The Story Behind the National Anthem

"Lest We Forget"



[The following presentation was given in Sunday School, on September 5, 2010.]


Before we have our Pledge of Allegiance, I’d like to remind you about something that happened 196 years ago (nearly 200 years ago). It’s the true story about our national anthem.

It was the War of 1812, our country was once again at war with the British.

In 1814 the British had won a major victory at the very center of our nation’s capital.

In August of 1814, British troops marched into Washington, D.C., and set the Capitol building and White House ablaze, as well as some other buildings. The President of the United States, President Madison, had to flee the city.

The enemy then decided to attack the city of Baltimore, which at the time was the third largest city in America.

Baltimore was protected by a fort, Fort McHenry (see above). If the British ships were to attack Baltimore they would have to destroy this fort.

The fort had ramparts, mounds of earth that were piled up as a fortification, for protection. The commander of the Fort was George Armistead. A year earlier Armistead asked a woman, Mary Pickersgill, to sew two flags for Fort McHenry.

Mary was 37 years old and she was a widow. The smaller flag was 17 X 25-foot storm flag for use in bad weather, but the flag that became the Star-Spangled Banner was a huge flag which was 30 feet tall and 42 feet long. This giant flag had broad stripes and bright stars.

The width of our sanctuary from wall to wall is 46 feet; this flag was almost that long! The ceiling of our sanctuary is 25 feet tall from the floor. That flag was 30 feet tall! This flag was so big it could not even be hung in our auditorium! And spangled on that giant flag were 15 stars! Today we have 50 stars spangled on our American banner, but back in 1813 they didn’t have that many states. Commander Armistead knew that the British would probably try to invade Baltimore and he wanted a flag so large that the British couldn’t miss it.

One year after the flag was made the invasion of Baltimore took place. Many, many British warships made their way through Chesapeake Bay headed for Baltimore and for Fort McHenry. It was mid-September in the year 1814.

At the same time there was a 35 year old lawyer by the name of Francis Scott Key. He was concerned about his friend, a medical doctor, who had been captured by the British. Francis Scott Key (the lawyer) and John Skinner (the negotiator) were able to get permission to board a British warship.  They were able to successfully negotiate the release of their friend.  The British promised to free the prisoner, but the Americans were not allowed to go back to shore until after the battle. Instead they were put in a small American ship that was under British control, and from that location, out on the water, they were able to witness the bombardment of the Fort.

On September 13, 1814, a whole fleet of British warships began firing bombs and rockets on Fort McHenry, this fort which protected Baltimore’s harbor. The bombardment continued all day and all night while the nation awaited news of Baltimore’s fate. The bombs were bursting in air everywhere. It was a perilous fight.

The British guns had a range of 2 miles but the American guns had a range of only a mile and a half. Thus the Americans in the fort were like sitting ducks. They had to endure the oncoming bombs but their bombs and cannon balls could not reach the enemy ships. As believers in Christ we are reminded that the Lord is our fort, our refuge, our place of safety, and no matter what kind of bombs or fiery darts the enemy hurls are us, God can keep us safe (Psalm 46).

As twilight gave it’s last gleams of light, Francis Scott Key could still proudly see the American Flag. At this point the Fort had been bombarded for more than 12 hours. The battle continued into the dark. It was like a massive fireworks display as the sky would light up with each explosion. As the rockets gave forth their red glare and as the bombs burst in the air, the flag could be seen, giving proof to Francis Scott Key and his friends that the America Flag was still there. They caught glimpses of it through the night as it was illuminated by the explosives. At one point during the night a bomb crashed right into the area of the fort where the gun powder was stored. What an explosion that would have caused! But for some reason that bomb did not go off. It was a dud.

Late in the early morning hours, when it was still dark, the bombs stopped and there was an eerie silence that lasted for some time. Mr. Key was wondering if the flag was still there. Even when the dawn’s early light broke forth, it was hard to see due to the haze and smoke and fog of that morning. They didn’t know what they would see. Would the American flag be gone? Would a British flag be flying in its place?

Suddenly at about 7:00 o’clock, a break in the mist cleared the view for a moment, and they saw the thrilling sight of the American flag still flying over the walls of the fort. Mr. Key was so excited he pulled out an unfinished letter from his pocket and started writing verses to a poem. He wrote most of the words of that song in a few minutes. Later that day the British released the Americans and Key returned to Baltimore where he finished the poem. Just three months later the British signed a peace treaty and the war ended.

The Star-Spangled Banner was officially approved as the national anthem by Congress in March, 1931.  It was recognized as the national anthem by the Army and Navy even before it was officially adopted by Congress.



Francis Scott Key was a man of faith in Jesus Christ. He believed that America was a heaven rescued land and that we should "praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation. Then conquer we must when our cause it is just, and this be our motto, IN GOD IS OUR TRUST."  A hundred and forty-two years after he wrote these lines "IN GOD WE TRUST" officially became our nation’s motto (in 1956). Francis Scott Key was involved in the American Sunday School Union, and was instrumental in planting thousands of Sunday Schools in settlements throughout the Midwest. Later in his life he became the Vice President of the American Bible Society because he believed that we would be the land of the free and the home of the brave only if we as a nation would follow Biblical principles, and he knew that the Word of God needed to get into the hands and into the hearts of the American people.



[Note: According to David Barton, the flag that flew over the fort for most of the night was the smaller flag (the storm flag), but at dawn the Americans raised the larger flag. I wasn’t able to confirm this from other sources.  --George Zeller]



The Middletown Bible Church
349 East Street
Middletown, CT 06457
(860) 346-0907

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