Based on the biography by Catherine Marshall, a man from Scotland becomes a successful minister, marries Catherine, and preaches in the President’s church in Washington.
In 1915 in Glasgow, Scotland a boy is found hiding on a ship, and a policeman takes him home with a warning. His father is angry, tells him to get a job, and says he made him late for work. His mother tries to explain to him. Peter Marshall (Richard Todd) works in the mill for seven years and takes classes at night. On a foggy night he asks who it is. He trips and nearly falls off a cliff. He talks to God and realizes he has been held back. At home he tells his mother that God wants him to be a minister.
Three years later he is able to go to New York. He works digging ditches. He goes to Columbia Theological Seminary for four years and graduates with honors. He becomes a minister and moves from Covington to a large church in Atlanta, where many attend to hear him. Catherine Wood (Jean Peters) says she is one of them, but he does not know she exists. Peter gives a sermon about how people refuse to believe. People outside listen to a loudspeaker. He asks how beauty can be proved. He says his little mind cannot prove that God exists. He asks them to prove that they exist. He asks how one will know when one is falling in love. He says these things are known by perception and experience. Afterward Catherine is too shy to meet him.
Catherine is chosen to go with Peter to a rally. She waits, and he picks her up in an old truck with Miss Standish, the pianist. He drives. At the gathering he stands on the back of truck and speaks to them. He asks a student to speak, but she says she can’t. Others refuse also. Catherine volunteers, and the boys whistle. She talks to the girls and says how she learned it is a wonderful thing to be a woman in the twentieth century. She says Christianity began the emancipation of women with Mary, mother of the savior. She says she was superior, but now she has been made equal with men. She says men no longer feel as romantic about women as they did. She says she learned these ideas on a Sunday morning. She criticizes crude behavior. They sing “That Old Time Religion.”
Peter drives back with Catherine and tells her she impressed him with how well she remembered his sermon. She asks if he is engaged, and he says he is not. He says the Lord is going to pick out his wife. He says the Lord will pick out her husband for her. They walk on the campus of her college, and he asks if he can take her out next week.
After several days without his call she considers going to another church, but on Sunday she listens to his sermon about marriage. Afterward his secretary tells her that Peter wants to drive her home. He climbs a mountain, and she waits for him. He takes her out to dinner and calls her “a pretty girl.” After dinner he asks her what she thought of his sermon. She says marriage is a oneness. He says he will use it on his speaking tour for two weeks. She says she will be graduated and going home to West Virginia to be a teacher. He wishes her good luck. She wishes him well too and leaves before she starts crying. Emma tells her that a man is waiting for her. She goes down stairs, and he kisses her. He says God has a grand plan for him. She says she has been plotting for this to happen for two years. He says God plants the dream in the human heart. He kisses her and says they can’t get married until the end of the summer. She kisses him back.
They were married in the fall and take a boat to Cape Cod on their honeymoon. She says she is sea-sick. He likes to fish from a boat, but she stays on shore and catches a fish there. A telegram is brought, and he tells her to read it. She says it is from Washington DC and Evanston Whiting. He says he is going to the church of the Presidents.
They move into their home. She helps him find the phone, and they are invited to dinner. Col. Evanston Whiting (Richard Garrick) and his wife welcome them to the party. Barbara (Gloria Gordon) says that Dr. Marshall does not look like a minister, and he says he never wears a clerical collar. He drives her to the church, and they go inside and see the pew of Abraham Lincoln. He asks her to be there always when he is preaching. He says God has a plan for them to be there. They pray.
On Sunday a few people attend, and Peter preaches his first sermon. He says he has come as a stranger, and they need more than past glory. He says salvation is not a reward or something that needs to be sold. He says religion is given away. He says he is presenting the Christ of the Gospels who loved all kinds of people. He says his friends were an odd assortment. He says that is the Christ he knows and wants to present. Barbara tells Peter how much she likes him. A woman tells him that Laura Fowler (Marjorie Rambeau) did not like his expressions. Senator Willis K. Harvey (Les Tremayne) says he liked the sermon.
Newspaper stories tell about the Scotch minister. During rain people crowd in, and Peter says when he is scared, he prays the hardest.
Four years later a painting of the sea is put up. Peter calls his wife and says it will be a boy. On the street Peter sees Senator Harvey, and they go out to eat. Harvey says he was not elected a senator and is filling in. He says they expect him to vote for the land bill that will create millionaires; but in the spring farms will be flooded. He says Peter has an effect on him.
A secretary gives Peter his messages, and he learns that Harvey cast the deciding vote against the land bill. At home in bed Catherine asks Peter to get her to the hospital. Peter sees the baby through a window. He kisses Catherine goodbye, and he goes to speak at the Naval Academy.
In the church he decides the sermon he prepared is not the right one. So he speaks spontaneously. He talks about life that is brief and then disappears. He says James is talking about those who do not believe in God. He says that death comes to all, and he asks what death is. He says Jesus demonstrated that there is life after death. He tells about a sick child who asks what is death like and if it hurts. His mother prays, and she says it is like falling asleep and then waking up in our own room where we belong. He asks with what body we move in the life beyond. He says we shine with the mercy of God in a life that never ends. There will be no more pain or sorrow. He prays that they remember their heritage. Afterward he says he knew he had to give that sermon. As he is driving home he hears on the radio that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor and that all leaves are cancelled.
During the war Catherine says that Peter visited camps and hospitals. In the basement of a church in a canteen Peter leads singing. Harvey has been returned to the Senate. Catherine is tired. Miss Laura Fowler (Marjorie Rambeau) enters the Lincoln parlor and sees a young couple necking. Outside Peter is playing softball, and a window is broken. Laura and others say they must have a meeting. She wants the canteen closed. She says it is like her home has been invaded by strangers invited by a stranger aimed against what the church stands for. She says she has watched him and has endured a hundred affronts. Peter says he told the young couple to lock the door. He says that was their two-hour honeymoon before he shipped out. He says the canteen will stay open, or he will resign. The others accept his explanation.
At home Peter plays with his son, and Catherine comes in. She says she has tuberculosis, but it is a closed case. She says she has to go bed for three months. She cries, and he hugs her.
Catherine is tired of being in bed. Peter asks her about the letter she has written. She explains that she is writing to those to whom she did mean things. She says he does not realize what it is like. A doctor tells Peter that she has had every treatment. In the kitchen Peter sees a note that the maid quit. In the basement he fixes the furnace. He asks God what he has done wrong. He wonders if he has become fat-headed and has been building his ego. He wants to help Catherine, but he cannot do it by himself.
In church Peter tells about how Jesus healed a woman who had faith and touched his robe. Catherine listens by radio. Catherine talks to God and says she could spend the rest of her life as an invalid. Peter comes home and sees her standing. Doctors advise a change, and they spend the summer on the cape. Peter and his son Peter John (Billy Chapin) build a little boat. They show Catherine their new puppy. They are packed and leave.
Peter gets out of a car and notices a pain. In his sermon he says ministers are mortal. He talks about Scotland. He feels another pain and falls. In the hospital he is receiving oxygen. A doctor tells Catherine it could be a coronary thrombosis. At home Catherine and Peter John pray. They learn his condition is critical, and people pray for him.
A few days later the doctor says Peter almost did not come through. He says God did not want him. At home Peter notices Catherine is walking too softly. She scolds him that when she went out, he washed the dog in the basement. In bed Peter says he is working on his first sermon when he goes back. She is afraid he wants to leave her.
In church he preaches about whom people should worship, and he tells about Elijah on Mount Carmel in competition with the priests of Baal. He says America needs a prophet today. He asks for men of integrity. Laura gives Peter a small gift, a button from John Paul Jones. He thanks her. Harvey introduces two senators, and they have a proposition. In his office Catherine and Harvey try to talk him out of being chaplain to the United States Senate, but his enthusiasm wins them over.
Peter prays in the Senate that they may see that God is not of any one party or of any one nation. He asks God to help them. Peter, Catherine, and Peter John go for a walk with the dog. Peter says he loves that place and gives thanks. Later in bed he asks Catherine to call an ambulance. He says she must stay home with their son. In the morning she hugs Peter John. A newspaper announces the death of Peter Marshall. Senator Harvey prays briefly in the Senate.
Catherine and Peter John go back to their house on the cape. She tries to stop Peter John from taking the boat out. He asks her to go out with him, and she does. He rows, and she thinks how she will see her darling in the morning.
This spiritual biography portrays a man of faith who shares his joy of living in his sermons. His story of emigrating to America, working hard, studying, and becoming successful by his own efforts reflects the traditional American dream. In Washington some who revere their traditions are skeptical of his spontaneous methods, but his fresh energy wins them over.