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Shailer Mathews

by Ronald R Johnson (

Shailer Mathews

Sometime while the Douglases were living in Washington, DC, they attended a series of lectures by Shailer Mathews, Dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

I have been unable to pinpoint where or when they heard him speak. It could have been anywhere in the vicinity, including New York City, and it could have been anytime between Fall 1909 and Summer 1911. Besides his duties at the university, Mathews traveled around the country explaining the new principles of biblical scholarship to the general public. In his autobiography, he says he gave more than 150 speeches all over the US in the years immediately after 1896 (Shailer Mathews, New Faith for Old: An Autobiography (NY: Macmillan, 1936), p. 83.) In these lectures, he pulled no punches. He told the public about the scholarly work being done on the Bible, much of which was difficult for laypeople to hear because it cast into doubt many of the old beliefs about how the biblical books were compiled. (For example: the assertion that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John were not actually written by the biblical characters Matthew, Mark, and John, nor were the first five books of the Old Testament written by Moses.)

We don’t know when Lloyd and Besse heard Mathews speak. This much we know: his lectures changed Douglas’s life. The point at issue, however, is precisely how Douglas’s life changed.

In their book about their father, Douglas’s daughters tell us this about Lloyd and Besse’s experience while living in Washington, DC:

From every direction new and revolutionary ideas rushed at them, rocking the solid beliefs they had never dreamed of questioning. They began to read books and articles of churchmen who were openly criticizing the old theories of religion. They found themselves in sympathy with the new protest against tradition. Not only was religion being held up and examined for mothholes, but in Washington they discovered that all the traditions of American life were undergoing a great change in which only a few scandalizing rumors had ever penetrated the old walls behind which they had been raised.

Together they attended a series of lectures given by Shailer Mathews, an exponent of religious modernism, which left them in a most distressed state of mind. They recognized the reasonableness and were forced to agree with the attack upon the old conceptions, but they heard nothing satisfying which they could grasp to fill the void.

“Daddy became very unsettled in his thinking while we were in Washington,” Mother told us.

She found comfort on one subject at least. Dr. Holt’s book The Care and Feeding of Children, had been a treasure of information to replace her shockingly old-fashioned ideas on child care. “Sometimes I used to wish we could find a book so sane and satisfying on the Care and Feeding of Faith.”

Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C Douglas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952), p. 68.

I read this book years before I first arrived at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, where Douglas’s private papers are kept. When I began researching his papers, this was my working thesis: that Douglas had undergone a crisis of faith after attending the Mathews lectures, and that was why he left the Lutheran ministry. To my surprise, however, I could find nothing to corroborate Besse’s description of his mental state after hearing Mathews’ lectures. Eventually I found it necessary to modify that thesis, based on my own research.

I realize that no one was closer to Douglas than his wife, but I have come to believe that her testimony reflects her own reaction much more than it does her husband’s. For a number of reasons, I do not believe that Douglas suffered a profound crisis of faith after hearing Mathews speak. The lecture series did change his life, but not exactly in the way that his daughters claim it did.

There are a couple of very basic facts I need to tell you about Lloyd Douglas before I continue. First, he kept no diaries. Everything we know about his inner state (his thoughts and feelings), we have from his writings. I don’t just mean his published writings; his letters to friends and family are so extremely candid that I’m sure he’d be embarrassed if he knew that they are now available for anyone to read. The unfortunate thing is that, in his letters, Douglas is usually humorous. Whatever his spiritual experiences may have been from day to day, he didn’t express them to other people. And since he didn’t keep diaries, that means we know almost nothing about his inner life.

I can find only one time he ever tried to start a diary, and he only did it for a day or two before he gave up. It was during his first trip (with Besse) to Europe in the 1920s. Why did he give up? Because at the end of each day of exploring, he was so busy writing letters home to his daughters that he didn’t have time to write in his diary. However, in those few pages we get a glimpse of him that we get nowhere else. He tried to describe how he felt pushing off to sea. This was a voyage he had dreamed about for most of his life, and when the moment came, it was mystical. In his letters to his daughters, he never mentioned this. His letters are filled with humor; they contain no hints of any mystical experience. And since those few pages comprise the only diary he ever wrote (as far as I can tell), I can only surmise that we will never know what his spiritual life was really like.

The second basic fact we need to realize about him is that he did most of his thinking at the typewriter. When he was perplexed, he worked it out by hammering away at the keyboard. Then he pulled what he had written out of his typewriter and either presented it from the pulpit (if it was a sermon) or sent it off to an editor (if it was a magazine article), or put it in an envelope and sent it as a letter to a friend. Although his spiritual life is mostly hidden from us, his intellectual life was extremely well-documented. We can trace his thinking by reading his sermons and speeches, his magazine articles, and his correspondence. And when I do that, I find a direct line of thought, uninterrupted by any crisis of faith. He did lose faith in his denomination, but not in God.

The Shailer Mathews lectures seem to have stimulated his thinking rather than troubling him. Douglas already knew the biblical problems that Mathews raised (for example, discrepancies in the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection among the four gospels). Douglas himself had mentioned those same biblical problems in some of his earliest magazine articles during his first couple of years in the ministry, and even in those early articles, he was already pointing in the direction that his thought would go later on. Nowhere do I see him faltering, either during his pastorate in Washington or during his years with the YMCA. Douglas didn’t have a faith crisis, but Shailer Mathews did challenge him to do some serious rethinking. And in order to do so, he knew he needed to get out of his role as a pastor, especially within the Lutheran Church.

He wrote these words in his last article for the Lutheran Observer, just after leaving Washington:

“I used to think that if I could just get out of the active pastorate for a week or two and hie myself away where I wouldn’t need care very much whether my constituency understood my motives or not, and take careful aim and bang away at two or three things that everybody knows need to be ventilated, what a glorious, albeit smellful, event it would be.

“From this safe angle then I modestly pull the trigger, fondly hoping that all who are in the vicinity of the target will promptly squeal in order that we may be able to check up on the efficiency of our marksmanship.”

These were not the words of a man who was “very unsettled in his thinking,” and certainly not one who was “in a most distressed state of mind.” These words evinced a deep confidence in his own ability to formulate a better theology if he could cut loose from the social obligations that were tying him down. That’s why he accepted the position with the YMCA: because he wanted to start over, rethinking his entire theology without having any denominational restrictions placed on him, and without having to answer to his parishioners.

But Douglas had another huge takeaway from Shailer Mathews’ lectures that no one has ever mentioned. I’ll tell you about that in my next blog post.

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