Psalm 45 and Presidents’ Day
February is the month we Americans celebrate the birth and life of our two greatest presidents – Washington and Lincoln – and by extension, all the presidents of the United States. Like people everywhere, we have a built-in desire to venerate our leaders.
In America, the celebration of our national leaders all began, as it should have, with a federal holiday honoring the “Father of our Country” in 1879. It was the first federally-mandated holiday to pay homage to an American citizen. The holiday was long observed on George Washington’s actual birthday, February 22. In 1922, to coincide with the opening of the Lincoln Memorial, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was first observed on the anniversary of his birthday – February 12.
During the Truman presidency in 1951, an attempt was made to combine the two February birthdays in order to create a generic national “President’s Day” with the purpose to honor the office of the Presidency. The congressional attempt to change the name failed, but many states chose to combine the two holidays into one “President’s Day” on the third Monday of February, and so it stands today in some states.
In the Biblical Songbook, in Psalm 45 we have the only psalm celebrating a political king with such verses as, “You are the most handsome of the human beings and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever. Fasten your sword to your side warrior, cloth yourself with splendor and majesty, and in your majesty, ride forth victoriously on behalf of truth, humility and righteousness.” Uniquely, Psalm 45 is a wedding song, with a focus on the virtues of the groom, the king. In some ways, this Israelite song to its warrior king could be applied to the American warrior presidents.
Just a couple of years before Washington’s holiday was created by congress, a couple of ex-soldiers, unknowingly, combined their talents to give us perhaps the most nationalistic hymn in our hymnals. A poem was written by an ex-Civil War New England soldier for a celebration of the American Centennial Fourth of July in 1876. In l892 that Vermont private-poet-pastor Daniel Roberts, anonymously sent his patriotic poem to a commission which was revising the Episcopal Church hymnal. The poem was read by ex-Civil War colonel, George Warren, editor of the new hymnal and organist of Saint Thomas Episcopal Church in midtown Manhattan. Col. Warren composed a tune for the poem called – “National Hymn.”
(“God of Our Fathers” perform by the Gaither choir and Shane McConnell)
Turning to the American Songbook, in l942 Irving Berlin wrote the musical score for the Crosby/Astaire movie Holiday Inn. Opening a year after Pearl Harbor, Berlin, Crosby and Astaire were at the top of their game in providing feel-good tunes, lyrics and a script to lift the spirits of their fellow countrymen. With clever dancing and singing, a number of Berlin’s Holiday Inn songs became standards, such as “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.”
One song, largely forgotten, to come out of the movie was a song celebrating Lincoln’s Birthday called “Abraham:” quote “Upon a February morn, a tiny baby boy was born. When he grew up this tiny babe, folks all called him, Honest Abe. In eighteen sixty he became, the sixteenth president, and now he’s in the hall of fame – a most respected gent. That’s why we celebrate this blessed February date, Abraham, Abraham.” Okay, it doesn’t read so well, but Crosby gives it a jazzy vocal treatment.
(“Abraham” sung by Bing Crosby)
We have been blessed in the United States with some truly outstanding presidents. Two of those men, Washington and Lincoln, while not evangelicals, were men who operated out of a Christian mindset. Our Lord, Himself, tells us in the New Testament to honor our political leaders and in the Old Testament He raised-up political leaders worthy of our respect and admiration.
We Christians are to honor the “Fathers of our Country” who are to uphold the U.S. Constitution and look after the peace, but even more importantly, we are to honor the “Fathers of our Faith” who uphold the Scriptures and look after our souls.
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church”