by Ronald R Johnson (www.ronaldrjohnson.com)
When Lloyd Douglas began his ministry at the First Congregational Church of Akron in the fall of 1921, he viewed it as a chance to share all that he had learned during his time at the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan. As he explained later, “I came to you from an experience of about ten years, spent upon the campuses of two great universities, where I daily faced the new problem of a readjustment in religious thought, to make it consonant with the more recent disclosures of the philosophical and scientific world” (Lloyd C Douglas, “Five Years of Akron,” in The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1955), p. 80.)
During those years, he had been in university towns, but now he was in a city – “Rubber City,” they called it, due to the predominance of the big tire companies like Goodyear and Firestone – and he was putting his ideas into practice out in the world.
The first thing he focused on was worship. Not preaching, but worship.
In his inaugural sermon at the First Congregational Church of Akron on September 18, 1921, Douglas said, “The church is failing in America because it has failed to carry out its true mission…. The church may do philanthropic and social work, but its first duty is to be a house of worship, and when it fails in this it cannot expect the veneration to which it should be entitled” (“SCORES CHURCH/New Akron Pastor Flays Modern Worship,” Akron Press, n.d., 1920-1923 Scrapbook, Box 5, Lloyd C Douglas Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan).
Over the past several years, Douglas had already established an order of worship that the people in Ann Arbor said was “probably unsurpassed elsewhere.” (This was from a resolution the congregation’s leaders drew up in 1921, accepting his resignation and thanking him for his ministry. Quoted on p. 63 of Calvin O. Davis, A History of the Congregational Church in Ann Arbor, 1847-1947, which was reprinted in A History of the First Congregational Church in Ann Arbor, 1847-1976 (Ann Arbor: First Congregational Church, n. d. [1976?]).
His services were heavily dependent on music. It was a source of great irritation to him that people would talk over the organ prelude. As he told his new congregation, “During the organ prelude in a church recently I learned the recipe for plum jelly, that a certain oil stock was a good buy, that there was to be a bargain sale at a local department store, and that the road to another city was in bad shape on account of the concrete cracking” (from “SCORES CHURCH” cited above).
He thought the church auditorium should be a true sanctuary where people would leave their worldly cares at the door and come into the presence of The Great Mystery. “The LORD is in His Holy Temple,” begins the Order of Worship from his first Sunday in Akron; “let all the earth keep silence before Him.” In Ann Arbor, Douglas had enforced that: ushers were to close the doors as soon as the organ prelude began and not open them again until later in the service. He was so adamant about this that it ruffled a few of his parishioners’ feathers, but he was striving to make the church a place where people could actually come with the expectation of meeting God.
The prelude should begin softly, Douglas felt, to counteract the rat-a-tat-tat of machinery that had assaulted worshipers’ ears for the past six days. It should calm the soul and prepare it for communion with the divine. Then, through subtle use of dynamics and ascending chords, it should end triumphantly in the exact key of the opening hymn and launch into that hymn immediately, so that worshipers would rise and sing without being prompted. Douglas hated how the typical Protestant minister could spoil the whole thing by announcing, “Beloved, shall we not rise and sing Hymn 321? That’s 321, and you’ll find it in the hymnal on the pew in front of you. Hymn 321.”
As Douglas said to an audience of fellow ministers and lay-workers:
Many a sensitive man would greatly prefer to take a book of essays with him to a shady bend in the river on Sunday morning than attend our church; whereas his whole soul cries out for a much closer contact with the divine than he can achieve by his communion with nature. But – it is a great deal better for that man’s spiritual welfare that he should go out Sunday morning and watch the river than to go to some church where the music is so ugly it positively frightens [him] and the preacher talks to the Great Unseen as if he were chaffing with his next-door neighbor over the back fence.Lloyd C Douglas, “Making Worship Worshipful,” Christian Century, September 9, 1920, pp. 14-17.
What Douglas was trying to achieve can best be understood through his description of the exact opposite:
There wasn’t a single feature of that ‘service of worship’ calculated to quicken a man’s respiration, or grip his throat, or stir his pulse! What little of solemn ritual there was in it possessed no current, no rapids, no eddies, no sudden unexpected plunges over huge ledges into unfathomably deep pools, no sharp turns revealing startlingly beautiful vistas ahead – no! – but just ambled lazily along on a level like the sleepy Yanktse Kiang, for five hundred miles without a ripple. It reached no dramatic climaxes; pointed to no definite goal; never poured its flood into the deep sea. It spread out over the sands, and disappeared.Lloyd C Douglas, Wanted: A Congregation (Chicago: Christian Century Press, 1920), p. 195.
At the movies, Douglas said – and he was talking about silent movies, remember, for this was 1921 – at the movies “there were certain tense moments when people stopped breathing and sat transfixed,” but at church…
…where the issue involved was the attempted establishment of actual, vital relationship with the Absolute – the invocation of His Presence at whose word light had dispelled the darkness, by whose divine fiat the worlds had appeared in space, by whose supernal genius His creatures had been endowed with a consciousness of their own immortality – this solemn and mysterious function was performed drowsily, calmly, with an air of tedium, boredom, and distaste.Ibid., pp. 194-195.
Lloyd Douglas was the new minister in Rubber City. His first order of business was to stir people’s pulses… and invite them out into the deep sea.
To be continued…
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