At times of national tragedy, ministers of all religions are impelled to find words of consolation and healing for the unthinkable, the inexplicable. On Sunday, November 24, 1963, two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, more Americans attended their houses of worship than any other time in the nation’s history. Out of the shock and grief, ministers, priests and rabbis offered some of the most moving sermons ever presented.
William Fine, an editor, business executive and public servant, had the foresight to go out and collect these sermons and to edit them into a book, That Day with God: The religious expression of all faiths following the death of President Kennedy (McGraw-Hill, 1965). It is an extraordinary book that captures the profound spiritual outpouring that resulted from Kennedy’s sudden death.
Fine himself died this past May 2013, at the age of 86 years old.
Richard Cardinal Cushing, the then archbishop of Boston, Massachusetts, writes in the Foreword, “Undoubtedly, the millions who prayed on 'That Day with God' were turning with a sure human instinct toward the Creator at a moment when their confidence in the stability of earthly things was shattered.” Cushing points out that Kennedy “never failed to put his final confidence out beyond the world in the hands of an Unchanging God.”
Fine himself writes in the Preface, “In awesome moments man turns to toward God…For an assassin’s bullet did more than kill President Kennedy – it struck us all, shattering our composure as a people and numbing our senses.”
Fine points out that many of the sermons likened Kennedy to President Abraham Lincoln. “It was said about John Kennedy, as it was said about a great man from Illinois one hundred years ago, ‘a tree is best measured when it is down.’ ”
Among those included in this collection are Cushing, Rienhold Niebuhr, Dean Francis B. Sayre, Norman Vincent Peale, Rabbi Julius Mark and Charles Allen.
Dr. William H. Dickinson, pastor of Highland Park Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, asked, “How, then do we pray? For what do we pray? We pray to a God who is still at work in His world. We pray with a faith that calls us to a new dedication to law and order. We pray for the ability to be responsible citizens, characterized by orderliness, restraint, and courage. And we pray for a world where our human selfish motives will be brought under the judgment of God and our concerns broadened far beyond our city to all mankind.”
At Temple Emanu-el Brotherhood in Dallas, Texas, Rabbi Levi A. Olan, recommended that all citizens of Dallas, as a first step in healing, should accept their broader responsibility for a world in which societal ills continue to exist such as segregation. He went on to describe how God asked David to build a temple in honor of God. However, David died before the temple was actually built. Yet David built the temple in the hearts of his people and this was considered success in God’s eyes.
Olan concluded: “Let us remember that physical bodies can be killed but great ideas and ideals never die. One thinks of Abraham Lincoln, who was killed a hundred years ago. One thinks of Jesus Christ, who was killed two thousand years ago. One thinks of John F. Kennedy, who was killed two days ago.”
Cushing was a long-time friend of the Kennedy family and of the president himself. His homily was quite personal, as only a good friend could offer. Of Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy, he said, “When men speak of this sad hour in times to come, they will ever recall how well her frail beauty matched in courage the stalwart warrior who was her husband.”
In speaking to the entire Kennedy family, Cushing expressed profound gratitude for the life of the president. “What comfort can I extend to their heavy hearts today – mother, father, sisters and brothers – beyond the knowledge that they have given history a youthful Lincoln, who in his time and in his sacrifice had made more sturdy the hope of this nation and its people."
Cushing concluded his homily with these words: “May his noble soul rest in peace. May his memory be perpetuated in our hearts as a symbol of love for God, country, and all mankind, the foundation upon which a new world must be built if our civilization is to survive.”
The Kennedy family was grateful to Fine and to all of the homilists for their sermons. “The other members of the family and I are deeply grateful for this tribute to my son in your book That Day with God,” wrote Mrs. Rose Kennedy.
We all are.