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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:

An Unfortunate End to a Distinguished Career

by Ronald R Johnson (

From January through March 1909, two Washington, DC, newspapers (the Washington Herald and the Washington Times) gave an unusual amount of coverage to a dispute occurring among the membership of Luther Place Memorial Church. The church council wanted to make changes in the way the congregation was governed, and particularly in the way that finances were handled, but the pastor, Rev. Dr. J. G. Butler, was offended.

In January, the council asked Dr. Butler to announce an upcoming congregational meeting to discuss the issues, but he did not share the announcement with the congregation. A few of the council’s leaders resigned in protest, but since their resignations had to be brought before a congregational meeting, Butler surprised the council the following Sunday by announcing the resignations immediately after his sermon and asking all in favor to say “Aye.” This took everyone by surprise, since the leaders of the council, rather than the pastor, were supposed to preside over congregational meetings. But parliamentary procedures were ignored.

The next day, the story appeared in the local papers. This may not seem like the kind of thing that would make headlines, but (1) churches were considered much more newsworthy in the early 1900s than they are now; (2) Luther Place was considered one of the more significant churches in Washington, DC, and Dr. Butler was arguably the most highly-esteemed churchman; (3) the inauguration of William Howard Taft was just weeks away, but it was a boring story since Theodore Roosevelt, the current president, had hand-picked Taft as his successor (in other words, it was a slow season for news); and (4) perhaps most importantly, it was scandalous. And people on both sides of the conflict made it increasingly scandalous by hurling accusations against each other in the newspapers.

The congregational meeting finally did happen, but Dr. Butler presided over it and, again, parliamentary procedures were not followed. Butler accused the council of trying to oust him as pastor, and he asked for a vote of confidence for his leadership. Some tried to speak but were not given the floor. A lot of people walked out, saying they’d never come back. Of those who remained, the majority voted in favor of Dr. Butler. “The insurgents have been repulsed and are in full retreat,” he told the Washington Times a few days after the meeting (Times, Friday, February 5, 1909, p. 11).

The following Sunday he preached on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. “While we slept,” he said, “the enemy has been sowing tares. There are children of the devil in the church. We have the sheep and the goats among us. Examine yourselves this morning, and see where you stand – among the sheep or among the goats. Those who stand aloof and out of the church at this time of fractional disruption will stand a small chance before the judgment seat. There were factions and schisms in the old church at Corinth, and the Apostle Paul rebuked those responsible for rebelling against God… This church is not to be disrupted by factions and strife.” (Washington Times, Sunday Evening, February 7, 1909, p. 1).

The following Sunday he preached on Matthew 12:30: “He that is not with me is against me.”

This kind of talk did nothing to win people back to the church. The group that the press called “insurgents” or “dissenters” began meeting on Sunday mornings at Confederacy Hall, Vermont Avenue, between N and O streets northwest, which was less than two blocks north of Luther Place. A Congregationalist minister served as interim pastor until they could obtain a Lutheran pastor. When approached for a comment, Dr. Butler told the Herald, “The whole thing is a closed incident to me. These persons have left the church, and the church is getting along without them.” (Washington Herald, Monday, February 15, 1909, p. 1).

Dr. Butler was a fighter. When the War Between the States had begun in 1861, the permanent residents of Washington, DC, were by no means unanimous in their reaction. They lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line, south of two slave-holding states (Maryland and Delaware); the Confederate state of Virginia was just across the Potomac River; and Washington itself had a significant slave population. More than half of the capital city’s families came from either Virginia or Maryland. Geographically and culturally, they had more in common with the genteel South than with the abolitionist North. At the commencement of the war, it was not at all clear whether the village residents would be loyal to the Federal Government. (See Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington: A History of the Capital, 1800-1950 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), volume 1, chapters 9-11).

At that time, Butler was pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, and he did not mince words. Despite the general uncertainty, he did what he could to tip the scale in favor of the Union. In his sermons he opposed secession, and although some of his parishioners left the church in anger, many more joined. Vice President Schuyler Colfax frequently attended, as did a number of congressmen and high-ranking military men. Glad of Butler’s support, President Lincoln appointed him chaplain of both a military hospital and of the 5th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Volunteers.

Butler kept up that same fighting spirit long after the war was over, preaching and acting in support of the newly-freed slaves, establishing a health clinic at the church, and helping the poor and disadvantaged within the District of Columbia. And when there was a fire in the church, he rallied his congregation and got them to rebuild it. He was 80 years old at the time. It seems appropriate that, at the rededication of Luther Place following that rebuilding, President Theodore Roosevelt used fighting imagery to describe the state of American politics:

“The forces of evil are strong and mighty in this century and in this country,” he said, and he added that “the people who sincerely wish to do the Lord’s work will find ample opportunity for all their labor in fighting the common enemy” (President Theodore Roosevelt, “At the Rededication of the Luther Place Memorial Church, Washington, DC, January 29, 1905.” In A Compilation of the Messages and Speeches of Theodore Roosevelt, 1901-1905, Alfred Henry Lewis, ed. (Washington, DC: Bureau of National Literature and Art, 1906), pp. 548-550).

This fighting imagery was very much to Butler’s taste. He was a fighter to the end.

Unfortunately, in the final months of his life, when the members of his own congregation were trying to get organized to continue the work he started, he misinterpreted their intentions and fought back, even using the local newspapers to help him win. It was a sad end to a long and distinguished career – and it truly was the end, for on the morning of August 2, 1909, he collapsed on his bedroom floor and died of a heart attack.

The church council moved quickly. They wanted a new pastor charismatic enough to reunite the warring factions. So intent were they on this course of action that they took a huge risk. They passed over Dr. Butler’s son, the Rev. Charles Butler, his heir-apparent. They by-passed a close friend of Dr. Butler, the Rev. Dr. D. Frank Garland of Dayton, Ohio. They declined the opportunity to hear and evaluate distinguished ministers from the length and breadth of the land, many of whom would have been thrilled at the opportunity.

Only one candidate was invited: a young man who had been a minister for no more than six years and who had spent that time serving small-town parishes in the Midwest. He was thirty-two years old, but the Washington papers said he looked much younger. Within only a few short years, he had made a name for himself as a writer for the Lutheran Observer, and he was considered an up-and-coming progressive.

His name was Lloyd C. Douglas.

[To be continued…]

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

The Importance of Sportsmanship within the Church

by Ronald R Johnson (

Quotable quotes from Lloyd C. Douglas

From a farewell sermon entitled, “Five Years of Akron,” delivered at the First Congregational Church of Akron on October 31, 1926. (He was on his way to a pastorate in Los Angeles.) This is reprinted in Living Faith, pp. 77-92.

He’s summarizing some of the things he tried to teach them during his time as their pastor:

I have talked considerably about the value of Christian sportsmanship. I saw no good in churches that quarrel – either within their own ranks or with others outside their gates. I proclaimed that whatever spirit it was that made people mean, and critical, and captious, and fault-finding, and petulant – you could be sure it was not the Holy Spirit; that if their lives were haunted with the shades of outworn fears and inexcusable ignorances and moldy superstitions – you could be sure their grisly ghost was not the Holy Ghost.

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