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Talkin’ ’bout the Y….MCA

by Ronald R Johnson (

In July 1911, Lloyd Douglas surprised his congregation by resigning his post at the Luther Place Memorial Church, just blocks from the White House, to work for the YMCA at the University of Illinois. As I told you last time, he did his best to convince both his congregation and the press corps that it was a natural career step for him to take, but of course it was not.

To understand why people were willing to accept his story, however, you need to know a little bit more about the Y.

The Young Men’s Christian Association began in London, England, in 1844. As one history states, “The original idea behind the YMCA was to create an association of men that could counter the perceived threats of the emerging industrial, urban order to individual Christian faith and character. Through prayer meetings, Bible study, missions work, the keeping of a reading room with a library of ‘wholesome’ materials, and a variety of classes and lectures, the London Association sought to strengthen the faith of young men, to rescue them from the city’s innumerable temptations and vices” (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), p. 18).

The idea caught on, and the organization spread to a number of other countries, including the United States. The first YMCA “associations,” as they were called, had nothing to do with athletics. They were part of a movement to help young men sustain their Christian faith in an urban, industrialized environment. Early on, a female branch was established called the YWCA.

One wing of the Y movement, in the United States at least, focused on colleges and universities. In fact, the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (SVM) grew out of the Y in 1888. The young man who was put in charge of SVM, John R Mott, had just graduated from college two years earlier, and after another two years (1890), he was made Senior Student Director of the YMCA, at the age of 25. (Information about Mott comes from C. Howard Hopkins, John R Mott, 1865-1955: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979).)

This tells us a few important things: (1) that the YMCA was heavily involved in Christian evangelism; (2) that, as the name suggests, it was a youthful organization, run by young people; (3) that it considered America’s college students an important part of its mission field; and (4) that it wanted to enlist college students in global missions, as well.

John R Mott

You probably have never heard the name “John R Mott” before, but it’s much more probable that you’ve heard the slogan he created, because it worked its way effectively from SVM to the Y, and then on to churches and denominations all over the English-speaking world. His slogan was: “The Evangelization of the World In This Generation.”

It was a heady ambition: to bring the message of Christ to everyone, all over the globe, for the first time in history. And behind this goal was the hope that, in doing so, they would be preparing the world for Christ’s return.

To accomplish this daring goal, Mott built the student wing of the YMCA into an organization run by dynamic young preachers, and he sent them around to the nation’s colleges and universities to hold rallies and crusades. Lloyd Douglas was one of the men he chose.

Just after Douglas accepted the call to join the YMCA, Mott wrote to him and said, “I can appreciate what a sacrifice it will be for your church to release you at this time. I cannot, however, regard it as other than a clearly Providential leading which has influenced you to decide to go to this strategic field. From the point of view of the church, your action is most timely. Those State universities of the West are fast becoming the largest universities in the country. They wield an enormous influence. They have been seriously neglected on the moral and religious side. Nothing could be more important for the Christian Church in America during the next half generation than to make them strongholds and propagating centers for a pure and aggressive Christianity.”

Douglas made sure that his congregation read that letter. He also gave it to the press corps, and almost all of them published it. The evangelization of students all along the Mississippi Region of the YMCA was indeed important work, especially when it was viewed as a “strategic” part of Mott’s plans for winning the whole world to Christ.

But Douglas was no evangelist. He was a preacher, yes, and he aimed his preaching especially at young people. But he never tried to convert anyone, nor did he lead even one of his own parishioners through the Sinner’s Prayer, as far as we know. That wasn’t his style, nor was it consistent with his theology.

As at least one of the DC papers noted, the Y had been trying to get him on board for some time, and he had consistently turned them down. I suspect that they became especially interested in him after he and Dr. Clarence Barbour, who was on the Y’s international committee, shared the podium at a DC event on May 8, 1911. But something happened in June that changed Douglas’s mind, and suddenly he saw the job at the YMCA as a life saver.

For by the end of June, Douglas wanted out of the Lutheran Church – immediately.

I’ll tell you more about that in my next blog post.

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