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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:

Going Places

by Ronald R Johnson (

By the summer of 1909, Lloyd C Douglas was going places. He was a frequent contributor to the Lutheran Observer, was often mentioned in the local newspapers, and could easily attract a crowd to hear his sermons and speeches. He was invited to speak at churches and events throughout the region and was a favorite with young people, especially at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and a group called Christian Endeavor. In fact, both of these latter groups were trying to get him to work for them. And he was giving it serious consideration.

But no one – not even Douglas himself – could have predicted where he would end up next. For in the summer of 1909, the Reverend Doctor J. G. Butler died, leaving a vacancy at the Memorial Evangelical Lutheran Church in Washington, DC.

The church was five blocks northeast of the White House on a crossroads called Thomas Circle. At the center of this circle was a garden and statue of Major General George H. Thomas. Bisecting it east and west was M Street, north and south was 14th, with Vermont and Massachusetts, in opposite diagonals, forming an X through its center. The Memorial Church sat atop a pie-slice wedge on the circle’s northern side.

Riding around Thomas Circle in a horse-drawn carriage and viewing the church straight-on, one could simultaneously peer down both Vermont and 14th streets, which ran along either side of the church. The building itself, conforming to those boundaries, was triangular. Its front was narrow, with a central entryway and high steeple, then it became increasingly wider, with smaller towers on either side at the structure’s back. Its outer surface was red sandstone, and the Gothic towers were green. And in front of the entrance, facing Thomas Circle, was a replica statue of Luther-at-Worms, holding a massive Bible, his face heavenward as if saying, “Here I stand.” When that statue was added in 1884, people began to call it Luther Place Memorial Church.

It was the Reverend Dr. John George Butler who first dreamed of this place and made it a reality. The War Between the States was still raging—indeed, Confederate cannons were within hearing distance of the nation’s capital—when Butler laid plans to build a unique Lutheran church in Washington, D.C. It was to be a living memorial, expressing gratitude to God for preserving the nation and freeing the slaves. In the front would be two “reconciliation pews” representing Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. On either side of the sanctuary, the theme of reconciliation would continue with windows memorializing heroes from outside Lutheranism: Luther, Melanchthon, and John Huss would share space with Wesley and Calvin. And looking down upon all this, with outstretched arms of approval, would be an art-glass reproduction of the Thorwaldsen Christ.

Butler was already well-known as pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Washington, DC. During the war, President Lincoln appointed him chaplain of both a military hospital and a regiment. After the war, Butler got people all over the country excited about his idea for the new church, and donations poured in, making it financially possible. The church was built and began operating in 1873. Butler resigned his post at St. Paul’s to become the pastor of Luther Place Memorial, and from that place his name went out even farther than before. He served as chaplain of the House of Representatives for six years (1867-73), then of the Senate for seven years a decade later (1886-93). He did what he could to help advance black men in the ministry. For twenty years he taught homiletics and church history at the Howard University Divinity School, and he helped establish the Church of Our Redeemer in Washington, DC, a segregated congregation for African Americans.

He was a towering figure in the nation’s capital, and Douglas had no way of knowing that he would be the man’s successor. But through a series of coincidences, that’s what happened. (To be continued.)

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