FREEDOM OF WORSHIP: " ... MEN VALUE (IT) MOST OF ALL
by Stan Griffin
January, 1941: War clouds were gathering as President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to Congress. Part of his speech presented "Four Freedoms" as ideals for a better world in a future time of peace. Later that year, the "Atlantic Charter" (an agreement signed by President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill of Great Britain) referred to such "essential human freedoms" for people everywhere.
Illustrator Norman Rockwell wanted to make a special contribution to the war effort; and he was inspired to do four paintings, one to represent each "freedom." He hoped that his work would help Americans see clearly just what we were fighting for.
Rockwell finished them in 1943. They were a huge success when they appeared in four consecutive issues of the "Saturday Evening Post." Besides raising the morale of our citizens, they were responsible for selling over $100 million worth of War Bonds. Today they are considered some of the most famous paintings of all time.
Those "Four Freedoms" were: (1) Freedom of Speech; (2) Freedom from Want; (3) Freedom from Fear; and (4) Freedom of Worship.
Number (4) was Rockwell's favorite of the four, but it was the most difficult to paint. He had to spend more time on it than on any of the other three. Considering the many religions found in our country, choosing one pictorial representation of ALL was a monumental task. He hoped to avoid offending any denomination while depicting the idea of unrestricted religious practice. In his painting, Rockwell wanted to say: No person should be discriminated against, regardless of his or her religion or race.
Rockwell's first idea was a cheerful scene in a local barbershop. A white, Protestant barber was cutting the hair of a Jewish man while a Catholic priest, an African-American, and a white Anglo-Saxon waited for their turn. While this one was in progress, Rockwell received a lot of complaints about stereotypes.
Some examples of those objections were: Catholics didn't like the priest's appearance. African-Americans said their representative in the picture should have lighter skin. (Some even said it should be darker.) Jewish observers didn't like the way their man looked in general. Rockwell quickly gave up on the barbershop version.
He started the painting a second time, but that one just didn't work out. Neither did a third. By this time, his editors at the "Post" were urging him to complete the "Freedom" quartet. Rockwell felt the deadline pressure; and he became short-tempered, which was out of character for him.
In desperation, as he put it: he "wrenched" (an idea) out of his head and put it on canvas. Rockwell's fourth attempt at "Freedom of Worship" turned out to be a smashing success!
In this picture is a group of eight people praying, each in his or her own way. Rockwell used some of his Vermont neighbors as models. In closeup, only their faces and hands are seen. It was the only one of the four done from that perspective. Worshippers are of different cultures, races, and religious backgrounds. They vary in age (both young and old).
One woman holds a rosary (string of beads used by Roman Catholics to count prayers). A man wears a Jewish yarmulke (skullcap) and holds a Bible. An African-American woman appears in the upper left-hand corner. In the foreground is an elderly woman described as a "mother figure." She has braids pinned on top of her head.
One critic described the painting as a " ... close grouping of profiles in prayerful contemplation lit by a soft, almost golden light ..." Others saw a " ... gray hue that suggested both variety and similarity ..."
Across the top Rockwell lettered: EACH ACCORDING TO THE DICTATES OF HIS OWN CONSCIENCE. He said later he remembered reading it " ... somewhere ... " It is now believed that a similar idea was written by the 19th century Mormon leader Joseph Smith in his "Principles of Worship."
Beside the "Freedom of Worship" painting, Rockwell did others which in some way could be described as "religious." Two of them are "Saying Grace" and "The Golden Rule."
The theme of "SAYING GRACE" was simple and sentimental, depicting an act of worship done unashamedly in a public place. This picture appeared on the Thanksgiving, 1951 "Post" cover. It "touched America's heart" and was later selected by readers as their all-time favorite.
The setting was a grimy, railroad cafe. The window looks dirty, and outside it's a dreary day. Several tables are seen: one in the middle of the canvas and several others (mostly just parts of them) appear around the edges. Also on the fringes are other diners' arms, legs, hands etc. The fact that they are only partly seen gives the impression they are entering or leaving the cafe.
The main focus is on a table in the middle. Seated there are four people. A small, grandmotherly woman and a little boy with heads bowed say the blessing before eating their meal. On the other side of this table are two young workingmen who are watching the woman and the boy. They have been described as "expressionless," "embarrassed," "interested," "moved," and perhaps a little bewildered. What are they thinking? Observers must make that judgment as they are drawn into the scene.
The idea of "THE GOLDEN RULE" originated with Rockwell in 1959. To promote world tolerance, he planned a ten-foot mural to symbolize the United Nations. He got little cooperation from various ambassadors which prompted him to store his preliminary work in a back room of his studio.
A year later Rockwell decided to illustrate the Golden Rule by filling a canvas with faces from all over the world, all in an attitude of worship. He got out his old United Nations sketch and combined his earlier sketches with new ideas to complete the painting.
"THE GOLDEN RULE" appeared on the "Post" cover of April, 1961. For his work, Rockwell received the Interfaith Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews that same year. Of all the honors he received, he valued this one the most because it praised him for his dedication "to the highest ideals of amity (friendship), understanding, and cooperation among men." The award described his painting as " ... depicting the universal fact that all men ... are members of the One Family of Man under God."
When viewing this picture, an observer is looking at people of all races (Caucasian, Oriental, African-American), both sexes, and all ages (babes in arms, boys and girls, middle-aged men and women, elderly men and women). Surprisingly, Rockwell didn't have to go farther than 50 miles from Stockbridge, Massachusetts for any of his models. Some were residents, others were visitors, and there were even some foreign exchange students. In the upper right-hand corner appears the face of his recently deceased wife Mary and one of his grandchildren.
Across the bottom appear these words: 'DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO UNTO YOU."
As a boy, Rockwell attended church regularly with his family, sometimes several times a week. He sang in the choir at two different churches. While living in New York City, he was a member of the St. Luke's Episcopal Church boys choir. After the Rockwells moved to Mamaronek, New Jersey, he performed similar duties at the Cathedral of St. John Divine. Rehearsals were held four times a week. On Sundays his choirs sang at three (and sometimes) four services.
Rockwell described this activity as " . . . hard work ..." and did not enjoy it very much. Every Sunday he received $1.50 as compensation. However, Mrs. Rockwell made him return all this money. When his voice changed, his singing days were over.
In 1962 Rockwell's editors suggested that he illustrate the "Bible." The "Post" would use his work in the magazine, and Heritage Press would publish the pictures as a book. At first he was enthused about an assignment that would raise the "level" of his work. After some thought, Rockwell "cooled off," remembering how he disliked committing himself to a series of paintings where the subject was so serious, even solemn.
According to his son Tom, Rockwell was " ... always a little uncomfortable or ambiguous (conflicted) about religion ..." He felt his parents had " ... forced it on him ... and ... turned away from it after he left home ..." For all of his adult life, he " ... never went to church , except for weddings and funerals ..." Molly, Rockwell's third wife, was a regular churchgoer and taught Sunday School.
One of Rockwell's favorite poems was "Abou Ben Adhem" by Leigh Hunt. He had learned it in grammar school and sometimes recited it for his family. Tom Rockwell remembers how "moved" he was as he repeated the words. The poem was read during Rockwell's funeral services.
The title character (Abou Ben Adhem) is a Moslem, and he has a vision of an angel with a book of gold. He finds he is not listed in it as "one of those who love the Lord" (perhaps because he is not a Christian). The poem continues:
"Abou spoke more low, but cheerly still; and said, 'I pray thee then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow-men.'
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night it came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest."
Since Norman Rockwell did not attend church services regularly, some might contend that he was not a true Christian. When you read his comments on life and the world, though, it is obvious that he loved mankind and wanted to see our world a better place in which to live.
This attitude plus his wonderful artistic output undoubtedly qualifies him as one " ... whom love of God has blessed."
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