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Lloyd Douglas and the Christian Century

by Ronald R Johnson (

Over the past few posts, I’ve been telling you about the periodicals in which Douglas’s writing appeared during his Ann Arbor years (1915-1921); but his big breakthrough came in 1920, when he began writing for The Christian Century. And that fact is ironic, because in 1920 the Century was still struggling to become an important magazine. To some extent, Douglas added distinction to the Century even as it helped him become more prominent on the national scene.

(For most of what follows, I am indebted to Elesha J Coffman, The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline (NY: Oxford University Press, 2013).)

The Christian Century began as an unimposing little Disciples of Christ paper. In fact, the Disciples of Christ itself began as a nineteenth-century religious movement that was so democratic, it lacked a hierarchy and therefore didn’t have an official “organ.” There were hundreds of papers published throughout the United States in the 1800s by people of that persuasion, most of them with a very small circulation. The Christian Century was just one of many, many such periodicals. And, like most of the others, it had to fight hard just to survive financially.

In 1914, the magazine’s young editor, Charles Clayton Morrison, made the decision to seek a wider audience outside of his denomination: specifically, Protestant ministers and laypeople who valued education and who were willing to think deeply about religious matters. The weekly magazine was published in Chicago, and the people who ran it, including Morrison, were well-connected with professors at the University of Chicago, in both the religion and the philosophy departments. It made sense for them to seek out the more intellectual members of the Protestant clergy and to publish articles on topics that would be of interest to such a group.

Charles Clayton Morrison, editor of The Christian Century from 1908 to 1947. Although he looks young in this picture, he was several years older than Douglas. (Image from LibraryThing)

I’m unable to say when Douglas began to read the Century. I do know that he was just the kind of reader Morrison was aiming at: one who was committed to higher education and to rethinking the gospel in terms of what was being taught in America’s state colleges. As I told you in an earlier post, Douglas was already following the work of Shailer Mathews as early as 1909, and Mathews led the Department of Religion at the University of Chicago. (He also wrote articles for the Century.) In fact, Mathews’ teachings had prompted Douglas to “go back to school” (first the University of Illinois and then the University of Michigan) and to revise his ideas about God; so Douglas’s career path made him a perfect fit for The Christian Century, not only as a reader but also as a contributor.

In 1919, a few wealthy members of the Disciples of Christ (including William H. Hoover of vacuum-cleaner fame), created an endowment for the magazine, and Morrison initially used these funds to begin advertising in a number of periodicals, including denominational organs like The Congregationalist and secular magazines like The Atlantic Monthly, both of which Douglas was writing for at the time. If the Century wasn’t on his radar prior to 1919, it probably was now.

At any rate, in the spring of 1920, Morrison announced an essay contest. This was just one of the ways in which he tried to increase his list of subscribers. He hoped to inspire ministers and thoughtful laypeople to write on the proposed subject. He would pick the best six entries, then readers would choose the first, second, and third-place winners from those six. (First prize was a whopping $50, second was $25, and third was $10. In fairness, Morrison himself apologized to the contestants for this pitiful remuneration.)

The event may or may not have increased the Century’s readership, but Morrison did snag a talented writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who was not yet known on the national stage. It was the beginning of a mutually-beneficial relationship.

To be continued…

For a free PDF copy 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: