On Thanksgiving Day in 1963 an unusual happening occurred at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church a few days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The new President Lyndon B. Johnson attended an interdenominational Thanksgiving Service at our Church in which about eight clergymen of various faiths participated. President Johnson was among the many worshippers who had gathered there to thank Almighty God for his manifold blessings to them during the past year. It was the only time to the best of my knowledge that a President of the United States ever attended a service at the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, Washington, D.C. Needless to say, at the above-mentioned service prayers were offered for God's blessings for the new President Johnson and also for his welfare and safety.
Johnson was born near Stonewall, Texas on August 27, 1908. Both his father and his grandfather, Samuel Early Johnson, Junior and Senior, served in the State Legislature. In the early 1930’s Johnson served as secretary to one of the U.S. Congressmen from Texas. In 1937 he won a Congressional seat in a special election and remained in the House of Representatives until 1949. During World War II as a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy he won a Silver Star.
In 1948 he won in an election for the U.S. Senate in a close contest and served in that body until he ran for Vice President and was elected on the ticket with President Kennedy in 1960. During the 1950’s he served first as Minority Party Leader in the Senate and later as Majority Party Leader.
President Johnson made a practice of attending a greater variety of churches than any other President. Often it seemed as though, in the principal churches of Washington, D.C., any minister or priest might find the President sitting in the congregation on almost any Sunday. This included the Roman Catholic Church, of which his younger daughter, Luci, became a communicant prior to her marriage to Patrick Nugent.
Johnson’s mother was a Baptist but from his youth he belonged to the International Convention of Christian Churches. His small home church was the First Christian Church, Johnson City, Texas. The name by which the denomination is most simply known today, the Christian Church, is appropriate to its broad ecumenical spirit, which is one reason its faithful member, "L. B. J.," moved so easily to worship in a variety of churches.
Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson, affectionately known to her family and to the public as "Lady Bird," is an Episcopalian and was one reason why President Johnson worshiped so often in that church. Both of his daughters, Lynda and Luci, were Episcopalians until Luci embraced Catholicism just before her marriage. During the first year of his Presidency, he seemed to divide his time equally in attending St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill and the National City Christian Church on Thomas Circle, both in Washington, D.C. Later on he seemed to give preference to the National Christian Church, attending that Church rather regularly.
President Johnson had on occasions a rough time in his church-going. An Episcopal clergyman, whom we might call a strict constructionist, rebuked him for receiving the Communion at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church because he was not confirmed as an Episcopalian. This is not a trivial question but it has discretionary flexibility. The rector of St. Mark’s and the Bishop of Washington rushed to the President's defense and welcomed him as a communicant.
On November 12, 1967 at Williamsburg, Virginia, the Johnsons sat in the front pew of Bruton Parish Episcopal Church. The Rev. Dr. Cotesworth Pinckney Lewis digressed from his sermon to speak of doubts of our Vietnam policy and said, "...we wonder if some logical, straightforward explanation might be given..." President Johnson had just completed a five-thousand mile tour ostensibly giving such an explanation. He shook hands with the rector and said "Thank you," as they left the church and "Lady Bird" murmured, "Wonderful choir." In Congress the rector was denounced for making a captive audience of the President. The Bishop of Southern Virginia said no offense was intended and defended the right of the rector to speak according to his conscience as an individual. The President conceded, "Going to church has become a problem." Whether a sermon is construed as sympathetic or critical, repercussions might follow in the press.
For the first time in memory regular weekly prayer sessions of the White House staff were held at 7:30 a.m. each Thursday in the White House starting in 1966.
President Johnson is quoted as having said "Most Americans appreciate and respect the influence religious beliefs have had as a motivating force in our traditional devotion to individual liberty and dignity since colonial times." "No less important has been religion's role as a part of the mortar unifying one of the world's most diverse populations into one of history's most unified nations." President Johnson related; "I have often said we never stand as tall as when we go to our knees." "While our Constitution wisely separates State and church, it does not separate men of State from religion." "1 have long known and never more than since November, 1963 - what strength comes from devotion, reverence and prayer."
President Johnson's favorite passages of scripture are: Isaiah 1:18 and Psalm 91.
In his public speeches and at gatherings such as the Annual Presidential Prayer Breakfasts he frequently appealed to the Almighty for guidance and also requested his fellow countrymen to remember their country and him in their private prayers. He welcomed the assurance that people were praying for the welfare of their country and for him by saying: "Prayer has helped me to bear the burdens of the Presidency, which are too great to be borne by anyone alone." He also said on one occasion," "No man could live in the house where I live and work at the desk where I work without needing and seeking the support of earnest and frequent prayer."
In May, 1967 the New York Times ran a story that had been rumored for some time. On June 29, 1966, allegedly Luci Johnson Nugent had found her father glum and lonely in the evening. He said to her, "Your daddy may go down in history as having started World War III." He went on to say that he had ordered that day the first bombing near the centers of Hanoi and Haiphong in North Vietnam. Luci said that when she was worried and depressed she visited "my little monks." President Johnson ordered a car and went with her to St. Dominic's Church, around midnight, where they prayed silently together. He grumbled that the cushionless floor was hard on his knees. The next morning. World War III having not occurred, Luci said that her "little monks" usually came through. The Times emphasized this story not as a reflection of dread on Johnson’s part, but of the burdens of decision he had to make and the comfort of an affectionate daughter.
Johnson was the first President to meet officially with a Pope on the occasion of Pope Paul VI's unprecedented visit to the United States and the United Nations. Even in the new spirit of religious good feeling, it was a less complicated matter for a Protestant President than it might have been for President Kennedy. President Johnson came to New York for the meeting on as informal basis as possible.
In February, 1964, at the 12th Annual Prayer Breakfast at the White House, President Johnson proposed what he must have felt sure would be a popular idea, only to find himself in trouble. Observing that , Washington was a city full of memorials to statesmen and soldiers, he thought it would be a fine thing to have a "fitting memorial to the God who made us all." He suggested that this should be a house of prayer open to persons of all faiths at all times. The government, of course, could not build it; a fund should be raised by private groups and individuals. At best it was considered a theologically naive proposal. It was pointed out that a great number of open churches already existed, several called "National" because of their location in the Capital City. A memorial to some generalized God, it was argued by some religious journals, would be meaningless and superfluous to any persons with any sort of religious affiliation, and no one else would want to use it. The proposal vanished into the crypt of buried ideas.
Early in his administration, President Johnson proclaimed as his goal "The Great Society," its aims including progress in civil rights and the "war on poverty." Escalation of the war in Vietnam, however, increasingly interfered with domestic programs and became a divisive issue in American life. In spite of more extensive legislation for civil rights than any other administration had achieved, President Johnson found racial strife increasing in American cities.
Late in 1967 he was challenged directly on his Vietnam policy when Senator Eugene McCarthy announced that he would seek the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. Early in 1968 Senator Robert Kennedy announced that he too would seek this nomination. In response to all of these political developments, and in the hope of raising himself above political concerns in the effort to bring about negotiations for peace in Vietnam, President Johnson on March 31, 1968 announced he wouldn't accept renomination for the Presidency.
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