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What Douglas Wanted Most

by Ronald R Johnson (

Sometime while he was pastor at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC (between Fall 1909 and Summer 1911), Lloyd Douglas preached a sermon that must have puzzled his parishioners (Lloyd C Douglas, The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955), pp. 14-21).

He claimed that the local congregation was like the Bethesda Pool in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John. Paralyzed people gathered on porches around the pool because it was rumored that an angel sometimes stirred up the waters, giving them momentary healing powers; the first to wade in would be made whole. Of course, those most in need were never able to reach the water first. “Some of our churches are like that Pool of Bethesda,” he argued. “They are handsomely equipped…. But there seems to be such a noticeable lack of provision for bringing in just the people who are in such obvious need of its curative agencies.”

It was not enough for the churches to welcome visitors, he said. There had to be a way to get the gospel out to people rather than just trying to bring them in. The members of Luther Place Memorial Church must have wondered what Douglas was talking about, because Douglas’s predecessor, Dr. J.G. Butler, had been very effective at reaching out to the larger community, not only by being chaplain of both the House and the Senate, but also by mentoring young black men who were called to ministry. The church even had a health clinic run by one of Butler’s sons, who was a doctor. So why was Douglas saying that the church needed to find a way to get its “curative agencies” out to the people who needed it most?

Because Douglas wasn’t talking about social programs. He was talking about accessing the power of God and putting it to work in our lives, and he was saying that the church had not yet found a way to get this access out to the people who would never come to church. For him, the gospel was not so much about church attendance as about harnessing divine energies to make the world a better place. The mission of the church was to get that power into people’s hands – even people who did not attend church. In his sermon on the Bethesda Pool, he said that, if he knew how to accomplish this, then “by next week I would be figuring in headlines an inch high in a thousand metropolitan papers.” Although this was an expression of youthful hyperbole, it shows just how important this issue was to Douglas. He wanted to articulate a gospel that would have practical effects in everyday life, and he insisted on taking that message to the larger public.

Although no one who heard that sermon probably realized it, he was telling them the thing he wanted to accomplish above all else. And the missing puzzle piece was this: he wanted to reach people outside the church through his writing.

Although his parents groomed him for the ministry from a young age, he seems to have sensed an even deeper calling to be a writer. Nor did he just want to publish sermons and religious essays. For as far back as his scrapbooks take us, he was kicking around the idea of writing something for the mass reading public, and what he had in mind was fiction. In his letters to friends and family, he made light of this aspiration, calling himself “a scribbler” and speaking as though his passion for writing were an addiction.

In a letter to his cousin Edith Kirkwood in 1910 (while he was pastor at Luther Place), he said, “Lately I have revived an old slumbering passion for writing yarns. Not long ago I sold a small ornament off my desk to Eddie Bok [an editor] and the sight of that check, with its beautiful corrugated edges – albeit it was not for more than two figures – started up my old trouble; and the gnawing at my vitals… has compelled me to scribble some more. God help the preacher who isn’t content to stick to his parish duties!… I have a lot of old mummies in my ecclesiastical museum who would feel that Hell had opened up its maw (and its paw, for that matter) to embrace me, were the news to out that I had disgraced the profesh and besmirched the cloth by writing fiction. I shall spare them the discomfort by seeing to it that nobody finds out. I am now on the hunt for a satisfactory nom-de-plume…” (Quoted in Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C Douglas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952), p. 66.)

In 1910 he was willing to keep his fiction writing a secret by using a pen name, but a year later, when the YMCA offered him a job and a chance to say “Good riddance” to the “old mummies,” that seemed like a better plan. As it turned out, he didn’t tell his employers at the Y that he was writing fiction, either, but that was all right; his fiction wasn’t good enough to display yet. At this phase in his life, he had a lot to learn about the craft of writing fiction. The point is this: his devotion to “scribbling” went so deep, he couldn’t beat the addiction, even though he felt guilty about indulging in it while being a man of the cloth. But deep down, he always believed he was going to make it as a writer. It may seem like a small thing, but take a look at the opening page of his very first scrapbook in 1903.

That’s more than a signature; if I’m not mistaken, he was practicing his autograph – the same one he used years later to sign copies of his bestselling novels. Here’s a signed copy of the inside page of Forgive Us Our Trespasses, published almost thirty years later, in 1932. It is practically identical:

Lloyd Douglas the Author was always there in germinal form, even while he was working so hard to establish himself as a minister. And he obviously felt those two things were incompatible, at least in the minds of some of his parishioners.

Over the past several blog posts, I’ve addressed the question, “Why did Douglas resign his important post at Luther Place Memorial Church to work for the YMCA?” So far I’ve answered this question in bits and pieces, but now I’m ready to pull it all together into a coherent explanation.

Douglas resigned for many reasons, most of which he kept concealed. He wanted to go back to school and get the kind of education he could only get from a state university. At that institution, he wanted to rethink his theology and align it with the latest, most up-to-date information available. Pursuant to this goal, he wanted to leave the Lutheran Church and start fresh with some other denomination. And he wanted to do all this not only so that he could preach again, but – more importantly – because he wanted to write something… probably fiction. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. If anyone had asked him in 1911, he would have been incapable of telling them what he had in mind. But he did have something in mind, and he sensed that he would never bring it to full expression unless he could shed his current social limitations and start over.

And that’s why Lloyd C Douglas moved his family west to Champaign, Illinois in the Fall of 1911. He had great hopes. But he was taking a tremendous risk.

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

Brave New World

by Ronald R Johnson (

The University of Illinois

When Shailer Mathews traveled the United States to tell the general public about the new biblical scholarship being done at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, his message included a description of the new state-college system that was transforming the social landscape in America.

It had been happening all around us, he argued, and yet we were strangely unaware of it. During the Civil War, Congress had passed legislation mandating that each state set aside lands and funds for colleges, and the state-sponsored schools that resulted were quite different from the colleges and universities that had been in existence prior to that. The old colleges and universities were sponsored by religious organizations and taught a fixed body of knowledge that was assumed to be true for all time. These new schools were research institutions. The professors were engaged in state-of-the-art research, and teaching was secondary. This had a number of ramifications, but perhaps the most important, according to Mathews, was the fact that the teachers and the students in these schools looked at the world through new eyes. Part of the new worldview was a belief in the tentative nature of knowledge: since the members of the faculty were constantly making new discoveries, they taught their students to expect updates, at least once in a while if not constantly. Graduates of these institutions went out into the world with the tools to keep learning throughout their lives. And as they did so, and they participated in the workplace, especially in management and professional positions, they were transforming their society.

This brave new world they were creating was one in which facts were of supreme importance – not opinion, not feelings, not beliefs, but facts. Those facts were gathered systematically, according to procedures that, as much as possible, were developed to mimic scientific investigations. The old institutions of learning had stressed literature, history, and philosophy; the new institutions were – or at least strived to be – scientific. And the young people who graduated from these new schools were quietly changing the world.

Of all the things Mathews said, this touched Douglas most deeply. Douglas had been home-schooled. His mother and father were both educators, and they gave him a rigorous classical education: in other words, an education that emphasized literature, history, and philosophy (or in his case, theology). On more than one occasion, he hinted that he was not very happy with the education he received at Wittenberg College (a Lutheran institution), and he was especially critical of the seminary, saying it did not give him any of the hands-on training that was necessary for being a pastor. When Mathews talked about the new state universities and the influence they were having on American society, Douglas’s imagination soared. He not only wanted to understand what was happening in the state colleges; he wanted the kind of education they offered. Although he was in his late thirties, he wanted to go back to school.

When the YMCA told him they had created a position for him at the University of Illinois, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. Sometime later, when he was a pastor in Akron, he looked back on the years 1911 to 1921 and said, “I came to you from an experience of about ten years spent upon the campuses of two great universities [Illinois and Michigan], 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, The Living Faith (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955), p. 80).

Although Douglas was going to Illinois to evangelize students, his personal desire was to go back to school. It was a win-win situation for him.

But I still haven’t given you the whole picture on why Douglas left Luther Place Church to work for the YMCA. There was another factor involved, and it was more important than any of the others I’ve told you about so far. I’ll explain in my next blog post.

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

Shailer Mathews

by Ronald R Johnson (

Shailer Mathews

Sometime while the Douglases were living in Washington, DC, they attended a series of lectures by Shailer Mathews, Dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

I have been unable to pinpoint where or when they heard him speak. It could have been anywhere in the vicinity, including New York City, and it could have been anytime between Fall 1909 and Summer 1911. Besides his duties at the university, Mathews traveled around the country explaining the new principles of biblical scholarship to the general public. In his autobiography, he says he gave more than 150 speeches all over the US in the years immediately after 1896 (Shailer Mathews, New Faith for Old: An Autobiography (NY: Macmillan, 1936), p. 83.) In these lectures, he pulled no punches. He told the public about the scholarly work being done on the Bible, much of which was difficult for laypeople to hear because it cast into doubt many of the old beliefs about how the biblical books were compiled. (For example: the assertion that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John were not actually written by the biblical characters Matthew, Mark, and John, nor were the first five books of the Old Testament written by Moses.)

We don’t know when Lloyd and Besse heard Mathews speak. This much we know: his lectures changed Douglas’s life. The point at issue, however, is precisely how Douglas’s life changed.

In their book about their father, Douglas’s daughters tell us this about Lloyd and Besse’s experience while living in Washington, DC:

From every direction new and revolutionary ideas rushed at them, rocking the solid beliefs they had never dreamed of questioning. They began to read books and articles of churchmen who were openly criticizing the old theories of religion. They found themselves in sympathy with the new protest against tradition. Not only was religion being held up and examined for mothholes, but in Washington they discovered that all the traditions of American life were undergoing a great change in which only a few scandalizing rumors had ever penetrated the old walls behind which they had been raised.

Together they attended a series of lectures given by Shailer Mathews, an exponent of religious modernism, which left them in a most distressed state of mind. They recognized the reasonableness and were forced to agree with the attack upon the old conceptions, but they heard nothing satisfying which they could grasp to fill the void.

“Daddy became very unsettled in his thinking while we were in Washington,” Mother told us.

She found comfort on one subject at least. Dr. Holt’s book The Care and Feeding of Children, had been a treasure of information to replace her shockingly old-fashioned ideas on child care. “Sometimes I used to wish we could find a book so sane and satisfying on the Care and Feeding of Faith.”

Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C Douglas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952), p. 68.

I read this book years before I first arrived at the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, where Douglas’s private papers are kept. When I began researching his papers, this was my working thesis: that Douglas had undergone a crisis of faith after attending the Mathews lectures, and that was why he left the Lutheran ministry. To my surprise, however, I could find nothing to corroborate Besse’s description of his mental state after hearing Mathews’ lectures. Eventually I found it necessary to modify that thesis, based on my own research.

I realize that no one was closer to Douglas than his wife, but I have come to believe that her testimony reflects her own reaction much more than it does her husband’s. For a number of reasons, I do not believe that Douglas suffered a profound crisis of faith after hearing Mathews speak. The lecture series did change his life, but not exactly in the way that his daughters claim it did.

There are a couple of very basic facts I need to tell you about Lloyd Douglas before I continue. First, he kept no diaries. Everything we know about his inner state (his thoughts and feelings), we have from his writings. I don’t just mean his published writings; his letters to friends and family are so extremely candid that I’m sure he’d be embarrassed if he knew that they are now available for anyone to read. The unfortunate thing is that, in his letters, Douglas is usually humorous. Whatever his spiritual experiences may have been from day to day, he didn’t express them to other people. And since he didn’t keep diaries, that means we know almost nothing about his inner life.

I can find only one time he ever tried to start a diary, and he only did it for a day or two before he gave up. It was during his first trip (with Besse) to Europe in the 1920s. Why did he give up? Because at the end of each day of exploring, he was so busy writing letters home to his daughters that he didn’t have time to write in his diary. However, in those few pages we get a glimpse of him that we get nowhere else. He tried to describe how he felt pushing off to sea. This was a voyage he had dreamed about for most of his life, and when the moment came, it was mystical. In his letters to his daughters, he never mentioned this. His letters are filled with humor; they contain no hints of any mystical experience. And since those few pages comprise the only diary he ever wrote (as far as I can tell), I can only surmise that we will never know what his spiritual life was really like.

The second basic fact we need to realize about him is that he did most of his thinking at the typewriter. When he was perplexed, he worked it out by hammering away at the keyboard. Then he pulled what he had written out of his typewriter and either presented it from the pulpit (if it was a sermon) or sent it off to an editor (if it was a magazine article), or put it in an envelope and sent it as a letter to a friend. Although his spiritual life is mostly hidden from us, his intellectual life was extremely well-documented. We can trace his thinking by reading his sermons and speeches, his magazine articles, and his correspondence. And when I do that, I find a direct line of thought, uninterrupted by any crisis of faith. He did lose faith in his denomination, but not in God.

The Shailer Mathews lectures seem to have stimulated his thinking rather than troubling him. Douglas already knew the biblical problems that Mathews raised (for example, discrepancies in the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection among the four gospels). Douglas himself had mentioned those same biblical problems in some of his earliest magazine articles during his first couple of years in the ministry, and even in those early articles, he was already pointing in the direction that his thought would go later on. Nowhere do I see him faltering, either during his pastorate in Washington or during his years with the YMCA. Douglas didn’t have a faith crisis, but Shailer Mathews did challenge him to do some serious rethinking. And in order to do so, he knew he needed to get out of his role as a pastor, especially within the Lutheran Church.

He wrote these words in his last article for the Lutheran Observer, just after leaving Washington:

“I used to think that if I could just get out of the active pastorate for a week or two and hie myself away where I wouldn’t need care very much whether my constituency understood my motives or not, and take careful aim and bang away at two or three things that everybody knows need to be ventilated, what a glorious, albeit smellful, event it would be.

“From this safe angle then I modestly pull the trigger, fondly hoping that all who are in the vicinity of the target will promptly squeal in order that we may be able to check up on the efficiency of our marksmanship.”

These were not the words of a man who was “very unsettled in his thinking,” and certainly not one who was “in a most distressed state of mind.” These words evinced a deep confidence in his own ability to formulate a better theology if he could cut loose from the social obligations that were tying him down. That’s why he accepted the position with the YMCA: because he wanted to start over, rethinking his entire theology without having any denominational restrictions placed on him, and without having to answer to his parishioners.

But Douglas had another huge takeaway from Shailer Mathews’ lectures that no one has ever mentioned. I’ll tell you 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:

Leaving the Lutheran Church

by Ronald R Johnson (

The Augsburg Confession

Lloyd Douglas resigned as pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in July 1911, effective September 1. He told his congregation he was leaving to serve the YMCA at the University of Illinois. And that was true, but it was only part of the truth. Another part of it was that he felt an immediate need to leave the denomination.

Douglas had been a Lutheran all his life. When he was very young, his father A.J. Douglas was a Lutheran pastor. Prior to that, A.J. had been an attorney and then a school superintendent, and he had met and married the wife of his old age – Lloyd Douglas’s mother – when she was teaching at his school. Lloyd Douglas had siblings who were a generation older than he was; they were A.J.’s children from a previous marriage, and their mother had died, leaving A.J. a widower until he met Lloyd’s mother. A.J. had promised the Lord that he would be a minister, but he didn’t make good on that promise until he was old. As compensation, he groomed his youngest son for the ministry. A.J. took the boy with him as he made his rounds to see his parishioners and to preach at the multiple small-town churches under his charge. From as far back as Douglas could remember, he had sat beside his father in their horse-and-carriage as A.J. went on his rounds, and together they parsed Greek words and talked in depth about the ministry. The Lutheran ministry.

So it was no small matter sometime in 1911 when Lloyd Douglas turned to his wife on the way home from Luther Place one day and said, “Besse, I’m going to get out of the church.” Besse told their daughters the story years later: “I was terribly shocked,” she said. “He had talked that way before, but this time I felt he really meant it. The first thing I thought was, ‘What will his mother say?'” (Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C Douglas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952), p. 72.) (His father had already died.)

Predictably, his mother wasn’t too keen on the idea. Nor were Besse’s parents, the Reverend and Mrs. Porch, also of the Lutheran Church.

But Douglas had to break free, especially now. For in the summer of 1911, the General Synod of the Lutheran Church in America had its annual convention, and they passed constitutional amendments that Douglas could not tolerate.

The conference was held at – of all places – Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, DC. The meetings began Wednesday, June 7 and ended Sunday, June 11. Tickets were needed in order to attend the opening session on Wednesday, which featured speeches by President William Howard Taft, House Speaker Champ Clark, and Rev. Lloyd C Douglas. The legislation that bothered Douglas so much was passed on Friday, June 9.

It had to do with the Augsburg Confession, a detailed statement of faith that was written by Philip Melanchton in 1530. For our purposes, the content of that document doesn’t matter. What matters is that the members of the conference affirmed that “the unaltered Augsburg Confession” is “a ‘correct exhibition of the faith and doctrine’ of the church as founded upon the Scriptures” (Evening Star, Friday, June 9, 1911, p. 3). In the years prior to this, the Lutheran Church in America had treated the Augsburg Confession as “substantially correct,” leaving its ministers free to interpret the scriptures for themselves, without regard to whether their interpretations matched those of the Confession. But this subtle change in verbiage (that the Confession was a “correct exhibition of the faith and doctrine”) now meant that the Augsburg Confession was just as authoritative as the Bible.

Milton Valentine, the editor of the Lutheran Observer who had done so much to help Douglas in his ministerial career, had now, in the past two years, had a chance to meet him in person, since Douglas had moved to the East Coast. During the time that Douglas served as pastor of Luther Place, he and Valentine met on more than one occasion and deepened their friendship. It was Valentine, more than anyone else, who understood why Douglas resigned from Luther Place. He didn’t know all of the factors involved, but he rightly guessed this much of it.

Just after Douglas resigned, Valentine wrote to him. He began by congratulating him, then stated his true feelings: “My regret is that this work will take you out of active connection with the General Synod, where we are so badly in need of men who have knowledge of the times in which they live and are in sympathy with its movements – not theological pedants, obscurantists, but men with their faces forward.” Then he suggested that the constitutional changes made at the church conference were the real reason Douglas was leaving: “From what I know of your mental makeup and habits of thought, I feel that the recent meeting of the General Synod has not been without its influence in your decision to take up this new work. I do not know when the outlook was more discouraging in the General Synod.” He stopped short of asking Douglas to confirm his guess, but he was right.

From Douglas’s very first sermons and published articles, we see in him a note of confidence that was only possible because he felt totally at liberty to think for himself and to share his thoughts with others. Freedom of thought and of expression were things he had always taken for granted. The constitutional changes made at the church conference threatened those freedoms. And Douglas needed intellectual freedom now more than ever. I’ll explain why in my next blog post.

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

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:


by Ronald R Johnson (

Lloyd C Douglas in 1910. From Virginia Douglas Dawson and Betty Douglas Wilson, The Shape of Sunday: An Intimate Biography of Lloyd C Douglas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1952).

It was officially 98 degrees in Washington, DC, that day (107 degrees on “the street kiosk”), but the members of Luther Place Memorial Church must have stopped fanning themselves when they heard the announcement. It was Sunday, July 2, 1911, and as their young pastor, Lloyd C Douglas, ended his sermon and was about to begin administering the sacrament, he said these words, according to the next day’s Times Herald. They are remarkable for their brevity:

“This morning I celebrate the feast of the Lord’s Supper with you for the last time. Probably, too, it will be the last time I shall officiate in this capacity in our church.”

In less than half a minute, he told them two important pieces of information: (1) that he was resigning as pastor, and (2) that he was leaving the ministry of the Lutheran Church. He continued:

“For I have concluded, after most thorough and prayerful attention to a call to the University of Illinois to become religious work director of the Student Christian Association, that it is my duty to accept.”

A little less than two years earlier, he had been given an opportunity to lead this flagship church in the nation’s capital, and now he was throwing it all away to become a campus minister.

From the Washington Post:

“Hardly had the minister concluded his resignation when members of the church surrounded him and pleaded with him to give up the call. The officials of the church were loudest in their insistence that he remain, declaring that he was as much needed in this city as in his new field. To these claims Mr. Douglas replied that he had already accepted the call from the Young Men’s Christian Association and could not alter his decision now.”

From the Washington Herald:

“‘It seems clearly God’s own call,’ said one of the leading members afterward. ‘We are honored, though the regret in having Mr. Douglas go, just as he has really got well started with us, is sincere and universal in Luther Place Memorial Church.’”

From the Washington Times:

“‘I leave my church here with much regret, but I feel that my duty lies in the new field,’ said the pastor. ‘My relations with the church here are most pleasant and only the urgency of the call leads me to leave.’

The reporters at the Washington, DC papers had not yet become either as aggressive or as persistent as they would be in later years, for they all seemed to suspect that there was more to the story, but none of them pursued it. Douglas was giving up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at Luther Place, and his new job at the YMCA was a downward move, although he did his best to make it sound important.

A letter he received from the White House put it in perspective. The note came from Charles D Hilles, secretary to President Taft. “While I congratulate the University on securing your services,” Hilles said, “I very much regret that we in Washington are to lose you. I have no doubt that your pre-eminent success with young men fits you for the task you are about to assume. If I did not know of your fondness for such work, I should be unable to account for your departure from the fine old church in Washington.”

There it was: yes, we know you’re fond of working with young people; and yes, we know you’ll do well. But even taking those factors into consideration, we are “unable to account for your departure.”

It was a different day and time than the one we live in now. No one seriously pressed him about it. But their suspicions were correct: there was more to the story.

For although Douglas had strong feelings about the YMCA and had even been considering working for them when the Luther Place opportunity fell in his lap, this career move was about far more than that. Lloyd Douglas was at a crossroads – mentally, spiritually, and professionally. For reasons known only to himself and his wife Besse, he could no longer continue on his current trajectory. Over the next five blog posts, I’ll tell you about those reasons.

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

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: