A Man Called Peter
Unaware of the previous
night's heated dialogue between two senators, Peter Marshall, Chaplain to the U. S.
Senate, began the session of April 3, 1947, with this prayer: "Gracious, Father, we,
Thy children, so often confused, live at cross-purposes in our central aim, and hence we
are at cross-purposes with each other. Take us by the hand and help us see things from Thy
As Marshall left the Senate chamber, one of the senators involved in the quarrel followed him and offered the surprised chaplain an apology for his behavior.
This incident encapsulated the nature of the jocular Scotsman's influential ministry. He was straightforward and eminently practical. Supremely, he was led by God's Spirit.
His pithy, pointed invocations before the Senate during his chaplaincy were often reprinted in such prestigious publications as Reader's Digest and The New Yorker.
Peter Marshall had come a long way in the twenty-two years since he immigrated to America from Scotland. He arrived at Ellis Island in New York harbor in 1927 at age twenty-five with two weeks' living expenses. He worked for a year in New Jersey and then was enticed to travel south to Birmingham, Alabama, where a former schoolmate from his native Scotland had immigrated.
From there, members of his Sunday school class paid his way to seminary in Atlanta. He graduated in 1931 and pastored a small church in Covington, Georgia, before returning to preach at Atlanta's Westminster Presbyterian Church.
His Gaelic brogue, sharp wit, and keen fellowship with the Savior were an engaging combination. The church overflowed each Sunday, especially with young people. A penetrating humility that readily identified with the needs of the common working man saturated his sermons.
It was in Atlanta that Marshall met and married Catherine Wood, a student at Agnes Scott College, who later chronicled Marshall's life in her book A Man Called Peter, later made into a successful movie of the same title.
Catherine quickly realized Peter was not a stodgy preacher, but rather had an innate desire for good fun. He loved playing board games and was given the honorary title of G.G.P.Great Game Player.
She wrote: "The day of our wedding saw a cold rain falling...I gathered Peter was rollicking through successive games of Yacht, Parcheesi, and Rummy with anyone who had sufficient leisure to indulge him. That was all right, but I thought he was carrying it a bit too far, when, thirty minutes before the ceremony, he was so busy pushing his initial advantage in a game of Chinese Checkers with little sister Em, that he still had not dressed."
While on their honeymoon, the Marshall's stopped for an appointment with the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. which had wooed him to fill their vacant pulpit.
Marshall resisted their call, revealing the depths of his humility in a letter declining the invitation.
"I feel...that I am not yet ready for the responsibilities and the dignities which would be mine as minister of the New York Avenue Church. I am too young, too immature, too lacking in scholarship, experience, wisdom, and ability for such a high position. Time alone will reveal whether or not I shall ever possess these qualities of mind and heart that your pulpit demands."
The church persisted, however, and despite his reservations, Marshall sensed God's hand. In the fall of 1937, at age thirty-five, he moved to the nation's capitol, where his ministry of preaching Christ and His adequacy for life's demands transcended the city's entrenched political barriers.
In ensuing years, his congregation included numerous special guests such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But his heart was always with the common man, the bricklayer, the mother, the teacher. Teenagers loved his youthful sincerity and adults his non-ecclesiastical demeanor.
His zeal for God and unmatched eloquence in expressing His ways and character attracted the interests of the country's leaders who appointed him Senate Chaplain in 1947 and again in 1949.
It was his intense zest for God and relish for life that perhaps accelerated a serious heart condition. He suffered his second heart attack only weeks after President Harry Truman's inauguration. When the physician who had rushed to his home informed him he must go immediately to the hospital, Marshall's Scots' humor still sparkled: "I take a dim view of that. What a revoltin' development this is!"
He died hours later on the morning of January 26, 1949, at age forty-six. An editorial in the Washington Evening Star captured the true spirit of Peter Marshall's brief but impassioned ministry.
"Living and working in Washington only eleven years, the Reverend Dr. Peter Marshall nevertheless has left his mark upon the whole city. He was a man of contagious spirit, eager and alert, quick to see opportunities of service and to meet their challenge....In classic language, he was a builder of the kingdom of God on this earth."