Peter Marshall: Keeping the Dream

Peter Marshall

Even though his path to the ministry was not an easy one, Peter Marshall, a young Scottish immigrant said, “I have determined to give my life to God for Him to use me wherever he wants me,” writes Catherine Marshall in her book A Man Called Peter. Despite his early life of adversity, he was sustained by his mother’s faith and her promise “Dinna worry, son, the Lord will provide. He’ll open up the way,” Marshall himself recalled in his later writings.

Marshall was in the congregation at the Buchanan Street Kirk when a missionary from the London Missionary Society asked for volunteers to serve in the mission field. The appeal touched his heart. Marshall later referred to God’s call to the ministry as a “the tap on the shoulder” and preached a sermon by the same title.

His timetable and plans were not always the same as God’s.

At age 17 he came to America with dreams of becoming a minister. He toiled at jobs unrelated to the ministry – digging ditches, constructing a golf course, even working as a molder in a hot foundry, none of which led him closer to the ministry. Tired and discouraged, Marshall considered returning to Scotland.


A letter from a boyhood friend encouraged him to move to Birmingham, Alabama. Again he prayed to follow God’s will. Soon he had his answer and moved to Birmingham. He found a job there correcting galleys for the Birmingham News. He became active in Old First Presbyterian Church. The Welsh minister saw the young man’s potential as a minister and further encouraged his dream. Marshall was unable to save enough money for school, but the men’s Bible class where he taught provided the money for his first year. A very grateful young man left for Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, in September 1928. He graduated from Columbia at age 26 in 1931 with high honors. As he prayed again for God’s guidance, he accepted his first pastorate, a small church in Covington, Georgia.

Marshall later went to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Atlanta with a feeling that this was where God wanted him to be. Young people, many of them students from Atlanta-area colleges, came in great numbers to hear him. A Man Called Peter tells of one young man who, when asked why he went to hear Marshall, said, “He seems to know God, and he helps me to know him better.” Marshall accepted a pastorate at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., believing after much prayer that it was God’s will. He married Catherine Wood in 1936, and the couple moved to the nation’s capital, where he continued his remarkable ministry, and also became chaplain of the U.S. Senate.

What did Peter Marshall’s experiences tell him about God’s plan for his life? His timetable and plans were not always the same as God’s. Sometimes doors might be shut, but others open. God did provide opportunities for him to become a minister.

His messages helped people to find beauty in the simple things of life, “just as we sometimes come across the delicate blaze of morning glories against a brick wall … or climbing with their sheen of china blue over a tumbled-down picket fence,” he once preached. He discovered that his mother’s words were prophetic: “Dinna worry, son, the Lord will provide. He’ll open up the way.”

Annie Laura Smith is a writer living in Huntsville, Alabama.

Images: New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Internet Archive Book Images; self-scanned from collection of User JGHowes, via Wikimedia Commons