by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
When Dr. Butler, the founding pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC, died suddenly in the summer of 1909, the church council moved quickly to fill his place, and they invited Lloyd Douglas to come and preach. Although this was not something Douglas had ever thought would happen, it was his earlier networking that made it possible. The Rev. Dr. D. Frank Garland, of Dayton, Ohio, was good friends with Dr. Butler, and he was one of the speakers at Butler’s memorial service. Before they could even pursue the matter, he told the church’s leaders that he wasn’t interested in the position, and he recommended Douglas instead.
Garland was synod president in 1905 when Douglas took over as pastor of the First English Lutheran Church of Lancaster, Ohio, and he was the guest speaker at Douglas’s installation service. On at least one occasion, he and Douglas swapped pulpits (February 1909). He told the church council at Luther Place that they should hear Douglas preach.
On Sunday, August 22, they did. The sanctuary was draped in black, and the mood was somber. In many people’s minds, Dr. Butler and Luther Place Memorial Church were one and the same. Most clergymen would have been intimidated to stand in Dr. Butler’s pulpit less than three weeks after his death and presume to take his place. But Douglas had the instincts of a mature pastor. He spoke to the congregation’s immediate need and tried to lift their sights higher – to the name above all names, the Founder not of Luther Place but of Christianity itself.
“I can well believe that at a time like this,” he told them, “when the interlacing bonds and knotted loves of years have been torn up, your thoughts are likely to linger today very near the late event which has brought you so much pain. You are in no mood for didactics. You are in bereavement – thinking seriously upon life and death and all that great forever. I therefore ask you to engage in meditation upon the most singular death which has ever occurred since the world was – the death of Jesus Christ.”
Dr. Butler had been a fighter, and Douglas confronted that fact head-on. “However holy may be every day and every hour because of critical contests, stirring victories, hard-won battles, battles of blood, and battles of brain, and battles of conscience, and battles of soul – every man must reverently lay aside the petty worships of great human events when Calvary is spoken, and admit that this tragedy, marked by the trampled loam on Golgotha’s heights, is the supreme fact of history.
“Men may dispute over the relative superiorities of epoch-making days as to their bearing on the world’s life, but they will all yield, in common reverence and awe, to the day He died.”
Great heroes of the Christian faith could be named – Luther, Calvin, Knox, Huss, Savanarola – and yet the life and death of Jesus outshined them all. And though he didn’t say it outright, the congregation knew what Douglas meant: that the name of Jesus outshined that of Dr. Butler, too. And Lloyd C Douglas. And everyone sitting there. So in Jesus’ name, it was time to take down the drapes of mourning and continue the work that Christ had called them to do.
It was a masterful sermon, and it took more courage and wisdom than might have been expected from a man only six years out of seminary. But Douglas had a lot more experience with churches than his resume indicated. His father had been a minister during his retirement years (he had been a judge and a school superintendent before that), and Lloyd was the child of his old age. Even as a boy, Lloyd Douglas had tagged along with his father, A. J. Douglas, and helped him at funerals, weddings, and sermons all around the Indiana countryside. From an early age, he had been groomed for the ministry. And in this moment of desperate need at Luther Place, Douglas’s preparation showed.
It was a daring, risky thing, speaking to that congregation the way he did. It could’ve backfired. But these were good people. They were able to accept the message he brought them. And very soon after this, they called him to be their new pastor.
[The two main sources of information about Douglas’s sermon are a short article in the Washington Times, Sunday, August 22, 1909, and a longer one in the Washington Post, Monday, August 23, 1909.]
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