position is exhibited, to a degree, toward the whole household of the prophet. If the youngster has any sense at all of the serious obligation he owes his father to walk circumspectly, he is almost sure to develop into what the parish calls ‘a model boy,’ which will make him magnificently despised by his contemporaries. Presently he will face the problem whether he is to be, in very truth, the fine little fellow who will add lustre to his father’s reputation as a prophet, in which position he will live the life of an outcast in his relationship to his natural social group, or decide to show his schoolmates that he is a regular feller, despite his hereditary place in life…. Remember that while your boy is the minister’s son, he is a boy…. Be very sympathetic…. Let him live a normal life, in so far as that is possible” (pp. 24-25).

On living in a parsonage: “Your church is your landlord. You are the tenant…. If you never rented a house and do not know what a tenant’s obligations consist of, you should inquire of your lawyer friend for a lease and study it” (pp. 69-70).

When someone objects to you taking time off because “the Devil never takes a vacation”: “Unless it is presumed that the minister should try, as far as possible, to model his programme after that of the hypothetical person just mentioned, that objection points no moral” (p. 196).

On varying how you end your sermons: “Be careful about falling into the habits which inform the congregation exactly when you are tapering off and making ready to stop. If you do not watch yourself, you will always quit in the same way. The congregation will have come to understand that when you shift your voice to a slightly lower register and achieve a certain degree of fervency in your utterance, it is high time they began to fumble about under the seats, feeling for their over-shoes. Surprise them with the novelty of the sermon’s close, just as you surprise them with the originality of its introduction” (pp. 215-216).

(They don’t tell you any of these things in seminary, by the way.)

The Minister’s Everyday Life was his second book aimed at an audience of clergy. In his next one, he aimed at a wider audience – people who attended church and those who didn’t – and he set out to tell them what it means to follow Jesus. The book was called, These Sayings of Mine, and it will be the subject of my next post.

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below:

The Mendicant

by Ronald R Johnson (

In a previous post I told you how Douglas became a regular contributor to The Christian Century in the fall of 1920, beginning with a series called, “Wanted: A Congregation.” Before the year was over, Christian Century Press brought out a companion book with the same title, transitioning Douglas from a writer of articles to an “author.” But there’s an interesting – and ironic – back story.

In January 1919, Douglas sent The Mendicant, a book manuscript, to the George H. Doran Company in New York City. If you’ve never heard of them, you have heard of some of their authors: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken… you get the idea. Douglas worked until 3 in the morning on January 30th, then sent the manuscript by registered mail later that same day. He was so excited, he saved the postal receipt in his scrapbook.

George Doran himself wrote the reply. He was in London through most of February, and his office held the manuscript for him to look at personally. Upon his return he did read it, and on February 28 he wrote to congratulate Douglas on the “vigor” of the piece and “the masterly way in which it is written” (George H. Doran to LCD, February 28, 1919, in Douglas’s 1918 Scrapbook, Box 5, Lloyd C Douglas Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan).

He offered Douglas two options:

(1) In its current state (but with some changes), it could be sold as an article to The American Magazine, “which has an enormous circulation and which is constantly on the lookout for such material as this. Should you rewrite it, I should be very glad to interest myself in securing careful consideration of the manuscript at the hands of the editor of The American.” Not a bad offer: he would personally recommend it to the editor of one of the nation’s top magazines, virtually ensuring its publication. But Douglas really wanted to publish a book. So the second alternative was more in line with his hopes…

(2) Doran expressed his “earnest desire to undertake the publication of the larger book,” if Douglas would greatly expand the work to fit Doran’s vision. Although it sounds, on the surface, like he’s saying the piece isn’t long enough and doesn’t go deeply enough into its subject matter, the truth is that Doran didn’t think it was religious enough. “If I might be so bold, I would like to urge that, in the development of your book, very particular emphasis should be placed upon the spiritual.”

Douglas wrote the book for younger ministers. He wanted to share with them the methods and attitudes that had worked for him and that, in fact, had filled his Ann Arbor congregation to overflowing. Doran conceded that this would be useful information, but he worried “that these same earnest ministers throughout the land… in their attempt to follow your method without your inspiration and vision… would fail utterly on the spiritual side.”

The Mendicant is the story of a discouraged minister who has a reunion with some old college buddies and reconsiders both the aims and techniques of his ministerial work. His friend Jimmy Bartell has become a successful industrialist; Tom McGregor is a newspaper editor; and they invite their friend, Dr. David Tracey to join them. (There always has to be a doctor in Douglas’s books!) It isn’t a novel; it’s a series of dialogues. And yet, there is character development as the minister – the Reverend D. Preston Blue (pronounced ‘Depressed-n-Blue’) – comes away with an entirely different conception of his work and how to go about it. The title of the book comes from his realization that the church is not a commanding influence in the world; it behaves like a beggar, happily accepting nickels and dimes in the collection plate and fawning over newcomers, hoping they’ll visit again next week. Rev. Blue catches a vision of a church that takes its mandate seriously. But he only catches this vision after talking with professional people (Jimmy, Tom, and Dave) and applying to his own case the lessons he learns from watching them operate in their respective spheres.

Early in the book, Jimmy (the industrialist) says that he doesn’t go to church anymore, and he gives an impassioned explanation. He holds up a mirror to Rev. Blue, helping him to see how wretched the church has become in the eyes of professional people. That’s what troubled the publisher, George Doran. “Your manuscript implies the regeneration of Jim Bartell, but as a matter of fact you do not actually touch upon the question of belief or personal faith which, of course, in the last analysis must be the basis of permanent church work.”

Actually, there was nothing about the regeneration of Jimmy Bartell. It wasn’t that kind of book. Doran was troubled because Douglas’s story was about the conversion of a minister to a new way of thinking about the church rather than the conversion of the unregenerate Jimmy Bartell to the church. Doran wanted Douglas to play the traditional minister’s role and write an old-fashioned religious book. He wanted Blue to convert the industrialist and get him into church. Douglas wanted that too, eventually; but his immediate goal was to open the eyes of the next generation of ministers to a new conception of the church’s role in society, and thereby make the church attractive to smart people like Jimmy Bartell.

Another letter from Doran dated March 8th indicates that Douglas would be in New York on the 21st and the two of them would meet to discuss the manuscript. Several pages later, Douglas wrote in his scrapbook that he began a revised version on April 7, finished it on April 29, and mailed it to Doran on May 2. Douglas could work quickly when he was motivated, but the rapid turnaround hints that he did not gut the book to the extent that Doran wanted.

Nevertheless, Charles M. Roe, the editor who took over the project, seems to have accepted the new version. He did reply to Douglas on May 23, asking him to rewrite the first and last chapters because they were “unconvincing” and “dull.” A little later in his scrapbook, Douglas wrote that he “called on Mr. Roe” (apparently in person) on June 2nd “and was assured that if the mss was satisfactorily altered they would ‘undoubtedly publish it.'” He made the changes on June 5th and 6th and sent the manuscript to New York on June 6th.

There is one more handwritten comment about the manuscript in Douglas’s 1918 Scrapbook. He says: “At the suggestion of Chas. M. Roe of the George H. Doran Company,” he sent the manuscript to The World Outlook magazine on November 1, 1919. No more comments about the manuscript appear anywhere in Douglas’s papers. Obviously the Doran Company did not move ahead with the project, but we don’t know why. There is also nothing in the scrapbook telling us how The Outlook responded.

Months later (June 1920), Douglas entered the writing contest at The Christian Century and, on the strength of that essay, was asked, by the Century’s editor, to contribute something else. What he sent was a series of non-fiction articles that drew on the material in The Mendicant. He called the series, “Wanted: A Congregation.” He didn’t write it as a narrative but did refer hypothetically to someone named Rev. D. Preston Blue. Readers of the Century enjoyed the series, and that same year (1920) the Christian Century Press printed a book version of Wanted. Although the book covered the same subjects as the series, it went much deeper into them and – perhaps more importantly – offered a new conception of the role of the church in contemporary society. It did this as a series of dialogues between Blue and his friends Jimmy Bartell, Tom McGregor, and Dave Tracey. It was, in fact, The Mendicant. He just gave it a new name.

Here’s what I find ironic: Doran (a secular publisher) lectured Douglas (“If I might be so bold…”) that “belief or personal faith… must be the basis of permanent church work,” but The Christian Century Press (run by and for clergy) understood and embraced his vision. This would not be the last time that people in secular publishing would advise Douglas to be more religious.

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below:

The Open Door at The Christian Century

by Ronald R Johnson (

Lloyd Douglas didn’t win the Christian Century’s essay contest in the summer of 1920; he took second place. But it didn’t matter…

From the July 22, 1920, issue of The Christian Century, p. 22. Available online at The Online Books Page.

…because his participation in the contest had excited the interest of the editor, Charles Clayton Morrison, and Morrison invited Douglas to submit another article to the Century – right away. “Our readers will be particularly interested in an article from you just now when their attention has been put on the qui vive [on the alert] by your taking one of the honors in the series,” Morrison said. “I hope you will feel not only free, but strongly prompted, to write for us at any time.”

Letter from Charles Clayton Morrison to Lloyd C Douglas, July 22, 1920. In 1918 Scrapbook, Lloyd C Douglas Papers, Box 5, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Douglas accepted the invitation immediately. And he didn’t just send one article; he sent Part One of a three-part series. It was called, “Wanted: A Congregation,” and it was some of the finest writing he had ever done up to that time.

Letter from Charles Clayton Morrison to Lloyd C Douglas, August 3, 1920. In 1918 Scrapbook, Lloyd C Douglas Papers, Box 5, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Upon receiving the first installment, Morrison gushed, “You write splendidly.” He wasted no time publishing it, even announcing it on the front cover (August 5, 1920), and he encouraged Douglas to send the other two installments as soon as possible.

Notice that Douglas now shares the front cover with John Spargo.

Douglas did better than that: he sent three more installments. But first he asked the editor’s permission. Morrison wrote back pretending to be “quite offended that you felt any inhibition at all in the matter of writing a fourth installment when you were prompted to do so.” He wasn’t really offended; he was delighted that Douglas had been “prompted,” either by his Muse or by the Spirit, to add another installment to the series. “The chances are 102 per cent that whatever you write will be available [he probably means ‘accepted’] for publication in The Christian Century.”

So… now Douglas not only had a series running in the Century, but he also had an open invitation from the editor to send him an article anytime, and to expect to see it published in that magazine.

Elesha J Coffman has written, “In 1920, the Century was not yet a magazine that other papers envied or a place where writers could make their names. By the end of the decade, through savvy and serendipity, it would be both.” (The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainstream (NY: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 63.)

That being the case, Douglas and the Century grew up together, for his frequent contributions beginning in 1920 made his non-fiction writing well-known among America’s Protestant clergy, and at the end of that decade, The Christian Century would play a major role in making him a world-famous novelist.

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below:

Lloyd C Douglas, Contestant

by Ronald R Johnson (

I’ve been telling you about the essay contest that Lloyd Douglas entered at The Christian Century during the Spring/Summer of 1920. The contest was prompted by John Spargo’s article, “The Futility of Preaching,” published May 20, 1920, in the Century.

Douglas’s response, “Preaching and the ‘Average Preacher'” was published anonymously, along with the essays of five other contestants, on July 1, 1920. The issue included a ballot for readers to choose the three best essays.

From the July 1st, 1920, issue of The Christian Century, p. 28. Available online at The Online Books Page.

Meanwhile, the Century’s editor, Charles Clayton Morrison, asked John Spargo to read the six anonymous essays and write a follow-up article in response. Spargo’s reply was published in the July 22nd issue. Notice how Morrison took a single submission (Spargo’s initial article published May 20th) and kept his readers interested in that one article all the way through July and beyond. He paired this with an advertising campaign that told potential readers what was happening. It was this kind of maneuvering that made the Century grow into a successful magazine.

For the most part, Spargo’s reply was general, telling his readers more about himself and his views. He only got angry at one of the contestants. Guess who!

Of course, in this discussion, as in every other, we have the quibbler who is less concerned to establish the essential truth than to score debating points. Shall I confess that I was amused by the sophomoric intensity of one of the writers in his attempt to demonstrate that my use of the term ‘average preacher’ was unscientific and an evidence of the fact that my views were not entitled to serious consideration?

John Spargo, “More about Preaching and the Ministry,” The Christian Century, July 22, 1920.

Amused? I don’t think so. His irritation is clearly displayed in his next remarks:

Of course, this is the characteristic spirit of the Medieval schoolmen that made theology such a terrible incubus upon religion. In the practical affairs of life, this good brother, not animated by sectarian dogmatism or pride, would not think of invoking such a rule. If his neighbor declared the day to be an ‘average’ one, he would not demand that the statement be accompanied by a statistical analysis of the meteorological records. Similarly, if a brother minister declared that he had a good ‘average’ congregation, the writer in question would not think of demanding verification of the statement in statistical terms. I emphasize my reference to this quite incidental and essentially irrelevant criticism because it illustrates the vicious narrowness of a mind fostered by ecclesiasticism. The plain, forthright speech and straight and direct thinking characteristic of honest men in their ordinary intercourse and business relations do not suit a certain familiar type of theologian or an equally familiar type of ecclesiastic.


Ouch! He’s right, up to a point: his use of the term “average minister” wasn’t as important as Douglas made it out to be, and Douglas did use it to “score debating points.” But this wasn’t Douglas at his best. On any other occasion, Lloyd Douglas was nothing like the Medieval schoolmen, nor was he guilty of “the narrowness of mind fostered by ecclesiasticism.” It’s unfortunate that these two gifted men were pitted against each other so that it was practically impossible for them to appreciate each other’s talents.

Meanwhile, readers were now encouraged to await the results of the vote, in which they would discover exactly how many “debating points” each of the anonymous contestants had won.

To be continued…

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below:

Preaching and the ‘Average Preacher’

by Ronald R Johnson (

In his response to John Spargo for The Christian Century’s essay contest in the summer of 1920, Douglas began by trying to make Spargo look ridiculous. He claimed that Spargo wrote his article during “what was evidently an hour of utter exasperation” and that the piece “must have been composed while under stress of very strong emotion. So wrought up is he that he indicts the whole profession.” (I disagree. Spargo’s essay comes across calm and dispassionate; it is Douglas who seems fired up.)

Next, Douglas takes on the manner of an attorney in a courtroom. He harps on Spargo’s use of the term “the average minister,” and uses the following analogy:

Suppose that, instead of attacking the ministry, this author had pointed out the weaknesses of the medical profession. Suppose that he had said, ‘The average doctor is no more competent to diagnose a case or write a prescription than the average patient.’ …. [H]e would be obliged to show precisely how he had arrived at his ‘average.’ …. To the impartial prosecution of the case he should investigate all the various types represented among medical men, as, for example,—specialists (bona fide); specialists (bogus); specialists suspected of being quacks; specialists known to be quacks; doctors who would send a patient to an unscrupulous and unskilled surgeon on the latter’s promise of a ‘split fee’; doctors who work eighteen hours out of every twenty-four, and die poor; surgeons known to be extortionists; surgeons known to be generous; surgeons willing to venture with the untried; surgeons willing to delegate a critical case to a more experienced colleague; general practitioners of good intent but poor training; general practitioners with good training but no conscience; general practitioners who know little and care less; a host who have excellent training at school but very little experience, and as many more who have had wide experience but meager educational advantages.

Lloyd C Douglas, “Preaching and the ‘Average Preacher'”

Notice that Douglas’s analogy is from the medical profession. This is just one example of how science, and especially medical science, has come to dominate his thinking. But it’s also somewhat tedious. This isn’t Douglas at his best. He behaves like someone who’s trying to win a debate. Here’s where he’s going with the analogy:

Having secured all the accessible facts relative to these widely divergent types, a general ‘average’ might be computed. But before Mr. Spargo would dare to predicate any quality, attribute, state of mind, strength or weakness, of ‘the average doctor,’ he would have to be prepared to define and describe this typical medical man. By no means would it be an impertinence if the offended M. D., reading these contemptuous words hurled at ‘the average doctor,’ should inquire of the author, ‘What manner of home produced the average doctor? You ought to know: you struck the average. How old is he? What has been the nature of his experience? What about his training? Did he finish high school—this average doctor? Does he exhibit an interest in the general welfare of his community?’ And—if Mr. Spargo were to decline answering on the ground that no man could collect enough facts to warrant his attempt to answer such direct questions concerning ‘the average doctor’—the indignant medical man would then have a right to reply, ‘That being true, by what rule of audacity do you presume to speak of an “average doctor” at all?’


A direct answer to Spargo’s objection would show why laypeople need well-trained ministers to help them understand the Bible and apply it to their lives. But Douglas doesn’t do that; instead, he tries to catch Spargo on a technicality: his use of the term “average minister.”

Douglas’s main point is that the type of minister Spargo describes is not average at all; he’s only talking about pastors of big-city churches, which Douglas says constitutes no more than 10 percent of the Protestant clergy in America. Even at that, Douglas says, Spargo contradicts himself, for he (Spargo) says at one point that these big-city ministers do preach from the scriptures and at another point that they do not. (I honestly don’t see where Spargo contradicted himself, but Douglas insists that he did.)

Believing that he has succeeded in making Spargo look ridiculous, Douglas changes tactics. (Remember, the editor of the Century gave Spargo’s article the provocative title, “The Futility of Preaching,” even though Spargo never actually used that word.)

Heigh-ho-hum! Let us talk about something else.

Let us talk about ‘futilities.’

When, in 1897, the first successful operation ever performed upon the heart was completed, one of the operators is said to have remarked: ‘The path to the human heart is only one inch long, but it has taken surgery twenty-four hundred years to travel it!’ One almost envies a man his proper pride who is able to say that he belongs to a profession possessed of enough faith and perseverance to continue its apparently futile efforts, for twenty-four centuries, undaunted by a consistent record of one hundred per cent failure, until, at length, it has registered a single success.


Another medical analogy! His point this time is a bit more relevant, but we have to wait for it. Acknowledging that, throughout those centuries, physicians did succeed at other things (“setting broken bones, amputating crushed fingers, removing malignant growths, and straightening crippled feet”), he says that preachers, too, have had their successes: motivating cities to build hospitals (as Douglas himself had done in Lancaster, Ohio), as well as “the asylum, the orphanage, the home for the indigent and the aged, the reform of the prison, and philanthropies of all sorts.” It was preaching, he says, that finally won women the right to vote. (This was 1920, the very year in which that happened.) The popular conception of “the Brotherhood of Man” originated in the pulpit, and most of the nation’s colleges and universities were started by ministers.

Some day we will contrive to mend the very heart of society. Meanwhile, we will continue to perform such work as we have learned to accomplish. If the surgeons could sustain their faith in the possibility of mending hearts, for twenty-four hundred years, with an unbroken record of failure behind them, we ministers may indulge the hope that our efforts are contributing to the successes of them who take up our instruments after we have put them down, refashioning and readapting them to the needs of a rapidly changing world.


Although it wasn’t Douglas’s best work, it caught the eye of the editor, Charles Clayton Morrison, who wrote this in reply, on May 29, 1920:

“My dear Doctor Douglas:

“I thank you very cordially for your communication concerning Mr. Spargo’s article. I have just read it through cursorily and am much impressed with the manner in which you handle him. This is to advise you that the article will appear in an early issue of The Christian Century and will be a candidate for the little premium we are offering.

“Very sincerely yours,”

Letter from Charles Clayton Morrison to Lloyd C Douglas, May 29, 1920. In 1918 Scrapbook, Lloyd C Douglas Papers, Box 5, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

Morrison calls him “Doctor” Douglas. There were times when people assumed (in error) that Douglas had a doctorate, even earlier in his life, but in this case Morrison was right: Douglas received an honorary doctorate from Fargo College that same year (1920). Notice also the phrase “the manner in which you handle him,” meaning Spargo. Morrison has set this contest up as a prize fight, and he is choosing the submissions that he thinks will bloody Spargo’s nose.

The top six essays were published in the Century without by-lines on July 1st. Readers were asked to vote for the top three, without knowing the authors’ names. This was Morrison’s clever way of getting a lot of mileage out of Spargo’s essay, making it a topic of discussion throughout the summer and into the fall. But it also ended up being very good for Lloyd Douglas.

To be continued…

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below:

The Writing Contest

by Ronald R Johnson (

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.’


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…

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below:

Lloyd Douglas and the Christian Century

by Ronald R Johnson (

Over the past few posts, I’ve been telling you about the periodicals in which Douglas’s writing appeared during his Ann Arbor years (1915-1921); but his big breakthrough came in 1920, when he began writing for The Christian Century. And that fact is ironic, because in 1920 the Century was still struggling to become an important magazine. To some extent, Douglas added distinction to the Century even as it helped him become more prominent on the national scene.

(For most of what follows, I am indebted to Elesha J Coffman, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (NY: Oxford University Press, 2013).)

The Christian Century began as an unimposing little Disciples of Christ paper. In fact, the Disciples of Christ itself began as a nineteenth-century religious movement that was so democratic, it lacked a hierarchy and therefore didn’t have an official “organ.” There were hundreds of papers published throughout the United States in the 1800s by people of that persuasion, most of them with a very small circulation. The Christian Century was just one of many, many such periodicals. And, like most of the others, it had to fight hard just to survive financially.

In 1914, the magazine’s young editor, Charles Clayton Morrison, made the decision to seek a wider audience outside of his denomination: specifically, Protestant ministers and laypeople who valued education and who were willing to think deeply about religious matters. The weekly magazine was published in Chicago, and the people who ran it, including Morrison, were well-connected with professors at the University of Chicago, in both the religion and the philosophy departments. It made sense for them to seek out the more intellectual members of the Protestant clergy and to publish articles on topics that would be of interest to such a group.

Charles Clayton Morrison, editor of The Christian Century from 1908 to 1947. Although he looks young in this picture, he was several years older than Douglas. (Image from LibraryThing)

I’m unable to say when Douglas began to read the Century. I do know that he was just the kind of reader Morrison was aiming at: one who was committed to higher education and to rethinking the gospel in terms of what was being taught in America’s state colleges. As I told you in an earlier post, Douglas was already following the work of Shailer Mathews as early as 1909, and Mathews led the Department of Religion at the University of Chicago. (He also wrote articles for the Century.) In fact, Mathews’ teachings had prompted Douglas to “go back to school” (first the University of Illinois and then the University of Michigan) and to revise his ideas about God; so Douglas’s career path made him a perfect fit for The Christian Century, not only as a reader but also as a contributor.

In 1919, a few wealthy members of the Disciples of Christ (including William H. Hoover of vacuum-cleaner fame), created an endowment for the magazine, and Morrison initially used these funds to begin advertising in a number of periodicals, including denominational organs like The Congregationalist and secular magazines like The Atlantic Monthly, both of which Douglas was writing for at the time. If the Century wasn’t on his radar prior to 1919, it probably was now.

At any rate, in the spring of 1920, Morrison announced an essay contest. This was just one of the ways in which he tried to increase his list of subscribers. He hoped to inspire ministers and thoughtful laypeople to write on the proposed subject. He would pick the best six entries, then readers would choose the first, second, and third-place winners from those six. (First prize was a whopping $50, second was $25, and third was $10. In fairness, Morrison himself apologized to the contestants for this pitiful remuneration.)

The event may or may not have increased the Century’s readership, but Morrison did snag a talented writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who was not yet known on the national stage. It was the beginning of a mutually-beneficial relationship.

To be continued…

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C. Douglas, fill out the form below:

Praying from the Pulpit As If Ordering Pork Chops from the Butcher

by Ronald R Johnson (

In the summer and fall of 1920, Lloyd Douglas published a series of articles in Christian Century magazine called, “Wanted – A Congregation.” The series was aimed at ministers who were discouraged because they had low attendance at their church services. Throughout his life, Douglas was blessed with well-attended churches. In fact, while he was at the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, the congregation voted to build a new structure because there was not enough room for the crowds that wanted to hear him. He published this series during his tenure at that church.

The passage quoted below is from the 5th article in the series: “Wanted – A Congregation, Fifth Phase – Making Worship Worshipful,” published in the Christian Century on September 9, 1920:

“We preachers have become dreadfully poor psychologists. There is an instinctive heart-hunger for the mystical in worship that we have been unable to satisfy with our crude, bungling attempts at ritual and the rasping dissonances of the alleged music rendered by our untrained choirs. There has been entirely too much extemporaneous and ill-considered matter introduced into our ‘services of worship.’ Our ‘free’ pulpit prayers, for example, have been so very free that they jar unpleasantly on the sensitive ear of the naturally devout. Indeed, our public prayers are filled with impertinences that are only saved from being blasphemous by the fact that we know not what we do. We pick up disgusting tricks of addressing The Absolute in terms of a contemptuous familiarity. How often one hears preachers mouthing that raucous phrase whose vogue the reverential fail to comprehend, ‘Now, Lord, just send us’ – whatever-it-is – in the same inflection one uses when telephoning the butcher, ‘Now, Sam, just send us a few lean pork-chops, this time, can’t you? No; no sausage, today, thank you. Yes – that will be all, Sam. Thanks – very much!’

“Now, this will not do! Some of us have been wondering what is the matter with our churches; and some of us have been berating the generation for its godlessness. Many of us may find, upon investigation, that we have disgusted our potential constituency with our unwitting want of reverence. Many a sensitive man would greatly prefer to take a book of essays with him to a shady bend in the river, on Sunday morning, than attend our church; whereas his whole soul cries out for a much closer contact with the divine than he can achieve by his communion with nature. But – it is a great deal better for that man’s spiritual welfare that he should go out, Sunday morning, and watch the river, than to go to some church where the music is so ugly it positively frightens one, and the preacher talks to the Great Unseen as if he were chaffing with his next-door neighbor over the back fence. Let it be repeated – this will not do! We who have been committing these serious blunders must mend our ways!”

From “Wanted – A Congregation, Fifth Phase – Making Worship Worshipful,” Christian Century, September 9, 1920, Volume 37, Number 37, pp. 14-17.

For a free PDF copy of the booklet, The Secret Investment of Lloyd C Douglas, fill out the form below: