Friday, May 17, 2013

Peter Marshall

"May we think of freedom, not as the right to do as we please, but as the opportunity to do what is right."

Preaching is a tricky art.  It may superficially appear to be a speech or lecture, but it is something else entirely; something much more organic.  As sermons are a form of proclamation, they are at their least interesting and effective when written down in advance and read at a later time, as the chief feature of a sermon is the connection between preacher and listener that exists in the moment of preaching. Thus, a sermon needs to be fluid and responsive to the shifting expectations and perceptions of the congregation, as does the preacher.  This may be one of the reasons that it is very difficult for there to be an academic, historical appreciation of preaching, as its very liveliness cannot be maintained outside of the event of the sermon itself.

There is no true "hall of fame" for Christian preachers.  One may read a sermon, of course, and find it to be a noble and erudite religious or doctrinal statement, but that's because it is effective as an essay.  To be a sermon means the document must be alive in the moment of its rendering; to listen to a recording or view a video of a sermon also removes the listener from the symbiotic immediacy of the preaching.  The only way to experience a sermon, even in this world of YouTube and What Not, is as a congregation encountering both sermon and preacher, with all of his/her pauses, vocal tics, gestures, and facial expressions, at its moment of conception.

If there is a style of preaching particular to the United States, it is represented through two schools, separated only slightly.  The first is that of the African-American tradition of Gospel proclamation that many people unfamiliar with African-American Christianity, or Christianity at all, know from the speaking style of Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is based on a repeated theme or refrain presented in an accelerating cadence, punctuated by call-and-response with either the congregation or another pastor just to the right or left side of the preacher.  Of course, it is also aided by the free and very verbal encouragement of the listeners.

This tradition actually reaches back through the American slavery experience to African folk tales, which would be presented by a designated story teller to the delight, and delightful participation, of the listeners in much the same manner.  It is ironic to note that, as much as MLK, Jr. had to do with familiarizing people with this preaching style, it is his father, Martin Luther King, Sr. who is regarded as its greatest artist.  Again, recordings do not capture the shared experience of preaching, so we'll have to take the word of those who were present.

The second school is more European in origin, although there are some overlapping qualities.  Early in the history of Christian development, a sermon, also known as "The Instruction", was delivered by a bishop from a seated position before the congregation.  While not a conversation by any means, this was certainly less formal than what preaching became over the course of the Middle Ages.  By the late 18th century, preaching became more "working class", in imitation of Simon Peter's manner in Christianity's earliest days.  Sermons were now forthright, almost physical, and dependent upon a non-verbal interaction between preacher and congregation that, although unlike call-and-response, was no less real.

If Daddy King represented the former style, The Rev. Peter Marshall, a mid-century Presbyterian pastor, was representative of the latter.  His preaching, based on the folksy manner of the storytelling of his Scottish youth and honed in his early career as a youth pastor, would gradually transform the expectations of congregations in mainstream Christian churches.  Although it would take some time, Marshall's preaching would become the standard in all but the stodgiest of churches by the end of the 20th century.

Peter Marshall was born by in The Lowlands of Scotland, not far from Glasgow, in 1902.  At the age of 24, he moved to the United States to attend Columbia Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian educational powerhouse in Decatur, Georgia.  Upon graduation and ordination, Marshall served in a small parish in rural Georgia, then an urban parish in Atlanta.  His preaching brought him much attention as he was found equally accessible by young and old alike.

Sometimes a parish, long thought of as steady if non-experimental, will decide, either through the deliberate choices of its leadership, because of necessity, or via divine inspiration, to depart from what it has known for decades and strive to re-cast itself in the face of a changing age.  The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. had become moribund by the late 1930's, so its elders decided to call as their next pastor Peter Marshall, who was young, just 35 years old, and an immigrant.  He came from a poor family; his wife made her own clothes.  Yet, the leadership of the Church known by its nick-name "The Church of the Presidents", the church that Abraham Lincoln faithfully attended while in residence at the White House just a few blocks away, took a chance on a Scotsman with nothing to offer except a pure sense of the Gospel and the most engaging preaching that anyone had ever experienced.  It should come as no surprise that Marshall saved the church; it would never again be moribund.  In 1946, in addition to his other duties, Marshall was appointed the official chaplain of the US Senate, a post he would hold until his death. 

It was never easy for him, though. There were many who objected to his perspective on Jesus, his use of colloquialisms sprinkled among the rolling prose; his Scottish burr. Yet, he persevered in prayer and seemingly ceaseless action.  Still, it all took its toll and Peter Marshall died of a heart attack at the age of 46.  His legacy is such that the Presbyterian Church still holds him to be a standard of pastoral service and, particularly, preaching effectiveness.

His widow, Catherine Marshall, would become an author, including in her canon a loving portrait of her late husband entitled A Man Called Peter, which is still in print.  Hollywood would turn it into a slightly sappy but rather welcome film in 1955; it would receive a nomination for the best picture Oscar. 

In the film there is a scene that some would dismiss as standard Hollywood overreach, but it is based on fact.  Marshall was invited to preach one Sunday morning in the chapel at the US Naval Academy.  For some reason, although he had spent the week preparing a sermon, he felt called to discard it at the last moment and preach extempore on a passage from the Epistle-General of James.  Unbeknownst to him and to the midshipman and officers present, Pearl Harbor had been attacked that morning.  His sermon spoke of change and mortality in a way that the former sermon did not; in a way that was much more appropriate to the assembly that appeared before him on that historic morning: young men who were about to go off to a world war.

Although presented through the lens of professional film-makers, the scene below uses the actual text of the sermon preached by Marshall that morning, as it had been recorded and faithfully learned and presented by the actor.  Consider as you watch that this was extemporaneous preaching and not something carefully crafted and read from notes or script.