A Man Called Peter: politicising religion

A Man Called Peter (1955) blurred the lines between politics and religion. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Dr Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

The links between the Israelites and the United States were discussed in A Man Called Peter (1955) which was a very popular film.[1]  It detailed the rise of Dr Peter Marshall, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, who became chaplain for the United States Senate.  The film was a collection of Marshall’s sermons strung together with the story of his rise and near perfect marriage.  Near the conclusion of the film, he delivered a sermon on Elijah and the threat of the God Baal to the nation of Israel.

The leaders of ancient Israel, including the King, had come together to make a great decision.  It was a national emergency.  Elijah, the prophet, had summoned them to meet on Mount Carmel to settle no less a question than who they should worship.  William Penn has said that “Men must be governed by God, or they will be ruled by tyrants.”

Here then was a Hebrew prophet facing the very same issue and making his people face it with him.  They all knew the history of the nation.  How God had led their fathers out of bondage into a new land of pioneers.  How his holy law had been rewritten into the nations constitution.  How the ten commandments had become the bill of rights – and a declaration of “dependence”.  But something in the nation’s life had begun to fade.  Moral decay had set in.  They had begun to love things more than principles.  They had become materialists.  And materialism had a God called Baal.  Now, Elijah saw the danger.  He saw what would happen if the moral fibre of the nation was weakened.[2]

Marshall then went on to explain the defeat and the death of the prophets of Baal by Elijah at Mount Carmel.  He followed the sermon with a call for a modern day Elijah to come to the United States to stare down the false ‘demi-gods’ of today.  The teachings of Baal were not mentioned in the Old Testament and it was Marshall’s own interpretation that it was a materialistic faith.  Marshall said that the choice was between being ruled by God or tyrants, to either follow God or ‘follow Baal to hell’.[3]

Marshall argued that the United States had a choice between either the Lord or the materialistic faith of Baal.  Furthermore, following the God Baal would undermine the moral fibre of the nation.  Marshall linked the Israelites’ struggles with those of the United States.  The Jewish people were depicted as pioneers and the ten commandments as their bill of rights.  When he referred to the holy law being written into the nation’s constitution, it was difficult to tell if he was taking about the United States or Israel.  The sermon on Elijah and the Baal was a strong political statement with cold war overtones.  The United States must follow the laws of God or it would lurch into communism, it was either God or materialistic tyranny.  To the audience of 1955, that was a simple choice between communism and God.

The actual interpretation of Baal as a materialistic faith is at odds with most biblical scholarship which sees it as fertility cult which competed against Judaism.[4]  It is also clear that the sermon was deliberately chosen as a political message by the screenwriter.  It is not mentioned in either the biography by his wife or in the published collection of his sermons.[5]  The screenwriter must have hunted out this sermon quite deliberately and selectively.  Marshall’s published sermons rarely touch on political issues, although according to his wife Catherine, Marshall wanted God to influence the individual legislators in their decisions.[6]

The director Koster constantly cut to the faces of three Senators who were listening closely to the sermon.  To make sure that the audience was aware of the moral strength of Marshall’s political arguments, Koster linked Marshall with the figure of President Abraham Lincoln throughout the film.  He preached in Lincoln’s old church and in another scene, he drove reverently past the Lincoln memorial.  Marshall also called upon the figure of Lincoln to support him in debates against parishioners.  This was done to give his theological statements added political weight.  It appeared that his efforts were not lost.  The powerful film columnist Hedda Hopper in 1957 placed A Man Called Peter seventh in the top ten films of all time.[7]  This reverence indicated that the film made a great impression at the time of its release, even though it is now largely forgotten.

[1] Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, Vintage, New York, 1982, p.

[2] A Man Called Peter, (d) Henry Koster, (w) Eleanore Griffin.  William Penn (1644-1718) was an English Quaker who helped establish the colony of Pennsylvania.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades And Their Impact on Today’s World, Anchor, New York, 1992, p. 11.

[5] The sermon is not mentioned in Catherine Marshall, A Man Called Peter: The Story of Peter Marshall, Fontana, Glasgow, 1978 on which the film was based or in Marshall’s published collection of sermons in Cathy Marshall (ed.). Mr Jones, Meet the Master, Fontana, London, 1964 (1949)

[6] Marshall, A Man Called Peter, p. 226.

[7] Los Angeles Times 3 January 1959 printed in Steinberg, p. 184.

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