FROM COATBRIDGE TO CAPITOL HILL
The Story of Peter Marshall (part 1)
By Gina Cowan
Who would have thought that a lad from Coatbridge would end up having a film made about him in Hollywood? Certainly not Peter Marshall himself, but that is what happened, when his widow Catherine wrote his biography, ‘A Man Called Peter’ and Hollywood decided to film the story.
Starring Richard Todd and Jean Peters, it had a triple world premiere, with openings at the Roxy, New York, the Carlton, London and the La Scala, Glasgow on 31st March 1955. Stars of the film, prominent figures in show business and celebrities in all walks of life including Dr Billy Graham, who was in the middle of his Glasgow campaign, attended . Also present were Mrs James Hutton (Peter’s sister, Chris) with her husband and daughter. Sadly Peter Marshall’s mother, Janet had died a few months previously, so she missed this tribute to her famous son.
Peter was brought up in Kildonan Street. His father, a Prudential Insurance inspector had been leader of his kirk’s choir and a well-respected member of the community. Unfortunately he died, when Peter was four year’s old and his sister just a few months old. Later his mother, Janet, married Peter Findlay who took over the task of helping to raise the children in the right paths.
Peter grew up attending the little evangelical church in Buchanan Street but he had no notion of being a minister. His ambition was to join the Navy and he attended Coatbridge Technical College four nights a week studying mechanical engineering. At home he also studied semaphore and Morse hoping this would help him.
Peter worked as a machinist in Stewarts & Lloyds Imperial Tube Works in Airdrie. Unemployment was severe in the twenties and Peter was lucky to have a job. He tried unsuccessfully to get work at sea and his disappointment with this left him feeling restless.
A missionary returned from China spoke to the young people in the Buchanan Street church. He was not looking for money, but recruits. Peter was deeply touched by this appeal. He decided that his call was to full-time Christian service. Correspondence with the London Missionary Society revealed that training cost money and scholarships were not available,
Peter looked for alternative ways to serve God and was accepted as a student at the Scottish Congregational College in Edinburgh allowing him to do his first year’s work at home. He joined Skerry’s College in Glasgow to study English and French. He would then have to take higher mathematics and one other subject, perhaps Greek! College was three nights a week after work. He did not ‘get on too well’. The standards were very stiff.
A visit home from his cousin James who had emigrated to America changed everything. He was now an engineer in New York and doing well. He was astounded on looking at Peter’s bookcase.
“What on earth is an engineer doing with books on Greek, Hebrew and all this theology stuff?”
Peter flushed slightly. “Well, I want to be a minister, but it’s tough going.”
The story of all the difficulties and disappointments of the last few years came out. Jim looked thoughtful. “Why don’t you go to America to enter for the ministry? There are more opportunities there.”
“I don’t want to go to America. Why should I? Besides I haven’t the money for passage there.”
“Look, we’ve just as many sinners in the United States as Scotland and if you want to go I’ll arrange your passage. Think it over.”
Peter did think it over and prayed about it and decided this was the way forward. On April 5th 1927 Peter arrived at Ellis Island with just enough money to last two weeks. He was tagged, as if he were a bale of cotton to the home of an aunt in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Before he left from Scotland he had been given advice from Jim Broadbent.
“Don’t even look for a desk job. You want to be a preacher. Maybe manual labour will be the best preparation you’ll ever get for the ministry. The trouble with most preachers is that they don’t know how the other half live.”
Just how good the advice was Peter could never have guessed. Years later in the United States Congress, it would be one of his most appealing qualities – that he had worked with his hands and had never lost touch with working people
That was how it came about that Peter began digging across the state of New Jersey laying four-inch conduits. He had to be up at 4am to be on the job by 7am. Because of the distance and the heavy traffic it would be 8pm by the time he got back home. He then worked assisting a moulder in a foundry, under a glass roof in July and August. “I thought surely,” he said, “that I had located the exact site of Dante’s Inferno.”
He was too exhausted by the heavy work to even look for a church to join. What was he doing here?