Christ Church in Old Town Alexandria has one of the most beautiful Christmas Eve services anywhere. Over the years, though not myself an Episcopalian, I have frequently attended, sometimes sitting in George Washington’s pew. The service of Christmas Eve 2007 was again gorgeous in liturgy and music, though the sermon was a jarring reminder of the Episcopal Church’s current meltdown over theological liberalism. Besides affirming his denomination’s laissez-fair policies on homosexuality, the pastor also referenced Global Warming and the United Nations in his sermon, which most would have expected to focus on the Nativity Story.
It was a sermon that might have slightly given Martha Washington the vapors. Sitting behind Robert E. Lee’s pew, I glanced over at the Washington pew, and my mind wondered back to other illustrious visitors who had sat there. On New Year’s Day, 66 years ago, two new wartime allies rang in 1942 in the historic sanctuary.
British premier Winston Churchill was in America for the first time since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He had spent Christmas Day with his new friend, President Franklin Roosevelt, at the White House. On New Year’s Day, Christ Church hosted a special service for the two allied heads of government.
New Year’s Day in the nation’s capital on New Year’s Day 1942 was a rainy Thursday, according to One Christmas in Washington, by David Bercuson and Holger Herwig (2005). The 34-year-old Rev. Edward Wells of Christ Church had invited President Roosevelt and his guest to follow nearly every other president in worshipping where Washington had prayed. Upon receiving an affirmative answer, Wells had cleared a list of stalwart church members with the Secret Service. And then the minister dispatched young men to knock on the doors of the approved worshippers early New Year’s morning with their special invite.
The Father of his Country had made Christ Church his regular place of worship since its construction in 1773. His box pew, for which he had paid an annual sum of $200 in the currency of the 1700s, would easily accommodate Churchill and Roosevelt, along with First Lady Eleanor.
Just across the aisle from the Washington box was General Lee’s more modern single bench pew. His boyhood had been spent around Christ Church, and he had been baptized and confirmed into the church there as a middle-aged man, after a spiritual rebirth. Washington’s Sunday carriage ride to the church had averaged about 90 minutes. Half a century later, the adult Lee’s typical journey from Arlington was somewhat shorter. Shorter still would be the 1942 presidential motorcade from the White House, which would cross what is now the Memorial Bridge and come down the George Washington Parkway.
CHURCHILL HAD ARRIVED EARLIER that morning fresh from a trip to Canada, where he had briefly conferred about the war with Canadian Premier Mackenzie King. His sojourn north had given the Roosevelts a respite from two weeks with the demanding houseguest, whose late hours and endless conversation had both delighted and exhausted the President, while exasperating the First Lady. Zooming straight to the White House from Union Station, Churchill was greeted by Eleanor. By 10:45, the Roosevelts and Churchill, along with an entourage of Roosevelt aides, and British Ambassador Lord Halifax, were touring Christ Church.
The waiting handpicked parishioners at Christ Church had been told to expect “distinguished” visitors. Their imaginations did not need to strain far to guess the identities. Word spread fast, and the streets of Alexandria were lined with gawkers and U.S. Marine guards. Wartime Washington, not having been threatened by an enemy since the Civil War, was on edge against enemy saboteurs and other potential calamities.
Seated in the three-sided Washington pew box, the Roosevelts and Churchill could see before them mounted wooden tablets of the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, and Apostles Creed. The hand-lettered tablets had remained essentially untouched since Washington’s time, though now aged to a golden hew. Also before them, though of more recent vintage, were marble memorials to both Washington and to Lee.
FDR was a lifelong, church-going Episcopalian, and Christ Church no doubt was familiar to him. Churchill was likewise Anglican, and though not as devout in his attendance, appreciated the pageantry of public worship, especially in times of crisis. The colonial brick sanctuary, surrounded by its ancient graveyard, must have looked to the British prime minister like an old English country church. Indeed, Christ Church had still been under the authority of the Church of England when first built, on the eve of the American Revolution.
Churchill’s bodyguard slipped him $20 in anticipation of a church collection plate. According to Franklin and Winston, by Jon Meacham (2003), Eleanor similarly passed money to her usually cash-less husband, later explaining: “When these little things are taken care of by others as a rule, it is easy always to expect them to be arranged.” But the special congregation of the day was spared any requests for money. Seated between the President and First Lady, Churchill was irritatingly blocked from seeing the pulpit by an inconvenient pillar.
SUPPOSEDLY, ROOSEVELT TOOK “roguish delight” in his British guest’s having to pray in the church so intimately associated with America’s chief revolutionary against imperial Britain. The Rev. Wells even read Washington’s “official prayer for the United States,” which the first president had issued shortly after his inauguration in 1789: “Almighty GOD; we make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt keep the United States in Thy holy protection, that thou wilt incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; and entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another and for their fellow citizens of the United States of America at large.”
Whatever benign mischief Roosevelt may have intended, Churchill was not in the least discomfited. Washington’s supplication had the cadence of any good Church of England prayer. And Churchill was an unabashed fan of the American liberator, praising him in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples for his “firmness” and “dignity.” On another occasion, Churchill humorously explained his admiration for the ethnically English Washington, who had fought against an ethnically German King George III, supported by German mercenaries.
No doubt further to Churchill’s liking was the Rev. Welles’s militant pro-war sermon. “The spirit of Christ alone stands in the way of successful Nazi world domination, for it alone can inspire a successful will to resist and provide sufficient power to achieve victory,” Welles preached. The pastor went on to excoriate America for its too long delayed action against the Axis powers: “We have wanted other nations to pay the supreme price for liberty while we gave them dollar credits!” Welles insisted his countrymen must become Christ-like and “accept our cross, too.” In atonement for its fear of conflict, America must be “purged and cleansed” of its “evil.”
Citing the “sin of international irresponsibility,” Welles bemoaned that “We have passed by on the other side when we have seen other nations in need or peril, or we have given them aid at the end of a 3,000-mile pole, fearful of involving ourselves in danger.” Besides Washington’s prayer, Welles also led the congregation in the Anglican prayer “In Time of War,” asking “grant us victory, if it be thy will.” The hymns were equally stirring, including “God of Our Fathers,” written for America’s centennial in 1876, “Once To Every Man and Nation” by New England abolitionist James Russell Lowell,” and Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The last hymn, written to inspire Unionists during the Civil War, likely had rarely if ever been sung by Christ Church’s Southern congregation. But the Rev. Welles observed, “It was time that the USA buried the hatchet of the War between the States as well as the British and the Americans burying the hatchet of the Revolutionary War.” According to Welles, during the “Battle Hymn,” Churchill was “so deeply moved that in the middle he wept, with great tears running unashamedly down his cheeks.” As Churchill’s granddaughter Cecilia Sandys noted in Chasing Churchill (2003), the “Battle Hymn” was one of his favorites. Did he hear it for the first time at Christ Church? Famously, he left instructions for its performance 23 years later at his funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. In his sermon, Welles borrowed from the hymn, insisting that America would not withhold “its terrible swift sword” from its enemies.
AS CHURCHILL AND THE ROOSEVELTS left Christ Church, the Rev. Welles introduced them to his 7-year-old daughter, who several hours later was diagnosed with chicken pox. Welles fretted that she may have infected the two world leaders. But the President and Prime Minister remained healthy as they hurried on in the rain to Mt. Vernon, where they laid a wreath at Washington’s tomb. En route back to the White House, Churchill insisted to Roosevelt that an Anglo-American partnership could curb the post-war world’s problems. In typical style, the President continually nodded “Yes, yes, yes.” Not completely enamored of the Englishman, Eleanor explained that her husband’s nods signified attentiveness, not necessarily agreement. According to One Christmas in Washington, Churchill scowled the rest of their road trip. Several days later, Churchill bemusedly avenged the remark by explaining to the First Lady that Mrs. Churchill abstained from politics, implicitly in contrast with Mrs. Roosevelt.
Largely as Churchill had hoped, the Anglo-American alliance more than survived the war. And the worship by FDR and Churchill at the church where Washington had prayed before leading his new country in war against Britain powerfully symbolized the enduring new strategic partnership. Whatever the passing fads of the modern Episcopal Church, such history will have forever ennobled sanctuaries like Christ Church.