What Douglas Wanted Most

by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)

Sometime while he was pastor at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC (between Fall 1909 and Summer 1911), Lloyd Douglas preached a sermon that must have puzzled his parishioners (Lloyd C Douglas, The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955), pp. 14-21).

He claimed that the local congregation was like the Bethesda Pool in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John. Paralyzed people gathered on porches around the pool because it was rumored that an angel sometimes stirred up the waters, giving them momentary healing powers; the first to wade in would be made whole. Of course, those most in need were never able to reach the water first. “Some of our churches are like that Pool of Bethesda,” he argued. “They are handsomely equipped…. But there seems to be such a noticeable lack of provision for bringing in just the people who are in such obvious need of its curative agencies.”

It was not enough for the churches to welcome visitors, he said. There had to be a way to get the gospel out to people rather than just trying to bring them in. The members of Luther Place Memorial Church must have wondered what Douglas was talking about, because Douglas’s predecessor, Dr. J.G. Butler, had been very effective at reaching out to the larger community, not only by being chaplain of both the House and the Senate, but also by mentoring young black men who were called to ministry. The church even had a health clinic run by one of Butler’s sons, who was a doctor. So why was Douglas saying that the church needed to find a way to get its “curative agencies” out to the people who needed it most?

Because Douglas wasn’t talking about social programs. He was talking about accessing the power of God and putting it to work in our lives, and he was saying that the church had not yet found a way to get this access out to the people who would never come to church. For him, the gospel was not so much about church attendance as about harnessing divine energies to make the world a better place. The mission of the church was to get that power into people’s hands – even people who did not attend church. In his sermon on the Bethesda Pool, he said that, if he knew how to accomplish this, then “by next week I would be figuring in headlines an inch high in a thousand metropolitan papers.” Although this was an expression of youthful hyperbole, it shows just how important this issue was to Douglas. He wanted to articulate a gospel that would have practical effects in everyday life, and he insisted on taking that message to the larger public.

Although no one who heard that sermon probably realized it, he was telling them the thing he wanted to accomplish above all else. And the missing puzzle piece was this: he wanted to reach people outside the church through his writing.

Although his parents groomed him for the ministry from a young age, he seems to have sensed an even deeper calling to be a writer. Nor did he just want to publish sermons and religious essays. For as far back as his scrapbooks take us, he was kicking around the idea of writing something for the mass reading public, and what he had in mind was fiction. In his letters to friends and family, he made light of this aspiration, calling himself “a scribbler” and speaking as though his passion for writing were an addiction.

In a letter to his cousin Edith Kirkwood in 1910 (while he was pastor at Luther Place), he said, “Lately I have revived an old slumbering passion for writing yarns. Not long ago I sold a small ornament off my desk to Eddie Bok [an editor] and the sight of that check, with its beautiful corrugated edges – albeit it was not for more than two figures – started up my old trouble; and the gnawing at my vitals… has compelled me to scribble some more. God help the preacher who isn’t content to stick to his parish duties!… I have a lot of old mummies in my ecclesiastical museum who would feel that Hell had opened up its maw (and its paw, for that matter) to embrace me, were the news to out that I had disgraced the profesh and besmirched the cloth by writing fiction. I shall spare them the discomfort by seeing to it that nobody finds out. I am now on the hunt for a satisfactory nom-de-plume…” (Quoted in Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C Douglas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952), p. 66.)

In 1910 he was willing to keep his fiction writing a secret by using a pen name, but a year later, when the YMCA offered him a job and a chance to say “Good riddance” to the “old mummies,” that seemed like a better plan. As it turned out, he didn’t tell his employers at the Y that he was writing fiction, either, but that was all right; his fiction wasn’t good enough to display yet. At this phase in his life, he had a lot to learn about the craft of writing fiction. The point is this: his devotion to “scribbling” went so deep, he couldn’t beat the addiction, even though he felt guilty about indulging in it while being a man of the cloth. But deep down, he always believed he was going to make it as a writer. It may seem like a small thing, but take a look at the opening page of his very first scrapbook in 1903.

That’s more than a signature; if I’m not mistaken, he was practicing his autograph – the same one he used years later to sign copies of his bestselling novels. Here’s a signed copy of the inside page of Forgive Us Our Trespasses, published almost thirty years later, in 1932. It is practically identical:

Lloyd Douglas the Author was always there in germinal form, even while he was working so hard to establish himself as a minister. And he obviously felt those two things were incompatible, at least in the minds of some of his parishioners.

Over the past several blog posts, I’ve addressed the question, “Why did Douglas resign his important post at Luther Place Memorial Church to work for the YMCA?” So far I’ve answered this question in bits and pieces, but now I’m ready to pull it all together into a coherent explanation.

Douglas resigned for many reasons, most of which he kept concealed. He wanted to go back to school and get the kind of education he could only get from a state university. At that institution, he wanted to rethink his theology and align it with the latest, most up-to-date information available. Pursuant to this goal, he wanted to leave the Lutheran Church and start fresh with some other denomination. And he wanted to do all this not only so that he could preach again, but – more importantly – because he wanted to write something… probably fiction. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. If anyone had asked him in 1911, he would have been incapable of telling them what he had in mind. But he did have something in mind, and he sensed that he would never bring it to full expression unless he could shed his current social limitations and start over.

And that’s why Lloyd C Douglas moved his family west to Champaign, Illinois in the Fall of 1911. He had great hopes. But he was taking a tremendous risk.

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

The Family Drudge

by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)

Quotable Quotes from Lloyd C. Douglas

From Invitation to Live, chapter 4.

Dean Harcourt of Trinity Cathedral is commiserating with young Katharine Drake on the misfortune of becoming ‘the family drudge.’

‘In many a home,’ the Dean was saying, ‘some one member of the family carries the whole load; serves as the official clock-watcher, tells them when it is time to get up, when it is time to start if we are to catch the 8:19 car; serves as the official calendar, telling them that next Tuesday is Emma’s birthday, and we mustn’t forget that the Chester wedding is on the nineteenth; serves as the official errand-boy, whose duty it is to turn the night-latch on the door, put out the porch-light, check the furnace, call the cat, and drape a towel over the birdcage. Nobody knows or cares how you happened to be appointed to these thankless positions; but, once you’re recognized as the incumbent, there’ll be no other nominations as long as you live…

‘Sometimes people come to talk with me about the flatness and staleness of their lives, and how difficult it is for them to achieve happiness; and mostly it turns out that they have been harried by just such trifling cares. It wasn’t the costly renunciations that wore them down. It wasn’t the big sacrifices that made them unhappy. It was the aggregate of all the small things they were expected to do. It may not be much of a care to cover the canary every night; but you’ll find that the same person who covers the canary rebaits the mousetrap, tightens the tap that someone left running in the kitchen, puts the half-filled milk bottle back into the refrigerator, and closes the window in the pantry. The official bird-cover-up-er is the same person who tells Grandma it is time for her pill, and Father that he has a loose button on his overcoat. I maintain that whenever one member of the household discovers that he has been appointed – for life – as the family drudge, he should resign without delay, for the sake of the whole tribe.’

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

Douglas’s Long Road to Fame

by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)

Lloyd C. Douglas self-published his first book-length work of fiction in 1905, but it took almost thirty years for him to become known as an author of fiction. Through all the intervening years, he produced a steady stream of non-fiction articles, books, and booklets, as well as writing morning and evening sermons each Sunday and speeches during the week. (Douglas always wrote out his sermons and speeches even though he delivered them as if they were extemporaneous.)

That first work of fiction was More Than a Prophet, and it was unlike anything else he ever published. The book abounded in dialogues between angelic beings, and it was more of a prose poem than a novel. (And yes, Douglas wrote poetry as well as prose.) He borrowed the money to self-publish it, but few people were interested in buying it and it took him years to pay back the money he borrowed. Since Douglas was the kind of man who always preferred to be on the giving rather than the receiving end of loans and gifts, the failure of More Than a Prophet was deeply humiliating to him. He is often quoted as saying that More Than a Prophet was “less than a profit.”

But while the book was gathering dust, Douglas was making a name for himself as a frequent contributor to the Lutheran Observer. His articles on biblical subjects were thought-provoking, down-to-earth, and eloquent. Mostly because of the reputation he had earned through his writing, Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC, made him their Senior Pastor in 1909, although he had only been an ordained minister for six years.

From DC he went to Champaign-Urbana and headed the religious side of the YMCA on the campus of the University of Illinois. While there, he wrote a weekly column in the campus newspaper, as well as some features in a monthly magazine. Next he moved to the University of Michigan, and as Senior Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, he wrote articles for the North American StudentThe Congregationalist, and other periodicals. He also self-published a new Advent booklet each Christmas season, exploring different aspects of the Christmas story.

In the summer of 1920 his writing career advanced considerably when he entered a writing contest sponsored by the Christian Century and was chosen as one of the semi-finalists. Although he won second place, the editor of the Century, Charles Clayton Morrison, liked Douglas’s writing and asked him to contribute another article. Douglas responded by sending not one but a series of articles on what we would now consider “church growth.” The series was provocative, and when it was finished, Christian Century Press published a book-length version of it under the title, Wanted: A Congregation. (The articles were non-fiction, but the book version presented the same material as a set of dialogues among a cast of characters.)

Not only did Douglas continue on as a frequent contributor to the Century throughout the 1920s, but he now became known as an author of non-fiction books about the ministry and/or about Christian faith: The Minister’s Everyday Life, These Sayings of Mine, and Those Disturbing Miracles. During these same years he submitted several articles to the Atlantic Monthly that were published without a by-line.

But Douglas had always wanted to write a novel, and in the late 1920s he did so. It was turned down by two publishing houses (one of which had published his non-fiction before), but was accepted by Willett, Clark, and Colby in 1929. Magnificent Obsession took a few years to catch on, but when it did, it made Douglas a household name, and his subsequent novels dominated the bestseller lists throughout the 1930s and 40s.

Headlines proclaimed him a novelist who didn’t start until he was 50 years old, but that’s inaccurate. He was always at his typewriter, from very early in life, tapping away. The volume of his published work is impressive, considering the fact that he was a full-time minister until after his second bestselling novel, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, was published. But what is most impressive is the fact that he didn’t quit, even though he felt the pain of More Than a Prophet every time he moved from one locale to another and had to carry all those boxes of unread books with him, storing them in the attic each time.

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

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