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by Ronald R Johnson (

First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, from a 1915 postcard announcing an upcoming preaching series. In Douglas’s 1917 Scrapbook, Douglas Papers, Box 1, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

From 1915 to 1921, the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor was the place to be on Sunday mornings. Professors and students from the University of Michigan, and people from the larger community, arrived for worship in such numbers that the leaders of the congregation started a fund drive to enlarge the building. The ushers kept having to turn people away. And, of course, there was a reason for this: the preaching of Lloyd C. Douglas.

The thing that people found most compelling about him was his relevance. He understood their daily lives. He knew what was on their minds. He didn’t drone on about age-0ld doctrines that they couldn’t relate to; he told them why the gospel mattered to them here and now.

He was still learning. His distinctive message didn’t come into focus until 1921, but there is one subject in particular that he preached on as early as 1915, and he spent the rest of his life talking about it: “Poise.”

“We are racing through our lives at top speed,” he said. “As in no preceding epoch of the world’s life, the sense of the necessity of hurry has become an obsession. We are going too fast for our own good; but we dare not slow up…. May one live a life of poise, then, in our day? If so, one must arrange to achieve that poise while on the run, in the ruck, in the racket, in the thick of the scramble.”

He offered prescriptions. For example: Control the things you can control. He told about a man “whose office chair was so near the edge of his rug that whenever he moved to his desk the leg of the chair ploughed up the rug, compelling him to arise and extricate the thing with a scowl and a smothered imprecation. The hinges on his door squeaked abominably. His office windows were so nearly immovable that they had to be jimmied up in the morning and struggled down again at night by brute force. He was forever looking for a blotter, or a pin, or a rubber band, and nothing ever seemed to be where he was searching. If he had a life program, it was to see how much nerve force he could waste.” Douglas listed these annoyances as things that could be brought under control.

“Then there are things… over which we have no control. The weather, for example. It’s amazing what a deal of talking and worrying we do about the weather. If it’s cold, we go about telling everybody that it is cold, as if other people did not know it. If it’s hot, we make it still hotter by commenting upon it. If it rains every other day for two months, we just open the windows of our spirits and let it rain in all over us. It saturates us. It deluges us without and within.”

We also deprive ourselves of poise by the way we review our life histories. “If you will take the time to leaf through your ‘memory book,’ you will observe that it is not arranged in chronological order, but classified under topics. Some of these chapters show signs of having been much thumbed; printed in black face 12-point, underscored with heavy line-rule. Other chapters seem hardly to have been touched; set up in such tiny type as to be almost illegible.

“Last night, when you couldn’t sleep, you took out the book and turned to the chapter on ‘My Stupid Blunders.’ You read for the ten-thousandth time the history of all the things you have said and done which brought you regret and humiliation. Then you turned to the chapter headed, ‘What Might Have Been’ – and read of all the big chances you have let slip through your fingers, chances which might have made you rich, which might have brought you fame (and which might have put you in your grave by now, though no hint of that occurs anywhere in the chapter)….

“You must rewrite this book. Begin by classifying your blunders into ‘Blunders Irremediable’ and ‘Blunders I May Repair.’ Reset the former in small type and put it in an obscure corner of the new volume. Then set yourself to the task of writing those long-deferred letters of apology and paying those visits which will clear up so many of these blunders.

“After having done that, you may begin to take an interest in the ‘Joy’ chapters which you so seldom read. Even the memories of childish delights will become interesting again – the first visit, alone, to your uncle’s farm; your first sight of the sea; the ecstasies of those crisp, snowy Christmases; the exultant glee of meeting returning brothers and sisters, coming home for the holidays with their arms laden with mysterious packages. Do you know why you do not often read these ‘Joy’ chapters now? Surely you know! Too much serious business needing attention, needing repair!”

The article continues: “Mr. Douglas also suggested a revision of ‘Convictions,’ holding that many people are unable to secure ‘personal peace’ because they pretended to advocate principles in which they had no personal interest. ‘Be sincere. Be what you are. Not by lowering your reputation to fit your character, but by bringing your character up to meet your reputation.’ Examples were cited of the man who is zealous to see foreign missionary operations going forward but refuses to speak to representatives of these great nations who reside here. ‘The very flower and pick of these greater nations you want saved pass your door every day!’ declared the speaker. ‘And are you, who are interested in China, Korea, Japan, and India offering them your personal friendship and hospitality?’

“Then there is the man who makes fervent petitions in the church prayer meeting that God will clean up the city’s politics on the night the primaries are held [so presumably he’s at church instead of the voting booth], and the man who volubly discusses international peace but refuses to keep his chickens out of his neighbor’s flower-beds.”

Douglas’s sermons were filled with these kinds of practical applications. That, along with his sense of humor, made him a popular preacher and speaker. But speaking of international peace, there was already a war going on in Europe, and it would soon be impossible for Americans to ignore it.

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

What Do You Want for Christmas?

woman with christmas gifts beside decorated fir tree
Photo by Laura James on

by Ronald R Johnson (

Quotable Quotes from Lloyd C. Douglas

From a sermon entitled, “What Do You Want for Christmas?” preached at the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Sunday, December 14, 1919:

How would a wish like this strike you? To wish for some added grace of character that would make people love you, not for anything you had on, or for the house you happened to live in, or the material possessions you were known to command, but just because you are you.

So that, if the clothes go out of style, or the moth eats them up, or the house burns down, or panic upsets business, and rust corrodes your machinery – you will still be possessed of a grace of character that will make people respect you, and have confidence in you, and be glad when you come into the room where they are, and sorry when you leave.

The ability to wake up every morning with a smile and go to sleep every night with peace of mind and satisfaction of heart.

How would you like a gift that would ensure your happiness, in all kinds of weather; that would hold you independent of the inroads of little disappointments – a sort of perpetual guarantee against despair and dissatisfaction?

Somehow, I believe that if we might today choose, for a Christmas gift, absolutely anything we really wanted, to last us for life, this gift that I have been talking about would meet the demand.

Well, you may have it! Take it, and welcome.

Lloyd C Douglas, “What Do You Want for Christmas?” in Lloyd C. Douglas Papers, Sermons [4], Box 3, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Seems like an abrupt ending, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t he have invited his listeners to come to Christ in that moment? But that was never his way. Douglas was always careful not to “stampede” people (his word) into making a commitment while under the emotional influence of the architecture, the music, and (yes) his own God-given eloquence. He wanted his listeners to continue thinking about it after the service was over, and to hear his question ringing in their ears above the noise of traffic as they headed home. If they truly didn’t know the next step, then he hoped they’d make an appointment with him to discuss it. But he trusted his material (the sermon he had been given) to continue doing its work after it was over.

So here it is, a hundred years later, still doing its work. What do you want for Christmas?

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

Douglas’s Regret

by Ronald R Johnson (

While still in North Manchester, Indiana, Lloyd Douglas wrote a book called More Than a Prophet. It’s a hard book to categorize. Although he considered it fiction, it wasn’t a novel, and it certainly wasn’t anything like the novels he would write later in life. It seems more like a prose poem.

It’s about John the Baptist… before he was born. That’s right. Although there is no other hint anywhere in Douglas’s writings or sermons that he believed that we humans pre-existed before our earthly lives, he does seem to have believed that John the Baptist did. Or at least he believed it when he wrote this book. In this story, the pre-existent John is actually an angel, and he volunteers to become a human in order to prepare the way for Christ. It’s a highly imaginative work, and in places the language is quite lovely. It’s also surprising that some of the more seasoned ministers, to whom he sent a copy, didn’t chafe at its theological implications; for this story says that the pre-existent John was an angel who almost joined forces with Satan, and came to earth to atone for his sin.

Here’s the review I posted about it on Amazon a number of years ago:

Potential readers should be aware that this book is unlike any of the novels for which Lloyd Douglas is famous. It was published more than twenty years before his bestsellers, when he was newly graduated from Wittenberg College’s divinity school. It is of historic interest because it was written just before he committed his life to an updating of the faith, to meet the demands of the modern age. There is nothing modern in this book, and there is very little in it that is even of earthly interest. The hero of the story is an angel, and much of the action occurs in the heavens. All the dialogue is in Elizabethan English.

Nevertheless, there is something wondrous about Douglas’s narrative voice in this book. It has a strange cadence, like poetry. The landscape of the story is also more grand and sweeping than in any of his later novels, since it takes us beyond the material world. And it is fascinating to read his account of what happens to the devil and his army of mutinous angels – this from an author who, later on, was quite passionate about denying the existence of a devil. If you think you know Lloyd Douglas, this slender book is full of surprises.

It is a difficult book to read, however, and most readers would be best advised to avoid it. But for those who respect the mind of Lloyd Douglas and want to trace his evolution as a religious thinker and as a popular writer, it may be well worth the effort.

Reviewed November 3, 2008 on Amazon

When Douglas was unsuccessful at finding a publisher for the book, he borrowed some money and printed 1000 copies, optimistic that he could sell them himself. He was a good salesman in other respects, but he never sold more than 500 copies of the book, and he ended up lugging them around from one parsonage to another over the course of his ministry. It became one of the great regrets of his life, most of all because he was unable to repay the debt. It wasn’t until he got his first royalty check from Magnificent Obsession (in 1929) that he was finally able to pay back the person who had loaned him the money.

Years after its publication, he gave his daughter Betty a copy and wrote this inscription: “More Than a Prophet was less than a profit.” In their book, The Shape of Sunday, Betty and her sister Virginia admit, with a great sense of guilt, that they were unable to read the book all the way through.

Having said all this, however, I found the book fascinating. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars on Amazon because I wanted to warn potential buyers that it’s not a typical Lloyd Douglas novel. But it does provide a snapshot of his spiritual state at that time in his life, and of his theology. Combined with his sermons and the magazine articles that he would soon begin to publish in abundance, this book presents us with a super-serious young man who thought deeply, and with great originality, about things that most Christians take for granted. He especially felt the need to understand – and then to explain to others – some of the Bible’s more enigmatic passages. In fact, this tendency (to focus on problematic scripture verses) was the driving force behind his writing, his speaking, and his career decisions in the years to come.

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

There He Stands

by Ronald R Johnson (

Quotable Quotes from Lloyd C. Douglas

From a Christmas booklet entitled, An Affair of the Heart (1922). Douglas is talking about the details of the Christmas story that may challenge the intellect, and he says that the fact of Christ’s influence on human history is far more miraculous than any of the stories surrounding his birth.

But we may think as we like about the process whereby this remarkable character was presented to humanity, there he stands! By all the rules, he is doomed to defeat; but there he stands – manger-born, peasant-bred, poverty-ridden, misunderstood, scorned, spurned, whipped, slapped, and crucified – there he stands! the supreme figure in the life of the race; all the history of nearly twenty centuries strangely interwoven with that crimson thread dyed with his blood!

There he stands – by all the rules, a failure! – by all the tests of logic and the requirements of history, defeated! – by actual demonstration, the greatest, gripping, binding, lifting, driving energy ever turned loose in this world!

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

The Pastor is the Head Custodian, Like It or Not

by Ronald R Johnson (

Quotable quotes from Lloyd C. Douglas

From The Minister’s Everyday Life (1924), p. 67:

[Y]ou may as well make up your mind to it that you are now, and are always going to be – no matter how conspicuously you may be located later – the actual custodian of church property; and if you think to win the approbation of your constituency by permitting their buildings and equipment to fall into decay, for the sake of paring down expenses, you are making a great mistake. True, you are not employed as the caretaker of the church property; but you had better take care of it, nevertheless. The congregation will forgive you an occasional slump in the pulpit but it will view with much regret and distaste an unmowed front lawn, an untidy back yard, an untrimmed hedge, a gate off its hinges, unraked leaves, broken fence-pickets, unshovelled snow and ice on the walks, and an old shirt protruding through a broken window of the attic, at the residence of the parson.

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

The Influence of Jesus on Western Culture

by Ronald R Johnson (

Quotable Quotes from Lloyd C. Douglas

From These Sayings of Mine (1926), pp. 34-35. Douglas raises the question: What would be left of Western culture if we eliminated every trace of Jesus from our daily lives?

If it is suspected that the poets and prophets have sentimentally overrated the Master’s importance to civilization, let the critic put this overestimated teacher where he belongs by dropping his name and all allusions to his career from [the critic’s] own speech. Let him resolve that he will consistently refuse to enter any building in which there is an ascription of honor to this teacher; that he will not again look upon any statue or painting which has to do with this man or his message; that he will avoid hearing any music which involves this theme; that he will not read any more history in which the cause of Christianity is at issue. Let him proceed further and discontinue the use of any benefits, inventions, or energies produced as a direct result of education fostered by Christianity.

He will discover that long before he has finished deleting Jesus from his life, he has jeopardized everything he holds in esteem. Pontius Pilate, in an uncomfortable moment of perplexity, inquired of the crowd that sought Jesus’ life: ‘What, then, will ye do with Jesus?’ This query seems to echo through the centuries. Of course, any individual who stolidly refuses to recognize the question can contrive to live his whole life without giving it his attention; but only as a pensioner upon the people who do recognize it as worthy of a reply. No social group, however, can evade this query and continue to advance. Their answer to it will determine whether they propose to live in the fog of ignorance and enslavement to fear, or in the light of increasing knowledge and the liberty which knowledge confers; for Jesus is the light of the world!

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

What is the Gospel Doing for You?

by Ronald R Johnson (

Quotable Quotes from Lloyd C. Douglas

From a sermon entitled, “Christianity – The Cult of Adventure,” preached at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles on Sunday, July 15, 1928, and reprinted in The Living Faith, pp. 62-76.

What is this gospel doing for you? Is it developing your personality, and empowering you with larger capacity for making and keeping friends? Does it help you do honest business more successfully? Does it make your home harmonious? Does it make you a better companion at the breakfast table? Does it make your automobile safer for pedestrians on the street? Does it open your purse to the call of poverty? Does it make you humble with your opinions?

Does it inspire you to see more beauty in art and nature and the hearts of common men and women? Does it make you passionately eager to put something into the world that will square, at least in part, for what you are taking out of it? Does it move you to a genuine interest in the welfare of other people, no matter how far apart they may be from you, in code and manners, belief and morals, aims and hopes?

Does it enable you to understand how all things do work together for good, in sunshine and shadow, in joy and pain, in calm serene and stress and storm, to them that love God?

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

On Following Jesus’ Teachings without Following Jesus

by Ronald R Johnson (

Although Lloyd Douglas emphasized the importance of following Jesus’ teachings, he did not believe it was possible to do so without the support and guidance of the Teacher. In These Sayings of Mine, p. 38, he says this:

We have no record of any attempt on the part of Jesus to exalt his message by self-deprecation. He and his words were one. They had been supernormally conveyed to him, he declared, and he was the living exponent and example of their truth. Whoever accepted his teachings, accepted him. Whoever accepted him, accepted them. There could be no such thing as an effective practice of his principles independent of a close and vital relation to his personality; and, in pursuance of that relationship, he said: ‘Ye are my friends if ye do whatsoever I command you.’

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

What to Do with “Everyday” Life

by Ronald R Johnson (

One of the things I find so interesting about Lloyd Douglas is the insight he had early in his ministry (only eight years after graduating from seminary) that Christians in modern times were being forced to choose between two very different approaches to the world: the mindset and intellectual habits of “everyday life” in twentieth century society vs. the mindset and intellectual habits of the ancient Greek world. He got this idea from Shailer Mathews, Chair of the Religion Department at the University of Chicago, when Douglas and his wife attended a lecture series by Mathews on the east coast sometime between 1909 and 1911.

Douglas believed that faith in Christ should not require people to abandon the mindset and intellectual habits that served them well in their jobs Monday through Friday. He was thinking here of professionals especially. The state universities were increasingly producing waves of graduates who were taught to question assumptions, consider alternatives, and put ideas to the test. These habits were not only making the workforce more productive; they were also changing the way people lived their personal lives. On Douglas’s view, there was nothing either irreligious or antireligious about this way of approaching things; what made this new approach a threat to Christian religion was the fact that the church’s leadership was still largely committed to the mindset and intellectual habits that were common during the days of Christ: that is, the ancient Greek and Hebrew worldviews.

Douglas saw it as his personal and professional mission to divest Christian faith of the old secular philosophies and worldviews that had wrapped themselves around it and were threatening to choke the life out of it. There was nothing in the teachings of Jesus, he thought, that required people to believe in Aristotelian cosmology or biology or any other kind of -ology. Yet he saw leaders of the faith railing against the latest scientific discoveries because those leaders were still stuck in the old ways of viewing the universe and its history. Christ’s message, he felt, was for all time, and must not have its future tied so closely to ancient ways of thinking.

He therefore chose to spend ten years (1911-1921) ministering at two universities (the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan), where, he says, “I daily faced the new problem of a readjustment in religious thought, to make it consonant with the more recent disclosures of the philosophical and religious world.” (This is from a sermon, “Five Years of Akron,” preached at the First Congregational Church of Akron on October 31, 1926, and printed in The Living Faith, p. 80.) His objective was not to force the gospel to fit the culture, but to clear away the old cultural vestiges that were still clinging so tightly to Christian faith.

I believe that we Christians in America are still largely unaware of the problem that he saw so clearly one hundred years ago. That is one of the reasons why I feel it is so worthwhile – and even vitally important – for us to hear his voice again.

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

The Importance of Sportsmanship within the Church

by Ronald R Johnson (

Quotable quotes from Lloyd C. Douglas

From a farewell sermon entitled, “Five Years of Akron,” delivered at the First Congregational Church of Akron on October 31, 1926. (He was on his way to a pastorate in Los Angeles.) This is reprinted in Living Faith, pp. 77-92.

He’s summarizing some of the things he tried to teach them during his time as their pastor:

I have talked considerably about the value of Christian sportsmanship. I saw no good in churches that quarrel – either within their own ranks or with others outside their gates. I proclaimed that whatever spirit it was that made people mean, and critical, and captious, and fault-finding, and petulant – you could be sure it was not the Holy Spirit; that if their lives were haunted with the shades of outworn fears and inexcusable ignorances and moldy superstitions – you could be sure their grisly ghost was not the Holy Ghost.

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