December 25: Christmas Day Services (1941, 1942)

On December 25, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill attended a church service on Christmas morning. The location was Foundry Methodist and the preacher was Epiphany’s rector, ZeBarney Phillips. (In the accompanying photo, FDR and Churchill are the second and third from the right; Phillips is the third from the left.) The service was sponsored by the Washington Federation of Churches and featured different churches and preachers each year. The service in 1942, also attended by FDR, was held at Epiphany with the pastor of First Congregational as preacher. On the 1941 occasion, Churchill had come to Washington on December 22, just two weeks after Pearl Harbor had made Britain and America war-time allies. Though Churchill was politically right of center and FDR left of center, they were kindred spirits as champions of Anglo-Saxon democracy against the totalitarian Axis powers. They were also both Anglicans from genteel backgrounds and families of political note.

Both men were reared in a similar Anglican faith, accustomed to the Book of Common Prayer, and to the great old Anglo and American hymns. Both appreciated the majesty and symbolism of public worship, especially in wartime, in vivid contrast to the pagan Fascism of their enemies. Various dignitaries joined them for the service, including Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall and Vice President Henry Wallace. Prayers were offered for “those who are dying on land and sea this Christmas morning.” Churchill later remembered of the service: “Certainly there was much to fortify the faith of all who believe in the moral governance of the universe.” Surprisingly, it was the first time Churchill ever heard O Little Town of Bethlehem. Memorably, the hymn declares: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

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