Today marks the anniversary of John Glenn’s historic flight into space. Glenn piloted Friendship 7 as the first American to orbit Earth on February 20, 1962. Already a decorated U.S. Marine pilot from World War II and the Korean War, Glenn went on to become a four-term senator from Ohio, presidential candidate, and American icon.
After his passing on December 8, journalist Tom Wolfe recalled Glenn in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Glenn boasted of his church involvement despite the decline of civil religion and religious expression during the decades of his public service. As an active Presbyterian, he taught Sunday school and attended National Presbyterian Church while living in Washington, D.C. “I take my religion very seriously, as a matter of fact,” Glenn once declared.
While Glenn was open about his beliefs, Wolfe bemoaned the near universal silence about Glenn’s faith and its significance on American religious climate:
Yet for all of this, I never see mention of Glenn’s importance in the religious history of the United States… Glenn’s religiosity, amplified by the tremendous, Zeus-like success of the space program—which became his voice—may have slowed down the grim slide. Where it will all come out, of course, God only knows.
This is disappointing, especially given the strong religious sentiments he expressed during his life. He spoke from the special perspective of serving as one of the first Americans who went into space. He shared candidly about how traveling into space reinforced his Christian beliefs.
“To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible,” Glenn told the press on November 8, 1998. “It just strengthens my faith. I wish there were words to describe what it’s like.”
These moving remarks recall the words of King David from the Bible: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4, ESV)
Over the centuries, others have echoed these sentiments when observing outer space. Take for example astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) who proclaimed: “Ye heavens, sing His praises; sun, moon, and planets, glorify Him in your ineffable language! Praise Him, celestial harmonies, and all ye who can comprehend them! And thou, my soul, praise thy Creator! It is by Him and in Him that all exist.”
Of course Glenn had the special perspective that neither David nor Kepler never could of viewing the heavens from above Earth. He was among the first of many astronauts whose faith emerged all the stronger after their voyage into the heavens.
“John Glenn is always used as that paradigmatic example of somebody who had a strong faith before becoming an astronaut, and for him it was reinforced by his experience in space,” Johns Hopkins Professor Mark Shelhamer told Washington Post reporter Julie Zauzmer.
So on this anniversary of John Glenn’s famous flight, let’s remember this widely acknowledged American hero as not only an accomplished veteran, astronaut, and statesman, but also a man of God. We should also recall his wisdom and remember God as powerful creator of the awe-inducing heavens and earth.