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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.

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