May 27, 2024

Byron Sunderland


On May 30, 1868, 5000 people gathered at Arlington National Cemetery for the first Decoration Day observance. Ohio Representative James A. Garfield, a former general during the Civil War and future president, gave the keynote address. He closed with the words, “What other spot so fitting for their last resting place as this under the shadow of the Capitol saved by their valor…Here let them rest, asleep on the Nation’s heart, entombed in the Nation’s love!” Byron Sunderland (1819-1901), pastor of First Presbyterian Church in DC (later called National Presbyterian Church) offered prayer and afterward, the crowd, predominantly Union soldiers and their families, placed flowers on 20,000 graves of Union and Confederate soldiers. Over time, Decoration Day came to be known as Memorial Day, and by an act of Congress in 1971, it was so named and moved to the last Monday in May. The holiday has taken hold as the unofficial start of summer and a barrage of patio and mattress sales. While recreation and travel have their place, Abraham Lincoln implored us not to forget their “last full measure of devotion” in his 1863 Gettysburg address. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15.3). There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life in sacrifice for someone else. Jesus not only preached about laying down his life; he lived it.
Memorial Day is a day for remembering. We remember God’s faithfulness. We remember people, many unknown to us, who laid down their lives for our freedom. As the refrain of Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 epic poem reminds us, “Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet, Lest we forget—lest we forget.”

The prayer Byron Sunderland offered on that inaugural Decoration Day isn’t a matter of record, but I came across, in his role as chaplain of the Senate, his prayer to open Congress on May 5, 1877. The closing words of his prayer serve as a fitting prayer on this Memorial Day:

O Lord God of our fathers,
forsake us not in a time such as this.
Our confidence is alone in Thee.
Out of every storm, guide us into the open, quiet sea.
Pardon our sins,
exalt our life,
and be our shield,
our excellency,
and our exceedingly great reward;
through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Congressional Record, Proceedings and Dealings with the 45th Congress, May 5, 1877.

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.