'This I Believe' Invites Citizens to Share Beliefs

'This I Believe' host Jay Allison

hide captionThis I Believe host Jay Allison.

Nubar Alexanian

In a new series called This I Believe, Americans from all walks of life will share brief essays describing the principles that guide their lives. Read series host Jay Allison's introduction:

Story Credits

Produced by Jay Allison, Dan Gediman, John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

A Time of War, A Time of Fear

The United States is at war, patriotism is questioned, the economy is shaky and discrimination compromises our ideals. It is 1951 and broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow worries that America is being driven by fear.

MURROW: Around us all is an enveloping cloud of fear. There is a physical fear, the kind that drives some of us to try to escape, if only for a little while, the sound and the fury of the A-bombs, the hell bombs, or whatever may be coming….

Murrow was the most recognized voice in radio news. His reports from the rooftops of London during World War II made him a household name in America. His reputation made him the ideal host for a new series called This I Believe.

MURROW: By that name, we bring you a new series of radio broadcasts presenting the personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women in all walks of life. In this brief time each night, a banker or a butcher, a painter or a social worker, people of all kinds who need nothing more in common than integrity, a real honesty will talk out loud about the rules they live by, the things they have found to be the basic values of their lives.

And so, for five minutes each day, Americans heard just that — from everyday people to famous ones — Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Keller. Jackie Robinson and Albert Einstein and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

DOUGLAS: These days I see America identified more and more with material things, less and less with spiritual standards. These days I see America acting abroad as an arrogant, selfish, greedy nation interested only in guns and dollars, not in people and their hopes and aspirations. We need a faith that dedicates us to something bigger and more important than ourselves or our possessions.

This I Believe was the brainchild of Murrow's friend Ward Wheelock, a Philadelphia advertising executive. He was a decorated veteran of both world wars who made his fortune selling Campbell Soup and Whitman's chocolates to America.

WHEELOCK: My Dad was a natural for advertising.

Keith Wheelock is a retired diplomat and a history professor in New Jersey.

WHEELOCK: I've never met anybody with so much energy and so much ability to have an idea and push it through.

So with Murrow's fame and Wheelock's fortune and the support of the CBS network, This I Believe hit the airwaves in 1951 and continued until 1955 with more than a thousand essayists. It became a cultural phenomenon, 39-million Americans listening to its daily broadcast or reading a weekly column that appeared in newspapers around the country. The series reached people around the world with broadcasts on the BBC and Voice of America.

In 1952, Simon and Schuster published a book of the essays that sold 300-thousand copies - second only to the Bible that year.

WHEELOCK: And suddenly it's growing and growing and growing, and I don't think anybody, I don't think Dad, I don't think Ed Murrow, had a, had a clue at the outset that it would explode because the idea was right, the idea was good.

CHANG: One might think of it as the sophomoric "who am I" kind of question. But it wasn't. They were deeply sincere statements of people of all ages trying to make sense out of a time when things were really quite scary for many people and for other people, soothing to know that somebody else thinks the way they do.

Gladys Chang was an assistant producer for This I Believe. She worked with essayists to turn their prose into radio. For some prominent Americans too busy to compose an essay, Chang would find ways to help.

CHANG: For example, I talked to Martha Graham for four hours. She wanted to do the show but really didn't have time to put it together. So to put four hours of conversation into 600 words was a daunting task for me, which she of course edited and changed, and what was broadcast was Martha Graham:

GRAHAM: I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God.

ANNOUNCER: This I Believe. Here is Edward R. Murrow.

MURROW: More than 200 schools have been studying This I Believe over a number of weeks and then having students write their own creeds. The kind of result this study can produce is exemplified in the statement of Miss Elizabeth Deutsch… She is 16 years old… And lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Here is Elizabeth Deutsch.

DEUTSCH at 16: I have a simple faith in the Deity and a hope that my attempts to live a decent life are pleasing to Him. If I were to discover that there is no afterlife, my motive for moral living would not be destroyed. This is my youthful philosophy…

DEUTSCH EARLE (reading today): This is my youthful philosophy, a simple, liberal, and optimistic feeling, though I fear I may lose some of it as I become more adult. Sometimes in a moment of mental despair, I think of the words, "God loves an honest doubter" and I am comforted.

DEUTSCH at 16: …the words "God loves an honest doubter" and I am comforted.

DEUTSCH EARLE: I find it strange to encounter actual words that I wrote in the past.

Fifty years after writing her This I Believe essay, Elizabeth Deutsch Earle is now a biology professor at Cornell University.

DEUTSCH EARLE: My general feeling about things after having much more life experience is that our behavior matters more than the beliefs that we profess. And that the most important thing is to try to make some positive difference in the world now. Some of my comments about nations seeking revenge and retaliation, and so on, could come out of today's news. And it's perhaps discouraging that nothing much has changed about the world situation since I wrote this.

This I Believe will return to the airwaves on NPR. Each week we'll hear from a banker or butcher, a painter or social worker as they discuss the principles that guide their daily lives. We realize what a daunting prospect this is — to summarize a life's philosophy in just 500 words and share it with a national audience. But that's exactly what we hope you will do. We'll give you a web address in a minute. There you can find some suggestions for crafting your own essay and a simple form for submitting it to us. You can also listen to full recordings of essays from the original series. All your essays will be archived. Some will air on NPR, read by the authors. In a media climate of Hyper-reality Television and Conflict Radio, of aggressive pundits, of innuendo, harangue, and attack — we're trying to create not more noise, but a quiet place. A place to listen. As it was fifty years ago, This I Believe will be noted not for its clamor, but for its calm. We are eager for your contribution. I'm Jay Allison.

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