by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
In January 1908, Lloyd Douglas began a series of Sunday afternoon lectures designed specifically for men. The Lancaster Eagle reported him saying that “there are many men in the city who have nowhere to go on Sunday afternoon, and who would be glad to avail themselves of the opportunity to spend an hour hearing good music and a sermon-lecture of a popular nature.” If this seems unlikely, bear in mind that most public places were closed on Sundays, and this was the dead of winter. The Gazette added Douglas’s suggestion that there were some men “who may find it more convenient to attend a church service on Sunday afternoon than at the regular hours of service, and who might be more inclined to attend a men’s meeting than one designed for a mixed audience.” The day before the first meeting, the Eagle said that there would be a large male chorus led by “Prof. E. R. Barrington, the noted baritone of Columbus.”
To help spread the word about these meetings, Douglas had the following cards printed, which were handed out to men on the street. The first page was really a half-page, and the man to whom it was handed was invited to flip open the page:
Although it’s hard to believe that anyone would take the time to do this, apparently some men did, perhaps because they were intrigued. They stopped “within” (probably the church) and were given a flyer describing the upcoming meetings:
Then they went outside and handed the “Are You a Man?” card to the next male who passed by.
(This was just the kind of thing Douglas loved, by the way: one person not affiliated with the church handing an invitation to someone equally a stranger to the church. He used something similar years later in his novel, Green Light, when Dean Harcourt of Trinity Cathedral would have a counseling session with a woman who was not a churchgoer, then, on her way out, ask her to introduce the next person who had come for counseling.)
This passing-of-the-cards technique, although interesting, was not the primary way that Douglas got the word out; he also prepared a number of press releases in the days leading up to the meetings, and the local papers ran them. He doesn’t seem to have run any paid advertisements; he didn’t need to. The articles raised enough interest on their own.
When the first meeting was held on Sunday, January 5, 1908, at 3:15 pm at the First English Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Ohio, the Eagle reported it as “the largest assemblage of men ever seen in a Lancaster church edifice… beyond all expectations, the seating capacity of the church auditorium being overtaxed, even the gallery of the church which has not been occupied for many months had to be thrown open and was well filled… It was an inspiring sight to see such a large audience of intellectual men and thrilling to hear the songs as they were rendered by that multitude of male voices.” Another paper (presumably the Gazette) declared the event “a great success” and counted “about four hundred men in attendance.”
Douglas told the story of Esau and his brother Jacob from a man’s perspective. He called Jacob “a mama’s boy.”
“To me,” he said, “one of the most unfortunate mistakes parents can make in their attitude toward their children is to single out one or two and to treat them as favorites.
“I have heard it said many a time, and so have you:
“‘Yes, Jimmy is mama’s boy. Johnny and Billy and Annie and Susie all run after their father but Jimmy is mama’s boy, ain’t you Jimmy?’
“And Jimmy replies truthfully and awkwardly that the allegation is correct.”
“I see a future for Jimmy that is neither bright nor dim – just a sweet twilight. People will say of Jimmy to their own sons:
“‘See here, Thomas, why don’t you keep clean, and play in the house, and say “Yes, ma’am,” and “If you please” like Jimmy does?’
“And so all the boys will come to hate Jimmy…”
Jacob’s brother Esau, on the other hand, “was a born sportsman. As a boy he wandered the fields with his bow and knife. No tent for him. He belonged to the sunshine, and he meant to live in it.”
And with this down-to-earth introduction, Douglas told the story of Jacob cheating his brother out of his birthright. I can’t say I’ve ever heard the story told the way Douglas told it, but it must’ve held the attention of the four hundred men sitting shoulder-to-shoulder that day, for the following week one of the papers said that the church “lacked seating capacity for the large audience that attended,” and another paper reported “one hundred more” in attendance than the previous week.
His messages continued to defy prediction. From the story of Judas Iscariot, for example, he extracted the unusual question, “What do you think about when you’re alone?… What are you thinking about when you take that long walk by yourself out into the country and sit down on some hilltop to survey the landscape?” In reply to his own question, he said, “Show me a stenographic report of five minutes’ meditation up there, and I believe I can tell you what kind of a man you are.”
From the New Testament story of Ananias and Sapphira, he ended up talking about what happens when you let your insurance policy lapse, and then he used that as a metaphor to explain why he thought deathbed confessions were useless.
The fourth and final Sunday he preached on “The Failure of a Loan and Trust Company,” which turned out to be about the Parable of the Talents.
As one of the local papers remarked, “Men of every church in the city have united heartily in these meetings and there have been many men in attendance who have no regular church homes. Perhaps it has been the stirring music, perhaps the peculiar nature of the addresses, perhaps the mere novelty of a service distinctly for men – that has brought forth all this enthusiasm, but whatever it is, the audiences are so large that it has become quite a problem to accommodate them in the church…”
Another unusual feature of the series was the fact that each sermon was printed in full, a day or two later, by one of the local papers.
After the fourth week, as the newspapers noted, Douglas stopped the afternoon meetings but promised to continue the series “at the regular Sunday evening services to which everybody is invited. During the month of February he will deliver sermon-lectures on the theme, ‘Mistakes of Great Men,’ and it is safe to predict that the church will be filled at each service.”
The newspapers reported that he was, indeed, “greeted with a full house” the next Sunday evening, and later in the month “the church was crowded to its utmost capacity” for the evening service – this despite the fact that the United Churchmen’s League of Lancaster, using the momentum caused by Douglas’s afternoon meetings, held a series of its own afternoon lectures for men in the city hall auditorium throughout the month of February. Speakers from around the region (Columbus, Dayton) were invited, and attendance was good at those events, too.
What’s significant about this is that Douglas’s afternoon lectures raised enough interest to sustain not only his own evening services but also a continuation of the men’s meetings, even in his absence. But no one forgot the role he played in getting the men’s meetings started, and when he was invited back to give another lecture at the United Churchmen’s League a few weeks later, the minister who introduced him called him “the godfather” of the afternoon men’s meetings. (This means something very different in our day, thanks to Francis Ford Coppola. They weren’t comparing Douglas to a mafia boss; they were recognizing his important role in getting the meetings started.)
The United Churchman’s League meetings quickly became focused on civic and moral (rather than religious) issues, and when Douglas addressed them a few weeks later, he used the opportunity to push for a more systematic board of charities for the city. The newspaper accounts say that he was interrupted numerous times by applause, and when he asked, at the conclusion, how many would support the board of charities, they gave him a standing ovation.
All of this shows how highly Douglas was regarded in Lancaster by Spring 1908, but there is one more subtle display of admiration that he did not fail to miss. While the “Are You a Man?” card is pasted into the inside front cover of his 1908-1909 scrapbook, he gave the scrapbook a wonderful symmetry by pasting this advertisement to the inside back cover. It was from a local shoe store:
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