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AFA Journal

NATIONAL HERITAGE

Trust in God Woven into fabric of Star-Spangled Banner

Pat Centner
Writer, AFA Journal
AFA Journal, October 2001 Edition

As the frequency of exploding bombs slowed and finally stopped, the acrid, smoke-filled air began to clear. The young man picked up a spy glass and quickly made his way to the rain-drenched deck of the sloop. The sun hovered just below the horizon, promising, at least temporarily, a respite from the rain.

In the dim light, the man turned his gaze upstream and, holding the spy glass to his eye, anxiously moved it back and forth until, suddenly, he stopped. He stared intently for a moment, and then joyfully shouted into the air — “We didn’t lose the fort! Our flag is still there!”

The date was September 14, 1814, and the young man was Francis Scott Key, the author of the poem that became America’s national anthem. The War of 1812 was winding down, and Key, a 35-year-old lawyer and poet, had been dispatched to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, a prisoner of the British.

Accompanying Key was Colonel John S. Skinner, the government’s prisoner of war exchange agent. On September 5, the two had sailed to meet the British fleet and, on September 7, met with General Robert Ross who agreed to Beane’s release. But because the British offensive was about to begin, the men were held for more than a week on a flag-of-truce sloop downstream from Fort McHenry, the “fort” of Key’s jubilant outburst, and guardian of the Baltimore, Maryland, harbor.

Fort McHenry had survived the British ships’ 25-hour bombardment of 190-pound exploding shells, and early on the morning of the 14th, the British fleet pulled out. In the early morning light, U.S. Army Major George Armistead ordered that a specially-made garrison flag be raised on the fort’s flagpole. The huge 32' x 40' flag had been commissioned by Armistead and a committee of high-ranking officers who wanted a pennant large enough for the enemy to see from a great distance.

Mary Young Pickersgill, a Baltimore widow, and her daughter, Caroline, had spent several months during the previous year completing the magnificent banner. This was the flag Francis Scott Key saw flying majestically in the morning breeze – the flag that inspired the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Most Americans are familiar with this story. After winning the American Revolution in 1783, the War of 1812 once again pitted America against the British. Clearly, the early citizens of our country faced many difficult days. But the historic documents preserved in our nation’s capital, as well as the countless writings of famous and not-so-famous Americans living through those perilous times, make it obvious that belief in, and allegiance to, God was of utmost importance. And one of the men for whom this held true was Francis Scott Key.

Educated at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, Key had practiced law in Washington since 1805, and also served as district attorney for the District of Columbia. He was an Episcopalian, and a man of great faith; at one time, he had seriously considered giving up his legal career to become a minister. Excerpts from a letter he wrote to his cousin evidence his commitment:
Nothing but Christianity will give you the victory. Until a man believes in his heart that Jesus Christ is his Lord and Master...his course through life will be neither safe nor pleasant. My only regret is that I was so long blinded by my pleasures, my vices and pursuits and the examples of others that I was kept from seeing, admiring, and adoring the marvelous light of the gospel.
In writing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” Key made his faith clear. There are four verses to the anthem, but most of us are familiar with only the first. If you look closely at the fourth verse, however, you’ll see that it resonates with homage to God.

Key spoke of Americans’ right to live free in a “heav’n rescued land,” and of the need for offering praise to the God who “made and preserved [America] a nation.” But the words that jump off the page are, “And this be our motto: In God is our trust.”

If you’re like the writer of this article, you had probably forgotten this last verse or, perhaps, may never have known it existed. But it does, and it was written for a purpose.

It is gratifying and affirming to know that although the phrase “In God we trust” was not officially adopted as our national motto until 1956, the man who penned America’s most meaningful song obviously felt the need to boldly declare trust in God as a requisite for our nation’s success.

Next issue: The minting of “In God we trust” coins.

Gratitude and thanks go to Eloise Ott of Orange County, California, for the informative phone call that resulted in the writing of this article.