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:
THE WHITE HOUSE - WASHINGTON
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:
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.
- The GIDEONS
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.