The Christian Flag
A Fundamentalism File Research Report
by Mark Sidwell
| This report is intended to be a resource to help
Fundamentalist Christians in studying and evaluating
religious leaders and movements. It draws primarily
upon materials housed in the Fundamentalism File
in the J. S. Mack Library on the campus of Bob Jones
Although every effort has been made to provide
an impartial study of the topic, this work will
naturally reflect the interpretations and viewpoint
of its author. This report should not be taken
as representing an official statement of the position
of Bob Jones University. The University's
theological position is well expressed by its
The staff of the Fundamentalism File would welcome
any questions or comments concerning the content
of this report.
First Issued: 12/18/98
The Christian flag is found in churches across America.
Students in Christian schools offer pledges to it during school
assemblies. Most church-goers instantly recognize the banner
with its white background, blue field in the upper left-hand
corner, and red cross emblazoned in the field. Yet few are
likely to know the history of the flag or of the controversies
that have occasionally accompanied its display.
Origin of the Christian Flag
The Christian flag was devised almost by accident by Charles
C. Overton, a Sunday school superintendent at Brighton Chapel,
Staten Island, New York, on September 26, 1897. 1
Overton had invited a special speaker for Rally Day, the annual
promotion for kicking off a new year in Sunday school. When
the speaker did not show up, however, Overton was forced into
an extemporaneous address. Taking as his cue an American flag
draped over the piano, he began to talk about flags and what
they mean. Then, in a flash of inspiration, Overton suggested
that Christians should have their own flag.
Exactly what followed is a little murky. Some sources say
Overton actually designed and made a flag, which he used in
the church on Staten Island. Other sources imply that he merely
mulled over the concept and kept it in the back of his mind
for several years. What is definitely known is that in 1907
he approached Ralph Diffendorfer, 2
secretary to the Methodist Young People's Missionary Movement,
with his idea. Diffendorfer was also taken with the concept,
and together they found a flag maker who produced the banner
to their specifications.
The white on the flag represents purity and peace. The blue
stands for faithfulness, truth, and sincerity. Red, of course,
is the color of sacrifice, in this case calling to mind the
blood shed by Christ on Calvary, represented by the cross.
It is probably not coincidental that these are also the colors
of the American flag, but as Dorothy Fritz notes, these colors
"were also much used in the trappings of the Tabernacle,"
so assigning a religious meaning to the colors is not out
Diffendorfer began to take the flag with him to rallies
and conferences to promote its use. At one such meeting, he
expressed the wish that there were a pledge to the flag, like
the one written for the American flag. A Methodist pastor
in attendance, Lynn Harold Hough, volunteered to write one.
Hough, a liberal who later served as dean of Drew Theological
Seminary, wrote the following: "I pledge allegiance to my
flag and the Saviour for whose kingdom it stands; one brotherhood
uniting all mankind in service and love." Diffendorfer changed
"my flag" to "the Christian flag." Conservative churches and
Christian schools have generally adopted a different version
of the pledge: "I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag,
and to the Saviour for whose kingdom it stands; one Saviour,
crucified, risen, and coming again with life and liberty to
all who believe."
Expansion, Opposition, and Controversy
Slowly, use of the flag spread among American churches.
The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. gave it formal recognition
in 1942 when the General Assembly sanctioned its use "on appropriate
occasions, in churches and during services of worship." 5
The Protestant Episcopal Church was less taken with the Overton
flag and adopted its own official flag in 1940. 6
Some writers were absolutely dismissive of the flag. The
editor of Christian Century in 1942 called it "an example
of that capricious sentimentalism into which a certain shallow
portion of our American Protestantism falls too easily. A
'Christian flag' in a service of Christian worship is an impertinent
rival of the true Christian symbol," i.e., the cross. 7
A few months later, he repeated his criticism: "The so-called
Christian flag is a bizarre and unmeaningful innovation. It
is a needless irritant, more of a nuisance than a true symbol.
Let its use be discontinued. Let the cross be the only symbol
of the object of our worship and adoration!" 8
Display of the flag became more controversial during World
War II, when Congress adopted standards for proper etiquette
in displaying the American flag. The standards mandated that
the flag of the United States always be given the preeminent
place when displayed with another flag. 9
The legislation contained no penalties, and was therefore
more of a courtesy matter than a statute, but it caused problems
in some churches. More liberal churches in particular saw
conflicts between clergy worried about giving preeminence
to "Caesar" over Christ and congregations wanting to promote
patriotism in light of the world war. 10
Before Congress passed the legislation, the Federal Council
of Churches had issued a resolution on January 23, 1942, stating
that any religious symbol such as the cross or a flag should
have "the place of highest honor" in all church displays.
(It also officially recognized Overton's Christian flag, but
"only by general usage and not by official action of any ecclesiastical
The council reaffirmed this decision after Congress passed
the flag display act, but did so after the congressional sponsor
of the bill assured them that the act was merely a question
of etiquette and not law. 12
This clarification did not put an end to the controversies,
however. In 1942 the First Presbyterian Church of Milford,
New Jersey, was the scene of a battle pitting the pastor and
the church board against the local chief of police. That officer
came into the church and personally changed the flags to give
the American flag the prominent place. The church promptly
changed it back. The dispute gained the attention of the press
and was finally settled by a compromise by placing the American
flag on the right of the congregation (the place of honor
according to Congress's act) and the Christian flag on the
minister's right (the place of honor according to the Federal
Council's resolution). The police chief attended the first
service in which this arrangement was used to show his approval
of the compromise. 13
Nor did the disputes stop with the end of World War II.
In 1955 Emerson Abts, a Methodist pastor in Ashville, Ohio,
wrote to Christian Century of how he had changed his
flags to give God the priority over the government. In so
doing, he had drawn the wrath of the local chapter of the
American Legion. He asked what he should do. Several correspondents
replied, generally advising him to take both flags out. One
wrote, "Emerson Abts asks whether any law supersedes the requirement
that the American flag be always placed in a position of honor.
I could think of one: 'Thou shalt have no other gods before
me.'" Another wrote, "Let him place the flags in the proper
position according to his belief, and tell the American Legion
where to go." 14
Clashes on the Right Wing
If conflicts over the display of the Christian flag affected
mostly the theological left in the 1940s and 1950s, it became
more of an issue for conservatives after the 1960s. Liberals
had never really embraced the flag, but many conservatives
saw displaying it along with the American flag as a way of
asserting loyalty to both God and country. The problem became
not so much one of flag etiquette as it was more often a matter
of municipal ordinances. But even in these cases, the dispute
often seemed to boil down to a question of "Christ vs. Caesar."
In Dallas, Texas, on July 31, 1983, Delbert Fields, owner
of the Deeper Life Book Store, was cited for flying a Christian
flag in front of his place of business. Authorities said only
the flags of the United States and Texas could be displayed
on flag poles and that any other flags violated the city's
sign ordinance. Fields put up a sign reading, "City of Dallas
said we cannot fly the Christian flag. Keep us in your prayers."
He also sued, and supporters launched a petition drive. In
September the city excluded the Christian flag from the ordinance,
and Fields was able to fly it again. 15
In 1992 the Neuse Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina,
underwent a similar dispute. In this case, the church had
been flying the flag for several years when the city ruled
that it violated their sign ordinance. When the church was
taken to court, the congregation acquired the services of
Christian attorney David Gibbs. They not only defended themselves
in court but also protested the decision publicly and inspired
a letter-writing campaign to the Raleigh city council. After
some skirmishing, the council adopted a new ordinance exempting
The Christian flag still flies in many churches, schools,
and Christian businesses across America. Despite the fact
that it has no official sanction by any religious body, the
flag has apparently won a place in the hearts of believers
as a symbol of their faith. But exactly what it symbolizes
will likely always vary with the indivvidual. Segments of
the homosexual community, for example, began promoting a "gay
Christian flag," in which the blue field and red cross were
displayed not against the traditional white field but the
multicolored homosexual "rainbow flag." (Interestingly, this
design means that the homosexual flag omits white, the color
standing for purity.) As such uses of the flag and the history
of the banner indicate, the Christian flag is a symbol of
faith, but the nature of that faith varies-sometimes widely-with
the person using the symbol.
best source on the origin of the Christian flag is Thomas
A. Stafford, Within the Chancel (New York: Abingdon,
1955), pp. 56-61. Stafford reports (p. 57) that the account
was given to him personally by Ralph Diffendorfer and confirmed
by Lynn Harold Hough. A satirical jab at the history of the
flag is found in Martin Marry, "Filling in the Time," Christian
Century, 17 March 1982, p. 319.
2 On Diffendorfer,
see Nolan B. Harmon, "Diffendorfer, Ralph Eugene," in Encyclopedia
of World Methodism (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing
House, 1974), 1:684.
B. Fritz, The Use of Symbolism in Christian Education
(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), p. 34.
4 On Hough,
see Lowell M. Atkinson, "Hough, Lynn Harold," in Encyclopedia
of World Methodism, 1:1160.
D. Cavert, "What About the Christian Flag?" Christian Century,
5 August 1953, p. 889. The ruling also mandated that the Christian
flag be given the place of honor. Cavert notes that the PCUSA
"in disregard of its own action, has since held its annual
meeting in a sanctuary where the Christian flag was in secondary
place throughout the entire convocation."
6 In 1997
the Episcopal flag became a center of controversy as well.
Bishop William Wantland of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, copyrighted
not only the Episcopal flag but also the name "Protestant
Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.," neither of which had been
previously registered. Wantland, a staunch traditionalist,
said he wanted to preserve both the name and the flag in the
face of the increasing liberalism of the denomination and
its departure from historic standards of orthodoxy. The church
hierarchy was forced to begin the difficult task of trying
to recover control of its name and flag. See "Episcopalians
Tangle over Name," Christian Century, 7 January 1998,
7 "A Theology
of War," Christian Century, 3 June 1942, pp. 720-21.
in Church," Christian Century, 7 October 1942, p. 1207.
"Congress Tries to Settle a Much Debated Question," Christian
Century, 2 September 1942, pp. 1044-45.
Wolcott Cutler, "Flags in the Chancel?" Christian Century,
23 February 1944, pp. 238-40; note also the responses to this
article in Christian Century, 15 March 1944, pp. 340-41.
substance of this resolution is found in Stafford, p. 60.
Reaffirms Position on Flag," Christian Century, 30
September 1942, p. 1192.
the course of the Milford dispute, see the following articles
from Christian Century: "Christian Flag Takes Precedence,"
9 September 1942, p. 1096; "Settle Disputed Flag Position,"
23 September 1942, p. 1158; "Council Reaffirms Position on
Flag," 30 September 1942, p. 1192; "Flags in Church," 7 October
1942, p. 1192.
original letter is found in Christian Century, 30 March
1955, p. 399, and the replies are found in Christian Century,
20 April 1955, p. 477.
Flag Flies Again in Dallas," Fundamentalist Journal,
December 1983, p. 63.
the Raleigh dispute, see the following articles in issues
of Minuteman Alert, the newsletter of the Christian
Law Association: "The Fight to Fly the Christian Flag," July
1992, p. 4; "Flying Christian Flag Ruled Illegal," August
1992, p. 3; "The Flag Still Waves," April 1993, p. 3.