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Some Final Notes about Ann Arbor

by Ronald R Johnson (

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:

Douglas’s Development as a Writer from 1915 to 1921

by Ronald R Johnson (

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:

Science, Modern Medicine, and Lloyd C. Douglas

by Ronald R Johnson (

One thing clearly stands out about Douglas’s years at the University of Michigan: by the time he left in 1921, he was well-versed in the history of science, and in particular the medical sciences. Most of his novels (written in the 1930s) are either about doctors or include scenes with doctors and/or nurses. Douglas was very much at home writing about surgeries, or about physicians diagnosing illnesses. When I first read some of those novels, I wondered if he had been a doctor; no, he was never a doctor, but during his years in Ann Arbor he spent a lot of time with doctors who taught at the medical school, and he did a lot of reading on the subject. Long before he wrote his novels (as early as 1920), his magazine articles were filled with medical and scientific references.

The study of medicine had only recently been transformed in America. As Kenneth Ludmerer explains in his book, Learning to Heal: The Development of American Medical Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), the entire system of medical education that we now take for granted had only begun in the last couple of decades of the 1800s, in the state colleges. The Johns Hopkins Medical School took the lead as a state-of-the-art training institution, and in the early 20th century there were only a few other groundbreaking medical schools. The University of Michigan was one of them. (See Horace W. Davenport, Not Just Any Medical School: The Science, Practice, and Teaching of Medicine at the University of Michigan, 1850-1941 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999).) In other words, Ann Arbor was a great place for Lloyd Douglas to learn about the practice of medicine.

From Horace W. Davenport, Not Just Any Medical School: The Science, Practice, and Teaching of Medicine at the University of Michigan, 1850-1941 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), p. 132: “George Dock… teaching in amphitheater of Catherine Street Hospital. The ‘patient’ is probably a student.” I’ve included it here because it’s from around the time that Douglas was in Ann Arbor observing real surgeries.

In their biography of their father, Douglas’s daughters write:

It is a curious thing how many people thought the novelist, Lloyd Douglas, was a medical doctor… He wrote with authority on operations, and the hospital atmosphere he so often described in his books was taken from years of first-hand observation. He soaked himself in medical lore for the love of it. Often in Ann Arbor surgeons would tell him when they were to perform an unusual operation and invite him to watch.

Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C. Douglas (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside, 1952), p. 102.

He was there as a minister…

He became so acquainted with the life of the hospital that he seemed part of the organization. Doctors would call him in when they had patients who were depressed and needed spiritual treatment. His method was different with each one. He offered hope to those who wanted hope, but he didn’t believe in being fatuously optimistic with desperately sick people. If they wanted to talk of death, he let them.


…and yet, as a writer, he was taking it all in, “soaking himself” in it, as his daughters said. From 1920 onward, even his religious writing constantly referred to medical analogies or incidents from the history of science. His medical novels were still a decade away. But the germ of the idea was already there. Sometime while he was living in Ann Arbor, he read a newspaper article that he thought would make a good novel someday. He clipped it out and carried it in his wallet.

It reported the death of a doctor who had drowned from a heart attack while his pulmotor, which he always kept in the boathouse for such an emergency, was being used to revive a young man across the lake. The idea never failed to intrigue Daddy. What had the young man thought when he realized his life had been saved at the cost of another’s? Had he been stricken beyond natural remorse by the fact that an experienced, valuable doctor had died and he – young, but of small use to society – lived? Had he been conscious of a duty to replace the older man?

Ibid., pp. 204-205.

That was the setup for the opening chapter of Magnificent Obsession, his first novel, in 1929. Since he read the article during his years in Ann Arbor, it’s likely that he began collecting material even then, at least in an informal way, while he was making his rounds at the hospital.

At any rate, his years in Ann Arbor educated him in both science and medicine, and from 1920 onwards we see him referring often to medical and scientific analogies in his writings.

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

Rethinking the Great War

by Ronald R Johnson (

I mentioned last time that Douglas became so caught up in the Great War (WWI) that he began to hate everything German, including the Lutheran Church and its parochial schools. (And that was saying a lot, because Douglas used to be a Lutheran minister.)

I’ve also mentioned more than once that Douglas did his best thinking at the typewriter, and that allows us to trace the development of his thought. In this case, I can cite two prominent examples of how he talked himself down from the ledge (so to speak), and worked his way back to a gospel of love and forgiveness, even for Germans. The first is a Baccalaureate address he gave at Indiana University in June, 1918 (later circulated in booklet form), and the other was a 1918 Christmas booklet entitled, The Dilemma of Santa Claus.

The title of his speech at Indiana University was “Leased Lives,” so-called because he concluded by saying that that was the proper attitude for us all to have now: to realize that our lives have been “leased” to us, and to offer them back in service to society. The war was still being fought, and Douglas was still very much wrapped up in it. That’s why his message is so interesting: because, in spite of the fact that he was still very much a hawk, he was already thinking ahead and – more importantly – being critical of the very things he had been saying for the past year.

As I’ve mentioned before, this was one of his strengths: his ability to step back from his sermons and published articles and to criticize what he had said before – even using the very same words and phrases. We should all be so self-critical! As you read the following excerpt from “Leased Lives,” realize that it’s himself he’s quoting and paraphrasing:

In a frenzy of indignation, we have shouted that our enemy is a nation of madmen, stark staring lunatics, for organizing such an infernal institution as that with which they wage their ruthless war, forgetting that madmen do not organize, and that only yesterday we had sat at their feet to catch up the crumbs that fell from their feast of wisdom.

In our hot anger, we have spluttered out the charge that they are but a massed mob of soul-less brutes, dead to all finer feelings, oblivious to the fact that no musical program of ours has ever seemed complete without a rendition of their inspiring and uplifting harmonies, preferably interpreted by performers who had found their training in the native habitat of the masters by whom these exalted songs of the soul had been wrought.

In tearful rage, we have declared that the despicable philosophy of The Superman was responsible, which enjoins the strong to press on toward greater strength, leaving the weak to their fate; forgetful that for half a century we have considered the exponents of that cult pioneers in the science of rebuilding broken lives and had rushed with our sick, in moments of dire extremity, to the counsel of men whose training was had in Vienna or Berlin.

Perchance it was their outrageous religion that had killed their national soul, an argument rendered somewhat difficult when we remember that modern theological sholarship has recommended a knowledge of the German language to an understanding of its most important textbooks, and that recent sainthood has fed its aspirations on the mystical dreams of Euken.

Now, it is not expected of us that we shall be able coolly to reason this out, in these tempestuous days. Whoever can think calmly and dispassionately about this crisis may choose among such charges against him as cowardice, paresis, moral lassitude or overt treachery. Nothing matters just now but the winning of this war; and if we lose it, none of us cares to live for another ten minutes in such a state of society as must inevitably ensue. But to the end that there shall be no recurrence of a like disaster to the world, they who are to assume leadership of us in the coming days must give themselves to patient and painstaking analysis of the conditions which have brought all this to pass.

Lloyd C Douglas, “Leased Lives,” Baccalaureate Address, Indiana University, June 1918

This is still anti-German. The “conditions” that had caused the war, in his view, came down to this: that the entire Western world, including the United States, had been marching so steadily toward greater efficiency that those at the head of the pack (the Germans) had finally done away with human sentiment and kindness. Douglas’s remedy was to follow Christ’s teaching that, if we want to be great, we must serve. “There is no other way!” he said. This is still an anti-German sentiment; he still maintains that the Germans have become heartless; but he now sees that we’re all in it together and that the Germans have just gone farther than the rest of us in their pursuit of efficiency. He’s stepping back from his earlier inflammatory remarks and moving in the direction of a calmer, saner analysis of the situation.

His 1918 Christmas booklet, The Dilemma of Santa Claus, also recognizes our debt to German culture, even for some of our most cherished Christmas traditions. The “dilemma” is the fact that, even though the war was now over, it’s hard to forgive. It’s going to take some time. Douglas doesn’t admonish his readers to stop hating Germans. He admits that he himself isn’t ready to do it yet. But he reminds us that children don’t care what nationality Santa Claus is. And he goes one step further: he asks us to think about children living in Germany right now, in the aftermath of defeat. What will their Christmas be like this year?

On the one hand, he says he’s not ready to forgive; on the other hand, he invites us all to think about what life must be like over there… at least for the little ones.

This is how Lloyd Douglas lived his whole life. He was a man of passion who got caught up in world events and stated his positions boldly; but he was also a thinker, and he was capable of honest self-criticism after the fact. That’s one of the main reasons why I’ve spent so much of my life reading his writings. It’s good to “hang out” with someone like that, don’t you think?

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

Lloyd C. Douglas and “The Great War”

by Ronald R Johnson (

Prior to 1917, Lloyd Douglas was against war. Especially as the Europeans geared up for the Great War (what we now call World War I), Douglas made it clear that war in itself was immoral and that the United States should stay out of it.

In a booklet entitled, The Reappraisement of Heroism, he said it was unfortunate that our heroes tended to be military leaders. He felt it was time to find new kinds of heroes. He described war as “the passion that bids a man stuff his pockets with cartridges at the bidding of his ruler and start out to orphan the children of some man with whom he has no quarrel, when both he and his pretended foe would greatly prefer to be at home digging potatoes and raking hay.”

But his attitude changed in April 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany.

On April 4, the day the Senate voted in support of joining the war, Douglas was the featured speaker at the annual banquet of the Ann Arbor YMCA. “I wanted to be a pacifist,” he told his listeners. “I am bewildered by the trend of events. I am shocked. I have not recovered.” But his recovery was actually very quick.

Douglas was well-aware of his gifts as an orator. He worried that the nation was unprepared, both materially and spiritually, for what was ahead. He believed that it was now his responsibility to rally public opinion around the war effort.
And that’s what he did. He told his congregation that some members of the faculty at the university needed “patriotic encouragement.” He criticized students who would neither enlist nor help raise funds for the troops. He asked sophomores at the university to stop bullying freshmen and turn their attention to “some of our Ann Arbor philistines,” who refused to contribute to the Red Cross. “If you want to take these gentlemen out and pour catsup in their hair, and encourage them to make patriotic speeches, I should be the last in town to offer a word of protest.” I’ve already told you about his weekly column in the Ann Arbor Times-News. He changed its title to “Home Patriotism,” saying things like this: “give until it hurts, and then keep giving until it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Nor did he confine his energies to Ann Arbor. He told the graduating class of Morenci High School that prostitutes were a kind of “Female Fritz” – aiding and abetting the enemy by spreading disease and immorality, and (worse yet) not helping out with the war effort. He kept a watchful eye on the German-Americans in eastern Michigan, warning them not to keep anybody guessing about their true loyalties. He toured the state speaking on the subject, “Buy Bonds or Wear Them,” and he was on a committee of men who visited German farmers, insisting that they buy war bonds.

To his congregation, he said, “Queer doctrines for the church, I admit. I wish it were not so. I wish we were still free to live our lives in love and tenderness and peace. But our day of ease and happiness has passed and the best we can now do is to attempt to recover our lost happiness for our children. Let us not delay.”

As the war continued, he stepped up his efforts. In the local papers he published poetry condemning “Kaiser Bill.” A humorous article ostensibly written by a child (“Kids Ready to Peddle Stamps for Uncle Sam”) bore his unmistakable style. He spoke to bankers, women’s groups, anyone who would listen.
The headlines became more and more shrill. “GERMANS NOT CHRISTIANS DECLARES LLOYD C. DOUGLAS.” “PUBLIC SCHOOL PLACE TO TEACH NATION’S YOUTH; Rev. Lloyd C. Douglas Expects Lutheran Parochial Schools to Be Abolished by Law.” This last pronouncement was especially noteworthy, since Douglas himself had once been a Lutheran minister. But the Lutheran Church had strong German roots, and he was no longer tolerant of anything German.

His efforts did not go unnoticed by his old employer, the YMCA. During the last six months of the war, he spent most of his time in New York City chairing publicity for the Y’s 35-million-dollar War Fund campaign.

It was an unexpected transformation. In fairness to Douglas, he wasn’t the only minister who changed his attitudes so drastically during WWI. Years later, Douglas was ashamed of how he had behaved. He felt that he had been hoodwinked by the Wilson Administration’s propaganda machine. He vowed that he would never fall for it again.

But it took him years to get to that point. For the immediate future (1917-1918), he had a lot of work to do to find his way back to a gospel of peace and love. As I’ve said before, Douglas did most of his thinking at the typewriter. To a large extent, his thought process is documented. Next time I’ll tell you more about how he moved past his hatred of the German race.

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


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:

The Man Who Lost His Arms

by Ronald R Johnson (

I mentioned last time that Lloyd Douglas published a weekly column in the Ann Arbor Times-News starting in the Fall of 1915. In his December 18th article, he told his readers about Bill McKinnon (or MacKinnon – both spellings appeared in the column and in related articles in the days ahead). “Big Bill” worked at a farm in Manchester, Michigan, and was sent to Ann Arbor for medical attention when he lost both of his arms in a corn husking machine. Douglas met him in the hospital while doing visitations, and he wrote about Bill’s plight in his weekly column.

Douglas asked him what he thought about the prospect of living without arms. “And he replied, smilingly, without a quaver in his voice, ‘I really don’t know. It’s an awkward situation. I never heard of anybody being in just this fix and I don’t know what I could do. But,’ he reflected, ‘this is a mighty good world and the people wouldn’t let me starve to death, would they?’ I felt sure they would not. ‘And perhaps,’ he continued, ‘perhaps somebody will suggest something for me to do.'”

A few days later, Douglas wrote that he had commended Bill for his positive attitude. “He just grinned and replied, ‘I don’t see how it would help things any for me to complain.  I’m here; and they’re off [his arms, in other words]; and the people [in the hospital] are being very kind to me.  I guess I might as well make the best of it.’”

In his December 18th article, Douglas proposed that the members of the community raise some funds to help Bill with expenses. With only seven days left before Christmas! Even at such short notice, though, the effort was successful. Over the next week, the paper ran a number of articles about the fund drive, listing the names of people who contributed and the amount they gave. There was even a story about an 80-year-0ld woman who shoveled snow to earn money for Bill. The community responded in a big way, and by the time it was over they had collected $968.32. That doesn’t sound like much, but according to one website, it’s equivalent to $27,200.00 in US dollars today (2022). It must’ve seemed like a lot to them, because Douglas made it the headline of his next column.

But raising money was only a small part of Douglas’s plan. What he really wanted the people of Ann Arbor to do – and what he kept writing about in subsequent articles – was to help Bill think of some way he could contribute to society, even with his disability.

“It’s a clear case that Bill doesn’t propose to be a public charge if he can help it.  He has always been independent and he rebels at the idea of having the state look after him.  I think this is the only real worry he has.  His pain and discomfort seem not to count much.”

This was a new idea in 1915. Typically, someone in Bill’s situation would be institutionalized. He’d have to be. An article in the Tmes-News (probably written anonymously by Douglas) explained why. “Did it ever occur to you just how helpless Big Bill is? Here are a lot of good people with big hearts preparing to establish for him a bank account, but having no arms it will not be possible for him to sign a check when he wants to draw on that fund. If instead of a bank account the checks and currency which have been sent to the Times-News office were turned into nice crisp $10 notes and handed to Big Bill, he couldn’t even put them in his pockets, and if somebody were to place them in his pockets he couldn’t take them out. Though he has the frame of a giant and the strength of an ox, he is as helpless as a baby in arms. But money can do a lot of things. It can secure him somebody to wait upon him until such a time as he can learn to wait upon himself. Because in time Big Bill will learn to use his toes and his teeth to supply the need of arms. A human being is ingenious, and when one is deprived of a limb he learns to get along without it. Doubtless there are mechanical arms which may be secured, and which will help Big Bill to help himself. Anyhow, Big Bill does not propose to become a charge upon the community if he can help it, and the contributions of the good people of Ann Arbor will go a long way toward helping him to independence.”

In another article Douglas wrote, “When [Bill] saw me coming to his bedside he greeted me with a cheery ‘Hello!’ and asked, ‘Well, have you thought of anything yet?’  Bill always asks me that when I see him now.  He means, ‘Have you thought of anything a man without arms can do to provide for his living?’”

As I said earlier, this was a new idea in 1915. Normally, he’d have been put in an institution so that nurses or local volunteers could feed him, bathe him, dress him, and so on, but Bill wanted to remain in the world as a productive member of society. Douglas used his weekly column to excite the imaginations of his highly-educated community. If they put their heads together, could they think of a way for Bill to live a somewhat normal life, even with his disability? For us in 2022, this seems like a possibility; but for “Big Bill” in 1915, it wasn’t.

There is only one more mention of Bill in Douglas’s scrapbooks. It’s an undated newspaper article about Bill McKinnon suing Frank Turner (his former employer) for damages. It’s on p. 10 of Douglas’s 1918 Scrapbook, along with other articles dated Spring 1918. The article just tells us that the trial is going before Judge George W. Sample and a jury “today” in the circuit court in Ann Arbor. We aren’t told the outcome.

This is one of the topics I have on my “Wish List” at this website. I have an open-ended request for readers to tell me if anyone knows what became of Bill. Back in 2007, I put the question in an online bulletin board for Washtenaw County history buffs, but didn’t get an answer. I had hoped to search the county court records, available in Lansing, but court records for that period of time were destroyed in a flood.

Unless I eventually hear from someone, we’ll never know what happened to “Big Bill.” From what I know about Lloyd Douglas, he was probably disappointed that Bill sued his employer, although only litigation and legislation could ever have made our society more open to people like Bill. I think about him sometimes and wonder if he was ever able to do anything with his life. If anyone out there knows the answer, I’d appreciate hearing from you.

At any rate, this shows you the kinds of projects Douglas devoted himself to, over and above being a minister and writer. He was quite idealistic but also somewhat unrealistic. I think he honestly believed that someone in the community would buddy-up with Bill and help him carve out his niche. Maybe they did. If so, I hope we find out someday.

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

Local Columnist

by Ronald R Johnson (

During the last two school years Lloyd Douglas was at the University of Illinois, he wrote a weekly column in the Daily Illini, the student newspaper. In 1915, when he accepted a call as Senior Minister at the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, he widened the circle. Since he was no longer strictly involved in campus ministry, he knew he also had a responsibility to reach out to the larger community. One way he did that was to write a weekly column in the Ann Arbor Times-News. The column was called “The Saturday Sunset Sermonette,” and it began in September of 1915. Despite the word “sermonette,” the topics were quite down-to-earth. Here are some examples:

On your kid’s first few weeks in elementary school: “Be very patient with him. He is learning a new craft. His little world is being melted and stirred and shaken… all the fences are being torn down and rebuilt after a different pattern and for a different purpose, around his small domain…. No wonder if… he seems distracted; forgets the errand he promised to run; omits doing his customary chores. Be patient. If you were going through any such radical revision of your life-processes, just now, likely they’d have you in a straitjacket with an ice-pack on your head.”

From an extremely tongue-in-cheek essay on why women should not be allowed to vote: “In the first place, Providence never intended woman to be man’s equal, as is clearly proved by the fact that the first woman was made of the first man’s rib. Anybody can see that this disqualifies her for citizenship. The first man, it will be remembered, was made of dirt. This gave him such a fine start that woman has never been able to overtake him in ability to manage politics, which is pretty dirty business in many localities.”

On sending Christmas cards: “Among the people we should plan to remember with a card or a note of good wishes are the old friends whom we seldom see and from whom we rarely hear: our teachers, back in the old days, who wonder if we have forgotten that they exist; the schoolmates of long ago; the men and women, now aged and infirm, who used to take a kindly interest in us as children; the nurse who pulled us through scarlet fever; the man who fished us out of the river that day we were unsuccessfully attempting the ambitious aquatic performance. To be sure, we have lost track of many of these good angels of our youth. We are not sure they are alive. But, by beginning, early, to make inquiries, we may be able to locate some of them.”

From an essay entitled, “The Hated Job”: “To touch humanity with the power of an uplifting personality; to make it think, make it act, make it want to live four-square and above the fog because you do – because your character is contagious – this is the secret that transforms many a humdrum house of merchandise into a temple and many a common workbench into a shrine.”

By just such humorous and practical essays, Douglas reached out to people in the community who might not step inside a church. It was through this column that Douglas also rallied the people of the city around a charity case during the 1915 Christmas season. I’ll tell you about that in the next blog post.

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

The People in the Pews at Ann Arbor

by Ronald R Johnson (

In the series of lectures Lloyd Douglas delivered at various universities as a representative of the YMCA, and in his “Sermonettes” in the Daily Illini (the student paper at the University of Illinois), we can glimpse Douglas’s emerging theology. There wasn’t a lot of meat to it yet, but one principle came through quite clearly: he believed that the new state universities were engaged in a day-to-day discovery of the truth.

Therefore, when he went back into active ministry in April/May 1915, it’s no coincidence that he accepted a call to be the Senior Minister at the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, adjacent to the University of Michigan. And what an opportunity this was! Many of his parishioners were members of either the faculty or the administration of the university. The list below is from a booklet Douglas published for university students in the fall of 1916. It’s available online; you can view it by clicking the following link: L.C. Douglas, Congregationalism at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor: Michigan Congregational Conference/First Congregational Church, 1916).

Here are the members who were in some way connected to the university:

The booklet then went on to list the students who were members of the congregation, from sophomores through seniors, as well as graduate students. There were several hundred names.

I look at it this way: Lloyd Douglas did his best thinking at the typewriter. He always typed out his sermons, even though (by all reports) he delivered them extemporaneously rather than just reading them. As he typed, he was keenly aware of his audience. When he rehearsed his sermons, usually on Saturday afternoons, he must have crafted them with these people in mind: the faculty and administrators I’ve listed above, as well as the hundreds of students in the balcony. From his daughters’ testimony we know that, after the service on Sunday mornings, he and his wife and daughters would walk home without speaking, but as soon as they got home, he debriefed, telling his wife Besse the specific reactions he saw on his parishioners’ faces to this or that part of the sermon. (His daughters give us a vivid description of this in the opening chapter of their book, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C Douglas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952).)

We also know that he was willing to change his mind, sometimes on very important matters, and that he usually did it by reflecting on something he himself had preached or published earlier. The progression followed this pattern: he would make a strong statement in a sermon or magazine article and then, on a later date, would disagree with that statement, sometimes even quoting what he had said on the earlier occasion, although he never told his audience that the person he was refuting was himself. He did this at a few key moments in his life, and (in my estimation) his later views were an improvement.

During his years at Ann Arbor, however, I believe we see this happening on a smaller, subtler scale. The years 1915-1921 were the core of Douglas’s education. He did some important thinking during this period, and he did it in full view of the faculty and administration of one of the Midwest’s most influential state universities. As he typed out his beliefs, he did so with this audience in mind, and when he delivered the message to them on Sunday morning, he was very tuned-in to their reactions, self-correcting as needed. The reactions of this audience were especially pertinent because he wasn’t just preaching the old, old gospel in the old, old way. He was trying to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to people on the cutting edge of twentieth century scholarship (both the sciences and the humanities) and bring it to bear on the lives they were actually living on weekdays. Although he was always trying to reach students, he now began to focus his energies especially on the faculty. They were the ones most on his mind as he prepared his sermons. (He told us this in his “Third Commandment” in an article called, “Ten Commandments for the College Church.” Click the link to see the article in full.) And by preaching to the faculty, he became more mature as a thinker and a representative of Jesus Christ to the modern world.

But he also knew he had a responsibility to reach the townspeople not involved with the university, and he did that, as well. I’ll tell you more in the next post.

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

Douglas: A.M. Degree Means ‘Amused Myself’

by Ronald R Johnson (

By the Fall of 1914, Douglas had already stayed longer at the University of Illinois than his original contract had stipulated. He had agreed to give them three years (from Fall 1911 to Spring 1914). He ended up staying through the 1914 calendar year but left to be a pastor again in the early months of 1915.

In the months leading up to that move, he spoke to students at the University of Michigan a couple of times: first at a YWCA gathering (Y events were still segregated by gender) and then at a meeting sponsored by the university’s Student Christian Association (the SCA). The SCA event took place at the Majestic Theater in Ann Arbor. Although he was invited to speak to students, the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor had a pastoral vacancy and was interested in him – and he was interested in them. The bio he sent to the event organizers is fascinating in light of that situation. He wasn’t just aiming at students; he knew this bio would be his self-introduction to the search committee at the Congregational Church and, to some extent, also to the larger community.

His bio began as follows:

“Lloyd C. Douglas, age 37, able-bodied but not husky. Ran 100 yards in college but never went to Olympic games in consequence. Member Phi Gamma Delta – worked harder on that than on calculus. Also manager of Glee Club, which took much time which might otherwise have been squandered on logic. Also managing editor of college paper, during which administration it was thought to be a humorous sheet – typographically, at all events. Managed to corral a degree of A.M., meaning, in this case, ‘Amused Myself.'”

This first paragraph shows how much Douglas changed while at the University of Illinois. When he introduced himself to the Washington, DC press corps, he wisely portrayed himself as a fellow journalist in order to win their acceptance and get them to stop focusing on the scandal he had inherited at the church. But now he was much more relaxed. His bio was written for students, of course, but it’s also consistent with the new style of writing he had developed, first as the anonymous author of the “Zom” ads in the Daily Illini, then as the creator of the “Weekly Sermonettes” in the Illini, and then as the writer (again anonymously) of the “Pen Portraits of Prominent People” in the Siren. He wasn’t just amusing himself; lots of others found him amusing as well.

But the bio continues. After disarming his audience with humor, then he gets more serious:

“Was minister eight years, after two years’ experience as police reporter on two Ohio dailies. Also lectured sometimes at Chautaquas (does yet when hard up). Also wrote some magazine stuff of an ethico-homileticallian character.” Sermons, in other words.

He’s still tongue-in-cheek, but he’s also touting his resume. He’s vying for the job and being nonchalant at the same time. There’s more:

“Last church held was in Washington, D.C., within three blocks of White House, attended by several people identified by other characteristics than such attendance. Has personal acquaintance with two or three men whose names have appeared in newspapers from time to time. Was member of the National Press Club.”

He’s got an impressive record for one so young, and he’s not afraid to show it. But he’s still got that “no big deal” tone of voice. When he mentions the “two or three men whose names have appeared in newspapers from time to time,” he’s talking about Champ Clark, the Speaker of the House, and Charles Hillis, who was President William Howard Taft’s Special Assistant. He may also be throwing in Gifford Pinchot, the conservationist, who sent Douglas a letter of thanks after he said kind words about Pinchot in a sermon. At any rate, Douglas was letting the people of Ann Arbor know that he was well-connected, but that it was “no big deal.”

He continues:

“Came to Illinois as religious work director in 1911 at the instance of John R. Mott.” In other words, the top man in the YMCA personally invited him.

“At the expiration of three years for which he had contracted, the local board asked him to stay as general secretary plus R. W. D. [Religious Work Director] This association is thought to have the largest paid membership of any student YMCA in the world.

“Has participated in evangelistic campaigns at universities of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Iowa Ag., Penn State, and Michigan, besides many colleges.”

This bio appeared in the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper of the University of Michigan. Yes, he wrote it for students; but he also made sure he laid out his substantial credentials for anyone else who might be listening. The headline says it all: “SCA SPEAKER HIS OWN PRESS AGENT/L. C. Douglas Who Addresses Sunday’s Meeting Writes Own Publicity.”

He got the job. During his six years as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor (1915 to 1921), students packed the balcony, but professors and administrators were attracted to him, too. In fact, the church wasn’t big enough. They had to enlarge it.

I’ll tell you more about this very interesting congregation in my next post.

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