Two hundred and eight years ago, on the morning of September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key began writing the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” after seeing the American flag still flying over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry after a British bombardment.
But there is a lot more to the story and a lot more to the man than those facts from the history textbooks suggest.
Francis Scott Key’s Christian foundation
“As a young man, he seriously considered joining the Episcopal priesthood but opted instead for the law and a secular life,” Marc Leepson wrote in What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life. “Virtually everyone who came in contact with Key remarked on his piety. He peppered his letters to family and friends with references to the Bible and its teachings.”
He also conducted family prayers twice a day and taught a Bible class.
Key initially opposed the War of 1812 for religious reasons, hoping for a diplomatic solution. But his patriotic feelings eventually won out, and he served with the District of Columbia Militia during the conflict.
Why did Key write “The Star-Spangled Banner”?
On August 24, 1814, British troops set Washington ablaze, with the Capitol and the President’s Mansion severely damaged. The British captured an elderly physician, Dr. William Beanes, in a raid afterward in nearby Maryland.
In a mission approved by President James Madison, Key and Army Colonel John Skinner met with the British aboard a ship to bargain for Beanes’ release. The British agreed but detained the men for several days, lest they alert the Americans about their plans to attack the fort.
Leepson wrote that it isn’t clear if Key intended the “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” as he originally called it, to be a poem or a song, although it seems odd that the words from a poem would match up so nicely with a popular English tune.
How the words ended up being sent to a local printer and distributed around Baltimore also remains a mystery. But they quickly wound up in the local papers, spread up and down the Eastern seaboard, and became called “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The “Star-Spangled” connection to “In God We Trust”
Although only one verse is typically sung at sporting events and patriotic gatherings, the song has four verses. Mark Clague, author of O Say Can You Hear?: A Cultural Biography of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” noted the religious references Key made in the fourth verse.
“For him, the unexpected American victory against a superior British force in Baltimore was nothing short of divine intervention,” Clague told The Christian Science Monitor.
Key wrote that America had been “blest with vict’ry and peace” and that God had “preserv’d us a nation!” One line seems particularly significant: “And this be our motto – ‘In God is our trust,’” leading to speculation that this phrase may have been adapted into our national motto: “In God We Trust.”
A key Christian lyricist and leader
Key died in 1843, long before “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the national anthem in 1931. But he made many other contributions during his sixty-three years.
He was a leader in the movement to create Sunday Schools in the United States, serving as vice president of the American Sunday School Union for almost twenty years. A trustee of a seminary in Maryland and a founder of another in Virginia, he also served as vice president of the American Bible Society.
On one of the great issues of the day, slavery, he left a mixed legacy. He opposed the slave trade yet owned slaves and opposed abolition.
Key served as the US Attorney for the District of Columbia and argued many cases before the Supreme Court. A friend of President Andrew Jackson, he served in his “kitchen cabinet,” an informal group of advisors.
But Key’s greatest legacy remains “The Star-Spangled Banner,” his lyrical tribute to our “heav’n rescued land.”