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Lloyd Douglas’s Views on God and the Bible

by Ronald R Johnson (

The Christian Faith that Lloyd Douglas taught his Akron congregation (1921-1926) was not the kind of thing you’d have found in most of the other churches in town. Here’s an example, from “Five Years of Akron,” in The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1955):

I have attempted to present an idea of Deity which portrays Him as a conscious kinetic energy, speaking to the world through all the media of His creation; not a parochial Jehovah, or Zeus, or Apollo, especially concerned with the welfare of any particular class of people at any particular time in history – but a Universal Father of all mankind.

And, because I have so believed, I have made no effort to disguise my opinion that every alleged quotation of God’s voice, reported in holy books (ours or any other’s) which reveals Him as a parochial God, or engaged in any thought or action not consonant with the thoughts and acts of a cosmic and universal God – is no more to be believed or credited, because written several thousand years ago by some pious shepherd, than if it were to have been written yesterday afternoon on some preacher’s typewriter.

This, of course, meant that he was not committed to the infallibility of Holy Writ:

I have taught that the Bible is a library of impressions which certain men have had concerning Deity and their relation to Him. I have not believed these men to have been invariably inspired or supernally endowed with wisdom from on high.

You might assume, then, that he didn’t value the Bible, but he actually did. He took it very seriously. And because he did, he assumed that we could experience God and learn from God today, in our own way:

I have taught that Livingstone knew more about God than Jeremiah; that Pasteur had discovered more divine secrets than Joshua; that Faraday had been at closer grips with the Creator than Solomon; that Phillips Brooks knew as much about the real spirit of Christ as did Paul of Tarsus. I have tried to get religion into the present time. I have wanted you to hear and see God at work in contemporaneous life.

Notice how he appeals to the history of science. From 1920 onwards, Douglas routinely held up scientists as examples of how to seek the truth. Here he mentions David Livingstone (the Scottish physician, Congregationalist, and Christian missionary), Louis Pasteur (the French chemist and microbiologist who gave us the process of pasteurization, along with a lot of other things), and Michael Faraday (the English scientist who discovered the basic principles of electricity). While some may chafe at the invidious comparison he makes between these historical figures and certain biblical characters, what he’s saying is literally true: Livingstone had the whole Bible available to him, as well as two thousand years of church history, and therefore should have known more about God than Jeremiah did; we all should. Pasteur certainly “discovered more divine secrets than Joshua,” whose strength wasn’t in probing the Divine Mind, after all. Faraday was “at closer grips with the Creator than Solomon,” who, at any rate, wasn’t among the Bible’s greatest exemplars.

But we are especially challenged by Douglas’s last comparison: Phillips Brooks was an Episcopalian Bishop, best known as the Rector of Trinity Church in Boston. Those who knew him said he was a great man. But in what sense did he know “as much about the real spirit of Christ as did Paul of Tarsus”? It all comes down to this: “I have tried to get religion into the present time. I have wanted you to hear and see God in contemporaneous life.” That’s the point: not to place biblical characters far above us and, by so doing, disqualify ourselves from participation in the life they exemplified; but to present the gospel as a going concern here and now.

Which leads us to the question, “What did Douglas teach about Christ?” I’ll share that with you in the next post.

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