In 1916, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed June 14 as “Flag Day.” Then, in 1917 he argued the case for the United States to join World War One.
Those facts make the following document in the WWPL Pamphlet collection even more curious. The library’s archive contains the transcript of a sermon given on June 23, 1918 by Reverend A. M. Fraser, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Staunton. The title of the sermon was, “Shall Flags Be Displayed In The Church? The Church ‘a Place of Prayer’.”
Rev. Fraser addressed his congregation regarding why the American flag was not displayed in the church. Rev. Fraser enumerated multiple reasons, the first being that the flag is a “secular symbol.” In addition, his third reason was that, “… when you put a civic flag in the house of divine worship you incur the risk of a confusion of Church and State and of creating an unauthorized and dangerous alliance between the two.” However, it was his second reason for not displaying the flag that directly referenced President Wilson. Rev. Fraser spoke,
“A few years ago the President in a Flag Day address spoke of the meaning and importance of flags as emblems and of the emblematic significance of our national flag. An emblem represents a sentiment, and sentiment largely rules the world. Of what sentiment is the flag an emblem? It represents our pride, our boast, our challenge to the world. Now it is not proper to bring any pride or boast into the house of God that is not directly connected with the atonement of Christ…”
The amazing paradox of Rev. Fraser’s sermon includes the facts that he was the minister of the same church as Woodrow Wilson’s father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson. The sermon was given in Woodrow Wilson’s town of birth, during the height of American involvement in the first World War and just eight days after the celebration of Flag Day that was officially promulgated by Wilson two years earlier.
History can be surprising. Exploring the pamphlet collection of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library allows visitors to see in-print the complexities that history holds.
Written by WWPL volunteer Tim French