Kingdom Come: Tommy Douglas, Baptist Preacher turned Politician

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I will not cease from mental flight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

– William Blake

He has come to be known as the most “influential politician in Canadian history to never have become Prime Minister,”[1] and in 2004, he was voted first on CBC’s Greatest Canadian contest. Thomas “Tommy” Clement Douglas was one of the most prominent and influential Canadian politicians in recent history, known for his success for instituting universal health care, but generally his undying care for the poor, for human rights, and for building a better world for all people.  Few have turned to consider why he fought for such things with such integrity. Few also remember that he was a Baptist preacher before he became a politician. So, this biographical essay will retell the life story of Tommy Douglas through his uniquely Baptist convictions.

1. Childhood

Tommy Douglas was born 20 October 1904 in Camelon, Falkirk, Scotland. He immigrated to Canada with his family as a small boy of age six.[2] During World War I his family returned to Scotland and Douglas returned back to Winnipeg in 1918.

Three early experiences were highly formative for Douglas. First, his conviction of universal healthcare was partly derived from his experience as a boy fighting Osteomyelitis. After having his leg injured, bone inflammation set in, and he had to undergo a series of operations to rid his leg of the condition. For that experience, as he tells, he had an irresistible conviction that all people deserve the same medical treatment and availability, regardless of income: “I felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg or his life upon the ability of his parents to raise enough money to bring a first-class surgeon to his bedside.”[3]

Second, when Douglas returned from Scotland after World War I, he witnessed the Winnipeg General Strike where workers were beaten down and even shot by police for their labor demands. Witnessing these events fueled Douglas’ later passion for human rights and economic justice.[4]

Third, when he was 14, he started getting involved in church. His mother was already active, and Douglas soon found purpose and a sense that through the church he could be a “useful contribution to the world.”[5]

Douglas was a small boy but had a lot of fight in him. At 135 pounds, he won the Manitoba Lightweight Championship at Boxing several years in a row.[6] As a young man in his teens, he worked in a cork factory and latter in printing before sensing a call to ministry then to politics. Douglas jokingly said, “I was a printer and then I became a preacher. And then I became a politician and then I became a premier. And that is the true descent of man!”[7]

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2. Baptist Preacher

Talking up the call to the pastorate, he went to study at Brandon College in 1924 (meeting his wife there) and a master’s degree in sociology at McMaster University in 1930 (he also did work at University of Chicago towards a Ph.D. that was never completed). At Brandon, he paid his way through his education by performing humorous monologues[8] and pastoring here and there. Douglas recalls going to preach in the churches of Winnipeg at age 19. Arriving at the church, the members were mortified that “a kid” had showed up to preach. Yet, moved by his sermons he was invited back, and often.[9] Douglas dreamed of being the next Charles Spurgeon, and he saturated his devotional life with his sermons and stories.[10]

At Brandon, he was persuaded to lay aside his more fundamentalist beliefs, influenced by his professor, H.L. MacNeill. MacNeill impressed on Douglas that Scripture needed to be read through their genres (Psalms as poetry, Job as drama, etc.) and that their application had to reflect the purpose they were written. These were radical notions at the time, now common to almost any seminarian. MacNeill also taught that Jesus spoke from the tradition Jewish prophets, calling for the kingdom of heaven, “rather than an earthly kingdom based on power and might and on the sword, it was to be a Kingdom of the spirit in men’s hearts, made up of righteousness and justice.” [11] MacNeill was constantly threatened with dismissal, yet responded with gentle, honest answers. In McNeill, Douglas saw the spirit of Christ far more than the supposed Christians that attacked him, so, as Douglas recalls, this “liberalized” his views.[12]

In 1930, Douglas was ordained in Calvary Baptist Church at Weyburn. He remembers the ordination process and speaks of his specifically Baptist understanding of doctrine: “The Baptist church as no fixed set of doctrines. Rather the New Testaments sets forth the beliefs, and there is no dogma, as in the Presbyterian or Anglican church.”[13]

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3. Passionate Politician

In the early 30’s Douglas also became political. With not enough aid for the poor, Douglas helped form the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Douglas promoted the party with remarkable zeal, running for the provincial election. He remarked that he went from town to town speaking, asking for donations that just barely got him to the next stop on the campaigns.[14]

Unfortunately, Douglas did not get elected in 1934. Instead, he returned to preaching. There he found himself being encouraged back into politics by the support of his church. In fact, some saw his political talents so desperately needed that the superintendent threatened him to go back to politics or else.[15]

Douglas ran and got the Weyburn constituency in 1935 and was re-elected in 1940. This was the same year as a bloody riot where homeless travelers gathered and were beaten back by RCMP officers. This only motivated Douglas’ work for economic rights. He comments on the meals he gave out saying, “We never turned anybody down I still almost weep. Some poor soul always lined up – oh gosh, they never stopped coming. I’ll never forget that period.”[16]

In the 1940’s, Douglas recalls a more intentional reliance on the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel was powerfully exposited by Water Rauschenbusch, who argued that salvation had a social as well as personal character. Disregarding other-worldly metaphysics, Rauschenbusch argued for a practical and political gospel:

The purpose of all that Jesus said and did and hoped to do was always the social redemption of the entire life of the human race on earth…Christianity set out with a great social ideal. The live substance of the Christian religion was the hope of seeing a divine social order established on earth.[17]

Douglas took this vocation to heart and grew passionate about realizing the kingdom of God in politics.[18] He recalls being challenged by conservative Christians on this matter:

I was attacked by a minister of a very prominent city church, who got up and said in all seriousness that the Bible told us that the poor we will always have with us and that God made two classes of people, the rich and the poor. He made the rich so that they would learn the lesson of benevolence and charity. He made the poor so they would learn the lesson of gratitude, and that we were interfering with the will of God when we tried to abolish poverty. To me, this was sheer blasphemy… My concept was the idea of the kingdom of righteousness and justice for every person in it.[19]

While politically supportive of World War II, Douglas criticized the neglect of politicians to think through economic rights of the soldiers, many were in poverty before they went to war and possibly would be afterwards: “One year ago men could be seen riding the rods on freight trains across Canada. Today hundreds are in His Majesty’s uniform. Most of us know some of these young men personally. These men are going to fight for a society that could not even give them a job. What do we propose to do with them when they come back on the rods? God forbid.”[20]

In 1941 he was elected president of the CFF and in 1944 he became premiere in Saskatchewan. His accomplishments in this role are nothing sort of extraordinary. He increased pension for seniors, initiated debt reduction programs for farmers, protected farmers form evictions; he created more schools, universalizing education; he increased maternity leave and created grants for disabled fathers. All of this was done while lowering the debt of the province by 72 million dollars.[21]

Meanwhile, he passed the Saskatchewan Elections Act, ensuring voting rights to natives, as well as the Bill of Rights, ensuring general rights to all people, in 1946. However, his most notable accomplishment was in 1961 with the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act, instituting universal healthcare that would catch on nationally, attracting global praise.[22]

In 1961 he stepped down from provincial politics to help reform the CCF into the New Democratic Party. He did not get elected to Prime Minister, being defeated in the federal elections up until his stepping down in 1971. Biographers record this time as a point of uncertain leadership: Douglas was still inspiring but noticeably older than other candidates. The party seemed to want younger leaders but none came forward. This put immense pressure and criticism on Douglas.[23] Eventually he stepped down, but he continued to help the party serving in the Nanaimo–Cowichan–The Islands riding until retirement in 1979. He died in 1986 of cancer at age 81. [24]

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Conclusion

One cannot overstate Douglas’ influence over Canada. As Lorne Calvert describes,

The social vision and goals of the social gospel movement – human rights, trade union legislation, labor standards, pensions, medicare, – non-existent a century or even fifty years ago – are now taken for granted as defining of Canada. Even the most right wing of political ideologies must at least pay homage to the principles born of the social gospel movement. The movement has shaped us, there is no question.[25]

Douglas’s political conviction was from the teachings of Scripture, particularly what he saw to be the kingdom of heaven as summarized in the Social Gospel movement. Douglas sought to bring heaven to earth. The Social Gospel does have its drawbacks: Often its understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven was indebted to highly historical critical readings of the Bible, making its more agreeable tenets unappealing to evangelical Christians; it too often focused on economic and political progress as the primary extent of the Gospel; its social optimism, part and parcel to its realized eschatology, did not readily grapple with the failure inherent to human sinfulness and the need for transcendent hope; putting trust in politics, it became essentially self-secularizing, removing itself from church life. However, Douglas’ vision and zeal is attributable to nothing other than his commitment to following Christ. While some can charge the Social Gospel with leaving the church, Douglas did not. Douglas attributed this dynamic to the cowardice of his fellow pastors that often voiced their fears of losing tithes and support by their wealthy, business-owning congregants.[26] For Douglas, the Social Gospel left the church because the church lacked the conviction to support it. If this is the case, the church has lost out profoundly on its vocation in living out the kingdom of heaven to earth. Thy will was not done.

This biographical essay has attempted to summarize the life, work, and convictions of Tommy Douglas.[27] We quickly find that Douglas had deep convictions based on his Baptist faith: his commitment to theological honesty and reformulation, his doctrinal minimalism (no dogma but the New Testament), practically challenging the status quo, and enacting the kingdom of God in this world. Douglas’ life can be summarized easily in the prayer he often prayed (and more importantly lived): “…thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” (Matt. 6:10)

[1] Ian McLoed and Thomas McLeod, interviewed by Peter Gzowski, “Tommy Douglas and the NDP: The Road to Jerusalem,” CBC Digital Archives, last modified April 22, 2013, accessed April 24, 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/politics/parties-leaders/tommy-douglas-and-the-ndp/the-road-to-jerusalem.html.

[2] Walter Stewart, Tommy: the Life and Politics of Tommy Douglas (Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2003), 23.

[3] Tommy Douglas, interviewed by Thomas Lewis, in Lewis Thomas, ed., The Making of a Socialist (Calgary: University of Alberta Press, 1982), 6-7.

[4] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 33.

[5] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 39.

[6] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 37.

[7] Lorne Calvert, “Beyond the Social Gospel,” (Address on the 100th Anniversary of Stella Mission, Winnipeg Manitoba, 2009), paragraph 7.

[8] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 44.

[9] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 41.

[10] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 42.

[11] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 51.

[12] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 51.

[13] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 48.

[14] Doris Shackleton. Tommy Douglas (McClelland and Stewart, 1975), 68.

[15] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 80.

[16] Doris Shackleton, Tommy Douglas, 49.

[17] Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianizing the Social Order (New York: Macmillan, 1912), 67, 69.

[18] Of course, one of the weaknesses of the Social Gospel is its utopian notions of progress. Just as Rauschenbusch became very utopian in his ideas about this-worldly human progress, so did Douglas. Douglas’ master’s thesis at McMaster’s advocated for the usage of eugenics, which after the findings of the concentration camps of WWII, Douglas implicitly recanted of his earlier ideas on the matter.

[19] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 66.

[20] Brent Decker, “Biography of Thomas Clement Douglas,” Canadian Union of Public Employees, last modified 1998, accessed April 22, 2014, http://www.cupe1975.ca/bursary/burs8.html. This is the winning biographical essay written for a bursary program for CUPE.

[21] Brent Decker, “Biography of Thomas Clement Douglas.”

[22] Brent Decker, “Biography of Thomas Clement Douglas.”

[23] Ian McLoed and Thomas McLeod, interviewed by Peter Gzowski, “Tommy Douglas and the NDP: The Road to Jerusalem.”

[24] Canadian Press, “MPs mourn Douglas in Commons tribute,” Montreal Gazette (February 25, 1986), accessed April 22, 2014, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=k6QkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=7KUFAAAAIBAJ&pg=2772%2C2659141.

[25] Lorne Calvert, “Beyond the Social Gospel.”

[26] Douglas, interviewed by Lewis, The Making of a Socialist, 68.

[27] This biography did not proceed by merely offering life facts, but is deliberately a piece of biographical theology, using deliberate criteria. Biographical theology was a method pioneered by baptist theologian, James Wm. McClendon Jr. See, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology. Nashville: Abingdon, 1974. Revised edition, Philadelphia: Trinity, 1990.

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