You Can Never Tell

Francis Scott Key and Fort McHenry

Two Hundred years ago this coming June 18 the United States declared war on Great Britain, initiating the War of 1812.  Arguably the war is best remembered today as the occasion of the writing of our National Anthem.  The words, penned by Francis Scott Key during and shortly after the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814 by a British fleet, were immediately popular and went on to become the Anthem in 1931, set to a British song “To Anacreon of Heaven.”

During our recent vacation, June and I stopped at Fort McHenry to see how bicentennial matters fared.  Certainly, Baltimore is hoping, and the National Park Service is gearing up for a significant recognition.  As I stood on the waterfront and looked out to the distant location where Key stood on the deck of the British flag-of-truce vessel, straining to see what was going on “in the dawn’s early light,” I thought of a tuning fork.

Yes, a tuning fork.  Several years back I attended a meeting in Baltimore’s Lovely Lane Church, where Ed Schell (historian of blessed memory) showed us, among the collection of Baltimore Methodist memorabilia, a tuning fork that had belonged to Francis Scott Key.  It seems that Key, a devout Episcopalian, sometimes led singing for the Methodists, and “pitched the tunes” (that is, gave the starting note) using this tuning fork.

Thinking of Key’s tuning fork reminded me that one of the person’s for whom he would have pitched tunes was Bishop Asbury, who was still busy travelling far and wide over the country even as Key watched the bombardment and contemplated his poem.  Asbury loved Baltimore (he was buried there), but he loved spreading Scripture holiness more.  Indeed, as Key stood on the boat deck in the Patapsco River,  Asbury was travelling through Kentucky and Tennessee, visiting the far-flung people called Methodist.

You can never tell.  A little remembered and not very successful war put a Georgetown lawyer in a position to write words we still sing today.  A Methodist bishop who is not well remembered today forged a path that leads to the doorway of every United Methodist Church in America, including ours.   If we knew, stranger things might be happening today.  After all, God works in mysterious ways.

By the way, as an Episcopalian lawyer from Maryland, Key was something of a Federalist, which may have meant that he was not terribly enamored of “Mr. Madison’s War.”  For Asbury, there was no ambiguity.  He abhorred all war.  Not because he was a pacifist in principle (like the Quakers and Mennonites), but because the excitements and horrors of war distracted people from a proper attention to the state of their souls.  He was a practical pacifist for evangelistic reasons.

Like I said, you can never tell.

Grace and Peace,
Pastor Dan

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