by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
Lloyd Douglas resigned as pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in July 1911, effective September 1. He told his congregation he was leaving to serve the YMCA at the University of Illinois. And that was true, but it was only part of the truth. Another part of it was that he felt an immediate need to leave the denomination.
Douglas had been a Lutheran all his life. When he was very young, his father A.J. Douglas was a Lutheran pastor. Prior to that, A.J. had been an attorney and then a school superintendent, and he had met and married the wife of his old age – Lloyd Douglas’s mother – when she was teaching at his school. Lloyd Douglas had siblings who were a generation older than he was; they were A.J.’s children from a previous marriage, and their mother had died, leaving A.J. a widower until he met Lloyd’s mother. A.J. had promised the Lord that he would be a minister, but he didn’t make good on that promise until he was old. As compensation, he groomed his youngest son for the ministry. A.J. took the boy with him as he made his rounds to see his parishioners and to preach at the multiple small-town churches under his charge. From as far back as Douglas could remember, he had sat beside his father in their horse-and-carriage as A.J. went on his rounds, and together they parsed Greek words and talked in depth about the ministry. The Lutheran ministry.
So it was no small matter sometime in 1911 when Lloyd Douglas turned to his wife on the way home from Luther Place one day and said, “Besse, I’m going to get out of the church.” Besse told their daughters the story years later: “I was terribly shocked,” she said. “He had talked that way before, but this time I felt he really meant it. The first thing I thought was, ‘What will his mother say?'” (Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C Douglas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952), p. 72.) (His father had already died.)
Predictably, his mother wasn’t too keen on the idea. Nor were Besse’s parents, the Reverend and Mrs. Porch, also of the Lutheran Church.
But Douglas had to break free, especially now. For in the summer of 1911, the General Synod of the Lutheran Church in America had its annual convention, and they passed constitutional amendments that Douglas could not tolerate.
The conference was held at – of all places – Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC. The meetings began Wednesday, June 7 and ended Sunday, June 11. Tickets were needed in order to attend the opening session on Wednesday, which featured speeches by President William Howard Taft, House Speaker Champ Clark, and Rev. Lloyd C Douglas. The legislation that bothered Douglas so much was passed on Friday, June 9.
It had to do with the Augsburg Confession, a detailed statement of faith that was written by Philip Melanchton in 1530. For our purposes, the content of that document doesn’t matter. What matters is that the members of the conference affirmed that “the unaltered Augsburg Confession” is “a ‘correct exhibition of the faith and doctrine’ of the church as founded upon the Scriptures” (Evening Star, Friday, June 9, 1911, p. 3). In the years prior to this, the Lutheran Church in America had treated the Augsburg Confession as “substantially correct,” leaving its ministers free to interpret the scriptures for themselves, without regard to whether their interpretations matched those of the Confession. But this subtle change in verbiage (that the Confession was a “correct exhibition of the faith and doctrine”) now meant that the Augsburg Confession was just as authoritative as the Bible.
Milton Valentine, the editor of the Lutheran Observer who had done so much to help Douglas in his ministerial career, had now, in the past two years, had a chance to meet him in person, since Douglas had moved to the East Coast. During the time that Douglas served as pastor of Luther Place, he and Valentine met on more than one occasion and deepened their friendship. It was Valentine, more than anyone else, who understood why Douglas resigned from Luther Place. He didn’t know all of the factors involved, but he rightly guessed this much of it.
Just after Douglas resigned, Valentine wrote to him. He began by congratulating him, then stated his true feelings: “My regret is that this work will take you out of active connection with the General Synod, where we are so badly in need of men who have knowledge of the times in which they live and are in sympathy with its movements – not theological pedants, obscurantists, but men with their faces forward.” Then he suggested that the constitutional changes made at the church conference were the real reason Douglas was leaving: “From what I know of your mental makeup and habits of thought, I feel that the recent meeting of the General Synod has not been without its influence in your decision to take up this new work. I do not know when the outlook was more discouraging in the General Synod.” He stopped short of asking Douglas to confirm his guess, but he was right.
From Douglas’s very first sermons and published articles, we see in him a note of confidence that was only possible because he felt totally at liberty to think for himself and to share his thoughts with others. Freedom of thought and of expression were things he had always taken for granted. The constitutional changes made at the church conference threatened those freedoms. And Douglas needed intellectual freedom now more than ever. I’ll explain why in my next blog post.
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