George MacPherson Docherty, a Presbyterian pastor who used the pulpit to get the phrase “under God” added to the Pledge of Allegiance, died on Nov. 27. He was 97.
Born in Scotland, Docherty graduated from Glasgow University and completed a three-year pastorate at Aberdeen’s North Kirk before immigrating to the United States in 1950. He spent the next 26 years working as a pastor at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C.
In 1952, Docherty’s 7-year-old son came home from school and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, which was written in 1892 by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy. Although Docherty wasn’t a U.S. citizen, he took offense that God was not acknowledged in the pledge and vowed to do something about it. That year, he gave a sermon at his church, which was located just blocks from the White House, and used the fear of “godless communists” to encourage a change in the pledge’s phrasing.
“I could hear little Muscovites recite a similar pledge to their hammer-and-sickle flag with equal solemnity,” Docherty once said.
Docherty repeated the sermon on Feb. 7, 1954, after learning President Dwight D. Eisenhower planned to attend his service. The next day, Rep. Charles G. Oakman, R-Mich., introduced a bill to add the phrase “under God” to the pledge. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Homer Ferguson, R-Mich. In the midst of the McCarthy era, both pieces of legislation passed and Eisenhower signed the bill on June 14. In the five decades since the religious update, numerous lawsuits have claimed the altered pledge violates the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.
Docherty hosted a religious TV program in Washington, D.C., for 22 years, and penned a book of sermons entitled “One Way of Living.” His autobiography, “I’ve Seen the Day,” was published in 1984. Docherty also used his position at the church to rail against the Vietnam War and to promote racial equality. He invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to preach from his pulpit and even joined King on the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
Docherty and his family moved back to Scotland in 1976, but returned to America 13 years later. In his final years, he gave guest sermons in Huntington, Pa., and enjoyed playing golf and the violin.