The Rev. George M. Docherty dies at 97; led push to include ‘under God’ in Pledge of Allegiance

The effort to get the words "under God" added to the Pledge of Allegiance grew from a 1952 sermon by the Rev. George M. Docherty, shown looking at photos of his career with his wife, Sue.
(Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press)
From Times Wire Services

The Rev. George M. Docherty, credited with helping to push Congress to insert the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, has died. He was 97.

Docherty, who had been in failing health for about three years, died on Thanksgiving at his home in Alexandria, Pa., according to his wife, Sue Docherty.

“George said he was going to live to be 100 and he was determined,” she said Saturday. “It’s amazing that he was with us this long.”

Docherty succeeded Peter Marshall as the pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., which was the church President Lincoln attended and is only blocks from the White House. In 1952 Docherty delivered a sermon saying that the pledge should acknowledge God.

A native of Scotland, Docherty was unfamiliar with the pledge until he heard it recited by his 7-year-old son, Garth.

“I didn’t know what the Pledge of Allegiance was, and he recited it, ‘one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,’ ” Docherty recalled in a 2004 interview. “I came from Scotland, where we said, ‘God save our gracious queen,’ ‘God save our gracious king.’ Here was the Pledge of Allegiance, and God wasn’t in it at all.”

There was little effect from that initial sermon, but he delivered it again Feb. 7, 1954, after learning that President Eisenhower would be at the church. The next day, Rep. Charles G. Oakman (R-Mich.) introduced a bill to add the phrase “under God” to the pledge, and a companion bill was introduced in the Senate. Eisenhower signed the law on Flag Day that year.

Docherty was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 9, 1911, and graduated from Glasgow University with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He arrived in the United States in 1950 after a three-year pastorate in Aberdeen, Scotland. He served as pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church for more than 26 years. During that time he was active with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement and opposed the war in Vietnam. He later had a television program in Washington. A book of his sermons, including the one he delivered to Eisenhower, titled “One Way of Living,” was published in 1958.

After retiring in 1976, Docherty and his family moved back to Scotland, but he returned to the United States a few years later for a yearlong position on the faculty of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. He returned to the United States for good in 1989.

He is survived by his wife, three children and five grandchildren.