The Rev. George M. Docherty, the former pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church who delivered an influential sermon that led to the insertion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, died Nov. 27 of a heart ailment at his home in Alexandria, Pa. He was 97.
Rev. Docherty was summoned from his native Scotland in 1950 to become pastor of the historic church in downtown Washington, which Abraham Lincoln attended when he was president in the 1860s. Each year on the Sunday closest to Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, the church had a special service that was traditionally attended by the president.
On Feb. 7, 1954, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower sitting in Lincoln’s pew, Rev. Docherty urged that the pledge to the flag be amended, saying, “To omit the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance is to omit the definitive factor in the American way of life.”
Bills were introduced in Congress that week, and Eisenhower signed the “under God” act into law within four months.
Then as now, legal scholars questioned whether a reference to a deity in a patriotic pledge violated the First Amendment separation of church and state. In recent years, there have been several court challenges to the phrase.
George Macpherson Docherty was born May 9, 1911, in Glasgow, Scotland, and was a shipping clerk in his youth. He was in his 20s when he decided to enter the ministry and later received two degrees from the University of Glasgow.
He was a pastor in Glasgow and Aberdeen, Scotland, before he was invited to New York Avenue Presbyterian, which was known as “Lincoln’s church.”
During his 26 years as pastor, he became better known for his liberal social activism than for his quest to alter the Pledge of Allegiance. He promoted racial equality and led outreach efforts to feed and educate the city’s hungry and poor. His church was often a staging point for civil rights and antiwar demonstrations, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from its pulpit. Rev. Docherty was with King on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
• Full story at the Washington Post.