America’s Unheralded National Missionary: Francis Scott Key

Hardly an American alive does not know something about Francis Scott Key. Most know him as the writer of our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. Many may know that he wrote in while stranded on a ship in Baltimore harbor during the night-long attack on Fort McHenry, following which “our flag was still there!” Some may know that he was a successful attorney who had appeared many times before the U.S. Supreme Court, that he served as a United States district attorney, or that he served as an officer with distinction during the American Revolutionary War. Arguably his most high-profile case as a defense attorney before the Supreme Court was representing Aaron Burr against charges of treason when no other lawyer would. Guilty or not, Key believed that everyone deserves a fair trial.

Very few know that he was a dedicated Christian who was responsible for one of the largest missionary movements within his beloved United States

Key was a passionate proponent of spreading the Gospel across America by establishing Missionary Sunday Schools. In fact, he authored a book entitled Missionary Sunday School in which set out a plan to start Sunday Schools across the country “where individuals from lower economic classes heard the Gospel and learned to read and write using the Bible as a primary text. The schools aimed to reach children “who rarely or never attend church.”

He was a founder of the American Sunday School Union (ASSU) and served as its manager and vice president from its beginning until his death, a span of 19 years.

In 1830, Key chaired a meeting of the ASSU in Washington in which it was resolved that “in reliance upon Divine aid, (the ASSU) will, within two years, establish a Sunday school in every destitute place where it is practicable, throughout the Valley of the Mississippi.” That monumental task involved an attempt to reach more than four million people living in an area over 1.3 million square miles.

The Mississippi Enterprise has been hailed as “one of the most aggressive Sunday school programs ever launched.” One newspaper covering the conclave called it “the most important meeting ever held in the United States.”

The strategy was to start a class, teach it, then turn it over to a devoted Christian man or woman to teach it. Then, go out and do it again.

The ASSU commissioned between 80 and 100 new missionaries each year. A total of 61,299 Sunday school projects were established by the ASSU missionaries over a period of 50 years. By that time there were 407,242 teachers, in excess of 2.6 million pupils and more than a million books in the Sunday school libraries.

Francis Scott Key may be best known as the poet who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner, but his influence in developing, promoting, and sustaining what may have been the greatest missionary movement in the United States will have a far greater eternal reward.


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Image Source:

  • Attributed to Joseph Wood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons