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Peter Marshall and a Woman Called Catherine


Peter Marshall, born just 100 years ago in Coatbridge, Scotland, shot across our American sky, a ministerial star of the 1940s and 1950s. With a technical and mining school education, Marshall docked at Ellis Island in 1927, and worked as a day laborer in the East and South until experiencing a call to minister. He enrolled in Columbia Seminary in 1928, graduated magna cum laude and was ordained in 1931. He had already made a name for himself during the Depression with a sermon, 'Singing in the Rain,' which he preached all over Georgia.


Peter Marshall, born just 100 years ago in Coatbridge, Scotland, shot across our American sky, a ministerial star of the 1940s and 1950s. With a technical and mining school education, Marshall docked at Ellis Island in 1927, and worked as a day laborer in the East and South until experiencing a call to minister. He enrolled in Columbia Seminary in 1928, graduated magna cum laude and was ordained in 1931. He had already made a name for himself during the Depression with a sermon, ‘Singing in the Rain,’ which he preached all over Georgia.

This affable, attractive young man served as pastor of Westminster church, Atlanta, before being called to New York Avenue church, Washington, D.C., in 1937. There he ministered to the prosperous and powerful political leaders of the nation. He was named chaplain of the U.S. Senate in 1947; in this position he served until his untimely death of heart failure in 1949.

We may remember this big-hearted Marshall, largely because of a woman called Catherine. Catherine Wood Marshall (1914-1983) was born in Johnson City, Tenn., and grew up in Mississippi and West Virginia, where her minister father and mother served Presbyterian congregations. Catherine, lover of reading and writing, attended Agnes Scott College, where she visited Westminster church. She fell in love with its pastor. Peter wooed, won and wed this beautiful and talented Appalachian. The next year, they made D.C. home; their one son, Peter John, brightened their lives. Catherine enjoyed — and endured — a ministry with her older and dominating husband. She suffered from tuberculosis, and then Peter’s premature death.

She found a way out of her grief, almost immediately by introducing her husband to a much wider world. In Mr. Jones, Meet the Master (1949) she offered a collection of Marshall’s sermons and prayers. In A Man Called Peter (1951) she traced the successful rise of her husband to stardom as a minister, a contemporary Horatio Alger hero. Both volumes were immediate successes, the latter selling in the millions of copies in the U.S.A. and overseas, even promoted by the State Department in condensations. After release of a Hollywood film based on his life, even more people met Marshall and felt comfortable calling him Peter.

Why was Peter Marshall so well liked? In part, it was because of his charm, big heart and his humor, which he expressed in his life and sermons and prayers. Americans, in a post-Depression, post-World War II world, hungered and thirsted for inspiration, peace, perhaps escape. Remember, for example, Joshua Liebman, Peace of Mind (1946), Fulton J. Sheen, Peace of Soul (1949) and Billy Graham, Peace with God (1955). But while Marshall may have shown signs of Pealian ‘positive thinking,’ he was often very frank about our personal and public problems and needs. Catherine indicates this not only in her biography, but in the sermons and prayers she published, including those he delivered in the nation’s capitol.

As indicated, for example, in The Prayers of Peter Marshall (1950), the Presbyterian minister offered some pithy mini-admonitions. For example: ‘Save us from the sin of worrying, lest stomach ulcers be the badge of our lack of faith.’ And ‘Save us from hotheads that would lead us to act foolishly, and from cold feet that would keep us from acting at all.’ And ‘May the uncertainty of life make us the more anxious to do good while we have opportunity, for the sake of the record that has eternal implications far beyond the next election.’ And ‘Sanctify our love of country, that our boasting may be turned into humility and our pride into a ministry to men everywhere.’

Some others were more pointed: For example: ‘Lord, we are ashamed that money and position speak to us more loudly than does simple compassion of the human heart. Help us care, as Thou dost care, for the little people who have no lobbyists, for the minority groups who sorely need justice. May it be the glory of our government that not only the strong are heard, but the weak; not only the powerful, but the helpless; not only those with influence, but also those who have nothing but a case and an appeal. May we put our hearts into our work, that our work may get into our hearts.’ And also: ‘We need Thy help, O God, to do something about the world’s true problems — the problems of lying, which is called propaganda; the problem of selfishness, which is called self-interest; the problem of greed, which is called profit; the problem of license, disguising itself as liberty; the problem of lust, masquerading as love; the problem of materialism, the hook which is baited with security.’ So Marshall prayed that senators would see problems for what they really were and do something about them, with God’s help.

In spreading and perpetuating the memory of a man called Peter, Peter’s spouse found a woman called Catherine. She came to terms with the loss of her famous husband in To Live Again (1957), an autobiography which sold well. She married Leonard LeSourd, executive editor of Guideposts, and joined him in the defense of God. It was the ‘Age of Aquarius’ in which some declared the ‘death of God’ and Christians lost themselves in a ‘suburban captivity’ of the churches. God, Catherine claimed, was the hero of all her books that pointed Beyond Ourselves (1961), emphasized a search for Something More (1974), and described the possibility of Meeting God at Every Turn (1980). She spread her own homilies as widely as she did her husband’s work.

She also brightened the sky with her novel, Christy (1967), a fictionalized account of her mother’s adventures. Leonora, who taught in a mission school in the Great Smoky Mountains, married a Presbyterian minister, John Wood, in 1911. Leonora faces crises in the quest for maturity — illegal stills, murder and romance. Catherine maintained that it was a true story. Well, she finally admitted, at least it was ’75 percent’ true. The story had everything needed for a successful novel. Christy was a run-away best seller — in a few years more than 8 million copies were sold. It was turned into a highly popular movie that many of us saw with our children. It certainly appealed, as did ‘The Waltons,’ to the American yearning for a simpler life. It should be noted, by this time, Catherine Marshall had come to believe that ‘exciting’ religion did not come, necessarily, from the ‘church back home,’ for example, New York Avenue church. For many it came through Catherine’s writings, Peter’s sermons and prayers, LeSourd’s Guideposts, and the Charismatic Movement. Just before her death, Catherine published The Best of Peter Marshall (1983), indicating Peter’s hold on her. Note, she continued to use his name rather than that of her second husband.

For those who know first hand this past, but have put it aside, and for those who may never have heard it, Peter Marshall’s 100th birthday provides an occasion for remembering. The Peter and Catherine story reminds us of two faithful Christians, who happen to be Presbyterian, who made an impact on us personally and nationally during the critical periods of our pilgrimages. The books mentioned here are still in print. So we should remember Peter Marshall and a woman called Catherine — without being overwhelmed with nostalgia.

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