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.
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