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Lloyd C. Douglas and “The Great War”

by Ronald R Johnson (

Prior to 1917, Lloyd Douglas was against war. Especially as the Europeans geared up for the Great War (what we now call World War I), Douglas made it clear that war in itself was immoral and that the United States should stay out of it.

In a booklet entitled, The Reappraisement of Heroism, he said it was unfortunate that our heroes tended to be military leaders. He felt it was time to find new kinds of heroes. He described war as “the passion that bids a man stuff his pockets with cartridges at the bidding of his ruler and start out to orphan the children of some man with whom he has no quarrel, when both he and his pretended foe would greatly prefer to be at home digging potatoes and raking hay.”

But his attitude changed in April 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany.

On April 4, the day the Senate voted in support of joining the war, Douglas was the featured speaker at the annual banquet of the Ann Arbor YMCA. “I wanted to be a pacifist,” he told his listeners. “I am bewildered by the trend of events. I am shocked. I have not recovered.” But his recovery was actually very quick.

Douglas was well-aware of his gifts as an orator. He worried that the nation was unprepared, both materially and spiritually, for what was ahead. He believed that it was now his responsibility to rally public opinion around the war effort.
And that’s what he did. He told his congregation that some members of the faculty at the university needed “patriotic encouragement.” He criticized students who would neither enlist nor help raise funds for the troops. He asked sophomores at the university to stop bullying freshmen and turn their attention to “some of our Ann Arbor philistines,” who refused to contribute to the Red Cross. “If you want to take these gentlemen out and pour catsup in their hair, and encourage them to make patriotic speeches, I should be the last in town to offer a word of protest.” I’ve already told you about his weekly column in the Ann Arbor Times-News. He changed its title to “Home Patriotism,” saying things like this: “give until it hurts, and then keep giving until it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

Nor did he confine his energies to Ann Arbor. He told the graduating class of Morenci High School that prostitutes were a kind of “Female Fritz” – aiding and abetting the enemy by spreading disease and immorality, and (worse yet) not helping out with the war effort. He kept a watchful eye on the German-Americans in eastern Michigan, warning them not to keep anybody guessing about their true loyalties. He toured the state speaking on the subject, “Buy Bonds or Wear Them,” and he was on a committee of men who visited German farmers, insisting that they buy war bonds.

To his congregation, he said, “Queer doctrines for the church, I admit. I wish it were not so. I wish we were still free to live our lives in love and tenderness and peace. But our day of ease and happiness has passed and the best we can now do is to attempt to recover our lost happiness for our children. Let us not delay.”

As the war continued, he stepped up his efforts. In the local papers he published poetry condemning “Kaiser Bill.” A humorous article ostensibly written by a child (“Kids Ready to Peddle Stamps for Uncle Sam”) bore his unmistakable style. He spoke to bankers, women’s groups, anyone who would listen.
The headlines became more and more shrill. “GERMANS NOT CHRISTIANS DECLARES LLOYD C. DOUGLAS.” “PUBLIC SCHOOL PLACE TO TEACH NATION’S YOUTH; Rev. Lloyd C. Douglas Expects Lutheran Parochial Schools to Be Abolished by Law.” This last pronouncement was especially noteworthy, since Douglas himself had once been a Lutheran minister. But the Lutheran Church had strong German roots, and he was no longer tolerant of anything German.

His efforts did not go unnoticed by his old employer, the YMCA. During the last six months of the war, he spent most of his time in New York City chairing publicity for the Y’s 35-million-dollar War Fund campaign.

It was an unexpected transformation. In fairness to Douglas, he wasn’t the only minister who changed his attitudes so drastically during WWI. Years later, Douglas was ashamed of how he had behaved. He felt that he had been hoodwinked by the Wilson Administration’s propaganda machine. He vowed that he would never fall for it again.

But it took him years to get to that point. For the immediate future (1917-1918), he had a lot of work to do to find his way back to a gospel of peace and love. As I’ve said before, Douglas did most of his thinking at the typewriter. To a large extent, his thought process is documented. Next time I’ll tell you more about how he moved past his hatred of the German race.

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