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Douglas Is Coming!

by Ronald R Johnson (

As part of his contract with the University of Illinois YMCA in 1911, Lloyd Douglas agreed to give a series of lectures at some of the other universities in the region. Between March and November of 1912, he spoke at the University of Iowa, Simpson College (at Indianola, Iowa), and Milliken University (in Decatur, Illinois). The Y at each location did its utmost to get male students interested (the women had their own YWCA-sponsored meetings at the same time – yes, they were segregated), and some of the promotional materials are amusing. They treat Douglas like a celebrity.

From the Iowa City Citizen, undated, in Douglas’s 1909-1915 Scrapbook, Douglas Papers, Box 5, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
The Simpsonian, undated. In Douglas’s 1909-1915 Scrapbook.
From the Decatur Herald, undated. In Douglas’s 1909-1915 Scrapbook.

That’s a lot of hype, but Douglas was equal to it. His scrapbook contains clippings from both the college and city newspapers, and they all raved.

From the Simpsonian: “It is sufficient to say that Douglas made a deep impression on the religious life of Simpson men – and that is saying much in a school like this, where religious appeal is so familiar that, to use Douglas’s own expressive phrase, ‘people’s souls become grooved and calloused’ with well-meant but ineffective religious effort.” (Milliken was a Methodist college.)

From the Decatur Herald: “Interest was not allowed to lag at any moment…”

From the Iowan: “A body of over two hundred students listened to one of the most fascinating addresses of its kind last evening at the natural science center by Lloyd C. Douglas…”

From the Iowa City Citizen: “Mr. Douglas delivered another of his stirring addresses last evening.”

From the Simpsonian again: “The results of the meetings show very clearly that the average college man, even though of no special religious tendencies, can be made to feel a genuine interest in Christianity if it is presented to him in a sane, rational, and unprejudiced manner. The power to do this Mr. Douglas possesses in a remarkable degree.”

Rev. H. F. Martin sent this report to the Lutheran Observer regarding the series of lectures at the University of Iowa: “The editor of the ‘Daily Citizen’ remarked to [Rev. Martin] that within his knowledge no religious campaign among the students had ever made such an impress as this one.”

Perhaps the most significant statement, viewed from our vantage point today, came from Professor Edward Diller Starbuck, a pioneer in the field of Psychology of Religion, who taught at the University of Iowa: “Mr. Douglas is, in my opinion, just the man for us. He has thought his world through until he can speak of the deeper things of the spiritual life without compromise and with perfect candor. University life has been sadly in need of just such a message as he is giving, which is profoundly spiritual and at the same time is in accord with a modern world-view.”

In my own opinion, Starbuck was a bit too generous. Douglas had only gotten started “thinking his world through” and arriving at a workable theology. But Starbuck was right about this much: the modern state universities were “sadly in need” of a message that was “profoundly spiritual and at the same time [was] in accord with a modern world-view.” I would argue that we’re still in need of such a message. Most evangelists are anti-intellectual, and most Christian intellectuals are not evangelists. Douglas was trying to bring those two things together, and Starbuck saw that he was on the right track.

In my next post I’ll talk about the message that Douglas delivered in these lectures, and I’ll explain why he was really just getting started.

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