One nation, under God: How a Scotsman re-wrote America's pledge

MORE than 50 years after one of his sermons changed the course of American history, Scottish minister the Rev George Docherty asked the wedding congregation gathered in the rural Presbyterian church near his Pennsylvania home to be upstanding.

Now aged 95, Docherty spoke with the same authority and humour which distinguished his sermons in Glasgow and Aberdeen, and in his time preaching at the "Church of the Presidents" down the road from the White House. For now, the wedding crowd cheered as the pastor finished his address and hugged his daughter Bridget, who he had just given away as bride.

It seemed a world away from 1954, when Docherty preached his most famous sermon before Dwight Eisenhower, then the US president. It was a service that would result in the insertion of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, a vow to America and its flag which has since been recited daily in school classrooms across the country - though not without controversy.The phrase "One nation, under God" - which supporters defend as integral to the relationship between a citizenry and their faith and which critics have challenged in the Supreme Court as blurring the separation of church and state - remains testament to the Scottish minister from the Maryhill section of Glasgow who had the ear of the most important men and women in post-war America.

After Docherty set sail from Southampton to America in 1950, following graduation from Glasgow University and a three-year spell at Aberdeen's North Kirk, he was surprised on his arrival to his new parish, New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in the nation's capital, to find a crumbling relic of a church. The young minister was also astonished to discover that the cornerstone of the new church, then undergoing rebuilding, would be laid by the sitting president, Harry Truman.

It was fitting for the occasion: fourteen Presbyterian presidents had previously worshipped at the church, including Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams. So after a meeting with Truman in the Oval Office - "my first and last," Docherty confirms - the minister oversaw as master of ceremonies his church's opening by Truman himself, after benediction by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland.

But it was not until three years later that Docherty would preach his famous "One Nation, under God" sermon to Eisenhower, the triumphant Second World War general, one year into his presidency, on a cold Lincoln Sunday in February 1954. By now, the minister was attracting a large cross-section of Washington – the influential and the poor – to hear words of hope, humour and faith relayed in his distinctive Glaswegian brogue.

After the service, Eisenhower voiced his assent as Docherty accompanied him outside church. But the minister did not then know that the president would go on to campaign in Congress to have the phrase added into the famous pledge.

Docherty's sermon was reported on newspaper front pages across America. The New York Times said: "Congress is being flooded with mail ... (from) thousands demanding that Congress amend the Pledge of Allegiance to 'One Nation Under God'."The idea to insert the two words came to Docherty when he asked one day what his young son, Garth, then aged seven, had accomplished in school. Garth replied that he said the pledge with his classmates. After his son repeated the short verse, Docherty was struck by the absence of "God".

Backed, the Times said, by "veterans' groups, labour unions, civic clubs and fraternal organisations", most notably the Knights of Columbus, on June 14, Flag Day, 1954, the new pledge was first recited in the House of Representatives, and where Eisenhower signed the measure into law that day.

Of his famous phrase, and noting that he grew up in Scotland singing God Save the King at public events, Docherty says: "To omit the words 'under God' is to omit the definitive character of the American way of life; it was never meant to be a separation of religion and life."

Docherty also recites with pride his many achievements in the years until his retirement in 1976, and includes many lighter tales of playing golf with Eisenhower, and crusading with religious figures including the Rev Martin Luther King Jr and evangelist the Rev Billy Graham.

But it was Docherty's Scottish lilt that initially gained the attention of the Washington faithful. As the minister had asked his congregation to rise on his first sermon there, he watched with horror as they remained seating. A parishioner later explained that Docherty has used the Scottish phrase "to be upstanding", and not "stand up", in the American vernacular.

"My mistake entirely," the minister acknowledged at the time, with characteristic self-effacement. "It will take me time to learn the American idiom."

"On the contrary," his new friend replied. "It is we who must learn from you. Go on saying 'upstanding', now that we know what it means. Besides, many of us like it." Docherty later received an inscribed photo of himself and his family from another friend in the parish, with the message "The Docherty family downsitting."

And now in Pennsylvania, the elderly Docherty took his seat at the Huntington church and asked his family and friends to take theirs. As he looked forward to the marriage of his youngest daughter Julie this year, the retired minister could indeed sit back and reflect on an extraordinary life filled - and fulfilled - with hope, humour and faith.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may want to read:

Scotland's signature role in America's independence

Back to the top of the page