Hear ye, hear ye–the Broadway Bound Blogathon is one week away. I repeat, one week. Are you ready? Now, on to today’s business…
In 1994, my parents and I took a trip to New York and Washington. D.C., for about a week, and that Sunday we went to New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Located at the triangular intersection of New York Avenue and H Street NW in Washington, D.C., this church has a rather prestigious history. Abraham Lincoln. as well as other Presidents, were regular attendees, and in 1937 a young Scottish minister named Dr. Peter Marshall became its pastor.
Marshall was handsome, charismatic, unusually gifted and his sermons were both hard-hitting and relatable. Marshall also served as chaplain of the United States Senate for two years, until his death of a massive heart attack in 1949. He was only forty-six. After his death, his widow, Catherine, published many of Marshall’s sermons, and she also wrote a biography of Dr. Marshall entitled, A Man Called Peter. Four years later, the book was released as a feature film, starring Richard Todd and Jean Peters.
Peter Marshall (played as a boy by Peter J. Votrian) is growing up in Coatbridge, Scotland, today North Lanarkshire. He’s not much for school, and more than anything, he wants to go to sea. He even tries to stow away on a few ships. Peter (played as an adult by Richard Todd) decides to go to night school and work in a local mill during the day. It’s not panning out so well for him, and he wonders what in the world he’s going to do with his life.
One night while walking home in heavy fog, Peter gets lost. The fog is so thick he can’t see a thing, and he thinks someone is calling for him. He trips over a pipe buried in the ground, and when the fog clears a little bit, notices he was thisclose to falling into an old quarry pit.
Suddenly everything becomes clear. Peter gives his life to the Lord and decides to become a minister in America. After working odd jobs in Scotland and the United States, he graduates summa cum laude from Columbia Theological Seminary.
One of Peter’s first pastorates is a church in Atlanta, where he meets his wife, Catherine Wood (Jean Peters). She is a senior at Agnes Scott College and has loved Peter from afar for two years, but it isn’t until they drive together to speak at a youth rally that Peter begins to love her back.
By the next fall, Peter and Catherine are married and on their way to Peter’s next pastorate, the New York Avenue Presbyterian. Both of them are pretty overwhelmed by where they’ve landed, and take a peek at the church at midnight to look at the Lincoln Pew and for Peter to try standing in the pulpit.
I have an idea of how the Marshalls felt to walk into that church for the first time and touch the Lincoln Pew. When my parents and I went to New York Avenue Presbyterian, there were so many unfamiliar things–the people, the music, the setting. The choir director, who was the spitting image of Gerard Depardieu, led the choir in several Bach songs that everyone else seemed to know. It didn’t matter, though–we were glad and bowled over just being there.
Peter has quite a lot to contend with in his new pastorate. New York Avenue’s storied past has traditions to match, being that it was Abraham Lincoln’s church, after all, and has been around since before the War of 1812. There are priceless documents displayed in the basement, stained glass from the nineteenth century, and a special parlor dedicated to the sixteenth President.
One lady, Miss Laura Fowler (Marjorie Rambeau) is particularly precious about the way things have always been, and she’s very vocal. She never approaches Peter but she looks like she’s been sucking lemons. Her family has been with the church from the beginning, and she knows all the history.
Still, there are changes in store. When Peter takes to the pulpit on Sunday, there’s a quartet singing in the choir loft and very few people in the pews. As time goes on, though, the church is packed out, and a choir now supports the congregational singing. Peter’s preaching is so effective that his sermons are broadcast on the radio.
Four years after arriving at New York Avenue Presbyterian, Peter and Catherine have a son, Peter John, and the next day the United States enters the Second World War (Peter John was actually born on January 21, 1940). The church hosts a lively canteen on Saturday nights for the servicemen, with everyone clustered around the piano singing the ditties of the day and eating sandwiches and coffee.
In the midst of the war, Catherine contracts tuberculosis and is in bed for three years. It’s a real testing time for both she and Peter, but it gives the opportunity to see Catherine and Peter learning to seek God’s will, no matter the outcome. This lesson steels them when Peter becomes the chaplain of the United States Senate in 1947, and Peter’s death two years later.
The film was a box-office hit in 1955, was the first film of Ann B. Davis, who played Peter’s Atlanta secretary, and the final film of Jean Peters, who was deep in relationship upheavals at the time. The movie got all the details of the church right–when my parents and I went there, it looked exactly the way it does in the film. Other details were spot-on too, such as the sermons in the film, which were Dr. Marshall’s words quoted verbatim. Richard Todd even studied tapes of Marshall preaching.
Peter Marshall was not like Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, or any other celebrity pastor, not by a long shot. For one thing, Marshall would have been very much against today’s prosperity gospel, and he wasn’t a preacher to recruit fans. He held that Christianity could be fun, but he made it very clear that he wasn’t in the business of selling Christianity. In fact, the film portrays Marshall saying this in his first sermon at New York Avenue:
That which we call salvation…is a free gift. You can’t buy it, and neither can you earn it. It’s not a reward dangling before the Christian as a carrot before a mule. It’s not something the church has to peddle. And probably no idea hurts me more than suggesting that I am a salesman endeavoring to sell people on the idea of religion. I resent it bitterly…I think it only fair to explain that it isn’t the church or religion that I’m trying to present, but Christ. Not the namby-pamby, pale, anemic Jesus…but the Christ of the Gospels.
Marshall never deviated from his mission, even as his fame grew, and as a result, his messages have never dated. This is a recording of one of Dr. Marshall’s sermons, given in 1944, but eerily applicable to our world today.
After Peter’s death, Catherine wrote not only A Man Called Peter, but To Live Again, in which she wrote more about her early years of widowhood. In all, she wrote twenty-one books, the other especially famous one being Christy, but we’ll save that for another day. I’m thinking there’s a “Page to Screen” there. Catherine married Leonard LeSourd in 1959 and died in 1983. She is buried next to Peter.
Peter John became a minister and author himself, dying suddenly of a heart attack in 2010, leaving behind children and grandchildren.
A Man Called Peter is an excellent tribute to the witness Dr. Peter Marshall bore to the cause of Jesus Christ. What the film means to viewers may vary depending on how they view Christianity, but it ought to give everyone something to think about.
Thanks for reading, all, and have a good one!