Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Soldier’s Bible

I recently lost another friend from my old Episcopal parish. John went home to Rhode Island nearly two years ago to look after his stepmother during her recovery from an illness or surgery or something. While he was there, he was diagnosed with cancer of the bone marrow. He went through three rounds of chemotherapy and was optimistic about his chances for recovery, but he didn’t make it. He never returned to DC.

A few months before John departed for Rhode Island, his roommate had a stroke, which left the right side of his body paralyzed. He now lives in a nursing home not far from their old apartment, which has been unoccupied for some time now. On Saturday he took me to the apartment to begin looking through John’s things. I returned on Monday and spent the whole afternoon in John’s room. At his roommate’s urging, I claimed some books, graphic novels, CDs, videotapes, and DVDs for myself (John and I had a lot of overlapping interests and tastes). I also set aside a few liturgical books for his roommate (some of them were probably his anyway). And I filled three boxes with the rest of his Bibles, books about scripture, prayerbooks, hymnals, books on liturgy, and miscellaneous books of theology and devotion. There are lots of other books, including several shelves of science fiction paperbacks, that are still there waiting to be dealt with.

One of the books I found was a 1942 Gideons’ edition of the New Testament and Psalms (KJV, naturally). It was apparently intended for soldiers. In the front, on a page facing a color image of the U.S. flag (48 stars), was this letter:


January 25, 1941

To the Armed Forces:

As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration. It is a fountain of strength and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest aspirations of the human soul.

Very sincerely yours,

Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On the following pages were the Lord’s Prayer, five pages of “Well-Loved Hymns” (Onward, Christian Soldiers; Jesus! Lover of My Soul; Lead, Kindly Light; Abide with Me; Rock of Ages; How Firm a Foundation; Nearer, My God to Thee; Now the Day Is Over; and the Doxology - “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow”), and two “National Anthems” (America - “My country, ’tis of three” - and The Star-Spangled Banner). At the back of the Bible was a page with this message:

Your Chaplain
Look up your chaplain at the first opportunity. Your welfare is his first concern, and you will find him friendly and helpful at all times. His counsel and advice will guide you in avoiding or overcoming difficulties. In many ways you can help him in his services for others. A close friendship between and chaplain and his men preserves and promotes a fine spirit in any service unit.

I wonder if such straightforward Presidential commendation of Bible reading would still be permitted by the courts today. Would the Gideons even be allowed to give soldiers a copy of the New Testament? When I was in fifth grade, the Gideons gave everyone in my school a copy of the New Testament and Psalms (and maybe Proverbs too). I’m pretty sure that is no longer allowed.


Shawn Shafer said...

While I don't think the Gideons are generally allowed in public schools to distribute bibles, they get around it by standing outside schools (on public sidewalks, not school grounds usually) and hand out bibles to students as they pass by.

Were the president to issue such a commendation, it would have to be couched in non-endorsing or non-exclusionary terms. Really, FDR's words aren't far from what I would expect today. What would be required additionally is that the same or similar statement accompany all copies of sacred texts to the armed forces, regardless of religious origin.

David said...

I'm happy to report that you need not be concerned here. The Gideons are still around and passing out Bibles to service members. One of them, in fact, was the last civilian I saw before entering basic training four years ago. We were standing in line to get on the bus taking us to Fort Leonardwood and he handed each of us in line a Bible. The chaplains also make sure that any service member who needs or wants a Bible has one. I have yet to see a chaplain who doesn't have a big stack of them outside of his office. My last unit's chaplain, in fact, bought dozens copies of Rick Warren's "Purpose Driven Life" and put them out there with the Bibles as well. They do a good job of keeping it "fair" as well, wish copies of both the Catholic and Protestant Bibles. I got a kick out of this post because the Bibles they give us in the Army today have all the same songs and hymns. The Catholic one has a prayer to St. Michael and a break down of "just war" theory in addition to all that.

Dymphna (4HisChurch) said...

I have a similar bible that was my uncle's in WWII with a forward from FDR. It was a "Catholic" bible.