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Behind the Scenes

by Ronald R Johnson (

At the University of Illinois, Lloyd Douglas worked at the new YMCA Building on the northwest corner of Wright and John streets, at the western edge of campus. He taught classes, wrote anonymous articles about the Y for the Daily Illini (the student-run newspaper), tried to get students to join the Y, and organized events featuring visiting speakers (most notably the organization’s leader, John Mott). Although he was busy, he was surprisingly low-key. He wasn’t in the news nearly as much as he had been as a pastor in North Manchester, in Lancaster, and in Washington, DC.

And there was a reason for that: Douglas had taken this job to get out of “active ministry” for a while and think things over. But he wasn’t the kind of man who needed to get completely away from it all in order to ruminate; rather, he did his best thinking when he knew he had to answer to the public, especially on a deadline. He no longer had to compose two sermons each week (for a.m. and p.m. services on Sundays), but he still wrote articles for religious periodicals (The Congregationalist now, instead of the Lutheran Observer), and he still taught classes at the YMCA and spoke at “smokers” designed to increase YMCA membership. (The university Y shamelessly imitated the fraternities, inviting young men to come and see a “lantern show” of Ben-Hur, for example, and hear an inspiring talk by Lloyd Douglas while enjoying a dessert and cigar.)

The newly-erected YMCA Building at the University of Illinois. Note the horse hooked up to the hitching post. From The Promise of Association: A History of the Mission and Work of the YMCA at the University of Illinois, 1873-1997 (Champaign, IL: University YMCA, 1997)
The same structure today. It’s no longer the YMCA Building, though; it’s Illini Hall. I took this picture in February 2015. There were no horses parked out in front.

But he wasn’t nearly as much in the public eye as he had been from 1903 to 1911. He spent time at the library across the street (that’s not a church steeple in the image below; it’s the campus library)…

…and he soaked up the campus culture. He spent most of his time with students, of course, but he was especially impressed with the faculty. Years later he wrote, “I had some exceptional opportunities to develop along the line of a liberal interpretation of religion during my work at the University of Illinois, where I came constantly in contact with a forward-looking group of very intelligent people who comprised the first sizable party of persons I had ever known who were both mentally solvent and religiously inclined. Up until that time only an occasional man of my acquaintance had qualified as [a] high grade intellectual and disposed toward a devout interpretation of religion. I discovered that it was possible for a man to be both religious and preserve his intellectual morality” (Douglas to Dr. Frank C. Ransdell, December 15, 1927. In Douglas Papers, Correspondence 1926-1930, Box 1, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan).

The most important work Douglas did at the University of Illinois was behind the scenes. He talked to people, and listened, and studied, and thought. Our best glimpse of the shifts in his theology comes from newspaper articles about the series of lectures he delivered at other universities during the second semester of the 1911-1912 school year. I’ll tell about that in the next post.

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

Douglas’s Long Road to Fame

by Ronald R Johnson (

Lloyd C. Douglas self-published his first book-length work of fiction in 1905, but it took almost thirty years for him to become known as an author of fiction. Through all the intervening years, he produced a steady stream of non-fiction articles, books, and booklets, as well as writing morning and evening sermons each Sunday and speeches during the week. (Douglas always wrote out his sermons and speeches even though he delivered them as if they were extemporaneous.)

That first work of fiction was More Than a Prophet, and it was unlike anything else he ever published. The book abounded in dialogues between angelic beings, and it was more of a prose poem than a novel. (And yes, Douglas wrote poetry as well as prose.) He borrowed the money to self-publish it, but few people were interested in buying it and it took him years to pay back the money he borrowed. Since Douglas was the kind of man who always preferred to be on the giving rather than the receiving end of loans and gifts, the failure of More Than a Prophet was deeply humiliating to him. He is often quoted as saying that More Than a Prophet was “less than a profit.”

But while the book was gathering dust, Douglas was making a name for himself as a frequent contributor to the Lutheran Observer. His articles on biblical subjects were thought-provoking, down-to-earth, and eloquent. Mostly because of the reputation he had earned through his writing, Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC, made him their Senior Pastor in 1909, although he had only been an ordained minister for six years.

From DC he went to Champaign-Urbana and headed the religious side of the YMCA on the campus of the University of Illinois. While there, he wrote a weekly column in the campus newspaper, as well as some features in a monthly magazine. Next he moved to the University of Michigan, and as Senior Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor, he wrote articles for the North American StudentThe Congregationalist, and other periodicals. He also self-published a new Advent booklet each Christmas season, exploring different aspects of the Christmas story.

In the summer of 1920 his writing career advanced considerably when he entered a writing contest sponsored by the Christian Century and was chosen as one of the semi-finalists. Although he won second place, the editor of the Century, Charles Clayton Morrison, liked Douglas’s writing and asked him to contribute another article. Douglas responded by sending not one but a series of articles on what we would now consider “church growth.” The series was provocative, and when it was finished, Christian Century Press published a book-length version of it under the title, Wanted: A Congregation. (The articles were non-fiction, but the book version presented the same material as a set of dialogues among a cast of characters.)

Not only did Douglas continue on as a frequent contributor to the Century throughout the 1920s, but he now became known as an author of non-fiction books about the ministry and/or about Christian faith: The Minister’s Everyday Life, These Sayings of Mine, and Those Disturbing Miracles. During these same years he submitted several articles to the Atlantic Monthly that were published without a by-line.

But Douglas had always wanted to write a novel, and in the late 1920s he did so. It was turned down by two publishing houses (one of which had published his non-fiction before), but was accepted by Willett, Clark, and Colby in 1929. Magnificent Obsession took a few years to catch on, but when it did, it made Douglas a household name, and his subsequent novels dominated the bestseller lists throughout the 1930s and 40s.

Headlines proclaimed him a novelist who didn’t start until he was 50 years old, but that’s inaccurate. He was always at his typewriter, from very early in life, tapping away. The volume of his published work is impressive, considering the fact that he was a full-time minister until after his second bestselling novel, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, was published. But what is most impressive is the fact that he didn’t quit, even though he felt the pain of More Than a Prophet every time he moved from one locale to another and had to carry all those boxes of unread books with him, storing them in the attic each time.

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

Introducing the Lloyd C Douglas Page

by Ronald R Johnson (

Lloyd C Douglas was a bestselling novelist in the 1930s and 40s. For three decades before that, he was a minister, a lecturer, an author of non-fiction books, and a frequent contributor to Christian CenturyThe Congregationalist, and other publications.

I have been studying Douglas’s private papers for a number of years. Those papers, including scrapbooks and correspondence, are housed at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library.

At this site, I will share what I have learned from my many trips cross-state to Bentley (from Kalamazoo, Michigan) over the past 14 years.

Lloyd Douglas and I don’t agree about everything, but he asked the right questions – or at least the ones that I believe are important for well-educated Christians in the twentieth (and now the twenty-first) century to consider. I have also found him endlessly entertaining, thought-provoking, and a wonderful companion. As you get to know him through these pages, I hope you will understand why I keep coming back to his writings for inspiration, solace, and human warmth.

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