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A Twentieth-Century Gospel for “a Hick Town”

by Ronald R Johnson (

This is the publicity photo that Douglas used during his years in Akron. See Burton Funeral Scrapbook, Box 5, Lloyd C Douglas Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

I mentioned last time that Lloyd Douglas made headlines frequently while he was pastor of the First Congregational Church of Akron, mostly for controversial statements he made during his Sunday evening Q-and-A sessions at the church. Some of those remarks (such as his lack of support for the Soldier’s Bonus or his disgust with the KKK) prompted long and angry discussions in the Letters to the Editors (besides earning Douglas a lot of angry mail himself).

Here’s another one: speaking at a luncheon club, he told the astonished listeners that Akron was “a hick town.” Culturally and religiously, it was behind the times, he claimed. These words were reported in the papers, and another round of angry letters began.

But it was just this kind of thing that the journalists respected about Douglas: he spoke his mind fearlessly, especially on religious matters. Here’s a sample of the kinds of things he said on Sunday morning from the pulpit:

I have not encouraged you to worry over all the implications involved in the ancient doctrine of the atonement. I couldn’t see how as great a God as God would inevitably have to be, to create and operate the universe, would get himself entangled in a situation demanding that His son be killed in order that His own integrity might be conserved. I felt that a God so short-sighted as to get Himself into a fix like that would be hardly stable enough to see us through to the end of the trip.

I have told you that this conventional view of the atonement – in which the death of Christ became necessary to justify the parole of Adam – was unwarranted because there was no adequate basis for the Adam story. My grandfather believed in that Adam story. He also believed that the horse-chestnut which he carried in his pocket would keep off rheumatism. He was a good man, too. But he included in his creed a lot of things I cannot possibly believe…

Lloyd C Douglas, “Five Years of Akron,” p. 90. In The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1955).

Even now, 100 years later, a pastor must be careful about saying such things out loud, even if he believes them privately. But Douglas didn’t come to Akron to play it safe; he came to bring them a gospel fit for the twentieth century. Over the next several posts, I’ll tell you what his message consisted of. For it was in Akron that Douglas began to articulate the ideas for which he is now remembered.

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

Lloyd C Douglas and the Akron Newspapers

by Ronald R Johnson (

As always, when Douglas arrived in Akron, he connected immediately with the editors of the local papers. It was like Washington, DC, all over again: he became the darling of the local press. But Akron was not Washington; it was a small town that had become a city overnight (due to the tire industry), and was now in the grips of an economic depression. Douglas was a fresh, prophetic voice for such a time. The papers hung on his every word, even when they disagreed with him.

There were three Akron newspapers (The Beacon Journal, The Times, and The Press), but other papers in the region also took notice of him. He appeared occasionally in the Toledo Times and was often in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The local Rotary Club also had a newsletter called The Akrotarian, and since Douglas was a member of the club, he figured prominently in its pages, as well.

After his first year in town, Douglas introduced the idea of answering pre-submitted questions at the Sunday evening service, mostly so that he could concentrate all his energies on the morning sermon. But the Sunday evening Q-and-A’s were reported in the local papers and made Douglas the talk of the town.

He expressed his opinions on a number of hot topics:

The Ku Klux Klan: He not only criticized them but made fun of them. When a police officer pulled him over for speeding and realized who he was, the officer thanked him for all that he was doing to squash the Klan and sent him on his way without a ticket. But there were lots of other people who were angry at his remarks. His wife, Besse, worried that the parsonage would be bombed.

Chiropracters: As I’ve already mentioned, Douglas was an enthusiastic fan of modern medical practice, and he fought hard against people’s tendency to accept medical advice from the untrained. He was especially vocal about “the quackery of chiroprackery.”

Blue Laws: The other churches in town wanted to limit what people could do on Sundays. They were especially against moviegoing. Douglas took the unusual stance of opposing blue laws. (Unusual for a minister, that is.) He said that this was the kind of thing that turned people against Christianity. Newspapers all over the region reported his remarks.

Soldier’s Bonus: Decades before the GI Bill, Congress tried to pass a Soldier’s Bonus for veterans of WWI. Douglas mentioned, in an offhand way, that, given the current state of the economy (this was the depression before the Great Depression), he couldn’t support the idea of a Soldier’s Bonus. He felt it would be better to bolster the economy and give veterans jobs rather than make them dependent on the government. He received a lot of angry mail, besides all the talk in the Letters to the Editors. To clear things up, he gave a speech before an audience of veterans at the local American Legion post and explained his stance. There isn’t any indication that he changed people’s minds, but at least one letter from a veteran stated that they respected Douglas for all that he was doing to help the unemployed. (And he actually was doing something. He had accepted Mayor Carl Beck’s invitation to chair the city’s Unemployment Committee, which looked into ways to overcome unemployment. The letter to the editor claimed that he was also known to have contributed time and money into helping individuals find jobs. That’s a somewhat mysterious reference, but very much in line with his belief in investing in others.)

In all these cases (and others besides), it’s clear that local journalists respected Douglas even when they disagreed with them. Here’s my favorite example. In one of his Sunday-night speeches, Douglas claimed that the AP and other wire services were dominated by wealthy individuals who controlled what the newspapers would publish. “It may be that some of this lecture will be printed by the Akron papers,” Douglas said, “but this part of it will not.”

The Akron Times printed it, along with this headline: “Here It Is, Doctor, Even Tho It’s Bunk.”

I’ll tell you more about Douglas’s ministry in Akron in my next post.

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

Rubber City

by Ronald R Johnson (

When Lloyd Douglas began his ministry at the First Congregational Church of Akron in the fall of 1921, he viewed it as a chance to share all that he had learned during his time at the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan. As he explained later, “I came to you from an experience of about ten years, spent upon the campuses of two great universities, where I daily faced the new problem of a readjustment in religious thought, to make it consonant with the more recent disclosures of the philosophical and scientific world” (Lloyd C Douglas, “Five Years of Akron,” in The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1955), p. 80.)

During those years, he had been in university towns, but now he was in a city – “Rubber City,” they called it, due to the predominance of the big tire companies like Goodyear and Firestone – and he was putting his ideas into practice out in the world.

If this was ever used as an advertisement in the local paper or as a pamphlet, I’ve been unable to find a clipping of it. But this photograph is pasted into the last page of Douglas’s 1920-1923 scrapbook. The First Congregational Church of Akron is in the upper right corner of the picture. From Box 5, Lloyd C Douglas Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

The first thing he focused on was worship. Not preaching, but worship.

In his inaugural sermon at the First Congregational Church of Akron on September 18, 1921, Douglas said, “The church is failing in America because it has failed to carry out its true mission…. The church may do philanthropic and social work, but its first duty is to be a house of worship, and when it fails in this it cannot expect the veneration to which it should be entitled” (“SCORES CHURCH/New Akron Pastor Flays Modern Worship,” Akron Press, n.d., 1920-1923 Scrapbook, Box 5, Lloyd C Douglas Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan).

Over the past several years, Douglas had already established an order of worship that the people in Ann Arbor said was “probably unsurpassed elsewhere.” (This was from a resolution the congregation’s leaders drew up in 1921, accepting his resignation and thanking him for his ministry. Quoted on p. 63 of Calvin O. Davis, A History of the Congregational Church in Ann Arbor, 1847-1947, which was reprinted in A History of the First Congregational Church in Ann Arbor, 1847-1976 (Ann Arbor: First Congregational Church, n. d. [1976?]).

His services were heavily dependent on music. It was a source of great irritation to him that people would talk over the organ prelude. As he told his new congregation, “During the organ prelude in a church recently I learned the recipe for plum jelly, that a certain oil stock was a good buy, that there was to be a bargain sale at a local department store, and that the road to another city was in bad shape on account of the concrete cracking” (from “SCORES CHURCH” cited above).

He thought the church auditorium should be a true sanctuary where people would leave their worldly cares at the door and come into the presence of The Great Mystery. “The LORD is in His Holy Temple,” begins the Order of Worship from his first Sunday in Akron; “let all the earth keep silence before Him.” In Ann Arbor, Douglas had enforced that: ushers were to close the doors as soon as the organ prelude began and not open them again until later in the service. He was so adamant about this that it ruffled a few of his parishioners’ feathers, but he was striving to make the church a place where people could actually come with the expectation of meeting God.

The prelude should begin softly, Douglas felt, to counteract the rat-a-tat-tat of machinery that had assaulted worshipers’ ears for the past six days. It should calm the soul and prepare it for communion with the divine. Then, through subtle use of dynamics and ascending chords, it should end triumphantly in the exact key of the opening hymn and launch into that hymn immediately, so that worshipers would rise and sing without being prompted. Douglas hated how the typical Protestant minister could spoil the whole thing by announcing, “Beloved, shall we not rise and sing Hymn 321? That’s 321, and you’ll find it in the hymnal on the pew in front of you. Hymn 321.”

As Douglas said to an audience of fellow ministers and lay-workers:

Many a sensitive man would greatly prefer to take a book of essays with him to a shady bend in the river on Sunday morning than attend our church; whereas his whole soul cries out for a much closer contact with the divine than he can achieve by his communion with nature. But – it is a great deal better for that man’s spiritual welfare that he should go out Sunday morning and watch the river than to go to some church where the music is so ugly it positively frightens [him] and the preacher talks to the Great Unseen as if he were chaffing with his next-door neighbor over the back fence.

Lloyd C Douglas, “Making Worship Worshipful,” Christian Century, September 9, 1920, pp. 14-17.

What Douglas was trying to achieve can best be understood through his description of the exact opposite:

There wasn’t a single feature of that ‘service of worship’ calculated to quicken a man’s respiration, or grip his throat, or stir his pulse! What little of solemn ritual there was in it possessed no current, no rapids, no eddies, no sudden unexpected plunges over huge ledges into unfathomably deep pools, no sharp turns revealing startlingly beautiful vistas ahead – no! – but just ambled lazily along on a level like the sleepy Yanktse Kiang, for five hundred miles without a ripple. It reached no dramatic climaxes; pointed to no definite goal; never poured its flood into the deep sea. It spread out over the sands, and disappeared.

Lloyd C Douglas, Wanted: A Congregation (Chicago: Christian Century Press, 1920), p. 195.

At the movies, Douglas said – and he was talking about silent movies, remember, for this was 1921 – at the movies “there were certain tense moments when people stopped breathing and sat transfixed,” but at church…

…where the issue involved was the attempted establishment of actual, vital relationship with the Absolute – the invocation of His Presence at whose word light had dispelled the darkness, by whose divine fiat the worlds had appeared in space, by whose supernal genius His creatures had been endowed with a consciousness of their own immortality – this solemn and mysterious function was performed drowsily, calmly, with an air of tedium, boredom, and distaste.

Ibid., pp. 194-195.

Lloyd Douglas was the new minister in Rubber City. His first order of business was to stir people’s pulses… and invite them out into the deep sea.

To be continued…

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