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Just Your Common, Ordinary Farm Family Hosting the Ark of the Covenant

by Ronald R Johnson (

Previously, I told you that Lloyd Douglas was unable to “pull it all together” in his book, These Sayings of Mine, because he was still approaching the gospel like a minister. I said, “He needed more practice thinking about the everyday lives of regular people. And he got it… in some unexpected ways.” In my last post, I told you about one of those ways: through the Grand Tour of Europe that he took with his wife Bess in 1925. Here’s another unexpected way.

In 1927 he came out with another book entitled, Those Disturbing Miracles (New York: Harper, 1927). It was meant as a companion piece to These Sayings of Mine. In These Sayings, he had claimed that we don’t pay enough attention to the things Jesus said, and instead we linger over the miraculous element of his ministry. In Those Disturbing Miracles, he went a step farther, suggesting rational explanations for some of the wonders recorded in the Bible.

But that’s not what I want to point out to you in this post. I want to tell you about chapter 3 of that book: “A Chest of Relics.” It was the story of the House of Obed-edom, from I Chronicles 13:9-14. (The same story can also be found in II Samuel 6:6-11.)

David was bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem where it belonged, and he did it in style, leading a procession with music; but because he didn’t obey the Law of Moses and have the Levites carry the Ark on poles, it almost fell off its cart and a nearby attendant was struck dead for touching it. (Even if you aren’t familiar with the Bible, you should expect that if you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

Douglas says (rightly) that the death of that attendant gets so much of our attention that we skip over what happens next. Unwilling to risk any more casualties, David commanded that the Ark be kept at the nearest house until the Law could be consulted; he would come back for it once he knew it was safe to do so. In the meantime, the people in the nearest house would have to deal with it. Douglas writes, “At this point our imagination takes us by the sleeve and leads us up the road to inspect the home of the Obed-edom family” (p. 47).

Douglas loved this story. From his earliest years as a minister in Manchester, Indiana, it’s listed as a sermon topic, and then again in other congregations after that. And the reason is simple: because he could see the story possibilities in it. All that the Bible tells us is that God blessed the home of the Obed-edom family while the Ark was with them; it doesn’t tell us how. So Douglas’s vivid imagination “took him by the sleeve.”

In this 1927 version, published for a general audience, he took the opportunity to imagine a real family – a poor farm family in 1927 – and how they would react to the kind of thing the Bible describes. “So the Obed-edoms stood, open-eyed and open-mouthed, watching the golden chest go through their front doorway…. [T]he procession was reorganized quietly; a word of command was given; the pilgrimage was in motion… slowly disappeared over the shoulder of the hill, and the stunned family was alone with the Thing!” (p. 49).

In Douglas’s version of the story, the family sleeps in the barn that night. The next morning, Father and the boys go out to the fields to work, and Father tells Mother and the girls, “Stay away from that thing!” But they don’t. Mother goes into the living room and is in awe of the Ark’s beauty. Then she looks around at the rest of the room and is ashamed to have something so wonderful sitting in the middle of a mess. So she cleans the room, and she sends her daughters out to the yard for some flowers to help beautify the place.

When the men come home for lunch, Father is horrified to learn that the girls have been working around the Ark. He peeks in, sees what they’ve done, and admits that it’s an improvement, but points out cobwebs in the corner. Mother says she couldn’t reach them and she asks him to do it.

Father climbs a ladder and cleans the wall. Then he and the boys decide to put a fresh coat of paint on the walls in that room; but now all the other rooms look bad by comparison, so they keep going and paint the rest of the house, inside and out, and fix the broken chimney. Now the yard doesn’t match, so they tear down the rickety fence and plant a garden. They repair their tools, which not only improves their work in the fields but also allows them to build the girls two new looms, with which the girls make themselves better clothes.

Now the thrilling quest of beauty began to affect the inner character of the Obed-edoms. Where, hitherto, their voices had been shrill and petulant at breakfast, it was easy to detect a general mellowness of tone in the presence of this contagious ideal. The Obed-edoms took on a new culture. Their entire attitude toward one another was transformed. They began to prosper materially. And it was not long until the neighbors were spreading the report that a miracle had been wrought in the house of Obed-edom because the Ark of the Covenant was there. It was true. The Ark had performed a miracle – exactly such a miracle as may be effected in any home or any heart where a beautiful ideal enters, driving out all the ugliness and meanness just by the fact of its presence.

Those Disturbing Miracles, p. 53.

Douglas gives the moral of the story:

Now, anybody who wants to take his Chronicles straight is fully entitled to believe that in some mysterious manner Jehovah ‘blessed the house of Obed-edom, and all that he had.’ I, too, believe this. But I find it so much more plausible to think that the miracle was performed in terms which might, in God’s good providence, occur again. It seems to me it would be ever so much more delightful a miracle if, instead of being restricted to the enrichment of the Obed-edoms, it might happen almost any time, to almost anybody, almost anywhere.

Those Disturbing Miracles, pp. 53-54.

Here’s what I want to point out: in the process of demonstrating his thesis, he takes a cast of characters from his own acquaintance (a farm family just like the ones he knew as a boy, and in his first pastorate) and imagines what would result if something biblical could be introduced into their daily lives. And the answer is a sequence of events, each one building on the ones before it – in other words, a story. But notice! It’s not a religious story. It’s a story about real people, learning and growing and doing great things.

This was, in essence, the formula that would make Lloyd Douglas a household name for the next few decades. He just didn’t know it yet.

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

All Aboard for Yurrup!

by Ronald R Johnson (

Although it may seem trivial to talk about Douglas on vacation, this trip had a significant impact on his life. He and his wife Besse had talked about it for years, but in the summer of 1925 they finally had enough money to travel to Europe. They sailed from New York on Friday, July 3rd, landing on the coast of France, at Cherbourg, on Thursday, July 9th. For over a month they toured France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands; on Friday, August 22nd, they took an overnight steamer across the Channel to England, spending another six days in London before returning to New York by ship on Friday, September 4th.

Booklet included in “Papers, 1925, concerning trip to Europe.” In Douglas Papers, Box 4, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. Lloyd and Besse Douglas sailed to France on the Majestic and returned on the Aquitania.

In their book about him, Douglas’s daughters devoted an entire chapter to this subject, but they did it because they wanted to show how funny and entertaining Douglas was. They were 16 and 18 in the summer of 1925, and they stayed behind with their maternal Aunt Glen and Uncle David in St. Louis. Although they received letters from both of their parents, the ones from their father were humorous (with goofy spellings like “Yurrup”) and sometimes included drawings. Here are two of the drawings, from Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C. Douglas (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1952):

While waiting for a train in Cologne, he drew this image of himself leading the way to the train station with Besse and several porters following in his wake:

And here’s a sample of the letter that accompanied this drawing:

We rode all over town yesterday in a rubber wagon in the rain. The guide would point out a building and say, ‘Das iss der Ratholenwhackerdamfinepifflebacken,’ [which I believe should be read, ‘Rat-hole-n-whacker, dam-fine-piffle-backen’] and we would peek out through the soggy curtains, look at the thing glassily, and reply with a yawn, ‘Oh, yah, yah; das iss blosh!’ [There’s no such word in the German dictionary.] Mother often stands by and grins when I, with a straight face, talk pigeon Deutsch to the porters and sich. Their language sounds like they had their mouths full of half-chewed rotten bananas. A porter will inquire, ‘Der handegepochtening goloshes splish der milash?’ and I reply solemnly, ‘Yash, splosh der squash und plish der mush!’

The Shape of Sunday, p. 185.

It seems to me that Douglas’s tour of Europe is important for several other reasons, however (and not just as an outlet for his humor). First, it took him a step closer to becoming a world citizen. He never actually achieved that status; I’d say his trip made him an Anglophile rather than a lover of all cultures – he was a fan of London for the rest of his life – but he heard and saw enough to make him start thinking in global terms. For example:

Sometimes, late in the night, when sleep is tardy, instead of counting imaginary sheep jumping over a fence – which, for some reason, never did me any good, no matter how many sheep kept coming – I close my eyes and permit myself to be dizzied by great crowds of hurrying people.

Now I am standing on a corner in Munich – near the Rathaus – crowds – I can see them hurrying to the day’s work. Now I am standing on a corner in Naples – more crowds.

I skip about in fancy, from city to city – letting the rushing crowds bewilder me.

Now I am at the edge of the sweeping current of humanity on Champs Elysees – now on the Strand – now on Fifth Avenue – now on Michigan Boulevard – now on St. Catherine –

Now I am letting myself be milled about in great stations – Paddington, St. Lazare, Grand Central, Windsor –

Oh these highways!

What a diversity of interests travel over them! What an ocean of major and minor tragedies sweep over them! Not just once in awhile; but ever and always – by day and by night. . . .

From a sermon entitled, “Cross Country with a New Idea,” preached in Montreal on January 26, 1930. In The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1955), pp. 134-143.

With the exception of American cities, these were all locations he visited in the summer of 1925. And, as this example illustrates, he never stopped thinking about those places or the people who lived there. That was an important next step toward creating the character of Dean Harcourt, who thinks constantly about the lives of people everywhere.

Second, Douglas’s trip to Europe was important because it was only during this trip that he kept a private journal. (If he did keep any other journals, his daughters did not include them in the archival material they gave to the Bentley Library. But since he said that the scrapbooks were to serve as journals, and since he did his best thinking at the typewriter, it seems unlikely that he wrote any other journals than the one during his European trip.) In that journal, he jotted down the kinds of details that an aspiring novelist should notice: vivid descriptions of people; how they talked; what they were worried about; and so on. Without falling behind in his humorous, entertaining letters to his daughters, he took time to record these kinds of impressions. This is especially important because he was in a non-church, non-religious environment, writing his perceptions of real people trying to do real things – and this activity took him a step closer to writing novels about people in secular situations.

Third, on a related note, the places he and Besse visited in the summer of 1925 would later be used as settings in his first novel. In chapter 12 of Magnificent Obsession, Helen Hudson is living at the Villa Serbelloni, where Lloyd and Besse stayed while in Bellagio, and Helen and her friend Marion Dawson tour some of the other areas the Douglases saw while there. After a brief trip back to the states, Helen returns to Europe via cruise ship and lands at Cherbourg, just as the Douglases did. Later she is in a train accident on the Naples-Rome Express, and Bobby Merrick rushes to the English hospital in Rome to operate; and on and on it goes, as the characters criss-cross the path that the Douglases traveled in 1925.

(Literary critic James Saxon Childers, who had studied at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and traveled the world, was repulsed by the novel’s “vulgar display of tourist knowledge of tourist resorts in Europe.” Having had the high privilege of studying overseas, he seems to have felt that it was “vulgar” for anyone who was not so privileged to write about their own experiences. I’m only pointing this out because it shows that, despite this criticism, Douglas was able to create a bestselling novel out of a single trip to Europe – and without the advantages of being a Rhodes Scholar. (Childers’s criticism is in James Saxon Childers, “Magnificent Obsession Is Debated: Pastor Praises But Editor Criticizes Notorious Book,” Birmingham (Alabama) News, March 26, 1933. Information on Childers is in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, an online resource, and can be found here.))

Fourth, after his return to the United States, Douglas considered writing a humorous travel book similar to the letters he had written to his daughters. He even sketched out the chapter headings:

If he ever wrote even fragments of this book, I have been unable to find a trace of them in his private papers; but that’s not important. What matters is that he was thinking like a professional writer, mining his experiences for nuggets he could use and publish. And again, this was a secular subject. He gave serious consideration to writing a book that was not religious. And that was a major step forward for him.

Actually, after he and Besse returned to England in the summer of 1930, he did write a three-part series of humorous travel observations for one of the Akron papers, and he was paid for it. Below is a wide shot of the second essay, along with close-ups of an artist’s rendition of the story. This gives us an idea of the kind of book it would have been if he had carried through with the idea.

The main point I want to emphasize is that Douglas’s first trip to Europe gave him practice thinking and acting like a writer, and since the topic was not religious, it moved him one step closer to the kind of writing that would make him famous.

There were a few other developments that prepared Douglas to begin writing novels. I’ll tell about those over the next few blog posts.

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

These Sayings of Mine

by Ronald R Johnson (

So far, Douglas had only published books about the ministry, aimed at other ministers. In 1926 he reached out to a wider audience, and he told them about the teachings of Jesus. It was called These Sayings of Mine.

I have read this book several times over the past 25 years, and although there is a lot of good material in it, I sense now, as I did the first time I read it, that this effort fell short of what Douglas was trying to do. He was trying to present Jesus as the answer to the pressing moral and psychological problems of his age, and yet he did little more than make that claim – in many ways, and from a number of angles. He let us know that he thought Christ was the answer, but he didn’t connect the dots for us. He didn’t tell us precisely how Jesus can help us in contemporary times.

The raw materials were there. You can spot them throughout the book. But he had not yet figured out how to put them together into a coherent message.

He wrote that Christ was the Light of the World and that there was no one else in history who spoke like Jesus did or who related to people the way he did. He wrote that, in order to follow Jesus, we need to do the things he taught. He said that our creeds barely touch on Christ’s teachings; and at any rate, reciting creeds about Jesus does not get us any closer to following him, just as electricians would never get anywhere by declaring their belief in Volta or Faraday; they can only generate electricity by doing what Volta or Faraday said.

As to Christ’s teachings themselves, Douglas said that they were directed to different classes of people, depending on their gifts and abilities. He said that Jesus taught us to “launch out into the deep” and “make large demands on life,” recognizing that we have heavy responsibilities. He said that we should be able to sense Christ’s nearness when we’re at our place of employment, but also in our leisure time. This presence would establish a kingdom within us here and now – a domain that would banish fear and motivate us to live by the Golden Rule.

But it was all so vague! He talked around and around the subject but never quite helped his readers to connect. He was trying to convey something that he, himself, hadn’t quite come to terms with, even though he had experienced it in his own life.

When I say that the raw materials were there, I can point out no better example than his comments on the early verses of Matthew 6, in which Christ talks about doing our alms in secret. As I told you in an earlier post, Douglas himself had practiced that for years – so successfully, in fact, that it took me a lot of detective work in order to uncover just one of his secret projects. (See the PDF mentioned at the bottom of this page for more details.) And it had clearly made a difference in his life. But he still hadn’t put the pieces together; he still didn’t understand how to help others experience what he had experienced.

In These Sayings of Mine, he writes:

There is a peculiar psychology involved here which baffles explanation. Do your good deed and keep it a secret. You will achieve a great deal of satisfaction. Tell somebody you did it, and you divide your joy in half. Tell a dozen, and the joy is all gone. Whoever wishes to elucidate this mystery is welcome to the materials. One simply knows that it is true.

These Sayings of Mine, p. 224

Again, after a guy named Jones does a good deed…

All day Jones goes about in a sort of golden mist. Never had he done anything in his life that gave him this particular kind of spiritual satisfaction. In the evening his closest friend and neighbor drops in for a call…. So Jones tells the story; and even while he is telling it, he feels the ecstatic joy of the thing gradually oozing out! Why? Who knows? But it is true. One can depend upon whatever Jesus said about these practical considerations. He was an astute and infallible psychologist.

Ibid., p. 225

We know that Douglas himself wasn’t satisfied with what he wrote here because he ended up writing an entire book about it – a book that remained a bestseller for years and is still in print, almost 100 years later. That book was Douglas’s breakthrough, not because it made him famous but because it helped him put his great idea into words. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

For now, in 1926, Douglas published a book that promised or hinted at what was coming. And it seems to me that there was a particular reason why he wasn’t able to piece it all together yet: because he was still approaching the problem as a minister. He needed more practice thinking about the everyday lives of regular people. And he got it… in some unexpected ways. I’ll tell you about that in the next few posts.

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

The Minister’s Everyday Life

by Ronald R Johnson (

After the publication of Douglas’s book, Wanted: A Congregation, he continued to write articles for The Christian Century. Over the next three years, he published 18 essays in the Century:

“Mr. Bryan’s New Crusade,” November 25, 1920
“The Music of the Church,” January 13, 1921
“The Demotion of Death,” January 27, 1921
“What About Lent?” February 3, 1921
“Saving the Minister’s Soul,” April 14, 1921
“In RE Sermons on Wages,” May 12, 1921
“The Galilean Psychology,” January 12, 1922
“The Church’s Self-Respect,” January 26, 1922
“The Minister Between Sundays,” October 12, 1922
“The Human Preacher,” November 2, 1922
“The Minister in the Sick Room,” November 9, 1922
“‘Earth to Earth,’” November 30, 1922
“Sweetening Soured Saints”, January 25, 1923
“‘For Better, For Worse,’” March 8, 1923
“The Minister’s Mail,” May 31, 1923
“The Loyalty of the Laity,” June 26, 1923
“The Patriotism of Hatred,” October 25, 1923
“The End of the World,” December 27, 1923

As a cursory glance at this list will show, most of these were about some aspect of the ministry. When writing for the Century, Douglas considered other ministers his audience – particularly younger and less experienced ministers – and he tended to give advice. He gathered these thoughts into a book that was published in 1924 by Charles Scribner’s Sons. It was called, The Minister’s Everyday Life. Sounds fairly predictable, doesn’t it? He’s going to talk about preparing sermons, visiting the sick, etc. Except that Lloyd Douglas never said the expected thing.

The opening chapter compares the ministry to other lines of work, and he offers vivid images of what it’s like, for example, to be a telephone operator or a customer service representative at the local department store. And as someone who has spent years answering customer service calls over the phone, I can tell you that he nailed it. Most ministers wouldn’t have been able to do that.

I’ve been trying to convey to you, through these blog posts, what was distinctive about Douglas. The Minister’s Everyday Life is a good example: he talks about what it’s like to be a minister, and yet he sounds like a normal person with a great sense of humor and lot of common sense. Here are some examples:

If you want to know what hell is like: “…accumulate a miscellaneous assortment of unpaid bills” (p. 87).

On visiting someone in the hospital: “If a prayer can be offered without unduly exciting the patient’s alarm for himself, the minister may make a definite contribution here. It is much better to say, ‘Shall we offer a prayer together – you and I – for courage and strength?’ than to suggest: ‘Would you like to have me say a world of prayer for you?’ If prayer is offered, convince the patient that he is responsible for it, wants it, and is helping to present it” (p. 120).

About raising kids: “…the lot of ‘the preacher’s kid’ is not always an unmixed delight. [Douglas himself was a PK, remember.] The same sort of fawning solicitude which is the minister’s portion by virtue of his position is exhibited, to a degree, toward the whole household of the prophet. If the youngster has any sense at all of the serious obligation he owes his father to walk circumspectly, he is almost sure to develop into what the parish calls ‘a model boy,’ which will make him magnificently despised by his contemporaries. Presently he will face the problem whether he is to be, in very truth, the fine little fellow who will add lustre to his father’s reputation as a prophet, in which position he will live the life of an outcast in his relationship to his natural social group, or decide to show his schoolmates that he is a regular feller, despite his hereditary place in life…. Remember that while your boy is the minister’s son, he is a boy…. Be very sympathetic…. Let him live a normal life, in so far as that is possible” (pp. 24-25).

On living in a parsonage: “Your church is your landlord. You are the tenant…. If you never rented a house and do not know what a tenant’s obligations consist of, you should inquire of your lawyer friend for a lease and study it” (pp. 69-70).

When someone objects to you taking time off because “the Devil never takes a vacation”: “Unless it is presumed that the minister should try, as far as possible, to model his programme after that of the hypothetical person just mentioned, that objection points no moral” (p. 196).

On varying how you end your sermons: “Be careful about falling into the habits which inform the congregation exactly when you are tapering off and making ready to stop. If you do not watch yourself, you will always quit in the same way. The congregation will have come to understand that when you shift your voice to a slightly lower register and achieve a certain degree of fervency in your utterance, it is high time they began to fumble about under the seats, feeling for their over-shoes. Surprise them with the novelty of the sermon’s close, just as you surprise them with the originality of its introduction” (pp. 215-216).

(They don’t tell you any of these things in seminary, by the way.)

The Minister’s Everyday Life was his second book aimed at an audience of clergy. In his next one, he aimed at a wider audience – people who attended church and those who didn’t – and he set out to tell them what it means to follow Jesus. The book was called, These Sayings of Mine, and it will be the subject of my next post.

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

The Mendicant

by Ronald R Johnson (

In a previous post I told you how Douglas became a regular contributor to The Christian Century in the fall of 1920, beginning with a series called, “Wanted: A Congregation.” Before the year was over, Christian Century Press brought out a companion book with the same title, transitioning Douglas from a writer of articles to an “author.” But there’s an interesting – and ironic – back story.

In January 1919, Douglas sent The Mendicant, a book manuscript, to the George H. Doran Company in New York City. If you’ve never heard of them, you have heard of some of their authors: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken… you get the idea. Douglas worked until 3 in the morning on January 30th, then sent the manuscript by registered mail later that same day. He was so excited, he saved the postal receipt in his scrapbook.

George Doran himself wrote the reply. He was in London through most of February, and his office held the manuscript for him to look at personally. Upon his return he did read it, and on February 28 he wrote to congratulate Douglas on the “vigor” of the piece and “the masterly way in which it is written” (George H. Doran to LCD, February 28, 1919, in Douglas’s 1918 Scrapbook, Box 5, Lloyd C Douglas Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan).

He offered Douglas two options:

(1) In its current state (but with some changes), it could be sold as an article to The American Magazine, “which has an enormous circulation and which is constantly on the lookout for such material as this. Should you rewrite it, I should be very glad to interest myself in securing careful consideration of the manuscript at the hands of the editor of The American.” Not a bad offer: he would personally recommend it to the editor of one of the nation’s top magazines, virtually ensuring its publication. But Douglas really wanted to publish a book. So the second alternative was more in line with his hopes…

(2) Doran expressed his “earnest desire to undertake the publication of the larger book,” if Douglas would greatly expand the work to fit Doran’s vision. Although it sounds, on the surface, like he’s saying the piece isn’t long enough and doesn’t go deeply enough into its subject matter, the truth is that Doran didn’t think it was religious enough. “If I might be so bold, I would like to urge that, in the development of your book, very particular emphasis should be placed upon the spiritual.”

Douglas wrote the book for younger ministers. He wanted to share with them the methods and attitudes that had worked for him and that, in fact, had filled his Ann Arbor congregation to overflowing. Doran conceded that this would be useful information, but he worried “that these same earnest ministers throughout the land… in their attempt to follow your method without your inspiration and vision… would fail utterly on the spiritual side.”

The Mendicant is the story of a discouraged minister who has a reunion with some old college buddies and reconsiders both the aims and techniques of his ministerial work. His friend Jimmy Bartell has become a successful industrialist; Tom McGregor is a newspaper editor; and they invite their friend, Dr. David Tracey to join them. (There always has to be a doctor in Douglas’s books!) It isn’t a novel; it’s a series of dialogues. And yet, there is character development as the minister – the Reverend D. Preston Blue (pronounced ‘Depressed-n-Blue’) – comes away with an entirely different conception of his work and how to go about it. The title of the book comes from his realization that the church is not a commanding influence in the world; it behaves like a beggar, happily accepting nickels and dimes in the collection plate and fawning over newcomers, hoping they’ll visit again next week. Rev. Blue catches a vision of a church that takes its mandate seriously. But he only catches this vision after talking with professional people (Jimmy, Tom, and Dave) and applying to his own case the lessons he learns from watching them operate in their respective spheres.

Early in the book, Jimmy (the industrialist) says that he doesn’t go to church anymore, and he gives an impassioned explanation. He holds up a mirror to Rev. Blue, helping him to see how wretched the church has become in the eyes of professional people. That’s what troubled the publisher, George Doran. “Your manuscript implies the regeneration of Jim Bartell, but as a matter of fact you do not actually touch upon the question of belief or personal faith which, of course, in the last analysis must be the basis of permanent church work.”

Actually, there was nothing about the regeneration of Jimmy Bartell. It wasn’t that kind of book. Doran was troubled because Douglas’s story was about the conversion of a minister to a new way of thinking about the church rather than the conversion of the unregenerate Jimmy Bartell to the church. Doran wanted Douglas to play the traditional minister’s role and write an old-fashioned religious book. He wanted Blue to convert the industrialist and get him into church. Douglas wanted that too, eventually; but his immediate goal was to open the eyes of the next generation of ministers to a new conception of the church’s role in society, and thereby make the church attractive to smart people like Jimmy Bartell.

Another letter from Doran dated March 8th indicates that Douglas would be in New York on the 21st and the two of them would meet to discuss the manuscript. Several pages later, Douglas wrote in his scrapbook that he began a revised version on April 7, finished it on April 29, and mailed it to Doran on May 2. Douglas could work quickly when he was motivated, but the rapid turnaround hints that he did not gut the book to the extent that Doran wanted.

Nevertheless, Charles M. Roe, the editor who took over the project, seems to have accepted the new version. He did reply to Douglas on May 23, asking him to rewrite the first and last chapters because they were “unconvincing” and “dull.” A little later in his scrapbook, Douglas wrote that he “called on Mr. Roe” (apparently in person) on June 2nd “and was assured that if the mss was satisfactorily altered they would ‘undoubtedly publish it.'” He made the changes on June 5th and 6th and sent the manuscript to New York on June 6th.

There is one more handwritten comment about the manuscript in Douglas’s 1918 Scrapbook. He says: “At the suggestion of Chas. M. Roe of the George H. Doran Company,” he sent the manuscript to The World Outlook magazine on November 1, 1919. No more comments about the manuscript appear anywhere in Douglas’s papers. Obviously the Doran Company did not move ahead with the project, but we don’t know why. There is also nothing in the scrapbook telling us how The Outlook responded.

Months later (June 1920), Douglas entered the writing contest at The Christian Century and, on the strength of that essay, was asked, by the Century’s editor, to contribute something else. What he sent was a series of non-fiction articles that drew on the material in The Mendicant. He called the series, “Wanted: A Congregation.” He didn’t write it as a narrative but did refer hypothetically to someone named Rev. D. Preston Blue. Readers of the Century enjoyed the series, and that same year (1920) the Christian Century Press printed a book version of Wanted. Although the book covered the same subjects as the series, it went much deeper into them and – perhaps more importantly – offered a new conception of the role of the church in contemporary society. It did this as a series of dialogues between Blue and his friends Jimmy Bartell, Tom McGregor, and Dave Tracey. It was, in fact, The Mendicant. He just gave it a new name.

Here’s what I find ironic: Doran (a secular publisher) lectured Douglas (“If I might be so bold…”) that “belief or personal faith… must be the basis of permanent church work,” but The Christian Century Press (run by and for clergy) understood and embraced his vision. This would not be the last time that people in secular publishing would advise Douglas to be more religious.

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

Lloyd Douglas’s Views on Immortality

by Ronald R Johnson (

While at the First Congregational Church of Akron, Ohio, from 1921 to 1926, Lloyd Douglas shared the following thoughts about immortality:

I have told you that we can add length to our earthly days through altruistic service; that whatever may be the nature of our future life, we know enough about this life to be assured that men do not quickly die and leave no trace who, in the quest of the Christian ideal, have contributed something of their hope and faith and work to the generation in which they had lived.

I have taught you that belief in a life beyond this world is consistent with orderly thought on the present values and duties of our earthly day; that it is inconceivable God would so endow us with this eternal hope and disappoint us in the end with death.

Lloyd C Douglas, “Five Years of Akron,” in The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1955), pp. 91-92.

He did encourage his flock to hold the standard view of immortality (that they would live on in some spiritual form in the world beyond), but he also wanted them to live in such a way that they would be long remembered in this world. He wanted them to sow seeds in this world that would sprout and blossom long after they were gone. And it was this aspect of “immortality” that seemed to appeal to him more than the other.

(On a side note, I reached out to his daughters, Betty and Virginia, while they were still alive, back in the mid-1980s, and told them how much I appreciated their biography of their father. Virginia wrote me a wonderful note in reply, and she was especially thrilled at the realization that her father was still “so alive” in my thoughts. “What an immortality!” she exclaimed. And since I’m still writing about him on a daily basis decades later (in the 2020’s), and you’re reading it – and some of you have reached out to me to let me know that he’s still alive in your thoughts – I guess he knew what he was talking about.)

But as provocative as this view of immortality is, he still had more work to do on the concept. He didn’t know it, but he was one step away from the idea that would make him a household name: the concept of investing in other people’s lives and thereby empowering both parties. The interpersonal nature of Christian faith would soon become central to his thinking, and when it did, it would give deeper meaning to his views on immortality. But he wasn’t there yet. As I’ve said before, Douglas did his best thinking at the typewriter. He had a bit more writing to do before this idea would become fully conscious.

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Lloyd Douglas’s Views on The Long Parade

by Ronald R Johnson (

During his pastorate at the First Congregational Church of Akron, Lloyd Douglas first began describing his view of history and of our place within it. Later, in his novel Green Light, he would call it “The Long Parade,” but in 1926 he described it this way:

I have taught that humanity is on the way up, by the grace of God, toward some exalted destiny.

You have been encouraged by me to believe in evolution—not the kind of evolutionary theory which the untutored think resolves itself into a mere question of whether or not our ancestors were simians; but a theory of evolution which describes a vast physical, mental, moral, and spiritual pilgrimage through the ages—increasingly marking man’s rise, on the stepping-stones of his dead self, to higher things; a hope and quest he still pursues without much more certainty of his ultimate goal than John conceived when, out of the mystical faith that distinguished his radiant soul, he wrote: ‘Beloved, we are the children of God. It doth not yet appear what we shall become, but we know that when we shall see Him, and know Him as he is, we shall be found to be like Him’ [I John 3:2].

Lloyd C Douglas, “Five Years of Akron.” In The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1955), p. 91.

It may seem strange to us now, to hear a minister saying that the process of evolution is part of God’s plan and that the end goal is for us all to become Christlike, but this was not such an odd thought in the 1920’s. In fact, John M Coulter, who was Chair of the Department of Botany at the University of Chicago, was saying similar things in The Christian Century during those years. He said them in books, too. For example, John M Coulter and Merle C Coulter, Where Evolution and Religion Meet (New York: Macmillan, 1925), is mostly about evolution, but in the final chapter, the authors say, “Religion is now known to be a universal impulse…. Any universal impulse must have some function…. It seems obvious that the function of the religious impulse is… to bring man to the highest expression of his being…. We realize that everything that is finest in human character and conduct is in response to the stimulus of love. Our conclusion is that the most effective ideal for the religious impulse is love stimulating service. This is the ideal of the Christian religion, and it makes scientific men choose it as the only religion with a scientific approach…” (pp. 103-104).

A lot of things have changed in the past hundred years!

At any rate, Douglas was hearing this kind of thing from professors in the state universities who still called themselves Christians and still believed in going to church even though the churches, by and large, were turning against “Darwinism.” Like them, Douglas was inspired by the fact of evolution and saw it as part of an upward-driving “impulse.” He himself was an optimist by nature, and as he scanned the history of the earth and its various forms of life, he believed the trend was destined to keep heading upwards.

He thought the world was getting better, but he didn’t think it was inevitable. He believed that it was individuals working together (rather than political or social systems) that improved society in each successive generation. Therefore, much of his preaching focused on this very thing: finding the way or ways in which you yourself can make the world a better place.

And that leads directly to his unorthodox views about immortality, which I’ll tell you about in the next post.

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

Lloyd Douglas’s Views on Science and the Modern World

by Ronald R Johnson (

Lloyd Douglas was an unusual minister. He told his congregation in Akron:

I have never asked your faith to attend to any business that your intellect could handle more easily.

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

This was an extremely important point for him. He believed that his progenitors had fought very hard to liberate the human mind from the powers that would shackle it: from political constraints, certainly, but especially from ignorance. And because of this belief, he preached that people should develop their intelligence. “You can bear it in mind,” he said,

…that I have never asked you to think exactly as I think about these matters of religious belief, but only to think. WHAT you thought was not of so great importance, in my opinion, as that you should have access to all the facts that I had access to; and after that, I was entirely willing that you should come to your own conclusions without too much gratuitous assistance from my quarter.

He did, however, urge his congregation to give serious consideration to the things being taught in the (fairly new) state universities, and especially in the natural sciences:

I have taught you that religion and science must be at one—if God is God.

Although many ministers were distrustful of modern science, Douglas was a huge fan of both its history and its latest findings. And although there was much confusion in religious circles about “Darwinism,” Douglas understood that evolution was a fact and that biologists were engaged in research to help explain the known facts. The fossil record showed vast differences in the types of flora and fauna in previous epochs, as well as changes in the structures of animals that still exist, such as horses. Darwin had proposed a theory to explain these facts (natural selection through scarcity of resources), but so had Lamarck (structural changes through use and disuse), and more recently so had Hugo De Vries (change by mutation). By the 1920s, biologists weren’t fighting over whether living things evolved; they were busy trying to explain how and why it happened.

Douglas warned his congregation…

…that the elemental principles of the new biology either must fit in with the elemental principles of Christian faith—or we lose the coming generation from the ranks of the church.

At first that may sound like he was over-accommodating to secular culture, but he believed what I quoted earlier: that “religion and science must be at one – if God is God.” He trusted scientists. He viewed them as honest seekers of the truth. And therefore he believed that any facts they uncovered, as well as any theories that could account for those facts, must be in harmony with what God was doing – and had done – in this world. Any religion that posed as either a judge or an adversary of the scientific enterprise was doomed to obsolescence, because it would fail to attract anyone interested in the truth. It wasn’t that Douglas was worried about the church going out of business; he was concerned that the church would fail to perform its mission: to provide support to truth-seekers in all walks of life.

Douglas not only accepted the “new biology” but actually found it inspiring. I’ll talk more about that in the next post.

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

Lloyd Douglas’s Views on Christ

by Ronald R Johnson (

Lloyd Douglas believed that Christian faith ought to be centered on Christ himself. (Note: in the passage I’m about to quote, he uses the word “hypothecated.” He may have meant “predicated,” or perhaps he was thinking about some form of the words “hypothesis” or “hypothetical.” Or maybe he knew exactly what he was doing but the word isn’t used like that anymore; if so, I haven’t found a dictionary that supports his use of that word.) At any rate, as he told his Akron congregation:

You will remember that I have attempted to preach the gospel of a Jesus who presents an ideal portrait of perfect living. I have not hypothecated his divinity on any biological miracle which—instead of distinguishing him—would merely assign him to a place alongside the populous list of saviors whose origins were thought to have been had through miraculous generation. I have not requested you to believe—as actual, veridical facts—the traditional nativity stories. I have preached that he offered himself as our example. And, to be an example for us humans, he would—one thinks—have to live under much the same conditions which surround us.

You have been given full liberty to believe as much or as little as you liked about the magical and mystical element in his recorded career.

If you wanted to believe that he turned water into wine—actually—and thought better of him as a worker of such magic, that was your right, and I hoped you found him greater and more lovable, in your esteem, for having done this strange thing. If you wanted to believe that this was just a poet’s way of singing that Jesus’ personality was so altogether lovely and healing and comforting and comradely, that when he came to their table it was as if the water in their cups had turned to wine—if you wanted to believe that, I saw no reason why you shouldn’t.

If you wanted to believe that he quieted the winds and waves on Galilee, I wanted you to do so—and find your Christ a peace-inspiring power thereby. If you preferred to believe that the magic words he spoke were addressed rather to the troubled hearts of these fishermen, so potently that they became, under his command, greater than their fears, I wanted you to think that!

But I did insist that the Galilean gospel—the Inasmuch declaration [Mt 25:40, 45], the Golden Rule [Mt 7:12], the whole Sermon on the Mount [Mt 5-7]—deserved your full attention and attempted practice.

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

This was the most important part of Douglas’s theology: his insistence on knowing and following the things Christ taught. On his view, Christians weren’t just people who believed in the biblical accounts of Christ’s miracles. Professing that Jesus was a miracle worker did not imply that anyone would go on to become Christ-like. If one had to choose between the stories about Jesus and the things Jesus taught, then Douglas was on the side of Jesus’ teachings. (It’s debatable whether such a choice has to be made, but Douglas clearly thought so. He said that the miracles distracted us from the really important thing about Jesus: that his words lead to life.)

In fact, Douglas believed that the entire history of Christianity, and especially of the splintering of denominations, was rooted in creeds and formulas that tried to explain who Jesus was. The focus was entirely on talking about Jesus, not on knowing and doing the things he taught.

Douglas saw it as his mission to turn the tide. He wanted to educate his Akron congregation in what he called “Spiritual Culture”: a way of life based on the teachings of Jesus. He believed that this was how people could find God and have, as a permanent possession, the presence and peace and power of God available in every moment of their lives.

He also believed that this way of life was consistent with the modern (and especially scientific) frame of mind. I’ll tell you about that in the next post.

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

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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