In the wee hours of September 13, 1861, Baltimore newspaper editor F. K. Howard was awakened by the ringing of his doorbell. When he opened his door, he found armed men with a warrant for his arrest. They entered the residence and illegally searched every room in the house.1
As the sun rose over the horizon that same morning, Howard looked through the jail cell window of Fort McHenry and thought about a poem — a poem that had been penned exactly forty-seven years to the day earlier by his grandfather. The title of the poem was Defense of Fort McHenry. The Christian theme contained in the fourth stanza of Defense of Fort McHenry was particularly poignant to Mr. Howard that morning:
O thus be it ever when free men shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto — “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Readers will recognize this last line by the more popular song title, The Star-Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 as the British pounded Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. As dawn broke over Fort McHenry that morning, Key was elated to see the Stars and Stripes still waving. The despot, King George III, had been resisted! Key, convinced that the God of Battles had looked with favor on Baltimore, made his soulful out-pouring a song of thanksgiving.2
Key was once known by every schoolboy in the nation as America’s “Poet, Patriot, Christian,” yet most children today could not identify him as our national anthem’s author, much less know of his zealous Christian faith.3 But were it not for Key’s faith in Christ, it is unlikely The Star-Spangled Banner would have ever been composed.
The one person most likely to have influenced young Key for the Kingdom was his paternal grandmother. Mrs. Key was totally blind, her eyes having been scorched by heat and smoke when she rescued two of her slaves as her father’s house burned to the ground. According to his descendants, the saintly grandmother’s “Christian fortitude under her terrible affliction impressed itself deeply upon [Key’s] pure and highly sensitive nature, and no doubt had much to do with his own sublime and perfect faith.”4 Key became active in the Episcopal Church, and his faith was most public:
A devout Christian, he was a regular attendant at church affairs and took an active part in all religious affairs. At family prayers, which he regularly conducted twice a day, every member of his family, including the servants, was required to be in attendance. In the Sunday school he taught a Bible class of young men for many years, and was one of the vestrymen of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown.5
Key was not only a dynamic Christian, he was a brilliant lawyer. And his law practice, along with his political involvement, providentially put him in close friendship with some of the most influential men of his day.
One of those friends was the firebrand anti-federalist and eccentric Virginia Congressman, John Randolph. The beneficiary of a keen intellect, Randolph was nonetheless a lonely man prone to seasons of despondency, likely because his Christianity was at best questionable. Randolph’s faith had been shaken by reading infidels like Voltaire. He confessed his doubts to Key, writing that he “possessed so little of pagan philosophy, or of Christian patience, as frequently to be driven to the brink of despair.”6 But Key did his best to bring Randolph into the fold.
Key overlooked Randolph’s “eccentricities and admired him for his wonderful intellect, the courage of his convictions, and his freedom from party spirit.”7 Key was aggressive in standing for the Faith and attacking the strongholds of the enemy. Randolph’s vicious sarcasm had won him many arguments and enemies, but Key was undeterred. He was one of the few contemporaries of Randolph’s who could get by with a direct challenge to the Virginian. Key responded to Randolph cynicism in a letter:
I don’t believe there are any new objections to be discovered to the truth of Christianity, though there may be some in presenting old ones in a new dress. My faith has been greatly confirmed by the infidel writers I have read: and I think such would be their effect upon anyone who has examined the evidences…. Men may argue ingeniously against our faith, as indeed they may against anything — but what can they say in defense of their own — I would carry the war into their own territories, I would ask them what they believe….8
Carrying “the war into their own territories” is something that, sadly, American Christians as a whole are failing to do. Lacking a vibrant, conquering faith, the American church risks the very real possibility of losing its liberties.
While the Christian Faith of our Founding Fathers, and of those like Francis Scott Key who followed after them, laid a sure foundation for our country’s posterity, history teaches us, “The condition upon which God has given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.”9 Without that eternal vigilance, and “carrying the war into their own territories,” we could very well end up as Key’s grandson did, contemplating the words of some shadowy hymn devoid of any real meaning and reminiscing from a jail cell about the glories of our forefathers.
Francis Scott Key knew that the gospel could free not only the dark and gloomy soul of a John Randolph, but that it was the sole guarantor of political liberty as well.
No specific charges were ever levied against Key’s grandson. The editor’s offense was simply that he dared criticize the current occupant of the White House — Abraham Lincoln. Thus some of the liberties Francis Scott Key enjoyed and wrote so eloquently about had been lost in just one generation. But the patriotic fire that once dwelt in Key’s heart still lived in his grandson’s:
We came out of prison as we had gone in, holding in the same just scorn and detestation the despotism under which the country was prostrate, and with a stronger resolution than ever to oppose it by every means to which, as American freemen, we had the right to resort.10
May we, by the blessings of providence, hold “the same just scorn and detestation” for despotism, and may we not forget that only Jesus Christ can free a man’s soul and a nation’s spirit. For it is only through Christ that America can truly be “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
1. F. K. Howard, Fourteen Months in American Bastiles (Baltimore: Kelly, Hedian & Piet, 1863), 2.
2. Edward S. Delaplaine, Francis Scott Key — Life and Times (Stuarts Draft, Va.: American Foundation Publications, 1998), 168.
3. If our nation continues on its present course, we will see court challenges to the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem. Its Christian theme will be construed as offensive to a pluralistic society and a violation of the separation of church and state. A harbinger of things to come is the recent refusal of the Virginia legislature to recite our own state pledge to the Virginia flag — simply due to the fact that the pledge was written by a little old lady who happened to belong to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
4. F. S. Key-Smith, Esq., Francis Scott Key — What Else He Was And Who (Washington, D. C.: Key-Smith and Company, 1911), 14.
5. Key-Smith, 16.
6. Delaplaine, 92.
7. Ibid., 78.
8. Key-Smith, 21-22.
9. John Philpot Curran, Speech upon the Right of Election, presented July 10, 1790.
10. Howard, 89.