- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2008

In the wee hours of September 13, 1861, a newspaper editor in Baltimore was awakened by the ringing of his doorbell.

Upon opening the front door, the editor was informed by one of the visitors that the man possessed a warrant for his arrest. Armed men entered the residence and searched every room in the house.

As the sun rose over the horizon that same morning, Francis Key Howard looked through the jail-cell window of Fort McHenry and thought about the irony of a poem - a poem that had been penned exactly 47 years to the day earlier by his grandfather.

The title of the poem was “Defense of Fort McHenry.” The Christian theme contained in the fourth stanza was particularly poignant to Mr. Howard that morning:

O thus be it ever when free men shall stand

Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!

Blest with victory and peace may the heav’n-rescued land

Praise the power that hath made and preserved us a nation!

Then conquer we must when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto - “In God is our trust.”

And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Readers will recognize this verse by its more popular title, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 as he watched the British pound Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. As dawn broke over Fort McHenry that morning, Key was elated to see the Stars and Stripes still waving.

“Key was now convinced that there had come a change of feeling on the part of Jehovah, the God of Battles. Baltimore was saved. God had been appeased. He jotted down a rhyme that poured from his soul in a song of thanksgiving,” a Key biographer wrote.

Though Key once was known by every schoolchild in the nation as America’s “Poet, Patriot, Christian,” most children today could not identify him as our national anthem’s author, much less know of his zealous Christian faith. Yet were it not for Key’s faith, it is unlikely “The Star -Spangled Banner” would have been composed.

The one person most likely to have influenced young Key to embrace Christianity was his paternal grandmother. Ann Ross Key was totally blind - her eyes having been scorched by heat and smoke when she rescued two of her slaves as her father’s house burned to the ground.

The saintly grandmother’s “Christian fortitude under her terrible affliction impressed itself deeply upon his pure and highly sensitive nature, and no doubt had much to do with his own sublime and perfect faith,” another Key biographer wrote. Key would become active in the Episcopal Church, and his faith was well-known:

“A devout Christian, he was a regular attendant at church affairs and took an active part in all religious affairs. At family prayers, which he regularly conducted twice a day, every member of his family, including the servants, was required to be in attendance. In the Sunday School he taught a Bible class of young men for many years and was one of the vestrymen of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown.”

Key was not only a committed Christian, he was a brilliant lawyer. His law practice, along with his political involvement, put him in close friendship with some of the most influential men of his day. One of those friends was the firebrand anti-Federalist and eccentric Virginian and congressman John Randolph.

The beneficiary of a keen intellect, Randolph nonetheless was a lonely man prone to seasons of despondency. His own faith had been shaken by reading skeptics such as Voltaire, and he confessed his doubts to Key, writing that he “possessed so little of pagan philosophy, or of Christian patience, as frequently to be driven to the brink of despair.” Key did his best to bring Randolph into the fold.

Key overlooked Randolph’s “eccentricities and admired him for his wonderful intellect, the courage of his convictions, and his freedom from party spirit.” Randolph’s vicious sarcasm had won him many arguments - and enemies. Key nonetheless was undeterred. He was one of the few contemporaries of Randolph’s who could get by with a direct challenge to the Virginian. Key responded to Randolph’s cynicism in a letter:

“I don’t believe there are any new objections to be discovered to the truth of Christianity, though there may be some … in presenting old ones in a new dress. My faith has been greatly confirmed by the infidel writers I have read: and I think such would be their effect upon anyone who has examined the evidences. Men may argue ingeniously against our faith, as indeed they may against anything - but what can they say in defense of their own - I would carry the war into their own territories, I would ask them what they believe.”

No specific charges were ever levied against Key’s grandson. The editor’s offense was simply that he had dared criticize President Lincoln. Thus, some of the liberties Francis Scott Key had enjoyed and had written about so eloquently had been lost in just one generation. Nevertheless, the patriotic fire that had dwelt in Key’s heart was still alive in his grandson:

“We came out of prison as we had gone in, holding in the same just scorn and detestation the despotism under which the country was prostrate, and with a stronger resolution than ever to oppose it by every means to which, as American freemen, we had the right to resort.”

• Richard G. Williams Jr. is an author and frequent contributor to this page. Visit his Web site at SouthRiverBooks.

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