Joseph H. Prouser
Joseph H. Prouser

‘Lest we swallow each other alive’ — Remembering Rev. Peter Marshall

More than 2,500 years ago, the Prophet Jeremiah warned, “Seek the peace and well-being of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its peace and well-being you will find your peace and well-being” (Jeremiah 29:7).

Several centuries later, Rabbi Chanina, the assistant high priest, put Jeremiah’s sentiment into even more compelling terms: “Pray for the peace and well-being of the government. Were it not for the fear thereof, people would swallow each other alive” (Pirkei Avot 3:2).

George Washington instinctively assented to Jeremiah and Chanina’s call for prayer in 1789, when he added the improvised “So help me God” to the oath of office prescribed by Article II of the United States Constitution. Every president since has followed his example. As Presidents Day (a late reformulation of George Washington’s Birthday, February 22, which follows soon thereafter) approaches this year, it is a particularly propitious moment for us to adopt our first president’s prayerful example.

Jews have acted on Jeremiah’s counsel in many countries throughout our history. In my rabbinic study a leather-bound, gilded 1896 Viennese siddur is on display. The book invokes God’s blessing upon “the Fatherland,” and specifically upon “unserm Kaiser,” the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I, and on the royal family. My own community, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, continues this tradition by including a brief “prayer for the United States” in our Shabbat morning worship, as do many contemporary congregations. We elevate this prayerful effort to a greater level of intensity with our annual observance of Presidents Day, attended by a broad segment of the Jewish community, as well as elected officials representing a variety of political persuasions and religious faiths.

As we draw upon our prescribed liturgy or devise our own prayers for our country, we do well to remember the storied career of a clergyman who devoted much of his time and considerable skill to that effort. Rev. Peter Marshall, a Scottish immigrant and Presbyterian minister, occupied the pulpit of churches in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., before being appointed chaplain to the United States Senate. Tragically, he died of a heart attack at the age of 46, just two years into his Senate ministry. His widow, Catherine, wrote a popular biography of her late husband, titled “A Man Called Peter.” The movie adaptation by the same name was nominated for an Academy Award in 1955.

I have turned to the collected Senate prayers of Peter Marshall from time to time in my own congregational work, as, too, in my personal life of prayer. His wisdom and spiritual sensitivity continue to serve the nation well. During the week of Washington’s Birthday in 1947, for example, Rev. Marshall prayed on the Senate floor: “Help our leaders to weigh their words, that their words may carry weight.”

At times, Marshall coupled his characteristically poetic turn of phrase with a point illustrated through accessible metaphor and popular cultural imagery:

“We pray, O God, that Thou wilt fill this sacred minute with meaning and make it an oasis for the refreshment of our souls, a window cleaning for our vision, and a recharging of the batteries of our spirits. Let us have less talking and more thinking, less pressure and more prayer. For if we are too busy to pray, we are far busier than we have any right to be. Speak to us, O Lord, and make us listen to Thy broadcasting station that never goes off the air.”

So, too: “Save us from hotheads that would lead us to act foolishly, and from cold feet that would keep us from acting at all.”

The young Senate chaplain’s prayers frequently addressed the national mission of the United States, and its moral implications: “Our Heavenly Father, if it be Thy will that America should assume world leadership, as history demands and the hopes of so many nations desire, make us good enough to undertake it.”

Marshall reminded his Senate flock that not only the nation, but they as individuals, had moral obligations that must transcend party loyalty, despite criticism from personal detractors and adverse media attention:

“Forgive us, O God, that we are so anxious, in all we say and do, to have the approval of men, forgetting that it is Thy approval that brings us peace of mind and clear conscience. Make us aware of the record Thou art writing… We need to remember that there is no party in integrity, no politics in goodness.”

Marshall also often addressed the closely related issue of personal spiritual hypocrisy and superficial public piety. “May our faith be something that is not merely stamped on our coins, but expressed in our lives,” he prayed before the Senate adjourned to celebrate Independence Day in 1947. Similarly, “Deliver us from the error of asking and expecting Thy blessing and Thy guidance in our public lives while closing the doors to Thee in our private living.”

Notwithstanding his public responsibilities, Rev. Peter Marshall was first and foremost a pastor, a man of God. “Help us, O God, to treat every human heart as if it were breaking, and to consider the feeling of others as we do our own. Help us to be gentle, and to control our tempers that we may learn to love one another. Give us the grace so to live this day.” It is not difficult to imagine the interpersonal dynamics that inspired the chaplain to address such rudiments of spirituality on the floor of the United States Senate.

When faced with difficult decisions or complex matters of policy and principle, I often have turned to my favorite Peter Marshall prayer, both timeless and timely in its wisdom: “Give to us clear vision that we may know where to stand and what to stand for — because unless we stand for something, we shall fall for anything.”

Peter Marshall not only prayed for his country, he taught his countrymen about the nature of prayer, its limitations, pitfalls, and potential:

“Sometimes we pray for that which is already ours, neglected and unused. Sometimes we pray for that which can never be ours and sometimes for that which we must do for ourselves. How many times we never pray at all, and then work ourselves to death to earn something that is ours for the asking. Help us to understand that faith without works is dead and works without faith can never live.”

Whenever I conduct a funeral, I include the words of Rabbi Tarfon, apt reflections on human mortality recorded in Pirkei Avot: “The day is short and there is much work to be done. You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” When Peter Marshall died, he left behind a prayer he intended to deliver on the Senate floor the next day. In both word and deed, he, too, seems to have embraced the wisdom of Rabbi Tarfon. His prayer was read in his name by a visiting member of the clergy:

“Deliver us, our Father, from futile hopes and from clinging to lost causes, that we may move into ever-growing calm and ever-widening horizons. Where we cannot convince, let us be willing to persuade, for small deeds done are better than great deeds planned. We know that we cannot do everything. But help us to do something.”

Let us all “do something” as Presidents Day nears. Let us continue the work of “a man called Peter,” who died too young, but whose memory endures as a blessing to us all.

“Seek the peace and well-being of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its peace and well-being you will find your peace and well-being.”

“Pray for the peace and well-being of the government.”

Lest we “swallow each other alive.”

About the Author
Joseph Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.
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