Nov. 1967: Priest with local ties challenges LBJ on Vietnam


The hot seat that President Lyndon Johnson found himself on in November 1967 happened to be a pew. The priest putting him on the spot was the Reverend Dr. Cotesworth Pinckney Lewis, the first rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Jasper.

Lewis, a Birmingham native who had been at St. Mary's in the 1930s, was then serving at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. Johnson was in attendance on Nov. 12, 1967, when Lewis made mention of the Vietnam War and its many unanswered questions in his sermon.

The Daily Mountain Eagle made the local connection to what had grown into a national controversy in the Nov. 14 edition. When one of his former parishioners was asked about the incident, she said that she wished "he had left politics out of his sermon," although she was described as being anti-Johnson as well.

Two of Lewis' close friends from his days in Jasper, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Brotherton, called him and learned that his only concern was that he not be misquoted. 

"To him, it was a simple matter: he had the opportunity of asking an important question and he was unawed by the rank of the man to whom it was directed, so he asked it," the Eagle's Martha Pennington reported.

The full text of the sermon is available online. It was based on a reading from Isaiah 9:2 — "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” 

Before getting to Vietnam, Lewis discussed the problem of race and called for a more inclusive society. He also made mention that the Holy Spirit was leading Catholics and Protestants to set aside old prejudices and work together.

Then came the mention of "an undeclared war in Vietnam" and the "rather general consensus that something is wrong."

Lewis did not mention Johnson by name, according to the text. Given the aforementioned consensus that the war was going badly, "we wonder if some logical, straightforward explanation might by given without endangering whatever military or political advantage we hold," he said.

He immediately made it clear that the remark was not coming from a war protester and then went further with his objections.

"We know the necessity of supporting our leader. But we cannot close our Christian consciences to consideration of the rightness of actions as they are reported to us — perhaps erroneously, perhaps for good cause (of which we have not been apprised)," he said. "We are appalled that apparently this is the only war in our history which has had three times as many civilians as military casualties. It is particularly regrettable that to so many nations the struggle's purpose appears as neo-colonialism. We are mystified by news accounts suggesting our brave fighting units are inhibited by directives and inadequate equipment from using their capacities to terminate the conflict successfully. While pledging our loyalty, we ask humbly, 'Why?'"

He ended with the prediction that in the years ahead, "customs which seem an essential part of life may have to be given up. Opinions we have held tenaciously may be proven false. Physical and emotional landmarks may be swept aside. We may be compelled to think new thoughts and walk in new paths."

Lewis died in 1999. A story on his death stated that he received over 10,000 letters and phone calls from all over the world concerning his sermon. Both the vestry and the Virginia governor sent their apologies to the president.

I can't find where Lewis ever showed any regret for his remarks. 

According to a LIFE magazine article, Johnson shook hands with Lewis and said, "Thank you" as he left the church, and Lady Bird Johnson murmured, "A wonderful choir."

Reporters, cynical lot that they were, immediately came up with some fake news headlines for the office bulletin board that were later printed in LIFE.

Here are a few:

• "White House Press Secretary George Christian has announced that President Johnson did not attend church in Williamsburg Sunday. No services were held in Williamsburg."

• "A White House spokesman says President Johnson has accepted a long-standing invitation from the archbishop of San Antonio and Cardinal Spellman to join the Roman Catholic Church."

• "President Johnson announced today the formation of a high-level blue ribbon commission of scholars to study and determine the real meaning of Isaiah 9:2. The commission is to report to him within 30 days."

• President Johnson left Williamsburg late Sunday by helicopter. As he left he was heard singing, "Give Me that Ol' Time Religion."

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.