“Wouldn’t Be Honest”

The young television newscaster was dashed when he discovered that the camera had malfunctioned in the freezing cold. Here was his golden opportunity to make a name for himself; CBS news was waiting for the footage, which was to be broadcast around the nation. Scrambling to recover, the journalist asked the preacher they had been filming to repeat his spontaneous prayer, but he refused, saying, “Wouldn’t be honest.”

In 1962, long-time television talk-show host Phil Donahue was a junior reporter, only five years out of Notre Dame University. Working for WHIO-TV in Dayton, Ohio, he was assigned to cover the gripping story of 36 men trapped in a West Virginia coal mine. This meant a rough, three-day vigil in the mountain chill, but Donahue’s heart soared, when a made-for-TV moment unfolded before his eyes. A local preacher in his thirties called an impromptu prayer meeting around a burn-barrel where rescuers had huddled to keep warm.

He began with “Dear God, we ask . . . at this troubled time . . .” and continued with the words of a hymn, which Donahue had never heard:

What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and grief to bear,
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer.

After the men had sung this hymn, the minister closed with “Bless us, Lord, hold us in your arms.”

It was perfect, just the sort of thing that would stir households across the land. But then realizing that they had missed the shot, they repaired the camera hurriedly and asked the minister to repeat the prayer. “But I have already prayed, son.” Donahue persisted, “Reverend, I am from CEE BEE ESS NEWS.” “Wouldn’t be honest,” the preacher replied.

Donahue pressed him, explaining that the prayer would go out to more than 200 affiliates and millions of viewers. But the preacher walked away, saying, “Wouldn’t be right.” Livid, Donahue called his editor, blurting out the story of the [expletive deleted] who would not cooperate with the mighty television network.

Later, when he had calmed down, Donahue realized that the preacher had shown great “moral courage” in refusing to offer a “phony prayer,” a “take two” for Jesus.[1] And so the minister’s example is a reminder to all who seek to offer testimony and counsel to a wide audience through the media: “There is no substitute for integrity.” And to those who never saw a camera they did not like, note the example of this humble servant who walked away from a camera, and fame, lest he compromise the holiness of his ministry.

[1] All quotes are taken from James P. Moore, Jr., One Nation under God: The History of Prayer in America (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 364-365.