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Inheriting a Scandal

by Ronald R Johnson (

When Lloyd Douglas preached his first sermon as the new pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church on October 24, 1909, he knew he had a big job ahead of him. His predecessor, the late Rev. Dr. John G Butler, had engaged in a very ugly fight with his church council during the last several months of his life, and they had taken it to the newspapers. In fact, the scandal was front-page news over the course of several weeks, and it led a number of the members of the church to form a splinter group that began to meet at a location not far from Luther Place. It was a complex and troublesome situation for any new pastor to inherit.

But Douglas was the man for the job.

He did a number of things, right away, that helped the congregation move on.

He took the Press Corps firmly in hand. He started out winning their trust and affection by describing himself as a newspaperman who left the trade to go into the ministry, and then he told them that Luther Place had been too much in the news in recent months and that he would not comment on the earlier trouble. And he stuck to that promise.

He made positive changes to the worship service. He had always tried to create a more aesthetically-pleasing service by skillful use of music, and in the nation’s capital he had access to even more talented individuals who could help him accomplish that goal. Douglas persuaded Prof. Emile Mori, organist at the German-speaking Concordia Lutheran Church, to be his choir director, and Prof. Mori quickly put together an ensemble of twenty trained voices.

He paid due respect to Dr. Butler. In his inaugural sermon, he said, “You hold in solemn and sacred reverence the memory of the man who, through these many years past, labored so tirelessly and efficiently in the interests of this church. I have not come here as his rival, but as his successor.”

He also showed respect for the people themselves. “I have not come here to upset what I have found, or ruthlessly destroy that which has been achieved in the past. Those things that have been dear to you will become dear to me; your traditions will be respected; your customs honored; your church usages kept inviolate.”

But he made his own priorities clear. “I have not come here for the sole and exclusive purpose of writing names in a church book,” he told them. “That we will write many names there I have no doubt, and that we shall be most happy to do so goes without saying. We will strive to make Memorial Church great, and when, by patient application to her trust, she shall have demonstrated her usefulness, her greatness is assured.”

He would focus on being the Church of Jesus Christ in this place, and on projecting that image to the larger community. “Our business—mine as a minister and yours as a layman—is to hold the church with a regard so high and a reverence so deep that her welfare and standing in the community shall be one of the supreme desires of our hearts. It is true that church members do not always see eye to eye. It is true they cannot always bring their ideas of methods, polity, doctrine, and administration into perfect juxtaposition. But that does not impugn their sincerity or reflect upon the honesty of their convictions.”

“You may not care whether I am a Democrat or a Republican,” he said, “whether I am in favor of capital punishment for murderers, what is my personal taste in the matter of books, music, art. You have a right to be interested in my conception of the kingdom of Jesus Christ and my individual belief as to the methods of its advancement.”

Finally, he gave them a promise: “That with God as my guide and helper, I shall endeavor, so far as lies within me, to render to Him and to you an acceptable service. And I should be happy if each one of you might silently offer a pledge at this moment that so long as you believe in my sincerity you will give me your hearty co-operation and support.”

Regarding the split in the church, there was another factor working in his favor: one day earlier (Saturday, October 23), the local synod had voted to accept the splinter group as a legitimate Lutheran congregation. Although some members of Luther Place had hoped that Douglas would find a way to lure them back to the fold, the conference action of the previous day had relieved him of that responsibility. Only one thing remained to be done, and he did it the following Sunday (October 31): he “officially recognized the independent Lutheran congregation,” the Washington Herald reported, “when, in the morning service, he offered prayer that its meditations and efforts might be attended by success.” And that was the end of that.

It started out as front-page news and might have hounded him throughout his pastorate, but Douglas had the wisdom to deal with the issue and put it behind him within the first eight days. And for all practical purposes, he never had to deal with it again.

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

From Cub Reporter to Pastor

by Ronald R Johnson (

When he arrived in Washington, DC, to begin his work as pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in October 1909, Lloyd Douglas made a clever move: he won over the representatives of the DC newspapers by describing himself as a former newspaperman. Although he did spend some time as a reporter for the Springfield Press-Republic in Springfield, Ohio, before attending seminary, he had never put that information to good use before. But now, as he took over the spiritual leadership of a church that had been making headlines for all the wrong reasons, he was able to create a more positive image of the church by hobnobbing with the Press Corps.

The Washington Herald ran this headline on page 1 of their Monday, October 25, 1909 issue:


Whoever wrote the article (there were few by-lines in those days) seems to have become a fan. Here is an excerpt:

“From the rattle of typewriters in the city room of a newspaper, from the search of news and the dispassionate probing into the reasons of things, to the pulpit of a house of worship is the story of Rev. Lloyd C. Douglas, who yesterday morning preached his inaugural sermon as the new pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church.

“Immediately after his graduation from college, Mr. Douglas became a reporter on the staff of the Springfield (Ohio) Press-Republic, which has since become the Springfield Daily News. Whatever came up in which the public might be interested, the new reporter was ‘shot out’ on the story. From the rich, in their flesh pots, where freedom from want bred indifference and dried the roots of sympathy, to the poor in their hovels, where poverty had taken crime as its mistress, Douglas made his rounds.”

(See what I mean about going on a bit? But it gets better…)

“His stock in trade consisted of nothing but a soft lead pencil and a bunch of copy paper in an inside pocket; a mind trained to think, and interested in what his fellows did, and a purpose that was destined to bring him, before he was thirty-three years old, to the pulpit of one of the best-known churches of the National Capital, to succeed a man of high caliber, the late Rev. J. G. Butler.

“Mr. Douglas made a good reporter.”

(See what I mean about becoming an instant fan? I wonder if anyone fact-checked that before they printed it…)

“Mr. Douglas made a good reporter. His sympathy gave him an insight into his stories, which won recognition from the city editor. Whether his assignment took him to the chamber of a man who had taken his own life, or to a meeting of prominent citizens in the interests of civic improvement, or to a humble home desolated by sorrow in any one of its many forms, he put ‘human interest’ into the story, and kept his purpose under his hat.

“‘I wanted to get the sort of first-hand experience of life which a newspaper reporter has the best chance to get,’ he said, in explaining his reason for going into the business. ‘I wanted to get at life in the living, to see the seamy side of it, so that I should be better equipped to fight against its unhealthy features later. A newspaper reporter does not have to become calloused and cynical and indifferent, and automatic, unless he wants to; and I did not want to.’

“At the end of a year on the paper, Mr. Douglas made a clean break, and enrolled himself at the Wittenberg Seminary in Springfield, to begin his study of life from the ecclesiastical standpoint…”

This was a clever self-introduction. From that point on, the Press Corps regarded him as one of their own. But it was also an interesting story that surely caught readers’ attention and made them more willing to hear what Douglas had to say. And as I will show in the next blog post, it was an important part of his strategy for overcoming the scandal he had inherited and turning journalists’ thoughts in a more constructive direction.

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

The Early Years of Douglas’s Ministry

by Ronald R Johnson (

Lloyd Douglas attended seminary at Hamma Divinity School, Wittenberg College, in Springfield, Ohio (USA). During his final year of study (1902-1903), he was Associate Pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Des Moines, Iowa.

Before he graduated from seminary in Spring, 1903, he already had his first job lined up: in January, Zion Lutheran Church of North Manchester, Indiana, extended a call to him, asking him to begin his ministry with them in May. He had come to guest preach in October of the previous year. Here is a flyer about his upcoming visit, from his earliest scrapbook, p. 15, in the Lloyd C Douglas Papers, Box 5. A note in his handwriting says, “Found the town of N. Manchester full of these things when I came to apply once while in school.”

North Manchester was virtually home for Douglas. He was born in Columbia City, just 23 miles away, and his father and mother, Rev. and Mrs. A. J. Douglas, were currently living in Columbia City. A. J., who had been an educator and a judge before becoming a minister, was so well respected in that region that a section of the Columbia City Library was dedicated to him. This was not just a homecoming for Lloyd Douglas; he was coming back as a favored son.

The map below shows these two towns and their proximity to Fort Wayne:

While homecomings can be good, they can also be bad, especially for an ambitious young man like Douglas. He wanted to break loose from both his rural background and his upbringing, and he hoped to become known out in the world.

He was pastor at Zion Lutheran for two years, leaving in August, 1905, to serve the English Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Ohio. It was in Lancaster, over the next four years, that young Lloyd Douglas made a name for himself within his denomination.

He distinguished himself in three ways: as a pastor, as a speaker, and as a writer.

As a pastor: He spread his wings as a minister, building a following that extended beyond the doors of his church to the community at large.

As a speaker: Douglas traveled by train to other cities and established a reputation as an orator, especially popular with young people.

As a writer: He became a frequent contributor to The Lutheran Observer, submitting pieces that were relevant, provocative, and quotable.

His rise was so quick, in fact, that in the summer of 1909, after being a minister for only six years, he was offered the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to be Senior Minister at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC.

Over the next several months, I will talk in more detail about the steps that led him so quickly to such an exalted position within his denomination. But I will begin with those first two years in a small town in Indiana.

Here is an interior shot of Zion Lutheran Church as it appeared in 1903, also from p. 15 of his first scrapbook. The upper left corner shows the church’s exterior:

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

The Lloyd C Douglas Papers at the Bentley Historical Library

by Ronald R Johnson (

After Lloyd Douglas died, his daughters donated 6 boxes of his private papers to the Bentley Historical Library on the campus of the University of Michigan. Douglas had spent several happy years as senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, a church which includes within its edifice a chapel in his honor; so the University of Michigan seemed like a logical place for his papers to be kept in archive.

My own exploration of those papers began with Boxes 5 and 6, which contain his scrapbooks. Here is the cover of the earliest scrapbook in the collection. He originally used it for notes he took during his “Liturgies” course while in seminary but then turned it into a scrapbook.

Douglas’s scrapbooks are a wealth of information. They contain mostly newspaper clippings of his sermons, and these are very detailed, giving us the next best thing to the sermon transcript itself. They also contain letters, programs, newsletters, newspaper accounts of wedding ceremonies and funerals at which he officiated and speeches he gave at high school graduations and Veterans events; and he even pasted in the articles he published in various periodicals. There is one page of train tickets, giving just a sample of the many trips he took for speaking engagements. (See the left page of the following two-page spread):

We also have the letters of “call” he received from each of his congregations, including the salary and other compensation offered. Obviously, these scrapbooks are rich in information.

Boxes 1 through 2 contain his extensive correspondence with his daughters and with his editor at Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company. Here is a letter he sent his oldest daughter Betty from a hotel in Chicago in 1926:

These files mostly cover the years after Douglas became a bestselling author, from the early 1930s to the end of his life in 1951. In some respects they are more insightful than the scrapbooks, since they give us his unguarded thoughts conveyed to people he trusted. But they also don’t give us the context quite as nicely as the scrapbooks do, and we often have to infer what is happening from the clues within the letters themselves.

Box 3 contains sermons and speeches. Even though his scrapbooks give us detailed newspaper reports of his sermons, Box 3 includes actual sermons. Douglas always typed out his sermons on Saturday afternoon, then delivered them extemporaneously on Sunday. Here’s an example of a sermon he preached in Boston in 1931. At this point in his career, he used little pages that would fit in his hand, but the punch holes show that he kept them in a small three-ring binder.

Box 4 has files pertaining to his most famous novel, The Robe, as well as miscellaneous items, including day planners and small notebooks.

Here are the chapter summaries he had in mind for a travel book he never wrote:

I’ve spent years studying these boxes (my first visit was in 2005), and I still have a lot more to see. But now that I’ve given you the overview, in future blog posts I can share with you some of the things that I have learned from these sources.

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