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Lloyd C Douglas, Contestant

by Ronald R Johnson (

I’ve been telling you about the essay contest that Lloyd Douglas entered at The Christian Century during the Spring/Summer of 1920. The contest was prompted by John Spargo’s article, “The Futility of Preaching,” published May 20, 1920, in the Century.

Douglas’s response, “Preaching and the ‘Average Preacher'” was published anonymously, along with the essays of five other contestants, on July 1, 1920. The issue included a ballot for readers to choose the three best essays.

From the July 1st, 1920, issue of The Christian Century, p. 28. Available online at The Online Books Page.

Meanwhile, the Century’s editor, Charles Clayton Morrison, asked John Spargo to read the six anonymous essays and write a follow-up article in response. Spargo’s reply was published in the July 22nd issue. Notice how Morrison took a single submission (Spargo’s initial article published May 20th) and kept his readers interested in that one article all the way through July and beyond. He paired this with an advertising campaign that told potential readers what was happening. It was this kind of maneuvering that made the Century grow into a successful magazine.

For the most part, Spargo’s reply was general, telling his readers more about himself and his views. He only got angry at one of the contestants. Guess who!

Of course, in this discussion, as in every other, we have the quibbler who is less concerned to establish the essential truth than to score debating points. Shall I confess that I was amused by the sophomoric intensity of one of the writers in his attempt to demonstrate that my use of the term ‘average preacher’ was unscientific and an evidence of the fact that my views were not entitled to serious consideration?

John Spargo, “More about Preaching and the Ministry,” The Christian Century, July 22, 1920.

Amused? I don’t think so. His irritation is clearly displayed in his next remarks:

Of course, this is the characteristic spirit of the Medieval schoolmen that made theology such a terrible incubus upon religion. In the practical affairs of life, this good brother, not animated by sectarian dogmatism or pride, would not think of invoking such a rule. If his neighbor declared the day to be an ‘average’ one, he would not demand that the statement be accompanied by a statistical analysis of the meteorological records. Similarly, if a brother minister declared that he had a good ‘average’ congregation, the writer in question would not think of demanding verification of the statement in statistical terms. I emphasize my reference to this quite incidental and essentially irrelevant criticism because it illustrates the vicious narrowness of a mind fostered by ecclesiasticism. The plain, forthright speech and straight and direct thinking characteristic of honest men in their ordinary intercourse and business relations do not suit a certain familiar type of theologian or an equally familiar type of ecclesiastic.


Ouch! He’s right, up to a point: his use of the term “average minister” wasn’t as important as Douglas made it out to be, and Douglas did use it to “score debating points.” But this wasn’t Douglas at his best. On any other occasion, Lloyd Douglas was nothing like the Medieval schoolmen, nor was he guilty of “the narrowness of mind fostered by ecclesiasticism.” It’s unfortunate that these two gifted men were pitted against each other so that it was practically impossible for them to appreciate each other’s talents.

Meanwhile, readers were now encouraged to await the results of the vote, in which they would discover exactly how many “debating points” each of the anonymous contestants had won.

To be continued…

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

A Highly-Educated Minister and a Member of His Flock

by Ronald R Johnson (

Quotable Quotes from Lloyd C. Douglas

From his novel, Magnificent Obsession, chapter 18.

The Rev. Bruce McLaren, PhD, has just finished a sermon that, as usual, has gone over his parishioners’ heads, and one of the members of this unfortunate flock shakes his hand on his way out the door:

Deacon Chester, warmly gripping his pastor’s hand, shouted above the shrill confusion of the metal-piped postlude that he guessed it was the most profound sermon ever delivered in Grace Church! The statement was entirely correct; nor was the word “guess” used in this connection a mere colloquialism. Had Mr. Chester been a painstaking stylist—he was a prosperous baker of cookies by the carlot, and not averse to admitting that he had left school at thirteen—he could not have chosen a word more meticulously adequate than “guess” to connote his own capacity to appraise the scholarship disclosed by that homily. Had a photographic plate been exposed to Mr. Chester’s knowledge of the subject which Doctor McLaren had treated, it could have been used again, quite unimpaired, for other purposes.

This passage is important because it shows us his sense of humor and how down-to-earth he was. But it is also important because it shows us what he tried very hard to avoid doing from the pulpit. He himself valued education and wanted to convey to his people the importance of staying informed, especially when it came to scientific research.

Even from his earliest days in the ministry, he had an impressive vocabulary and could be quite eloquent when the occasion demanded it. But he tried never to speak over people’s heads. For the most part, he accomplished that goal. Even when his hearers disagreed with him or considered him too liberal, nobody ever complained that they couldn’t understand him.

But I love this passage because he’s poking fun at his own profession, and at the tendency for Modernist preachers (people like him, in other words) to try to wow their congregations with their worldly knowledge. The fact that he was aware of this tendency seems to have helped him avoid it.

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