July 2016 marks eighty years since the Session of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church first approached a young Scottish minister, then in Atlanta, about becoming its senior pastor. Thus, in October 1937, the Rev. Peter Marshall, 35, and his young bride, Catherine Wood Marshall, only 23, moved to Washington, D.C. and launched a new ministry at that historic congregation, a ministry that would reach around the world.
Peter Marshall’s life demonstrated to young and old alike that Christianity can be fun. His sermons, many written with anonymous research by his wife Catherine, revealed a rock-ribbed faith, clarity of conviction, and a poet’s pen.
Pioneering preaching style
Unlike most preachers in the first half of the twentieth century, Marshall painted word pictures to convey the gospel message stories. Like Jesus, Marshall drew upon images with which his listeners could easily identify. He combined a Churchillian mastery of the English language with an ability to preach to people’s hearts.
At Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, Marshall embraced the idea of preaching with a ‘sanctified imagination.’ As he explained it, “What we need to do is take a passage of Scripture and so carefully and accurately reconstruct the context of it that the scene comes to life. We see it first ourselves. Then we take our listeners to the spot in imagination. We make them see and hear what happened so vividly that the passage will live forever in their minds and hearts.”
Peter advised seminarians: “You must root your preaching in reality, remembering that the people before you have problems . . . doubts . . . fears . . . and anxieties gnawing at their faith. If you can see these things—preach them. And get down deep.”
Peter followed his own advice and drew from his own life struggles, on occasion relating his frustrations after he came from Scotland to the United States, hoping to train for the ministry: “I worked for long hours. I dug ditches. I wielded spade and shovel. I was unemployed.” As a result those in the pews felt he knew them personally and understood their problems.
A local store clerk gave up his lunch break to come to noonday services, explaining, “He seems to know God, and he helps me know God better.” Peter’s goal in preaching and ministry was always to make Jesus real to people, and he seems to have succeeded widely, for as one woman enthused, “We seemed actually to feel Christ beside us, to hear the rustling of his robes.” Young and old, those in humble and exalted circumstances alike responded: “No other person I have ever known has influenced my life so profoundly as has Dr. Marshall,” said one official. “Whatever faith I have found has been lighted from the torch of his magnetic faith.”
As storm clouds gathered over Europe, and throughout World War II, Peter’s prophetic voice with the soft Scottish burr drew thousands each week to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Despite three services, the sanctuary overflowed, leaving hundreds waiting in long lines hoping to find a seat. Then, in January 1947, Dr. Marshall was elected the fifty-seventh Chaplain of the United States Senate. There, his pithy opening prayers not only got the attention of the Senators, but soon the media quoted them:
“Save us from accepting a little of what we know to be wrong in order to get a little of what we imagine to be right.”
“We know, our Father, that there is a time to speak and a time to keep silence. Help us to tell the one from the other. When we should speak, give us the courage of our convictions. When we should keep silence, restrain us from speaking, lest, in our desire to appear wise, we give ourselves away.”
Some called him the “conscience of the Senate.”
Millions touched by the Marshalls’ ministry
Peter Marshall never thought his sermons were good enough to publish, but after his untimely death in January 1949, publishers and parishioners alike urged his widow, Catherine, to publish them. Late that year, Mr. Jones, Meet the Master came out with 12 sermons, and it became a surprise best-seller. Then, in her biography, A Man Called Peter, Catherine chronicled the improbable story of her husband’s journey from a machinist in a Scottish tube works to chaplain of the U.S. Senate. It rose to the top of the best-seller lists, and was made into a successful movie in 1955—one that still resonates today.
Catherine’s next book, To Live Again, continued the account of her life after Peter’s death, including more details about the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. All told, her 21 inspirational books, including the novels Christy and Julie, have sold well over twenty million copies, continuing Peter and Catherine’s outreach even beyond her death in 1983. (In 1959 Catherine married Leonard LeSourd, then editor of Guideposts Magazine, and his daughter, Rev. Linda LeSourd Lader, is currently on the pastoral staff at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.)
All invited to May 29 events celebrating Peter & Catherine Marshall
On Sunday, May 29, 2016, the Marshalls’ Washington, D.C. church—also known as Abraham Lincoln’s church and a leader in civil rights since the 1950s—is celebrating the ministries of Peter and Catherine Marshall. All are welcome to morning worship at 10 a.m., where the current pastor, Rev. Roger Gench will preach, and the choir and congregation will sing some of Dr. Marshall’s favorite music.
At 11:15 a.m. Edith Marshall and Mark Bumpus will discuss their upcoming book about Dr. Peter Marshall’s previously unpublished lectures on preaching. A complimentary celebratory luncheon will be served at 12:30 p.m., where brief, newly-discovered silent films of the congregation in the 1930s and 1940s will be shown continuously, followed by a Q&A with Marshall-LeSourd family members.
Please click on the link below to view a flyer for the event: