The Religious Beliefs Of Our Presidents
NOTE: This work is not the complete book, the parts done are complete in themselves.
An account of the religious beliefs, and lack of such beliefs, of our chief executives, and a chronicle of the more important religious events and controversies of their administrations.
“When the crisis came, Jefferson, Paine, John Adams, Washington, Franklin, Madison, and many lesser lights were to be reckoned among either the Unitarians or the Deists. it was not Cotton Mather’s God to whom the author of the Declaration of Independence appealed, it was to ‘Nature’s God.’ From whatever source derived, the effect of both Unitarianism and Deism was to hasten the retirement of historic theology from its empire over the intellect of American leaders, and to clear the atmosphere for secular interests” — The Rise of American Civilization,” by Charles A. and Mary R. Beard. (Vol. I., p. 449.)
Chapter I – George Washington – The Vestryman Who Was Not A Communicant
Chapter II – Presidents Who Were Presbyterians
Chapter III – Presidents Who Were Unitarians
John Quincy Adams
William Howard Taft
Chapter IV – Presidents Who Were Episcopalians
Chapter V – Presidents Who Were Not Members Of Any Church
Chapter VI – Presidents Whose Religious Views Are Doubtful
Martin Van Buren
Chester Alan Arthur
Chapter VII – Thomas Jefferson, Freethinker
Chapter VIII – Abraham Lincoln, Deist And Admirer Of Thomas Paine
Chapter IX – James Abram Garfield, The Preacher President
Chapter X – William McKinley, The Methodist President
Chapter XI – Theodore Roosevelt, Dutch Reformed But Not Very Religious
Chpater XII – The Beliefs Of Our “Prosperity” Presidents
Calvin Coolidge – Congregationalist
Herbert Clark Hoover – Quaker
Appendix I – Washington’s Last Sickness And Death
Appendix II – Religious Opinions And Habits Of Washington
Appendix III – Dr. Holland And The “Bateman Interview”
Appendix IV – Testimony Of W. H. Herndon, Lincoln’s Law Partner For 22 Years, Concerning His Religious Beliefs
Appendix V – Thanksgiving Proclimations
Much has been written concerning the religious beliefs of our Presidents, but, until now, no one has gone into the subject thoroughly. A number of books have appeared, all of which, instead of giving facts, are merely religious propagandistic documents.
Mr. Franklin Steiner, the author of the present work, was engaged for over two years in writing it. He has been a student of the subject for over 40 years. This book is thoroughly documented, and is a straight-forward, trustworthy account of “the religious beliefs of our Presidents.
For a number of years I have promised my friends that I would produce this book. For a while other duties postponed the fulfillment of that promise. It was finished when the worst of the world-wide financial depression was upon us. This affected the book trade equally with other lines of business, which caused me to further delay publication. This, in a way, was not a disadvantage, as it enabled me to correct, revise, and make valuable additions to the book. Now, after long waiting, I take pleasure in presenting it to the public, hoping it will be an addition to reliable history and biography.
First, I wish to thank my friend Mr. Rupert Hughes, historian and dramatist, for his kindness in reading the manuscript and offering his criticisms and suggestions. This was a valuable aid, which I appreciate and am pleased to acknowledge. To Mrs. S.C. Yoemans, a surviving sister, to Mrs. Edith Roosevelt, widow of Theodore Roosevelt, to Mrs. Edith Bolling-Wilson, widow of Woodrow Wilson, thanks are due for the facts about the church membership of Presidents, Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson. To Mr. Louis M.H. Howe, his private secretary, I owe my thanks for the facts of the religious belief of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. To Professor Roy F. Nichols, of the Department of History, University of Pennsylvania, I am indebted for knowledge of the religous views of President Franklin Pierce. Among others whose help and advice must be acknowledged are Mr. Richard J. Cooney, Chicago, Ill., Mr. George E. Macdonald, the veteran editor of New York City, Mr. Otis G. Hammond, of the Historical Department of the State of New Hampshire, Edward Tuck, Esq., Paris, France, Mr. William Morrow, of the publishing firm of Wm. Morrow & Co., New York City; to Dr. Charles A. Beard, of Columbia University, for permission to use on the title page a quotation from his invaluable history, and other friends throughout the United States too numerous to mention. To the attendants of the Milwaukee, Wis., public library, one of the best in the United States (in which city most of this book was written), who not only placed before me the treasures of its shelves, but treated me with the highest consideration and took an interest in the progress of the work, I am deeply grateful.
Among all others, I must acknowledge the great aid I received from an old friend who died years ago, John Eleazer Remsburg (born 1848, died 1919), author, editor, lecturer, educator. For years Mr. Remsburg collected information regarding the religious views of Abraham Lincoln. He searched every book where reliable facts could be obtained. Many A persons were then living, in sound health and memory, who had personally known Lincoln. Mr. Remsburg visited some of these, and wrote down their depositions. With others he corresponded. He presents the evidence of private citizens, as well as of public men who knew the great President and were familiar with his religious views. In 1893 he published the result of his investigations in a book entitled, Abraham Lincoln: Was He a Christian? It is a work of 360 pages, and contains more information upon both sides of the controversy than can be found in any other book. In 1906 Mr. Remsburg incorporated this into a larger one, entitled, Six Historic Americans, to which he added the facts of the religious opinions of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and Grant. This book is still in print, and, so far as I know, no one has ever called into question any of the statements it contains. Its opponents have cautiously ignored it.
I first met Mr. Remsburg when I was a youth in high school, in 1889. I knew him until his death in 1919, knew his irreproachable integrity, and invariable accuracy, yet I have not followed him blindly. I have, when practicable, gone to the original sources and verified his quotations. Then I have added the result of my own investigations, giving evidence of which Mr. Ramsburg was unaware. In one way I have followed his plan of giving the statements of both sides, of those who claimed that Lincoln was an orthodox believer, and of those who denied it; though I have been obliged to resort to condensation, giving only the testimony of the most important witnesses on both sides of the controversy.
In an appendix I have given the evidence of Lincoln’s law- partner of 22 years, Mr. William H. Herndon, who, all agree, knew the real Lincoln better than anyone else. In another appendix I have dealt with the famous “Bateman Interview” of Dr. Holland, the cause of the bitter dispute which I have described. Concerning Washington, I have added, in an appendix, the conflicting statement’s of his private secretary, Tobias Lear, and of the Rev. Mason L. Weems, as to his deathbed scene; as well as an appendix from Sparks’s ‘Life of Washington,’ with my own comments. In the bibliography I have given an alphabetical index of the standard histories and biographies I have consulted in the general preparation of this work.
Some may say, as I have heard others say, “Well, even if all that is here said be true, it should not be published. We should be permitted to hold intact our traditions and ideals of these men.” With this view I cannot agree. History and biography, if written at all, should be written truthfully.
Milwaukee, Wis., July 30, 1936.
A certain popular publication in a table giving information concerning the Presidents of the United States has classified them religiously as follows:
- Friends (Quakers)
- Washington, Madison, Monroe, General W, H. Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, Pierce, Arthur
- Jackson, Polk, Buchanan, Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Wilson
- Johnson, Grant, Hayes, McKinley
- John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Fillmore, Taft
- Reformed Dutch
- Van Buren, Roosevelt
A foot-note says: “Jefferson and Lincoln did not claim membership in any Church.”
While this is more accurate than most of the other tables seen, it contains a number of errors. If a member of the Episcopal Church is supposed to be a communicant, Washington and William Henry Harrison were not Episcopalians; and there is no evidence Madison, Monroe, Taylor, Tyler and Arthur were. The lumping together of so many Presidents as Episcopalians is due to the fact that St. John’s Church of that denomination, in Washington, is now located, as it was a hundred years ago, only 3,00 yards from the Whit House, on Lafayette Square. St. John’s has always been an aristocratic exclusive church, and required certificates of social standing from those who applied for membership. Once a young man approached President Lincoln for an office. He brought recommendations from the “bests people” in Washington and elsewhere. After giving him the appointment, the President handed his references back. The young man, surprised, remarked, “Mr. President, I thought you kept recommendation and put them on file.” “We generally do,” said Lincoln, “but I though yours might be of value to you in case you ever want to join St. John’ Church.” This church, being so near the White House, was attended by, a number of Presidents, regardless of their own Church affiliations or lack of them, which is the reason some writers have classified them a Episcopalians. For instance, President Van Buren attended here, though at home, in Kinderhook, N.Y., he worshiped in the Dutch Reform Church, the one in which he had been reared. Webster, Clay and other great statesmen of the first half of the 19th Century attended here because it was the fashionable church; though Clay was not baptist until three years before he died, and Webster while he lived in New Hampshire was a Congregationalist, and in Boston, a Unitarian.
Jackson, Polk and Buchanan all joined the Presbyterian Church after their terms in the White House had expired, as did Pierce the Episcopal Church, although none of these three Presidents had previously been members of any Church. Grant, Johnson and Hays were not Methodists, though their wives were, which has been the excuse for counting them as members of that Church.
The religious beliefs and Church preferences of our Presidents have always been a topic of public interest. Yet no writer, as far as I know, has ever investigated the subject thoroughly and given accurate information. [NOTE: One writer, John E. Remsburg, in his Six Historic Americans, has given the religious views of four Presidents, Washington, Grant, Lincoln and Jefferson, which is the only attempt I know of to do justice to the subject.] They have all taken certain affiliations and beliefs for granted and have given too much attention to rumor. Prejudice and self-interest have, with many writers, taken the place of facts. Nearly 40 years ago I became interested in the subject, and this work is the result of what I can at least claim to be a conscientious investigation.
Two broad principles have guided me in seeking information about the religious opinions of public men. First, when such a man has in fact been religious, he has almost always made it known, either by joining some Church representing his views or by expressing them in other ways. When he has done neither, and his biographer has had little or nothing to say of his religion, it can be safely assumed that he had none that was strong or pronounced,
A man with religious convictions, particularly if they are of the orthodox, popular type, has no hesitancy in proclaiming them; in fact, such public profession is often to his advantage. If he has none, or holds some that are unpopular, it is good policy to say nothing about them. Both conditions have prevailed among public men in the past and present.
My second rule leads me to conclude that where a noted man has in fact been of a certain belief or a member of a certain Church, the fact has never been disputed. For instance, no one has ever denied that Gladstone was a communicant in the Church of England, McKinley of the Methodist Church, Benjamin Harrison, Cleveland and Wilson, of the Presbyterian Church. But in other cases, as those of Washington and Lincoln, where there have been controversies, the mass of evidence tends to prove the negative. In such cases, I intend to give the evidence, pro and con (allowing the reader to decide for himself), expressing no opinion, except where there could be no other reasonable view. That the reader may have all the information obtainable regarding the religious views of Washington, I have placed in an appendix the account of his last sickness and death, as minutely described by his secretary, Tobias Lear, who was constantly present. In the same section I have given the view of his biographer, Jared Sparks, who argues that Washington was an orthodox believer. Regarding Lincoln, I have given the statements of the friends who knew him intimately in Illinois, and who certify that while he lived in that State he was a Freethinker of the type of Thomas Paine, adding the assertions of ministers and others who claim he was converted to orthodoxy in Washington.
In speaking of these two, the greatest of our Presidents, I am aware that I shall make statements which will arouse criticism in some quarters and hostility in others. This must be expected by any writer unless he writes to be read only by a certain class of people or to sustain set popular opinions. No writer of the present day, if, he professes to write truthfully, can afford to ignore the mythology that has entwined itself around the careers of great men. In fact, some of them are better known by what they were not than by what they were. Yet when a writer does paint them in their true colors in history, he runs Counter to public prejudice. His consolation and his vindication lie in the great number of the myths of history which have been thoroughly exposed and are now considered fable instead of fact. William Tell, Barhara Frietchie, General Lee surrendering his sword to General Grant, John Brown kissing the Negro child while on his way to the scaffold, Washington praying in the snow, Lincoln and his cabinet on their knees in prayer, are well-known instances of “The Myths of History.” As in all other departments of knowledge, the scientific historical method must take the place of all those old traditions which have not met the test of truth.
Many men, and particularly public men, are assigned to membership in certain Churches because they sometimes accompany their wives to divine services. Then others, whether they attend church or not, are considered as believers and members because at the proper time they write their checks for the church budget. Every minister of standing will admit that neither of these acts is evidence of religious belief, though some ministers will claim such men as Christians as a means, of advertising their Churches, if they are distinguished citizens of good, repute. It must also be remembered that many men of prominence, politically, socially and commercially, give a conventional adherence to the Church for fear they might be suspected of “infidelity,” which many of them regard as a most dire accusation.
I do not evaluate the church preferences of the Presidents by any of these criterions; but before I have called one of them a Methodist, a Presbyterian, an Episcopalian, or a member of any other Church, I have tried to satisfy myself by asking these questions: Was he a believer in the creed of the particular Church? Did he make a public profession? Did he observe the sacraments of the Church and conform to its rules? These methods are observed in judging the affiliations of other people, and why should it be unfair to apply them to a consideration of the religious beliefs of our Presidents?
At election time, the religious beliefs of the candidates considered, perhaps more so today than in the past. In the election of 1928 they were the chief issue. Yet in the face of this, it is a strange fact that prior to the election of Benjamin Harrison, in 1888, there had not been one President who was unquestionably a member of an orthodox Church at the time of his election. Those who are familiar with Ben. Perley Poor’s ‘Reminiscences of 60 Years in the National Metropolis,’ published in 1886, will he impressed by the fact that our statesmen of a century ago, including our Presidents, gave more attention to the punch bowl than to the communion cup. Under the Volstead regime the chief effort of our Congressmen was to compel the people to keep sober, in which work they were backed by the ministers, who, a hundred years ago, were so busy seeking the salvation of souls from perdition that they had no time to frame political platforms or select candidates for office, to say nothing of keeping a card index telling of the opinions and doings of Congressmen. Now all is changed. The Church of today is in politics, sometimes more so than it is in religion. It is said that 90 percent of our present Congressmen are church members. It would be interesting, if it were possible, to know what the writers a century hence will say of the Congressmen of our day. It is to be hope they will tell how we took great strides in all the other virtues, as well as in piety and sobriety; and that they will point with pride to our Websters, Clays, Calhouns and Bentons, as quite as great men as were those of the 1830’s, but chastened by grace, while those of old were not.
Since this work was finished, but before its publication, a book was published in Boston which enables us to call attention to the methods of some writers who in the past have written upon this subject. It is entitled, ‘The Religious Background of the White House.’ It is obviously more a book of religious propaganda than a work of biography and history. It magnificently camouflages the Presidents by stories of the Piety of their wives, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts. To say nothing of its minor inaccuracies, it abounds in many statements now known to be untrue, besides in many instances not giving well-known facts that would place the Presidents in an entirely different light.
Speaking of Washington and Lincoln, this writer says (p. 330): “Our first President was an habitual church attendant from his earliest Years. He heads the list of Presidential communicants.” Of Lincoln (p. 346): “Abraham Lincoln, long regarded by many as an Atheist [and who ever said that he was an Atheist? This writer holds the very crude notion that every one who does not believe in Christianity is an Atheist] and always cataloged with the Presidents who never united with the church, appears from evidence I herewith submit to have united with the Presbyterian Church three months before his assassination.”
It is needless to say that no writer of today who places historic truth before zealotry in defense of an opinion will maintain either of these contentions.
As further proof that this writer is superficial in his knowledge of the subject, and careless in his presentation, I refer to certain statements regarding Presidents Monroe and Tyler. Of President Monroe, he says (p. 212): “The Liberalism of Paine religiously did not finally affect Monroe, however, for he continued to worship according to the Episcopal ritual. That he left the Paris mission to return to the United States may be attributed as a reason why the Paine doctrines did not ‘take’.” And again (p. 213): “Monroe’s messages and state papers do not reflect the deep religious fervor which has actuated many of our chief executives. He has far fewer allusions to dependence on the divine creator than other executives whom we are disposed to consider less religious, and his correspondence fails to show any great religious experience.”
This writer is unfortunate in his dearth of knowledge both of Paine and Monroe, and such ignorance is lamentable in one who assumes to instruct the public. It is well known that Monroe left Paris because he was recalled, and that neither the Liberalism of Paine nor of anyone else had anything to do with it. The Supposition is that he was recalled because of his too great sympathy with the principles of the French Revolution, in which case we can scarcely say that the Liberalism did not “take.”
Of two other important facts the writer seems to be unaware, and if he is aware of them he is guilty of the “sin of omission.” He does not state that as soon as possible after arriving in Paris, Monroe had Paine released from the Luxembourg prison, and that the former United States minister, Gouverneur Morris, refused to use his influence to effect Paine’s release. Then he does not tell, as an impartial historian should, that after Paine’s release from prison Monroe took him to his own house, where he gave him a home for a year. One of the brightest chapters in the career of James Monroe was his courage in coming to the rescue of this greatly hated and persecuted man, hated and persecuted because he had dared to defy aristocracy and priestcraft.
Further, the writer of ‘The Religious Background of the White House’ seems to be ignorant of another important fact, that Monroe was returned to France 10 years later by President Jefferson, when, in cooperation with Robert R. Livingston, he negotiated the treaty that made the Louisiana Purchase possible.
The latter part of the writer’s statement, that Monroe has “fewer allusions to dependence on the divine creator than other executives,” and that “his correspondence fails to show any great religious experience,” seems to nullify his first assertion, for which there is no evidence, that Monroe continued to worship according to the Episcopal ritual.
In speaking of President Van Buren, the writer says (p. 360,): “Martin Van Buren has always been classed as an attendant upon the services of the Dutch Reformed denomination, and such was the case most of his life. No biographer has claimed for him membership in that body or in any other. He is always included in the group of Presidents who never joined the church. The writer of this, however, browsing throughout the records and data of Columbia County, New York, has discovered evidence of Van Buren’s church membership.”
I have searched every book I could find that might give evidence of President Van Buren’s church membership, including his Autobiography, published by authority of the United States government, a biography by Mr. Edward M. Shepard, and a more recent biography by Denis Tilden Lynch. I have found no such evidence. If the writer of ‘The Religious Background of the White House’ was so fortunate as to discover it, “in the records and historical, data of Columbia County, New York,” he would have done searchers after truth a great service had he told them in what “document,” or volume and page he found it. This he has failed to do. He admits that President Van Buren did not join any church in Washington, or in his home town of Kinderhook, N.Y., but would have us believe, without giving his authority, that he did join a church in Hudson, N.Y.
This reminds us of his other assertion, that Lincoln did not join the New York Avenue Presbyterian church, which he attended when he attended any church, and whose pastor, Rev. Dr. Gurley, was a friend of his family; but did join another Presbyterian church in Washington “three months before his assassination.” It is extremely improbable that Lincoln, “three months before his assassination,” amidst the pressing cares of state, at a time when the war situation was most acute, would find time to wander among the different Washington churches to find one that he cared to join. No one has the right to ask us to believe this without the best of evidence. It is on a par with the silly yarns that Lincoln traveled in disguise to Brooklyn during the war to consult Henry Ward Beecher, for whom he had no use, and in the same manner was smuggled into Washington for the inauguration. It is like another story our writer tells of Washington begging the communion of a Presbyterian minister, when he never took it in the Episcopal churches he was in the habit of attending — which yarn he tells without the slightest thought that when an investigation was made no one would be able to find a word of evidence that it ever occurred.
But the evidence given by our writer for Lincoln joining a church “three months before his assassination,” which would make it happen in January, 1865, is so curious that my readers may be pleased to inspect it, as a matter of amusement. An utterly unknown man, one Reiper, appears to have written ex-President James Buchanan that Lincoln had “joined the church.” Mr. Buchanan replied in a brief letter, on February 24, 1865, in which he said he was glad to hear it and hoped be had done so in sincerity. This letter is to be found in the ‘Life and Letters of James Buchanan’ (vol. xi, p. 380).
We need ask but three questions and this story annihilates itself. What were Mr. Reaper’s means of knowing this to be a fact? If he had learned it from reliable sources, why did he impart the information solely to Mr. Buchanan? How does it happen that he knew of it, and no one else was ever informed of its occurrence? It seems to have been the secret of one man. When Calvin Coolidge, a much lesser man than Abraham Lincoln, joined a church in Washington, we were told which church it was, and the newspapers telegraphed the fact throughout the country. Who has the temerity to assert that Abraham Lincoln joined a church in the capital to the knowledge of but one man, and he, so far as is known, told of it to but one other man? With these comments we can dismiss the story.
Of Julia Gardner Tyler, the second wife of President Tyler, and his widow, the writer of ‘The Religious Background of the White House’ says (p. 296): “Julia Gardner Tyler died in the Exchange Hotel, Richmond, July 10, 1889, in her, 70th year, in a home-like room which was opposite that in which her distinguished husband died more than 17 years before.” The writer did not appear to know that President Tyler died in the Exchange Hotel, more than 27 years before, on January 18, 1862.
This work was not written for the purpose of upholding any Church or any religion, nor is it intended to promote irreligion. It merely endeavors to tell the truth, so far as it is to be found, regarding the views held of time and eternity, by the 31 men who, from the foundation of our government, have sat in its executive chair. It will be seen that in some cases their opinions widely differed, which is a noble tribute to the American principles of religious liberty and separation of Church and state.
George Washington – The Vestryman Who Was Not A Communicant
President, April 30, 1779 — March 4, 1797.
That much myth and legend is to be found in most of the past biographies of George Washington is admitted by practically all conscientious and discriminating writer’s of today. That the “Father of His Country” has been delineated more in the character of a god or a superman than as a real human being is a fact now known to all who think as well as read. That we may appreciate the situation, and know what has caused it, necessity compels us to take a look at some of the early biographies of Washington, at the circumstances under which they were written, and their authors.
The,first ‘Life of Washington,’ and the one that has had the largest circulation, was written by the Rev. Mason L. Weems, and first published in 1800. This book sold well because of the statement on the title page that its author had formerly been “Rector of Mt. Vernon Parish.” It passed through 80 editions, and more people have known Washington and known him exclusively by means of it, than through any other book. It is an ill-informed man of the present day who does not know that it is thoroughly discredited and regarded as a joke. Houoghton, Mifflin &,Co., the Boston publishers, have issued ‘The literature of American History,’ a practical anthology upon the subject. This states that if the “f” had been left out of the “life,” making the title of Weems’ book, ‘The Lie of Washington,’ its real character would be aptly described. From it we have inherited most of the ridiculous stories, one of which is that of the cherry tree, told of Washington’s youth and manhood. In 1927, a new edition was published as a literary curiosity. The editor, Mark Van Doren, speaks of its merits as follows:
“Parson Weems’ celebration of George Washington first appeared in 1800, and ran through as many as 70 editions before it died a natural and deserved death. It died because it had done its work with complete effectiveness. Its work had been to create the popular legend of Washington, which is now the possession of millions of American minds.
“Weems was neither a ‘Parson,’ nor ‘formerly rector of Mt. Vernon parish,’ but a professional writer of tracts and biographies. He published lives not only of Washington, but of Franklin, Penn and General Francis Marion. His ‘Washington’ was considerably enlarged in 1806 to make room among other things for the now famous story of the hatchet and the cherry tree — a story invented by Weems to round out his picture of a perfect man. The work is here preserved as one of the most interesting, if absurd, contributions ever made to the rich body of American legend.”
Albert J. Beveridge, in his ‘Life of John Marshall’ (vol. 3, pp. 231 – 232), describes the Rev. Mr. Weems in these words:
“Mason Locke Weems, part Whitefield, part Villain, a delightful mingling of evangelist and vagabond, lecturer and Politician, writer and musician.
“Weems, ‘Life of Washington’ still enjoys a good sale. It has been one of the most widely purchased and read books in our history, and has Profoundly influenced the American conception of Washington. To it we owe the grotesque and wholly imaginary stories of the cherry tree, the planting of the lettuce by his father to prove to the boy the designs of providence and the anecdotes that make the intensely human founder of the American nation an impossible and intolerable prig.”
Bishop Meade, in ‘Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia’ (vol. 2, p. 234), says of Weems: “If some may by comparison be called ‘nature’s noblemen,’ he might surely have been pronounced one of ‘nature’s oddities!’ … To suppose him to have been a kind of private chaplain to such a man as Washington, as has been the impression of some, is the greatest of incongruities.” Bishop Meade admits that he was eccentric and unreliable.
Among the earliest biographies of Washington was one written by John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, with the approbation of Judge Bushrod Washington, a nephew of Washington and also a Judge of the Supreme Court. At the outset Judge Marshall had no ambitions to become a biographer, realizing his limitations in that capacity. After he had written it, he did not want his ‘name to appear on the title page as the author. The book was a ponderous literary monstrosity. It tells little of the private or personal life of Washington, mentions his name but twice in the first volume, but combines with his biography a history of the United States. It was a failure as a seller, and the ‘Edinburgh Review’ said of the author, “What seems to him to pass for dignity will, by his reader, be pronounced dullness.” [NOTE: Judge Marshall afterwards rearranged his ‘Life of Washington,’ a new edition of which was published in 1927.] (See Beveridge’s Life of Marshall (vol. 3, PP. 223-273).
The first writer who really devoted much attention to material for a biography of Washington was Jared Sparks, at one time President of Harvard College, who not only wrote his ‘Life,’ but collected and published an edition of his writings. In doing this, as well as in his other efforts in American history, Dr. Sparks has placed future generations under great obligation. He was a pioneer in historical investigation. Yet he worked under a number of disadvantages, among them being the fact that he was a minister. Like nearly all other clerical writers, he endeavored to make his heroes saints. He corrected Washington’s spelling and grammar, well known to have been poor. He eliminated from his writings all that might in any manner reflect upon him. Instead of a man of flesh and blood, Dr. Sparks gives us a beautifully chiseled statue. More conscientious and careful than his predecessor Weems, he yet follows him in some of his errors.
Considering that both Weems and Sparks, who place Washington in such an unenviable light, were clergymen, it was with some pertinency that William Roscoe Thayer said, “Well might the Father of his Country pray to be delivered from the parsons.”
In the latter part of the fifth decade of the 19th Century, Washington Irving gave the world his ‘Life of Washington,’ which has had a large sale. Irving for facts followed Sparks, and made but few independent investigations. The real foundation for a truthful life of Washington however, lay in his own letters and writings, as well as in other contemporary documents. Sparks did a great service to American history in bringing some of these to light, even though he was prejudiced in his ideas, and imperfect in his method. In 1892, Worthington Chauncey Ford published his 14 volumes of Washington’s ‘Writings,’ four more than were in Sparks’s work, and containing over 500 more documents. Speaking of Sparks’s methods of depicting Washington, Mr, Ford says:
“In spite, however, of all that can be said in praise of Mr. Sparks’s work, it must be admitted that his zeal led him into a serious error of judgment, so common to hero-worshipers, not only doing his own reputation, as an editor, an injury, but what is of greater moment, conveying a distorted idea of Washington’s personal character and abilities — an idea that was, rapidly developing into a cult, from which it is still difficult to break away, and in which it is dangerous to express unbelief. Not only did the editor omit sentences, words, proper names, and even paragraphs without notice to the reader’, but he materially altered the sense and application of important portions of the letters. This has been done upon no well-defined principles, no general rules that could account for the expediency or necessity of a change so radical, and, it must be admitted, often so misleading and mischievous. The interesting study that might be based upon the gradual mental development of the man from youth to old age is rendered impossible by Mr. Sparks’s methods of treating the written record, and consequently the real character of Washington as a man is as little known today as it was to the generation that followed him.” (preface to Writings of George Washington, vol. 1, pp. 18 and 19.)
In 1925 John C. Fitzpatrick compiled Washington’s ‘Diaries,’ which were published in four volumes by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. These had been widely scattered. Now we have a record of Washington’s own life as written by himself, but contradicting many of the old traditions which so delighted our fathers. Mr. Ford was the chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress from 1902 until 1909. Mr. Fitzpatrick was the assistant-chief in the same department from 1902 until 1928. In 1926 Mr. Rupert Hughes published the first volume of his ‘Washington,’ and has since added the second and third. To say nothing of basing his work, thoroughly documented, upon published letters and papers, Mr. Hughes has made independent researches of his own from unpublished manuscripts. Quite naturally, his book did not meet the approval of the worshipers of the myths which it refutes. Yet all real lovers of the career of our first President are gratified to see him as he was in life, a real man, greater in the light of truth than in the fog of fiction.
Washington in character and manner was reserved. He kept his own counsel, and few had his confidence. He expressed himself only when he thought it necessary to do so. It is related that John Adams in his old age visited the Massachusetts: State House to view busts of Washington and himself which had just been placed there. Pointing to the compressed lips on the face of Washington, he said, “There was a man who had sense enough to keep his mouth shut.” Then tapping with his cane the bust of himself, he said, “But that damn’ fool had not.” Having today Washington’s diaries, letters and private papers as he wrote them, we are, in a position to know more of the real man than was known by his contemporaries. To them he was an enigma.
Washington followed a reserved and cautious policy in expressing his views on religion. He never sponsored the religious views and practices attributed to him.
It has been vigorously asserted, for the greater part by those who have had an interest in doing so, that George Washington was a very religious man, and a devout member of the Protestant Episcopal Church, of which he was also vestryman. They say:
That he was one of the most regular of church attendants; that no contingency could arise which would keep him from the house of God on the Sabbath; that if he had company he would go regardless, and invite his visitors to accompany him.
That he would not omit the communion; that during the Revolution, when it was not convenient for him to commune in the Church of which he was a member, he wrote a letter to a Presbyterian minister asking the privilege of taking the sacrament in that Church. [NOTE: According to one story, he wrote a letter. According to another, he made a verbal request.] That he was a man of prayer, and was often found at his private devotions.
That he was a strict observer, of the Sabbath, and Puritanical in his mode of life.
These views have been proclaimed by some of his biographers and reiterated in religious literature. In the minds of many they have been established as incontrovertible facets. Yet Washington had not been dead a third of a century before all these Statements were as Strongly contested by some as they were affirmed by others. Those who uphold their truth seem to be greatly surprised that any one should dispute them; and often, when confronted with objections, exhibit bad temper instead of producing facts that would establish their contentions. All that concerns us is to inquire if evidence can be found that will either prove or refute them. Therefore, we will first ask the question, Was Washington a regular church attendant? The Rev. Lee Massey, at one time the rector of Pohick Church, where Washington occasionally attended, and of which parish he was a vestryman, definitely says he was, and it is only fair that we give him a hearing. Says Mr. Massey:
“I never knew so constant an attendant in church as Washington. And his behavior in the house of God was ever so deeply reverential that it produced the happiest effect on my congregation, and greatly assisted me in my pulpit labors. No company ever withheld him from church. I have often been at Mt. Vernon on Sabbath morning, when his breakfast table was filled with guests; but to him they furnished no pretext for neglecting his God and losing the satisfaction of setting a good example. For instead of staying at home, out of false complaisance to them, he used constantly to invite them to accompany him.” (Quoted in The True George Washington, by Paul Leicester Ford, pp. 77-78.)
This would be quite convincing were it confirmed by Washington himself; but unfortunately in the four large volumes of his ‘Diaries,’ where he tells, “Where and How My Time Is Spent,” he directly and positively contradicts it.
We will divide the Diary into four periods, using only such years as are complete. First, before the Revolution; second, after the Revolution; third, while he was President, and fourth, after his second term as ended. During the Revolution he discontinued the Diary. We find in 1768 that he went to church 15 times, in 1769, 10 times, in 1770, nine times, in 1771, six times, and the same number in 1772. In 1773, he went five times, while in 1774 he went 18 times, his banner year outside of the Presidency. During this year he was two months at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he was in church six times, three times to the Episcopal, once to Romish high mass, once to a Quaker meeting and once to a Presbyterian. In 1784, after the Revolution, he was in the West a long time looking after his land interests, so we will omit this year. In 1785 he attended church just once, but spent many of his Sundays in wholly “secular” pursuits. In 1786 he went once.
These last two year’s he was so busy with the work on his farm and other business affairs that he seems to have forgotten the Church almost entirely. In 1787 he went three times. This was the year he was present at and presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. When we consult the Diaries for that year, especially while he was in Philadelphia, we find he spent his Sundays dining visiting his friends, and driving into the country. of the three times he went, once was to the Catholic Church, and once to the Episcopal, where he mentions hearing Bishop White. In 1788, he attended church once. The Diaries deal many hard blows to the mythical Washington, above all to the myth that he went regularly to church.
In 1789, he became President, during which time the Diary is incomplete, and it is impossible to account for all the Sundays. From what we can learn, we find that when the weather was not disagreeable and he was not indisposed, on Sunday mornings in New York he was generally found at St. Paul’s Chapel or Trinity. In Philadelphia he attended either Christ Church, presided over by Bishop White, or St. Peter’s, where the Rev. Dr. Abercrombie officiated. This was to be expected. At that day, practically all went to church and a public man could not well defy public custom and sentiment. Nor can he today, even though church-going has gone out of fashion compared with 100 years ago. Washington spent his Sunday afternoons while President writing private letters and attending to his own business affairs. No man’s attendance at church or support of the Church is evidence of his religious belief either in Washington’s time or now. Any honest minister will admit this. After Washington retired from the Presidency his own master, and free from criticism, he went to church as few times as possible, for in 1797 he attended four times, in 1798, once, and in 1799, the year of his death, twice. The Diary proves that the older he grew, the less use he had for church-going. And only twice in the Diary does he ever comment upon the sermon; once, when he called it “a lame discourse,” and again when he said it was in German and he could not understand it. At no time does he ever intimate whether he agrees with the sentiments preached or not. This is significant.
We are compelled to agree with the comment of Mr. Paul Leicester Ford, who, in speaking of the Rev. Mr. Massey’s [NOTE: Bishop Meade says the Rev. Mr. Massey was originally a lawyer.] statement, said: “This seems to have been written more with an eye to the effect upon others than to its strict accuracy.” Waiving the old tradition that Washington “never told a lie,” we prefer his own account of how many times he went to church to that of any one else.
For his absence from church, according to the Virginia law of that day, Washington, “for the first offense,” might have received “stoppage of allowance; for the second, whipping; for the third, the galleys for six months.” Law enforcement at this time was evidently very lax.
That Washington was a vestryman has no special significance religiously. In Virginia, this office was also political. The vestry managed the civil affairs of the parish, among others, the assessment of taxes. Being the largest property holder in the parish, Washington could hardly afford not to be a vestryman, which office he would have to hold before he could become a member of the House of Burgesses. Thomas Jefferson, a pronounced unbeliever, was also a vestryman, and for the same reasons. General A.W. Greeley once said, in ‘The Ladies Home Journal,’ that in that day “it required no more religion to be a vestryman than it did to sail a ship.” It is remarkable, after the civil functions of the vestry were abolished in Virginia, in 1780, how few times Washington attended church. He no longer had a business reason for going. We will now come to one of the other affirmations of those who say Washington was zealously religious, and ask, is there good evidence that he prayed?
In the fall of 1925 I was on a visit to New York City after an absence of some years. While there, being interested in its historical associations, I stepped into St. Paul’s Chapel, located on the corner of Broadway and Vesey Street. I took a look at the pew in this old church, erected in 1776, in which it is said George Washington sat when he attended services while President of the United States, when the seat of government was located in New York City. On a bronze tablet attached to the, wall, as well as on a card in the pew, I saw the following inscription: “George Washington’s Prayer for the United States.”
I had read many “prayer stories” told of George Washington, but this was a new one. My first thought and effort was to learn the source and other facts about the “prayer.” I wrote the vicar of St. Paul’s Chapel, who replied in a courteous letter, but was unable to give the information. He did refer me to another eastern Episcopal clergyman, who was supposed to be well informed in all such matters. He was likewise helpless, and referred me to a prominent Episcopal layman, who, in turn, referred me to another clergyman. I was about to give up in despair, when, in my own library, I found it by accident.
In 1783, shortly before Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief, a financial stringency, accompanied by anarchy and riots, swept the country. The soldiers demanded their pay, which Congress was unable to provide. Something had to be done to alleviate the distress and discontent. Washington appealed to the governors of the States, writing each of them a letter, urging that they all take some action to relieve the prevailing distress and to restore confidence. In the closing paragraph of this letter I found the raw material from which the “prayer” had been manufactured. I quote them here, capitalizing in the “prayer” those words the prayer-makers have interpolated, and in the original, the words they have omitted.
The Alleged Prayer
(added words in capital letters)
ALMIGHTY GOD, WE MAKE OUR EARNEST PRAYER THAT THOU WILT KEEP THESE UNITED STATES in THY holy protection, that THOU wilt incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another and for their fellow citizens of the United States at large, And finally that THOU wilt most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of Whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy nation. GRANT OUR SUPPLICATION, WE BESEECH THEE, THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD. AMEN.
(Engraved on a bronze tablet in St. Paul’s Chapel, Broadway and Vesey Streets, New York City.)
(omitted words in capital letters)
“I NOW MAKE IT MY EARNEST PRAYER, THAT GOD WOULD HAVE YOU, AND THE STATE OVER WHICH YOU PRESIDE, in HIS holy protection; that HE would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government; to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow-citizens of the United States at large, AND PARTICULARLY FOR THEIR BRETHREN WHO HAVE SERVED IN THE FIELD; and finally, that HE would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose examples in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.
“I HAVE THE HONOR TO BE, WITH MUCH ESTEEM AND RESPECT, SIR, YOUR EXCELLENCY’S MOST OBEDIENT AND MOST HUMBLE SERVANT. — G. WASHINGTON.”
(Found in Ford’s ‘Writings of Washington,’ vol. x, p. 265.)
In making a prayer from this last paragraph of a letter to civil magistrates the prayer promoters have committed sins both of omission and commission:
Instead of “sir,” with which Washington begins his letter to the governors, they have written, “Almighty God, we make our earnest prayer, etc.” Washington in the original speaks in the first person, singular. He does not speak directly to God, but he makes an earnest prayer, or wish that God will do a certain thing. The prayer makers use the first person plural and speak to God directly. They have omitted “and the state over which you preside,” and “for their brethren who have served in the field.” Instead of Washington’s closing, “I have the honor to be, sir, etc.,” they have substituted, “Grant our supplication, we beseech Thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
That they should add this last phrase, with which all the prayers in the Episcopal prayer book terminate, was unfortunate when we consider that nowhere in Washington’s writings does he mention directly or by name Jesus Christ. When he was a boy of 13, he wrote in a copy book,
On which the Savior of mankind was born.
(See Sparks’s Washington, p. 519.)
The only other case is in this letter to the governors, where he speaks “of the Divine Author of our blessed religion.” In Rupert Hughes’ ‘Washington,’ vol. 3, p. 290, is a facsimile of the last page of the letter, proving that it is not in the handwriting of Washington, but in that of one of his secretaries. While there is no doubt that Washington wrote or dictated the original, the words in his own handwriting do not exist. He gave his ideas to his secretaries, who used their own embellishments. A legal definition of forgery reads, “Forgery consists not only in signing a false name to an instrument, but also in the alteration of an instrument that was otherwise genuine, the rule requiring that the alteration should be in a material part.”
It must be conceded, that this “prayer” closely approaches the definition of forgery. As evidence of how fictions will circulate, and become more powerful as they go, ‘The New York World Almanac,’ for 1930, P. 906, says: “This prayer, it is said, was made by Washington at St. Paul’s Church, following his inauguration in the old Federal Building on the North side of Wall Street, facing Broad Street.” It was probably hoped that those not familiar with the history of the prayer, Which means the majority, would assume this to be an accepted fact.
Washington must have been “powerful in prayer” if we are to believe two other stories told of his attempts to reach the “throne of grace.” Some 30 years ago it was proclaimed that in his youth he composed a prayer book for his own use, containing a prayer for five days, beginning with Sunday and ending with Thursday. The manuscript of this prayer book was said to have been found among the contents of an old trunk. It was printed and facsimiles published. Clergymen read it from the altar, one of them saying it contained so much “spirituality” that he had to stop, as he could not control his emotions while reading it.
Yet, while this prayer book was vociferously proclaimed to have been written by Washington, there was not an iota of evidence that he ever had anything to do with it, or that it even ever belonged to him. A little investigation soon pricked the bubble. Worthington C. Ford, who had handled more of Washington’s manuscripts than any other man except Washington himself, declared that the penmanship was not that of washington. Rupert Hughes (Washington, vol. 1, p. 658) gives facsimile specimens of the handwriting in the prayer book side by side with known specimens of Washington’s penmanship at the time the prayer book was supposed to have been written. A glance proves that they are not by the same hand.
Then in the prayer book manuscript all of the words are spelled correctly, while Washington was a notoriously poor speller. But the greatest blow it received was when the Smithsonian Institute refused to accept it as a genuine Washington relic. That Washington did not compose it was proved by Dr. W.A. Croffutt, a newspaper correspondent of the Capital, who traced the source of some of the prayers to an old prayer brook in the Congressional Library printed, in the reign of James the First.
Even the Rev. W. Herbert Burk, rector of the Episcopal Church of Valley Forge, although a firm believer in Washington’s religiosity, thus speaks of these prayers: “At present, the question is an open one, and its settlement will depend on the discovery of the originals, or upon the demonstration that they are the work of Washington.”
While the “Washington Prayer Book” was thoroughly discredited, there is another prayer yarn told of him that will not die so easily. United States histories, Sunday School papers and religious tracts have sustained its life. The United States government has emblazoned it in bronze on the front of the Subtreasury building in New York City. In 1928, the Postmaster-General issued $2,000,000. in postage stamps to commemorate it. When he was informed that it was a fiction and the real facts presented to him, he replied that he was too busy to correct the mistakes of history. As a romance it is always worth telling. The scene was laid in Valley Forge, in the winter of 1777-78, while Washington’s army was in winter quarters, suffering from hunger, nakedness and cold, when many had abandoned all hope of success. There, Isaac Potts, a Quaker, at whose house Washington is said to have had his headquarters, when walking in the woods on a cold winter day, saw Washington on his knees in the snow engaged in prayer, his hat off and his horse tied to a sapling.
This story was first told by our old acquaintance, Weems, the great protagonist of Washington mythology, He does not give his authority for telling it, but others have added to the account. We can clear Isaac Potts of all complicity in foisting it upon the world, as he never told it or certified to its truth. The nearest we can approach him is that some old person said he had told it. The Rev. E.C. M’Guire, in a book entitled ‘The Religious Opinions and Character of Washington,’ published in 1836, quotes a man 80 years old, one Devault Beaver, who claims he received the story from Potts and his family.
In 1862, James Ross Snowden wrote a letter to the Rev. T.W.J. Wylie, minister of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, in which he said his father. N.R. Snowden, had heard the incident from Potts. He said he could not find his father’s papers, in which it is claimed he wrote an account of it. He admits that Weems told the story in a different manner from his father’s version, but insists that his father told it correctly. As in all of these fables, when evidence is sought, some link in the chain is lost. The character of the proof is shady. The word of very old men is always to be taken with a grain of allowance, especially when uncorroborated. I once talked with an old man of 87 who claimed that he had seen Lafayette, Charles Carron, of Carronton, and Martha Washington. Upon an investigation, I found it possible that he had seen the first two, but as his birth record showed him to have been born in 1802, the year Martha Washington died, it is certain that he never saw her.
We sometimes speak of incredible stories as “old wives’ tales,” not thinking that similar stories told by old men are in the same category. This payer story is told with variations. According to Weems, Potts accidentally finds Washington at prayer. Being attracted by a sound in “a venerable grove,” he looks into it and finds him pouring forth his soul to God, his countenance being of “angelic serenity,” these two expressions being added to give a dramatic and romantic effect. Weems makes Potts a patriot, who, after watching Washington’s struggle with the Almighty, rushes into his house with great glee, and shouts to his wife, “Sarah! My dear Sarah! all’s well! all’s well! George Washington will yet prevail!” telling her what he had seen. According to the story as told by the Rev. Mr. M’Guire, Potts was a Tory, as most Quakers were, and he makes him say to his wife, not calling her by any Christian name, “Our cause is lost.” He seemed to think the revolutionary conflict would be settled by Washington’s prayer. Instead of Potts’s coming upon Washington suddenly, hearing a sound in the grove, and upon investigating finding the Commander-in-Chief at his orisons, as told by Weems, M’Guire makes him follow the General for some time to see where he was going and what he was going to do, when, lo, he saw him get down on his knees in the snow and pray. According to the Snowden account, Potts’s wife’s name was not Sarah, but Betty. He represents him as now willing to support the cause of America, does not tell what his views were previously. The prayer causing the Quaker to change from a Tory to a patriot was no doubt the work of some later artist who wished the fable to be more effective.
The Rev. M.J. Savage says:
“The pictures that represent him on his knees in the winter forest at Valley Forge are even silly caricatures. Washington was at least not sentimental, and he had nothing about him of the Pharisee that displays his religion at street corners or out in the woods in the sight of observers, of observers, or where his portrait could be taken by ‘our special artist!'”
Benson J. Lossing, in his ‘Field Book of the Revolution’ (vol. 2, p. 336), also gives an account of this historical prayer, but does not mention the source from which he obtained it. Like Weems, he tells that Potts was attracted by a noise in the grove, but while none of the other chroniclers say anything about Washington’s having a horse, Lossing speaks of “his horse tied to a sapling,” and instead of the General’s face being a “countenance of angelic serenity,” he says it was “suffused with tears.” A reasonable question to ask is, “Can there be found any evidence that Washington was a ‘praying man?”
Bishop White, whose church he attended on and off for 25 years in Philadelphia, says he never saw him on his knees in church. This ought to settle the question. If he did not kneel in church, who will believe that he did so on the ground, covered with snow, with his hat off, when the thermometer, was probably below zero?
As further proof that the story is fictitious, there is reason to believe that Isaac Potts did not live in Valley Forge at the time Washington’s army was there, in the winter of 1777-1778. Mr. Myers of the Valley Forge Park Commission, recently admitted this.
That Potts did not own the house at the time is established by Washington’s account book, where it is proved that the rent for headquarters was paid to Mrs. Deborah Hawes, and the receipts were made out in her name. Potts bought the house when the war was over.
There is yet another story of Washington’s praying in the bushes at Princeton, which we will not dilate upon now. But Valley Forge was the most prolific in legends. During the same winter that Potts caught Washington praying in the snow, the Rev. John Gano, Baptist preacher, is said to have cut the ice in the river, and baptized the commander-in-chief by immersion in the presence of 42 people, all sworn to secrecy! And this has been confirmed by a grandson of the Rev. Gano in an affidavit made at the age of 83 years! But the entire story is discredited by the fact that the Rev. Gano was not at Valley Forge, and that he served with Clinton’s, and not with Washington’s, army. For proof, see ‘Biographical Memoirs of the Rev. John Gano,’ also Headingly’s ‘Chaplains of the Revolution.’
Thwarted in their attempts to find evidence that Washington was publicly a pious man, those interested have tried to prove that he was privately devout, and prayed clandestinely. If any were in a position to know of this it would be his own family. His adopted daughter, and step-granddaughter, Nellie Custis, wrote Mr. Sparks in 1833, when Washington’s alleged piety was called into question and it was necessary to find evidence to prove it, “I never witnessed his private devotions. I never inquired about them.” (See Sparks’s Washington, p. 522.) She professes to think he was a believer, and mentions persons having told her they had seen him pray years ago, but all of the evidence is of this character — always second hand. It will be necessary to show what interest Washington had in making the public think he was not religious, when in fact he was in private. In this he would be as much of a deceiver as those who are religious in public and not in private. And a really religious man believes in “letting his light shine.” If, like Washington, he is not a religious man, and at the same time honest, not wishing to offend his friends who are religious, he will take a non-committal attitude. The more we know of the real character of George Washington, the more we find him to have been a man who refrained from subterfuge.
George Washington Parke Custis, a step-grandson and adopted son of Washington, wrote, from time to time, a series of articles for newspapers. giving his recollections of his adopted father. He was but 18 when Washington died, in 1799, and his own death occurred in 1857. His articles were, after his death, collected and edited by B.J. Lossing and published in book form. His, statements vary greatly when compares with those of others who knew Washington. In fact, he, as a mythologist, is assigned next place to Weems. He says that Washington, standing, was in the habit of asking the blessing at the table. Of the hundreds who had dined with Washington, no one confirms this. But it is interesting to read the statement of one who did dine with him and thought he was asking the blessing but found for it no confirmation.
Commissary-General Claude Blanchard dined with Washington, and gives in his Journal the following account:
“There was a clergyman at this dinner who blessed the food and said grace after they had done eating and had brought in the wine. I was told that General Washington said grace when there was no clergyman at the table, as fathers of a family do in America. The first time that I dined with him there was no clergyman and I did not perceive that he made this prayer, yet I remember that, on taking his place at the table, he made a gesture and said a ward, which I took for a piece of politeness, and which was perhaps a religious action.
In this case his prayer must have been short; the clergyman made use of more forms. We remained a very long time at the table. They drank 12 or 15 healths with Madeira wine, In the course of the meal beer was served and grum, rum mixed with water.”
This, rather than proving that Washington prayed at the dinner, rather proves that they all liberally celebrated the sacrament.
Those who think they find in Washington’s praying in the snow at Valley Forge an evidence of the effteacy of prayer will find that a long time elapsed between the time he besought God, and the realization. During the remainder of his life he was not without trials and tribulations. After the battle of Monmouth, in 1778, he did not fight another battle for three years, chiefly because of want of guns, clothing and ammunition for his men. In the meantime the British raided the coast of Connecticut, burning and destroying. Arnold’s treason almost succeeded, in which case, all would have been lost. The British invaded and conquered Georgia and the Carolinas. They subdued the inhabitants with great cruelty, and were about to subject Virginia to the same fate. Whether prayer was responsible for it or not, the real Providence of Washington and the country manifested itself in the form of French assistance, At Yorktown, in 1781, Washington, with 9,000 of his own troops, General Rochambeau with 7,000 French soldiers, Admiral De Grasse with 42 French ships of the line and 19,000 French seamen, surrounded Lord Cornwallis, who had an inferior force, and compelled him to surrender. This would not have been possible had Thomas Paine and John Laurens not journeyed to France in February, 1781, and on August 25 returned to Boston with a shipload of clothing, arms and ammunition, and 2,500,000, livres of silver, to clothe Washington’s ragged and unpaid soldiers and place in their hands arms fit to use in battle.
But it is not likely that the Valley Forge prayer story will die soon. It is too good a “property” to abandon, for the Rev. W. Herbert Burk, the Valley Forge rector, is working hard to erect a million dollar church to commemorate it. He also stands sponsor for the prayer in St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City. Bishop Warburton once said: “A lie has no legs and cannot stand, but it has wings and can fly far and wide.”
Was Washington a Communicant? Here we must also enter the realm of myth before looking at homely facts. While the Episcopal Church has nursed the myths of Washington’s praying, in the Presbyterian Church are embalmed those asserting that he took communion. Strange to say, the Episcopal Church, while claiming him as a member and believer, seldom claims him as a communicant. The evidence of clergymen who knew Washington and whose churches he attended is very destructive to this myth.
In the Philadelphia Presbyterian Hospital is a large painting of Washington taking the communion at an out-door service, supposed have been held under the apple trees in Morristown, N.J. Those who hold that this picture represents an historical incident are agreed as to the place, but they differ as to the date. One says it happened in 1777, while another says 1780. As the story is generally told, Washington addressed a letter to a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Dr. Johnes, asking him if he would admit to the communion a member of another Church. The clergyman replied, “Certainly. this is not a Presbyterian table, but the Lord’s table,” as Jared Sparks relates it in the chapter in his ‘Life of Washington’ which is devoted to the first President’s religious opinions and habits. Accordingly, we are told, Washington attended the meeting and partook of the sacrament. sparks gives as his authority Dr. Hosacks’ ‘life of De Witt Clinton.’ Dr. Hosack’s authority was the Rev. Samuel H. Cox, who tells us he had it “from unquestionable authority … a venerable clergyman, who had it from Dr. Johnes himself.” But he thinks that “to all Christians, and to all Americans, it cannot fail to be acceptable.” (Sparks’s ‘Washington,’ pp. 523, 524.) As in other cases, a link in the chain of evidence is missing, and we are asked to accept the story on our faith as Christians and our patriotism as Americans. But in 1836, Asa C. Colton could find no evidence that it was a fact. He found a son of the Rev. Dr. Johne:s, who had no recollection of the alleged event, and could give no testimony. His wife was more accommodating, but all she could say was that it was “an unquestioned family tradition,” which it might have been, though “tradition” is always suspicious. A report was then circulated that the Rev. Dr. Richards, of the Auburn Theological Seminary, had in his possession the letter of Washington to Dr. Johnes. When appealed to, he denied that he had it or had aver seen it, though he said the story was “universally current,” and “never contradicted,” which is about as weak as evidence can be made.
Fortunately for the truth of history, we are not obliged to rely upon the word of unnamed “venerable clergymen,” or “universally current traditions” to prove that George Washington was not a communicant. We can produce well known men of character and truthfulness, ministers of the gospel whose churches he attended for years and who had his personal confidence, who not only say he did not take the sacraments, but they had no evidence that he was a believing Christian. If he did not accept the communion in the churches he regularly attended, is it probable that he, would beg that privilege of another minister in another church? This is not in accordance with common sense, and therefore not good argument. Moreover, these clergymen who are in a position to know whereof they speak, have left us written statements, recorded in reliable histories.
One of the most honored clergymen of the Episcopal Church in the latter part of the 18th Century and the early part of the 19th, was the Rev. Dr. James Abercrombie, rector of St. Peter’s Church, in Philadelphia. Here Washington sometimes attended while he was President. Dr. Abercrombie was a scholar and at one time a correspondent of Samuel Johnson. Sprague’s ‘Annals of the American Pulpit,’ vol. 5, p. 394, says: “One incident in Dr. Abercrombie’s experience as a clergyman, In connection with the father of his country, is especially worthy of record: and the following account of it was given by the doctor himself in a letter to a friend, in 1833, shortly after there had been some public allusion to it.” Then follows Dr. Abercrombie’s letter:
“With respect to the inquiry you make, I can only state the following facts: that as pastor of the Episcopal Church, observing that, on sacramental Sundays George Washington, immediately after the desk and pulpit services, went out with the greater part of the congregation — always leaving Mrs. Washington with the other communicants — she invariably being one — I considered it my duty, in a sermon on public worship, to state the unhappy tendency of example, particularly of those in elevated stations, who uniformly-turned their backs on the Lord’s Supper. I acknowledge the remark was intended for the President; and as such he received it. A few days after, in conversation, I believe, with a Senator of the United States, he told me he had dined the day before with the President, who, in the course of conversation at the table, said that, on the previous Sunday, he had received a very just rebuke from the pulpit for always leaving the church before the administration of the sacrament; that he honored the preacher for his integrity and candor; that he had never sufficiently considered the influence of his example, and that he would not again give cause for the repetition of the reproof; and that, as he had never been a communicant, were he to become one then, it would be imputed to an ostentatious display of religious zeal, arising altogether from his elevated station. Accordingly, he never afterwards came an the morning of sacrament Sunday, though at other times he was a constant attendant in the morning.”
Here is honest, straightforward talk, both on the part of Washington and the clergyman. ‘What is more, it is confirmed by others. The Rev. Dr. Wilson, the biographer of Bishop White, in his sermon on the “Religion of the Presidents,” says:
“When Congress sat in Philadelphia, President Washington attended the Episcopal Church, The rector, Dr. Abercrombie, told me that on the days when the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was to he administered, Washington’s custom was to arise just before the ceremony commenced, and walk out of the church. This became a subject of remark in the congregation, as setting a bad example. At length the Doctor undertook to speak of it, with a direct allusion to the President. Washington was heard afterwards to remark that this was the first time a clergyman had thus preached to him, and he should henceforth neither trouble the Doctor or his congregation on such occasions; and ever after that, upon communion days, ‘he absented himself altogether from church.'”
Dr. Wilson’s sermon was published in the Albany ‘Daily Advertiser,’ in 1831. Mr. Robert Dale Owen, then a young man, was attracted by it, and went to Albany to interview Dr. Wilson, and gives the substance of the interview in a letter, written on November 13, 1831, which was published in New York two weeks later:
“I called last evening on Dr. Wilson, as I told you I should, and I have seldom derived more pleasure from a short interview with anyone. Unless my discernment of character has been grievously at fault, I met an honest man and a sincere Christian. But you shall have the particulars. A gentleman of this city accompanied me to the Doctor’s residence. We were very courteously received. I found him a tall, commanding figure, with a countenance of much benevolence, and a brow indicative of deep thought, apparently 50 year’s of age. I opened the interview by stating that though personally a stranger to him, I had taken the liberty of calling in consequence of having perused an interesting sermon of his, which had been reported in the ‘Daily Advertiser’ of this city, and regarding which, as he probably knew, a variety of opinions prevailed. In a discussion, in which I had taken part, some of the facts as there reported had been questioned; and I wished to know from him whether the reporter had fairly given his words or not. I then read to him from a copy of the ‘Daily Advertiser’ the paragraph which regards Washington, beginning, ‘Washington was a man” etc., and ending ‘absented himself altogether from church.’ ‘I endorse,’ said Dr. Wilson with emphasis, ‘every word of that. Nay, I do not wish to conceal from you any part of the truth, even what I have not given to the public. Dr . Abercrombie said more than I have repeated. At the close of our conversation on the subject his emphatic expression was — for I well remember the very words — “Sir, Washington was a Deist.”
Dr. Wilson further said in this same interview:
“I have diligently perused every line that Washington ever gave to the public, and I do not find one expression in which he pledges Himself as a believer in Christianity. I think anyone who will candidly do as I have done, will come to the conclusion that he was a Deist and nothing more.”
As Dr. Wilson was the biographer of Bishop White, we will hear from him again.
Our next witness will be “a venerable clergyman,” but not unknown and unnamed — the Rt. Rev. William White, the first bishop of Sylvania, one of the most distinguished men in the history of the American episcopacy, a man of intellect, high character and honor. He was one of the few Anglican ministers who did not take the side of England during the Revolution. Washington attended his church, Christ’s, in Philadelphia, for about 25 years when he happened to be in that city. The two men, the prelate and the soldier and statesman, were personal friends. I recently visited this church, and the verger told me that Bishop White is yet the biggest part of the church. His episcopal chair still stands by the side of the altar, while his body rests beneath it. On August 13, 1835, Colonel Mercer, of Fredericksburg, Va., wrote Bishop White this letter:
“I have a desire, my dear sir, to know whether General Washington was a member of the Protestant Episcopal Church, or whether he occasionally went to the communion only, or if he ever did so at all. No authority can be so authentic and complete as yours on this point.”
Bishop White replied:
“Philadelphia, Aug. 15, 1935.
“In regard to the subject of your inquiry, truth requires me to say that General Washington never received the communion in the churches of which I am the parochial minister. Mrs. Washington was an habitual communicant. I have been written to by many on that point, and have been obliged to answer them as I now do you,. I am respectfully,
“Your humble servant,
(Memoir of Bishop White, pp. 196, 197.)
The Rev. Bird Wilson, in the ‘Memoir of Bishop White,’ p. 188, says: “Though the General attended the churches in which Dr. White officiated, whenever he was in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War, and afterwards while President of the United States, he was never a communicant in them.”
In a letter to the Rev. B.C.C. Parker, dated November 28, 1832, in reply to some inquiries about Washington’s religion, Bishop White said:
“His behavior in church was always serious and attentive, but as your letter seems to intend an inquiry on the point of kneeling during the service, I owe it to the truth to declare that I never saw him in the said attitude. … Although I was often in the company of this great man, and had the honor of often dining at his table, I never heard anything from him which could manifest his opinions on the subject of religion. … Within a few days of his leaving the Presidential chair our vestry waited on him with an address prepared and delivered by me. In his answer he was pleased to express himself gratified by what he had heard from our pulpit; but there was nothing that committed him relatively to religious theory.” (Memoir of Bishop White, pp, 189-191.)
In another letter to the Rev. Mr. Parker, dated December 31, 1832, the Bishop says even more distinctly:
“I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which would prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation further than as may be hoped from his constant attendance upon Christian worship, in connection with the general reserve of his character.” (Memoir of Bishop White, p. 193.)
Ward’s ‘Life of Bishop White,’ p. 72, says, “Washington was not himself a communicant of the church.”
It was early in the 1830’s that the supposed piety of Washington was called into question and evidence of its being a fact demanded. This accounts for the letters we have quoted being written during that decade. The Rev. Dr. Abercrombie wrote the letter I have quoted, in 1831; the Rev. Bird Wilson preached his sermon on the religious beliefs of the founders of the republic in the same year; Bishop White wrote his letter to the Rev. B.C.C. Parker in 1932, and I his letter to Colonel Mercer in 1835. Jared Sparks wrote to Nellie Custis for evidence of Washington’s taking the communion in 1833. The Rev. Mr M’Guire in 1836, made fruitless inquiries about Washington’s Presbyterian communion. We have observed that no evidence could be found, except unsupported tradition, that Washington Prayed, communed, or in any way gave outward indication of being a religious man, except that he attended church sometimes; while Bishop White and the Rev. Drs. Abercromble and Wilson positively say that he was not religious.
In 1831, Mr. Robert Dale Owen, afterwards a member of Congress where he introduced the bill establishing the Smithsonian Institute, and who later was Minister to Naples, held a newspaper debate with the Rev. Origen Bacherer, which was afterwards published in book form and had a large circulation. Mr. Bacheler insisted that Washington was a communicant and appealed to the Rev. William Jackson, rector of Alexandria, Va., for evidence. Mr. Jackson eagerly sought it, but failed to find it and wrote Mr. Bacheler, “I find no one who ever communed with him.” (Bacheler- Owen Debate, vol. 2, p. 262.)
Still Mr. Bacheler, was not satisfied, and begged Mr. Jackson to seek further. After trying again, be wrote, “I am sorry, after so long a delay in replying to your last, that it is not in my power to communicate something definite in reference to General Washington’s church membership,” and in the same letter he says, “Nor can I find and old person who ever communed with him.” (Bacheler-Owen Debate, quoted in John E. Remsburg’s Six Historic Americans, pp. 110-111.)
In the fall of 1928 I visited Pohick Church, which Washington occasionally attended and in which he was a vestryman. I asked the caretaker if there was any evidence in the parish records that Washington took communion. At first he evaded my inquiry by saying that in the Episcopal Church no one took communion unless he was confirmed, and there being no bishops in this country at the time, confirmation was impossible. I then asked if Episcopalians dispensed with the communion in this country until they had bishops. He again evaded a direct answer, but, pointing to the pews of Washington, George Mason and George William Fairfax, who, like Washington, were vestrymen, said “There is no evidence that any of these men communed.” Nearly all well-informed Episcopal clergymen know Washington was not a communicant, but they find it very inconvenient to admit it. To a Christian believer the communion is the most sacred rite. All of them take it when they feel themselves worthy. Some do not take it when they feel they are unworthy. To say Washington was a Christian in the orthodox sense and never partook of it — and so far as we know this is true — cannot be a compliment to him.
I have cited four churches which Washington attended. The ministers of two of them say emphatically that he did not commune. One of them says just as emphatically that he was not a believer, only a Deist. The other says he had no evidence of his Christian belief other than that he attended church, which is no evidence at all. In the other two, in both of which he was a vestryman, no evidence could be found that he ever stood at the Lord’s table.
On January 20, 1833, Mr. Sparks wrote to Nellie Custis, then Mrs. Lewis, for evidence that her step-grandfather communed. She answered, on February 20, 1833, as follows: “On communion Sundays, he left the Church with me after the blessing, and returned home, and we sent the carriage back after my grandmother.” (Sparks’s ‘Washington,’ p. 521.) Sparks himself, on p. 523, expresses his regrets at this in these words:
“The circumstance of his withdrawing himself from the communion service, at a certain period of his life, has been remarked as singular. This may be admitted and regretted, both on account of his example, and the value of his opinion as to the importance and practical tendency of the rite.”
The probability was that he thought the rite had no “practical tendency,” and unlike many others then and now he was not hypocrite enough to go through a form which he considered meaningless. But to undertake to say, as Sparks afterwards does, that this is no reflection upon Washington as a Christian is begging the question. It is true that Ralph Waldo Emerson resigned from the ministry because he refused to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, but no one knew better than Mr. Sparks that Emerson’s religion was of a far different type than that he tries to prove Washington had.
Myths about Washington compared with kindred myths. When we read these various stories about Washington and compare them with other myths of American history, now conceded to be nothing but myths, we will perceive that they are all cut from the same cloth. In Watson’s ‘Annals of Philadelphia,’ p. 422, we read of the following incidents at a session of the first Continental Congress:
“It was on this occasion that General Washington, then a member from Virginia, was observed to be the only member to kneel, when Bishop White first offered his prayer to the – throne of grace — as if he were early impressed with a sense of his and their dependence on the God of battles.”
Here the author out-did himself. When Bishop White wrote to the Rev. B.C.C. Parker that he had never seen Washington on his knees, apologists might be able to say that he no doubt forgot this time in Congress, were it not for the fact that the prayer at this Congress was not offered by Bishop White, but by the Rev. Jacob Duche, who afterwards turned traitor and tried to induce Washington to do the same. Yet this fable, like the prayer at Valley Forge, has been celebrated in picture and by the Peter Parleys who have written history.
We Have been told that John Brown, while on his way to the scaffold, stopped and kissed a Negro child. This has been written in United States history, with a touching engraving attached. Andrew Hunter, who prosecuted Brown, has firmly denied it, saying that a cordon of soldiers surrounded him; that no one, particularly no Negro, was permitted to get near him. Oswald Garrison Villard, in his ‘Life of John Brown Fifty Years After’ (p. 554), says: “No little slave child was held up for the benison of his lips, for none but soldiery was near and the street was full of marching men.”
The story of General Lee surrendering his sword to General Grant has likewise been popular in histories, and Grant has been eulogized for his great “magnanimity” in returning it. General Grant, in his ‘Memoirs,’ thus disposes of the story: “The much talked of surrendering of Lee’s sword and my handing it back, this, and much more that has been said about it, is the purest fiction.” (Vol. 2, p. 494.)
The ‘Western Christian Advocate’ published a story about Lincoln, which, though it was copied in a score of Lincoln biographies, was without the slightest basis in fact. It was to the effect that upon the reception of the news of Lee’s surrender, Lincoln and all his cabinet got down upon their knees in prayer. In 1891, Hugh McCullough, Lincoln’s last Secretary of the Treasury, was yet living. Through an old acquaintance, Mr. N.P. Stockbridge, of Fort Wayne, Ind., he was approached, and this is what he had to say:
“The description of what occurred at the Executive Mansion, when the intelligence was received of the surrender of the Confederate forces, which you quote from the ‘Western Christian Advocate,’ is not only absolutely groundless but absurd. After I became Secretary of the Treasury I was present at every cabinet meeting, and I never saw Mr. Lincoln or any of his ministers upon his knees or in tears.” (See Remsburg’s ‘Six Historic Americans,’ Lincoln section, p. 83.)
One of the best known myths of American history was enshrined by one of our greatest, poets, John Greenleaf Whittier in “Barbara Frietchie.” We have all read it, and some of us have recited it when we went to school. It is a noble poem, and stirs our patriotism. Yet, except for the fact that there really was such an aged woman living in Frederick, Md., in 1862, when Stonewall Jackson’s army marched through that town, the poem represents only fiction. Whittier, in a letter written on October 19, 1880, does not vouch for its historicity but states that he told it as it was told to him without asking whether it was a fact. The ‘Americana Encyclopedia’ says, “Recent investigations have thrown some doubt upon the authenticity of the account.” Two Confederate generals, Henry Kyd Douglas and Jubal A. Early, have denied that any such occurrence took place. They both say there were no flag demonstrations when their army marched through Frederick, except by little children, and to these no attention was paid. The army did not even march along the street on which Barbara Frietchie lived and had they done so they would have seen no flag, for she did not fly one. The only foundation for the story is that once Barbara took a Union flag and hid it in a Bible, saying there no rebel would ever look to find it, and we are not quite sure that this is true. But when the poet says,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead;
Under his slouched bat, left and right,
He glanced, the old flag met his sight.
‘Halt!’ — the dust-brown ranks stood fast!
‘Fire!’ — out blazed the rifle blast.”
we must hold our breath. One fact has been proved above all others which is that Stonewall Jackson a few days before had been injured by a fall from a horse, and was carried through ‘Frederick in an ambulance. [NOTE: For the facts about Barbara Frietchie, see ‘Munsey’s Magazine,’ vol. 26, p. 542, January, 1902. Article by Mariari West.]
For the persistence with which myths are accepted as facts, even when they are admitted to be myths, we can find no better illustration than Edward Everett Hale’s ‘Man Without a Country.’ It was written in 1862, to stimulate patriotism during the rebellion. The story was of Philip Nolan, a young lieutenant in the United States Army, who, at the time of Aaron Burr’s alleged treason, was heard to remark. “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” For this he was tried by a court- martial and sentenced to imprisonment for life on a United States man-of-war that would never make an American port, and whose officers were told to see that he would never hear the name of his country again. Such a man as Philip Nolan never lived, the story is wholly fictitious, and Dr. Hale published it as such. Yet there were people who were willing to vouch for the truth of the narrative. Dr. hale said, in a late edition of the book:
“The story having once been published, it passed out of my hands. From that moment it has gradually acquired different accessories for which I am not responsible. Thus I have heard it said that at one bureau of the Navy Department they say that Nolan was pardoned in fact, and returned home to die. At another bureau, I am told, the answer to questions is that though it is true that an officer was kept abroad all of his life, his name was not Nolan. The Hon. James Savage, who discredited all tradition, still recollected this ‘Nolan court-martial.’ One of the most accurate of my younger friends had noticed Nolan’s death in the newspaper, but recollected that it was in September and not in August. A lady in Baltimore wrote me in good faith that Nolan had two widowed sisters living in that neighborhood. A writer in the New Orleans ‘Picayune,’ in a careful historical paper, explained at length that I had been mistaken all through; that Philip Nolan never went to sea but to Texas; that there he was shot in battle, March 21, 1801; and by orders from Spain every fifth man of his party was to be shot, had they not died in prison. Fortunately, however, he left his papers and maps, which fell into the hands of a friend of the ‘Picayune’s’ correspondent.
“With all these suggestions the reader need not occupy himself. I can only repeat that my Philip Nolan is pure fiction. I cannot send his scrap-book to my friend who asks for it, because I have it not to send.” (Edition of 1917, pp. 103-104.)
When we read of the persistence of these myths, and that some love them as a cat loves to lap milk, and a donkey to chew thistles, we are sometimes inclined to agree with Napoleon when he said that history consists “of lies agreed upon.” For a knowledge of how myths concerning religion are born, grow and flourish, consult the great ‘Ecclesiastical History’ of Mosheim.
The well-known historian, Henry C. Lea, in an address upon “The Ethical Values of History,” published in the ‘American Historical Review,’ for January, 1904, said:
“History is not to be written as a Sunday-school tale for children of a larger growth. It is, or should be, a serious attempt to ascertain the severest truth as to the past and to set it forth without fear or favor. It may, and it generally will, convey a moral, but that moral should educe itself from facts.”
I think this applies to the fables told of Washington, and those who tell them sometimes say they should not be controverted because of the “moral” they teach. But what type of a moral is taught when you tell about a man that which is absurdly untrue, and what kind of morality is that built upon such a foundation. We are not required to go beyond the truth in the life of George Washington to find him to have been one of the greatest of men. To what purport is it to say that, he went regularly to church when we know he did not, prayed in the woods though he never prayed in church; wrote a prayer book at that period of his life when his chief thoughts were of war and the girls; asked a Presbyterian minister’s permission to take communion in his church, when he declined to take it in the church he regularly attended?
Was Washington a Sabbath Keeper and a Puritan? Some who have endeavored to prove that George Washington was sound in his theological views and in the practices pertaining to them have also declared that he was sound in his personal conduct, from the Puritan standpoint. I say Puritan standpoint advisedly, lest I inadvertently cast a reflection upon Washington; knowing that all good men do not endorse this standpoint.
We are told that he was a strict observer of the Sabbath, and we are sometimes referred to an incident in Connecticut, when he would not travel on Sunday. The entry in his Diary telling of this is dated Sunday, November 8, 1789, and reads as follows: “It being contrary to law and disagreeable to the people of this State (Connecticut) to travel on the Sabbath day — and my horses, after passing through such intolerable roads, wanting rest, I stayed at Perkins’ tavern (which, by the bye, is not a good one) — all day — and a meeting house being a few rods from the door, I attended morning and evening services, and heard a lame discourse from a Mr. Pond.” (Diaries, vol. 4, p. 50.)
Yet when we read Washington’s own account of his later trip through the southern States. We find he continually traveled on Sunday, and seldom attended church. On Sunday, September 19, he was on a trip inspecting his lands. He did not call upon his tenants for their rent, because he says they were “APPARENTLY very religious,” and “it was thought best to postpone going among them until tomorrow.” The italics (capitals) are Washington’s own. In both of these cases he was aiming not to offend other persons’ conscientious scruples, not carrying out his own.
It has been said Washington did not receive visitors on Sunday. So far as his home in Mt. Vernon was concerned, a glance at the ‘Diaries’ will prove this to be untrue. When he had no guests there on the first day of the week, he made it a subject of special comment. While he was President he did not receive visitors on Sunday for the very good and practical reason that he wanted the day to himself to attend to his own private business. Let us look at a few instances, typical of many:
Sunday. February 14, 1790. “At home all day writing letters to Virginia.” (Ibid, P. 87.)
Sunday. October 11, 1789. “At home all day writing private letters.” (ibid, p. 19.)
Sunday June 27. 1790. “Went to Trinity church in the morning — employed myself in writing business in the afternoon.” (Ibid. p. 130.)
Sunday. May 2, 1790. “Went to Trinity church in the forenoon — writing letters on private business in the afternoon.” (Ibid, ‘D. 126.)
Sunday, April 18, 1790. “At borne all day — the weather being stormy and bad, wrote private letters.” (Ibid, T). 116.)
Sunday, March 21. 1790. “Went to St. Paul’s chapel in the forenoon — wrote private letters in the afternoon. Received Mr. Jefferson, Minister of State, about one o’clock,” (ibid, p. 106,)
It would be useless to quote further, as this is practically the fact about all of his Sundays, so far as the ‘Diaries’ are complete, while he was President. Paul Leicester Ford says, in speaking of his attending to his own private business on Sunday: “It was more or less typical of his whole life.” (The True George Washington, p. 78.)
We find that he was engaged in many “secular” pursuits on Sunday. Mr. Ford adds: “He entertained company, closed land purchases, sold wheat, and, while a Virginia planter, went fox- hunting on Sunday.” (Ibid, p. 79.) A few specific, instances of this will be given. on Sunday, March 31, 1771, he was engaged “on the arbitration between Dr. Ross and Company and Mr. Semple.” (Diaries, vol. 2, p. 12.) Sunday, October 13, 1771, he spent his time “plotting and measuring the surveys which Capt. Crawford made for the officers and soldiers.” On Sunday, December 25, of the same year, he “agreed to raise Christopher Shadels wages to 2,0, pounds per annum.” one week prior to this, December 18, he “went to Doeg Run and carried the dogs with me, who found and run a deer to the, water.” (Diaries, vol. 2, pp. 45 and 46.) On Sunday, October 25, 1772, he was “assisting Crawford with his surveys” (ibid, p. 840), while on Sunday, November 4, be “set off for the Annapolis rases.” (Ibid, p. 82.)
Washington danced, and the ‘Diaries’ are full of instances of his going to assemblies and balls. During the Revolution he, with Generals Greene, Knox, Wilkinson and others, signed a subscription Paper to pay the sums set beside their names “in the promotion and support of a dancing assembly.” Once he danced for three hours with Mrs. Greene without sitting down. once the entire party danced all night. At Newport General Rochambeau gave a ball and Washington danced the first figure, while the French officers took the instruments from the musicians and furnished the music. He frequently traveled to Alexandria to attend balls, and danced until he was 64 years old. (See The True George Washington, pp. 1,83, 184.)
The theater was the bane of our Puritan ancestors. As late as 1792 a performance of Sheridan’s ‘School for Scandal’ was stopped by the sheriff in Boston. New York was about the only city in the northern colonies where performance of plays was permitted. Pennsylvania passed an act prohibiting theaters in 1700. In 1759 this law was evaded by the creation of a theater outside the limits of Philadelphia. The ministers petitioned the legislature to suppress it and were successful, but the King and Council in London vetoed the act. There was peace until 1779, when, taking advantage of the fact that Pennsylvania was independent of England, the ministers were successful in having passed a law imposing a fine of 500 pounds on anyone who erected a theater. The law was reenacted in 1786, but the penalty was reduced to 200 pounds. On March 2, 1789, this law was repealed on petition of leading citizens of Philadelphia. Theaters were now permitted.
All his life, Washington’s ‘Diaries’ prove, he attended the theater whenever an opportunity offered. In Philadelphia he did not hesitate to defy the stern puritanical element that opposed the theater, and for this he was criticized. On January 9, 1797, he records: “Went to the theater for the first time this season. The Child of Nature and the Lock and Key were performed.” (Diaries, vol. 4, p. 248.) On the 24th of the same month he attended the Pantheon. There bareback and fancy riding were the attraction. On January 26, Washington sold the proprietor a fine white horse, named Jack, for $150. On February 27, five days before his term as President expired, he “went to the Theater in the evening.” The play on the boards this time was ‘The Way to get Married,’ followed by a comic ballet entitled, ‘Dermot and Kathleen, or Animal Magnetism.’
Bishop Meade has denied that Washington went fox-hunting, attended theaters, or that he would stoop to cards or dice. (Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia, vol. 2, pp. 242,-55.) We can only say the good Bishop was mistaken. His father, who was a member of Washington’s staff during the Revolution, ought to have told him better. cards and dice were a favorite amusement with Virginia gentlemen. Washington partook of them. He did not play for heavy stakes, but in a carefully kept ledger is to be found an account of his losses and gains. In his “Ledger B,” [NOTE: See vol. 2, of Rupert Hughes’ Washington, pp. 208, 209, in which the ledger pages are reproduced.] 1772-1774, his net loss was six pounds, three shillings and three pence, not bad for two years, and 63 games, of which he lost 36 and won 27.
What would shock our modern Puritans more than all things else is the well-known fact that he not only drank liquor, wine and beer, but manufactured and sold them. When Congress passed the first excise law in 1794, placing a tax on distilled spirits, it caused a rebellion in western Pennsylvania. Washington himself regarded this law as an incentive to make money, so he installed a distillery at Mt. Vernon, and made whisky, “from rye chiefly and Indian corn in a certain proportion.”
Mr. Ford says: “In 1798, the profit from the distillery was 344 pounds, 12 shillings, and seven and three quarter pence, with a stock carried over of 756 1/4 gallons.” (The True George Washington, p. 123.)
Yet we must remember that the Puritans of Washington’s day did not take umbrage at the manufacture of rum, as their descendants do today. In New England it was the leading industry. While Washington was careful not to give offense to his pious countrymen in things pertaining to doctrine, all his life he set his face against their puritanical practices. But those who still believe that Washington was a Puritan can console themselves with the fact that while he was a big grower of tobacco, he did not personally use it.
While he is usually looked upon as a grave, solemn man, Washington was fully capable of both making and enjoying a joke. He was popular with women, but there is no record of any improprieties. Far from being the walking manikin some would have us believe he was, we find him a real man of flesh and blood. The excellence of Washington’s character did not consist in loud Professions of superior righteousness, and in giving attention to forms; but we find him a superior man because at all times he was honest, honorable, reliable, recognized the rights of others, was patient under difficulties and disappointments, always exercising that uncommon thing known as common sense. These are the reasons why his contemporaries esteemed him and had confidence in him, and why, with all of the light shown upon his career, he yet holds his place in history.
The Public Attitude of Washington toward the Church and Religion. The public attitude of Washington toward the Church as an institution, and religion in general, is interesting, but it has no bearing on his private opinions, which he never expressed. To “Lafayette, on August 15, 1787, he wrote:
“I am not less ardent in my wish that you may succeed in your plan of toleration in religious matters. Being no bigot myself, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church that road to heaven which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest and least liable to exception.” To Sir Edward Newenham, he wrote on October 20, 1792:
“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by difference of sentiment in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy which has marked the present age would at least have reconciled Christians of every denotation, so far that we should never again see their religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.”
After Washington was inaugurated as the first chief magistrate, representatives of the different religious bodies waited upon him and presented him with addresses, to which he replied. From these replies I select the following excerpts:
“While all men within our territories are protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences, it is rational to be expected from them in return, that they will all be emulous of evincing the sanctity of their professions by the innocence of their’ lives and the beneficence of their actions; for no man, who is profligate in his morals, or a bad member of the civil community, can possibly be a true Christian, or a credit to his own religious society.” (To the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, May, 1789.)
“If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any religious society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and, if I could now conceive that the general government might ever be administered as to render liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.” (To the General Committee Representing the United Baptist Churches of Virginia.)
“The liberty enjoyed by the people of these States, of worshipping Almighty God agreeably to their conscience, is not only among the choicest of their blessings, but also of their rights. While men perform their social duties faithfully, they do all that society or the state can with propriety demand or expect; and remain responsible to their Maker for the religion or modes of faith which they may prefer or express.” (To the Quakers, 1789.)
“As mankind becomes more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community, are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. I rejoice that a spirit of liberality and philanthropy is much more prevalent among the enlightened nations of the earth, and that your brethren will benefit thereby in proportion as it shall become still more extensive.” (To the Hebrew Congregation of Savannah, May, 1790.)
“On this occasion, it would ill become me to conceal the joy I have felt in perceiving the fraternal affection, which appears to increase every day among the friends of genuine religion. It affords edifying prospects, indeed, to see Christians of different denominations dwell together in more charity, and conduct themselves in respect to each other with, a more Christian-like spirit than ever they have done in any former age, or in any other nation.” (To the Episcopalians, August 19, 1789.)
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”‘ (From the Farewell Address.) [NOTE: All these answers to the addresses of the Churches will be found in the Washington section, pp. 151-157. of Harpers ‘Encyclopedia of United States History,’ and Mr. Ford’s ‘Writings of Washington.’]
Every public man, every office holder and politician realizes that organized religion, socially, politically and economically, is a factor to be recognized and dealt with. Washington, not only as Commander-in-Chief, but more so as President, was obliged to have the united support of all the people, regardless of his individual views. He was careful to warn all these Churches against the great vice of the world, religious bigotry, intolerance and persecution. Because a motive is inspired by religion, it may not always be right, but religion is a powerful motive, right or wrong. Washington, in all these addresses, had in mind that religious controversy and dissension breed discord. At the same time, he realized that to secure independence and erect the new government, the cooperation of the Churches and the ministers was essential. He wanted their support, and to have their enmity would have been unfortunate.
There have been few Clemenceaus, Bradlaughs, Berts and Gambettas in public life who openly opposed the Church. These did so under extraordinary circumstances. Had Washington been as firm an Agnostic as Ingersoll, it would have been to his advantage to remain silent on the subject. He is careful to refer to religion in general, not to any particular belief or Church. He says nice things to them all, but commits himself to none. His use of the word “Christian” at times means nothing definite. Christianity might mean Roman Catholicism or Unitarianism, or “mere morality,” just as its user prefers. Of course every man must give special homage to the religion of the country in which he lives. In the “Farewell Address,” he often refers to “religion morality.” This might mean any religion, and the, other excerpts confirm us in thinking that he meant all religions and none in particular.
Thousands of men today hold that religious institutions should be upheld because of the prop they give to morality. They support Church for that reason, while they are indifferent to its theological teaching. They believe, as did Draper: “The tranquility of society depends so much on the stability of its religious convictions, that no one can be justified in wantonly disturbing them.” They think religion is necessary for other people, while not needed by themselves. It will also be noticed that Washington, while he sometimes couples morality and religion, stresses the former, and ends by saying that “virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
Among the addresses sent to Washington when he became President was one from the First Presbytery of the Eastward, which objected to the new Constitution because it did not recognize God and the Christian religion, in these words: “We should not have been alone in rejoicing to have seen some explicit acknowledgement of the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent, inserted somewhere in the Magna Charta of our country.” To this, Washington replied:
“The path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. … In the progress of morality and science, to which our government will give every furtherance, we may confidently expect the advancement of true religion and the completion of our happiness.”
Here, as on similar occasions he is too canny to say what “true piety” is. His statement that “true piety” will be advanced through the “progress of morality and science,” would place him at the present day in the ranks of Rationalism.
Washington knew, at the same time, as did Madison, that religion, legally united with the state, is no aid either to “virtue or morality.” For that reason he said, in the treaty with Tripoli, made in 1796, and, ratified by the Senate in 1797: “The Government of the United states of America is not, in any sense, founded upon the Christian religion.” He was too shrewd to oppose the orthodoxy of his time, and equally shrewd in not committing himself to its teachings. Socially, he conformed to the religious customs of his day, just enough to maintain the good will of religious people.
What Was Washington’s Belief? It is said that some one asked of Lord Beaconsfield his religion. He replied, “The religion of wise men.” Thereupon, his interlocutor again ask, “What religion is that,” and my Lord answered, Wise men never tell.” Washington was a wise man and never told.
In classifying these Presidents, placing them in one Church or another, whenever they actually were believers in the doctrines of that Church, I have had no difficulty in securing indubitable evidence, except in the case of President Pierce, whose religious affiliations it required some effort to learn. The proofs have been culled when possible from the spoken or written words of the Presidents themselves, combined with their public attitudes, In which I could make no mistake.
Washington never made a statement of his belief, while his actions rather prove that if he was not a positive unbeliever, he was at best an indifferentist. We have seen that he was not a regular attendant at church services — rather an irregular one. I have examined 14 years of his complete Dairies, 13 of them when he was at home, with two Episcopal churches within eight or 10, miles. One of these years, 1774, was his banner year for church attendance, when he went 18 times. Yet we find, in these 14 years, his average attendance to have been about six times a year — not a very good record.
That Washington did not commune is established beyond all doubt by reputable witnesses. The evidence of Bishop White, the Rev. Dr. Abercrombie and the Rev. Dr. Wilson certainly outweighs the very shady assertion that he once took communion in a Presbyterian church, which rests upon questionable and anonymous evidence, to say nothing of its utter improbability.
Bishop White says Washington did not kneel in prayer. Nellie Custis says he stood during the devotional service. She also admits that she never saw him pray, but that someone long dead had told her that he had seen him praying many years before. The Valley Forge prayer is a myth of even a weaker type, than the Presbyterian communion story. The “Prayer for the United, States” is a demonstrated fabrication. These fictions would not be necessary were there true evidence that Washington was religious. During the Revolution, forged letters were published in London attacking his personal moral character. It has been said that letters written by Washington were in existence that cast reflections upon him, but no one has ever been able to produce them. Between the fictions, forgeries and falsehoods told to make Washington either a plaster saint or a rake, it is difficult to say which would have disgusted him the more.
Jared Sparks says:
“After a long and minute examination of the writings of Washington, Public and private, in print and in manuscript, I can affirm, that I have never seen a single hint, or expression, from which it could be inferred, that he had any doubt of the Christian revelation, or that he thought with indifference or unconcern of that subject. On the contrary, wherever he approaches it, and indeed wherever he alludes in any manner to religion, it is done with seriousness and reverence.” (Life of ‘Washington,’ p. 525.)
If Dr. Sparks found from Washington’s writings that he never had a “doubt of the Christian revelation,” neither could he find among them anything proven, his belief in the same. He may have thought about it and it is likely that he did, but as to expressing his views, he surely was indifferent and unconcerned. The truth is that the majority of unbelievers, especially men of prominence in political or social life, make no statement of their unbelief. True, when Washington spoke of religion, he spoke with “seriousness and reverence,” but he so spoke of all religions and not of any particular one. That an unbeliever is necessarily flippant, it is the prerogative of Mr. Sparks to assert. Scholarly Freethinkers consider religion an important subject, even though they reject its orthodox interpretation. While not necessarily reverent in their attitude, they discuss it seriously from the standpoint of science logic and history. [NOTE: That I may not be justly accused of unfairness, I reproduce in entirety, in the Appendix, the chapter in Sparks’s ‘Life of Washington’ that deals with his religious views.]
Most important of all, there stands out the fact that while in Washington’s writings there is nothing affirming or denying the truth of Christian revelation, there is also nothing inconsistent with Deism. Deists of the time believed in God and his Providence. They accepted all of moral value in the Christian Bible and in all other sacred books, holding it to be a part of natural religion. They held in high esteem the moral teachings and character of Jesus. Even the orthodox never tire of quoting complimentary things said about him by Paine and Rousseau. Many Deists prayed and believed in prayer.
Nor can Dr. Sparks find anything in the writings of Washington tending to prove that he believed in Jesus as the Christ and the son of God. Nor will he find anything which will prove that a future existence had any firm place in his calculations, though Deists, as a rule, hope for “happiness beyond this life.” During Washington’s sickness and death religion was not mentioned. No minister was called in, though three doctors were present.
Dr. Moncure D. Conway says:
“When the end was near, Washington said to a physician present — an ancestor of the writer of these notes — ‘I am not afraid to go.’ With his right fingers on his left wrist, he counted his own pulses, which beat his funeral march to the grave. ‘He bore his distress with astonishing fortitude, and conscious as he declared, several hours before his death, of his approaching dissolution, he resigned his breath with the greatest composure, having the full possession of his reason to the last moment,’ so next day wrote one present. [NOTE: See Appendix for the account of Washington’s sickness and death as written by his secretary, Tobias Lear, from whom Dr. Conway quotes.] Mrs. Washington knelt beside his bed, but no word passed on religious matters. With the sublime taciturnity which marked his life he passed out of existence, leaving no word or act which can be turned to the service of superstition, cant or bigotry.”
He died like an ancient pagan Greek or Roman. This has puzzled many who have tried to fit Washington with orthodox garments.
In his letters to young people, particularly to his adopted children, he urges upon them truth, character, honesty, but in no case does he advise going to church, reading the Bible, belief in Christ, or any other item of religious faith or practice, once he wanted mechanics for his estate. He did not demand that they be Christians, but he wrote to his agent, “If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists.”
Except the legal phrase, “In the name of God, Amen,” there are no religious references in Washington’s will, something unusual in wills made at that time. While he liberally recognizes his relatives he leaves nothing to churches or for other religious purposes, but he does remember the cause of education.
We have already quoted Bishop White to the effect that when the vestry of Christ Church waited upon Washington with an address, he expressed gratification at some things he had heard from their pulpit, but said not a word that would indicate his own religious views. Just before he left the Presidency, all the ministers of Philadelphia waited upon him, also bearing an address. We will let Thomas Jefferson tell the story, as he wrote it in his Diary, for February 1, 1800, just six weeks after Washington’s death:
“Feb. 1. Dr. Rush tells me that he had it from Asa Green that when the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the Government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However, he observed, the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article in their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory address to the governors of the States when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion.
“I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets and believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more in the system (Christianity) than he did.” (The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, p. 284.)
Dr. Benjamin Rush was one of the ablest physicians of his time and a patriot of the Revolution. The Asa Green spoken of was one of the most noted Presbyterian ministers of the day, and was the chaplain of congress while the seat of the government was located in Philadelphia. The object of these ministers was to find, if possible, what Washington’s religious views were, and to draw from him some sentiment they could use to combat the infidelity of Thomas Paine. The result was that orthodoxy received no more comfort than heterodoxy.
A glance at an entry in Washington’s Diary for October 10, 1785, throws great light upon his attitude toward the Church and religion. It will speak for itself: “A Mr. John Lowe on his way to Bishop Seabury for ordination, called and dined here — could not give him more than a general certificate founded on information, respecting his character — having no acquaintance with him, nor any desire to open a correspondence with the new ordained bishop.”
Washington for social and matrimonial reasons could attend church as little as possible — an average of six times a year at home. He could be a vestryman because that was a political office from whence he went to the ‘House of Burgesses and from whence his taxes were assessed. This was in his interest. He could meet and dine with clergymen and treat them with courtesy. When they addressed him he could say some nice things in reply, just enough to keep them from barking at his heels. But to be involved in a correspondence with a bishop over an ordination or to be mixed up in any of the church imbroglios of the time was more than he could stand and here he drew the line. He has been well called “the sly old fox,” and nowhere did he demonstrate this quality better than when he was obliged to deal with the Church, the clergy and religion.
Theodore Parker says:
“He had much of the principle, little of the sentiment of religion. He was more moral than pious, in early life a certain respect for ecclesiastical forms made him vestryman in two churches. This respect for outward forms with ministers and reporters for newspapers very often passes for the substance of religion. It does not appear that Washington took a deep and spontaneous delight in religious emotions more than in poetry, in works of art, or in the beauties of Nature … Silence is a figure of speech, and in the latter years of his life I suppose his theological opinions were those of John Adams, Dr. Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, only he was not a speculative man, and did not care to publish them to the world.” (Six Historic Americans.)
The Rev. Dr. Abercrombie said, “Washington was a Deist.” The Rev. Dr. Wilson said, “I think any one who will candidly do as I have done, will come to the conclusion that he was a Deist and nothing more.” Gouverneur Morris said he no more believed in the system of Christianity than Morris did himself. His intimate friend, Bishop White, who perhaps was the best qualified to judge, denies that Washington ever took communion to his knowledge , though he attended Dr. White’s church more often than any other while he was President. He also admits that he never heard Washington utter a word which would indicate him to have been a believer; and what is more, he says he never saw him on his knees during prayer, an attitude all Episcopalians assume when performing that function of religion. The positive evidence, I admit, is meager, but combined with the facts and circumstances to which I have called the reader’s attention, it is strong. That he was an evangelical Christian has never been proved and is improbable. That he was a Deist is not inconsistent with any known fact.
Mr. Parker says that silence is a figure of speech. We may add that it is sometimes more eloquent and convincing than words.
The facts of the mythical character of Washington’s alleged piety have been before the world for many years. Historians and biographers not desiring to give offense to the religious public, taught to accept his religiosity as infallibly true, have either not mentioned them at all or spoken of them in whispers. But, as historians develop more courage and more of them speak the truth out loud, more of them acclaim it his Deistic sentiments. William Roseoe Thayer, in his ‘Life of Washington’ (Published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co.), says: “I do not discover that he was in any sense an ardent believer. He preferred to say “Providence,’ rather than ‘God,’ Probably because it was less definite.” For a considerable Period at one time of his life he did not attend the communion.” (p. 239.) “He believed in moral truths and belief with him was putting into practice what he professed,” (Ibid.) “He had imbibed much of the deistic spirit of the 18th Century.” (p. 240.)
Mr. Rupert Hughes has not yet completed his biography of Washington, but three volumes so far having been published. From personal acquaintance with him, however, I know that his view of Washington’s religious opinions is substantially in accord with the view of Mr. Thayer and others whom I have cited.
Another recent writer, W.E. Woodward, speaks of them without hesitation in these words:
“He seemed, according to the evidence, to have had no instinct or feeling for religion.” “The name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned even once in the vast collection of Washington’s published letter’s. He refers to Providence in numerous letters, but he used the term in such a way as to indicate that he considered Providence as a synonym for destiny or fate,” (p. 142.) “Bishop White, who knew him well for many years, wrote after Washington’s death that he never heard him express an opinion on any religious subject.” “He had no religious feeling himself, but thought religion was a good thing for other people — especially for the common people. Any one who understands American life will recognize the modern captain-of-industry attitude in this point of view.” “He considered religion a matter of policy, of that we might have been sure — knowing as we do his type of mind.” “He said nothing about religion — nothing very definite — and was willing to let people think whatever they pleased.” (P. 143.)
I think I have given in this chapter plenty of evidence to sustain these writers’ opinions. When Messrs. Hughes’ and Woodward’s books were published, their critics did not deny the truth of their statements of fact, but denounced them for making them, others, like Woodrow Wilson, in his ‘Life of Washington,’ and Paul Haworth, in his ‘Washington: The Country Gentlemen,’ thinking his religious opinions to be a dangerous subject, have said nothing about them. It is often dangerous to Speak the truth.
Presidents Who Were Presbyterians
The story of the early religious background of the United States is of interest ‘When we consider the beliefs of its people. The wilds of America were early settled by representatives of the then most prominent forms of the Christian faith. While a large number of them emigrated to find on this western continent religious liberty, most of them, if strong enough, sought to to establish, by law, the Church they brought with them.
In New England, with the exception of Rhode Island, Congregationalism was the State Church. In New York, it was at first the Dutch Reformed. Later, the English governors sought to establish the Church of England but the opposition was so strong that they were not successful except in theory. In New Jersey, the same attempt was made, though there was not an Episcopal church in the colony at the time. Pennsylvania granted liberty to all “who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and eternal God”; but the holders of office “shall be such as profess faith in Jesus Christ.” The constitution of Delaware, formed in 1776, declared that all persons professing the Christian religion “ought forever to enjoy equal rights and privileges,” but to hold office the acknowledgement of the trinity and the inspiration of the scriptures was mandatory. Maryland was first settled by Catholics. Then the Puritans arrived, obtained power and persecuted them. Later the Church of England was established. The so-called freedom of conscience law of Maryland is a myth. It granted liberty to trinitarian Christians only, the Jew, the Unitarian and the unbeliever being excluded. it punished blasphemy by boring the tongue with a red-hot iron, The first act favoring absolute religious liberty passed in America, and, for all we know to the contrary, in the modern world, was enacted in Rhode Island. There, 20 years before Maryland was settled, Roger Williams proclaimed freedom to all, Christian, Jew, Pagan and infidel. In 1647, two years before the Maryland law, which did not provide freedom at all, these sentiments of Williams were enacted into a statute.
In Virginia, the Church of England was established, and the penalties for heresy and non-conformity were very severe, even up to the Revolution. The same establishment was set up in the Carolinas. Georgia, under the benevolent Oglethorpe, had no established Church, but Romanists were excluded. When, in 1752, the colony lost its charter, the Church of England was made the State Church. [NOTE: For a full and accurate history of religious laws in the thirteen colonies, see ‘The Rise of Religious Liberty in America’ by Sanford H. Cobb. Published by Henry Holt & Co., New York City.]
Among the early settlers was a large proportion of those holding the doctrines of John Calvin. The Puritans of New Engrand, the Dutch settlers of New York, the Scotch and the Ulsterites all held Presbyterian doctrines, though all did not hold to the Presbyterian form of church government. Hence, it is natural that this Church should leave its impress upon the people of the United States and upon some of its statesmen, as it did upon Andrew Jackson, the seventh President. His parents emigrated from the North of Ireland and settled in South Carolina. Although he was not a communicant until after he retired from the Presidency, he was a believer in the Christian religion, as taught by John Calvin, and a fairly regular church attendant.
Andrew Jackson is one of the most picturesque characters in American history. As a boy, he fought in the Revolution, was taken prisoner, and had his arm cut to the bone by the sword of a British officer because he refused to clean the oincer’s muddy boots. A planter, frontier lawyer and judge; a congressman and senator from Tennessee immedlately after that State’s admission to the Union; a militia general, Indian fighter, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, he became, after a bitter struggle, President of the United States, the first “man of the people” to hold this high office. He was so accustomed, to the wild life of the frontier that he did not feel at home anywhere else. He has been described, when young, as “reckless, impetuous, quarrelsome, and passionate in temper; thoroughly disinclined to learning of any sort, his favorite pursuits being racing, gamins’ and cock-fighting; but he was Possessed of invincible determination, dauntless courage and excelled in marksmanship and riding, qualities which later served him well.” He fought during his lifetime two duels, in one of which he “killed his man,” and in the other received a slight wound himself. His political enemies many times published lists of his fights and escapades.
John Parton, one of the best of Jackson’s biographers, describes the circumstances under which he joined the Church, as they were related to him by the Rev. Dr. Edgar, who received the ex-President into the fold:
“Ere long a ‘Protracted meeting, was held in the little church on the Hermitage farm. Dr. Edgar conducted the exercises, and the family at the Hermitage were constant in their attendance. The last day of the meeting arrived, which was also the last day of the week. General Jackson sat in his accustomed Seat, and Dr. Edgar preached. The subject of the sermon was the interposition of Providence in the affairs of men, a subject congenial with the habitual tone of General Jackson’s mind. The preacher spoke in detail of the perils which beset the life of man, and how often he is preserved from sickness and sudden death. Seeing General Jackson listening with rapt attention to his discourse, the eloquent preacher sketched the career of a man who, in adidition to the
ordinary dangers of human life, had encountered those of the wilderness, of war, and of keen political conflict; who had escaped the tomahawk of the savage, the attaeks of his country’s enemies, the privations and fatigues of border warfare, and the aim of the assassin. How is it, exclaimed the preacher, that a man endowed with reason and gifted with intellioence can pass through such scenes as these unharmed, and not see the hand of God in his deliverance? While enlarging upon his theme, Dr. Edgar saw that his words were sinking into the General’s heart, and he spoke with unusual animation and impressiveness.”
We judge from this that Dr. Edgar had learned, his business well, as those who are familiar with the psychology of conversions can testify. The biographer continues:
“The services ended, General Jackson got into his carriage and, was riding homeward. He was overtaken by Dr. Edgar on horseback. He hailed the Doctor and said he wished to, speak with him. Both havinog alighted, the general led the clergyman a little way into the grove. ‘Doctor,’ said the general, ‘I want You to come home with me tonight.’ ‘I cannot come tonight,’ was his reply: ‘I am engaged elsewhere.’ Dr. Edgar said he had promised to visit that evening a sick lady, and he felt bound to keep his promise. General Jackson, as though he had not heard the reply, said a third time and more pleadingly than before, ‘Doctor, I want you to come home with me tonight. ‘General Jackson,’ said the clergyman, ‘my word is pledged; I cannot break it; but I will be at the Hermitage tomorrow morning very early.’
The anxious man was obliged to be contented with this arrangement, and went home alone. He retired to his apartment. He passed the evening and the greater part of the night in meditation, in reading, in conversing with his beloved daughter and in prayer. He was sorely distressed. Late at night when his daughter left him, he was still agitated and sorrowful. What thoughts passed through his mind as he paced his room in the silence of the night, of what sins he repented and what actions of his life he wished he had not done, no one knows or ever will know.”
Those who have studied the human mind, in relation to the emotions will think all of this has a natural interpretation. Many a man and woman view their past careers, think of their errors and realize they must be corrected or their lives will be failures. Many have abandoned their vices and bad habits owing to the fear of losing their health and the respect of their neighbor’s and friends. Some give up their vices through sheer disgust with them. Self condemnation is not the exclusive property of supernaturalism. Thoughtful people are coming to recognize that the facts of religion can be traced to natural causes. The chief aim of the religion of General Jackson’s day, as represented by Dr. Edgar, was to save the soul through faith in the supernatural attributes of Christ. It was the teaching of the Presbyterian Church of that day, and is yet the teaching of its ereed, that good conduct cannot save in lieu of faith. Such has been the teaching of all other orthodox Churches. They have merely followed the teaching of Paul that faith can be counted for righteousness, Martin Luther said, “If any one says that the Gospel requires works for salvation, I say flat and plain, he is a liar.”
Jackson’s biographer concludes the story of the General’s conversion:
“In the morning the Rev. Dr. Edgar appeared soon after sunrise. General Jackson told the joyful history of the night and expressed a desire to be admitted into the Church with his daughter that very morning. The usual questions respecting doctrine and experience were satisfactorily answered by the candidate. Then there was a pause in the conversation. The clergyman said at length: ‘General, there is one more question it is my duty to ask you. Can you forgive all your enemies?’ The question was evidently unexpected, and the candidate was silent for a while. ‘My political enemies,’ said he, ‘I can freely forgive; but as for those who abused me when I was serving my country in the field, and those who attacked me for serving my country — Doctor, that is a different case.
“The Doctor assured him it was not. Christianity, he said, forbade the indulgence of enmity absolutely and in all cases. No man could be received into a Christian Church who did not cast out of his heart every feeling of that nature. It was a condition that was fundamental and indispensable.
“The Hermitage church was crowded to the utmost of its small capacity; the very windows were darkened with the eager faces of the servants. After the usual services the General rose to make the required public declaration of his concurrenre with the doetrines, and his resolve to obey the precepts of the Church. He leaned heavily upon his stick with both hands; tears rolled down his cheeks. His daughter, the fair young matron, stood beside him. Amed a silence the most profound the General answered the questions proposed to him. When he me was formally pronounced a member of the Church, and the clergyman was about to continue the service, the long restrained feelings of the congregation burst forth in sobs and exclamations which compelled him to pause for several minutes. The clergyman himself was speechless with emotion, and abandoned himself to the exaultation of the hour. A familiar hymn was raised in which the entire assembly joined with a fervor which at once expressed and relieved their feelings.”
The conversion of General Jackson gives us an idea of the emotional religion so prevalent a century ago, and which still linger among us today. Once the question was put to Bishop White, one of the pastors of George Washington, “What is your opinion of revivals?’ The Bishop answered, “They have one great evil, in that they cause some to mistake their animal for their spiritual nature.” Those who want evidence of this should read the chapter in Henry A. Wise’ ‘Seven Decades of the Union,’ in which he tells of Tangier Island, loceated in Chesapeake Bay, and a part of Virginia, where revivals were a regular feature of the island’s life, After a visit from a prominent evangelist the ministers of Pittsburgh met and resolved that they would give no more countenance to traveling evangelists.
It must be remembered that General Jackson was of a very emotional nature, and all his life was imbued with strong passions. In all his career these prevailed. Sometimes he was desperately right, while at other times he was equally desperately wrong. He was not a thinker, a student or even a reader, except of the news though he had been admitted to the bar, it is sald he never read a law book through. He was emphatically a man of action and in that sphere he shines in American history. Later he forgot that he had agreed to forgive his enemies, and shortly before he died he said the greatest mistake he had ever made was when he did not hang John C. Calhoun, the leader of the South Carolina nullifiers. To the end of his life he delighted to show his friends the pistol with which he had killed Charles Dickinson in a duel.
It must be remembered that those who have led rough, irregular lives in their youth often become fanatically religious in old age. “Old Hickory,” as he was called owing to his unbending naature, except for his military exploits, does not stand as well in history as he stood in the estimation of his contemporaries. Yet in his commendable qualities many think it would not be an evil to have men of his stamp in public life today.
James Knox Polk
President, March 4, 1845 — March 4, 1849.
When James Knox Polk, of Tennessee, was nominated by the Democratic party for President, in 1844, after he had been in Congress 14 years, Speaker of the House of Representatives for two terms and Governor of his own State, he was but little known outside of it. His selection was a surprise even to his own party. Governor Letcher, of Virginia, exclaimed, “Polk, great God, what a nomination!” Stephen A. Douglas remarked, “From henceforth no private citizen is safe!” The Whigs sang in a campaign song:
As James K. Polk of Tennessee.”
He was nominated because the current issues were the annexation of Texas and the extension of slavery, two things he could be depended upon to accomplish. From 1840 to 1860 is known in our history as the era of weak men in the White House. All were mere politicians and “trimmers,” when a real principle was broached. As was the case with a President in our time, the arduous duties of his office caused President Polk to break down in health. He left Washington an incurably sick man and died within a few months after he had returned to his home in Tennessee.
The Polk family, like most families of Scotch ancestry, was Presbyterian. Mrs. Polk was of the same faith and prohibited dancing and card playing in the White House. During the Tyler administration the Presidential mansion was the scene of gaiety and grand entertainments; but on the inauouration of President Polk it was said the reign of the Cavalier ended and that of the Puritan began. Yet the President was not a member of any Church and had never been baptized. While he was an habitual attendant of the Presbyterian Church, with his wife, his own private opinions leaned toward Methodism. McCormac’s ‘Life of Polk,’ the only one in existence so far as we know, on page 721, contains the following statement:
“The Polk family,, as well as Mrs. Polk, were Presbyterians, but the ex-President was not a member of any church. He went regularly with his wife to the Church of her choice, though his preference was for the Methodist denomination. A few days before his death his aged mother came from Columbia bringing her own pastor in the hope that her son might accept baptism and unite with the Presbyterian Church. But the son recalled a promise once given to the Rev. Mr. McFerren, of the Methodist Church, that, when he was ready to join the Church, the Rev. McFerren should baptise him. Having thus formally embraced Christianity, he felt prepared to meet the ‘great event.”‘
Theodore Parker says that on his deathbed he acknowledged that his good works had been as “filthy rags.” But he was safely on board ‘the old ship of Zion before she weighed anchor and spread her sails for the Elysian fields.
President, March 4, 1857 — March 4, 1861.
James Buchanan was the last of the pre-Civil War Presidents. He had been in the House and Senate for 20 years, had been Secretary of State and Minister to England. Born in pennsylvania and descended, from Scotch emiogrants, he was a Presbyterian by inheritance; but like Presidents Jackson and Polk he never joined the Church until he retired to private life. All his life, however, he had been a regular attendant, and a contributor to all Churches, including the Catholic.
In August, 1860, his last year in the White House, President Buchanan was stopping at Bedford Springs, a summer resort in Pennsylvania, where the Rev. Dr. William M. Paxton, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City, was also a guest. Having had some previous acquaintance with the reverend doctor he one day invited him into his room, where he opened his heart. He said:
“I think I may say that for 12 years I have ‘been in the habit of reading the Bible and praying daily. I have never had any one with whom I have felt disposed to converse, and now that I find you here I have thought you would understand my feelings, and that I would venture to open my mind to you upon this important subject, and ask for an explanation of some things I do not clearly understand.”
He then asked Dr. Paxton what a religious experience is, and wanted to know how a man might know he was a Christian, to which the doctor gave replies that satisfied him, Thereupon the President said:
“Well, sir, I thank you. My mind is now made up. I hope I am a Christian. I think I have had some of the experience which you describe, and as soon as I retire from my office as Presiclent, I will unite with the Presbyterian Church.”
Dr. Paxton here became excited. It is not often a minister has an opportunity to gather a President of the United States into the fold. Then he was an old man, and might die, as did President Harrison, who so sorely disappointed the Rev. Dr. Hawley. Therefore he exclaimed, “Why not now, Mr. President? God’s invitation is now and you should not say tomorrow.” President Buchanan replied with deep feeling and a strong gesture: “I must delay, for the honor of religion. If I were to unite with the Church now, they would say hypocrite. from Maine to Georgia.” Here he was different from some statesmen of today who seem to take no interest in religion until they get into politics, when “the honor of religion” does not disturb them.
Shortly after the 4th of March, 1861, President Buchanan kept his word and was received into the Presbyterian Church of Lancaster, Pa., his home city. He was fortunate in living 80 years ago instead of today. Now he would not be permitted to serve his term in office. He would be compelled to run successfully the clerical gauntlet before he could be elected.
President, March 4, 1885 — March 4, 1889; March 4, 1893 — March 4, 1897.
The first Democratic President to be elected after the Civil War was the son of the Rev. Richard Cleveland, a Presbyterian minister. Like many other mininsters, the Rev. Mr. Cleveland supported a large family on a small salary. His children were therefore obliged to work as soon as they were able. Grover worked in a store in Fayetteville, N.Y., where his father held his last charge before his death. In this place, we are informed by a living sister of Mr. Cleveland, he joined the church of which his father was the pastor.
Later he went to New York City, where he taught for a while in a school for the blind. Here he became acquainted with Fanny Crosby, the noted hymn writer. He moved from New York City to Buffalo, where he studied law, was admitted to the bar, entered politics and laid the foundation of his later eminence. While in Buffalo, he kept his name on the roll of his father’s old church in Fayetteville. That he was a member of the Church in Buffalo is doubtful. While living there, he had the reputation of being a blunt, honest man of the world, whose attendance at the house of Bacchus was more regular than his attendance in the house of God.
He loved to play pinochle in favorite salgons, and had he not been a drinking man would perhaps not have been elected Mayor of Buffalo,’ from which office he stepped into the Governor’s chair and afterwards into the Presidency. He happened to be in a saloon drinking a glass of beer and eating a lunch, when in came a number of Democratic politicians looking for a candidate for mayor. One of them in a joking manner said, “Let us nominate Grover.” The joke became serious, He was nominated and elected; then nominated and elected governor by the greatest majority a governor ever received; and in less than four years after he stood in front of the saloon bar, was inaugurated President of the United, States.
Those who, like the present writer, recall the presidential campaign of 1884 between James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland, remember the bitter, abusive, acrid personalities of that year. Mr. Blaine had a vulnerable public record, and his opponents flaunted the Mulligan letters” with all their strength. His private life, however, had been beyond reproach. When he was nominated, Mr. Cleveland was an almost unknown man outside of his own State, but his public record as sheriff, mayor and governor commended him to the people of the United States. His adversaries then launched an attack upon his private life. one charge was that he had not done his duty to his country during the Civil War by enlisting in the army, but had hired a substitute. The fact was that owing to two brothers having enlisted, he had to remain home as the sole support of his mother and two sisters. When the draft came, he borrowed $300 to hire a man to go in his stead.
The second charge was not so easily met. A certain Rev. George H. Ball, of Buffalo, charged him with seduction and bastardy. This preacher of that “charity that thinketh no evil” prayed God not to strike him dead because he had voted for Cleveland for governor. The friends of Mr. Cleveland prepared to issue a denial, but he would not, permit them. He said, “It is true. Tell the truth!” He held that while he was willing to defend all his public acts, his parivate acts did not concern the public. He was quite justified in this view. Another minister, the Rev. Mr. Burchard, in his “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” speech, quite neutralized the attack of the Rev. Mr. Ball on the youthful morals of Mr. Cleveland, who was elected, the first Democratic President in a quarter of a century. The illegitimate child of which so much was said afterwards became a prominent professional man and an honored citizen of Buffalo. His father was twice elected President of the United States, the Rev. Mr. Ball received much free advertising, and when the smoke cleared away no one was injured beyond recovery.
After Grover Cleveland entered the White House, he gave more attention to the Church, as he also did to matrimony, marrying his ward, Miss Frances Folsom, a young lady of great personal charm. It was not until his second term, on which he entered March 4, 1893, that he became prominently religious. A wave of piety swept over the country during this year of the great panic, as had happened in the two former periods of financial distress, in 1857 and 1873, The Churches registered their protests against the inaugural ball, which, almost from the foundation of the government, had been an occasion of greatl gaiety. The new President was prompt to unite with the Churches in voicing his disapproval.
This was also the year of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Churches had been organizing for three years to prevent the doors from opening on Sunday. Religious societies had met in conventions and pledged themselves not to attend unless the Sabbath was strictly observed. The question was carried into the courts. The ministers demanded that Cleveland call out the military, if necessary, to shut the gates, but while he sympathized with the Sabbatarians he did not go that far.
In the fall, he recognized Jesus Christ in his Thanksgiving Proclamation, something no other President had ever done. The pace for religious legislation having been set during the administration of President Harrison, President Cleveland was now looked upon as the patron saint of the “National Reformers” and other theocratic organizations. During Cleveland’s second administration, a Sunday law was introduced for the District of Columbia, as was also the “Christian amendment,” placing God in the Constitution and making Christianity the official religion of the State. The late William Jennings Bryan was preparing to advocate such an amendment when he died.
Nor can the sincerity of Mr. Cleveland be doubted. while he had not been a “practical Christian” at all times, he seemed to revert to the priety, of his youth as he grew older. This happens to many who have never given the foundation of religion their attention. On January 7, 1904, after the death of his oldest daughter Ruth, he wrote to a friend:
“I had a season of great trouble in keeping out of my mind the idea that Ruth was in the Cold, cheerless grave instead of in the arms of her Saviour. It seems to me I mourn our darling Ruth’s death more and more. So much of the time I can only think of her as dead, not joyfully living in heaven. God has come to my help and I have felt able to adjust my thought to dear Ruth’s death with as much comfort as selfish humanity will permit. One thing I can Say: not for a moment since she left us has a rebellious thought entered my mind.”
His sister writes that she knew “his boyhood’s faith brightened his dying hours.” The grief of a father for the death of a loved child is not a proper subject for discussion, and we can be pleased to think that under the circumstances he found consolation. We could say the same had he been a Buddhist, a Mohammedan, a Mormon or a Confucian.
Yet President Cleveland was not a Puritan, and if he were alive today, he would not stand well on the Anti-Saloon League’s card-index. He liked beer, fished on Sunday and kept a store of good liquor for himself and his friends.
John S. Wise, in his ‘Recollections of Thirteen Presidents,’ says there were two men in American history who above all others were attacked by venomous personal abuse, Grover Cleveland and Robert G. Ingersoll. This was because of their holding unpopular ideas. Fifty years ago, to be a Democrat in some sections was synonymous. with being a traitor, an enemy of your country, its prosperity and happiness; while to say openly that you did not accept the orthodox Christian religion was to place yourself outside the pale of social recognition and to be looked upon as having hoofs and horns.
Years ago, I knew an old man in a rural community who was an outspoken “Infidel.” A woman who knew him remarked: “I do not see why some people are so bitter at Mr. ________. He does not appear to be any different from other men.” Since the partisan prejudices that swayed the minds of his contemporaries have become extinct, history has been just toward President Cleveland. Now, regardless of party, he is considered to have been one of our most efficient Presidents.
President, March 4, 1889 — March 4, 1893.
Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President of the United States, waw a great-grandson of Benjamin Harrison, who signed the Declaration of Independence, and a grandson of William Henry Harrison, the ninth President, at whose house he was born, in 1833. He was a Presbyterian, an elder in the Church, and the first President who was unquestionably a communicant in an orthodox Church at the time he was elected. Grover Cleveland was a communicant in his youth and late in life, but there is no evidence that he was such when he was first elected.
President Harrison was deeply religious, a believer in divine providence, and thought himself an object of its particular care. Knowing this, during his administration the Churches were successful in introducing bills in Congress to promote religion by law. On May 21, 1886, Senator Henry W. Blair, of New Hamphire, introduced a “National Sunday Rest Bill,” the preamble of which read, “A bill to secure to the enjoyment of the first day of the week, commonly Sunday, as a day of rest, and to promote its observance as religious worship.” A great outcry was raised against this bill as worded, and on December 9, 1889, Senator Blair re- introduced it, making the title read, “A bill to secure to the people the privilege of rest and religious worship, free from the disturbance of others, on the first day of the week.” Except that it granted exemption from the penalties those “who conscientiously believe in and observe any other day than Sunday as the Sabbath or day of religious worship,” its provisions were not different from the first. Not since 1829 had a bill for the enforcement of a Sunday law been introduced in the national legislature. As the bill entered into the realm of conscience and the field of religious controversy, it was not reported from the committee room and died a natural death. Similar bills have been since introduced and have met the same fate. Four days after introducing his Sunday bill, Senator Blair introduced an “Educational Amendment” the Constitution of the United States, section 2 of which read: “Each State in this Union shall establish a system of public schools, adequate for the education of all the children living therein, between the ages of six and 16 years inclusive, in the common branches of knowledge and in virtue, morality, and the principles of the Christian religion.” This, like his Sunday bill, was very deceptive, and, like it, was laid on the table. Senator Blair having failed, Mr. W.C.P. Breckinridge, of Kentucky, who was later to acquire an unsavory reputation, introduced, on January 6, 1890, a Sunday bill for the District of Columbia, which also failed. President Harrison’s well-known orthodox predilection encouraged the sponsors of these bills. Religious legislation has always been unpopular, except with the extremists in the Church, yet it is an ever present danger.
General Harrison had an undistinguished though honorable record as an officer in the Civil War, and was Senator from Indiana for one term. He was a splendid platform speaker, and publicly had a great influence over the masses. In private he had the reputation of being cold and distant.
President, March 4, 1913 — March 4, 1921.
Our World War President was Presbyterian through a long line of Scotch and Irish ancestors on both his father’s and mother’s side. His father, the Rev. James Ruggles Wilson, was a Presbyterian minister who was born in Ohio, of Irish ancestry. His mother’s father, the Rev. Thomas Woodrow, after whom he was named, came from Scotland, and was a graduate of the University of Glasgow. each held a high position in the Church, and both are known in its history.
The father of the future President moved from ohio to Virginia early in the 50’s. Woodrow Wilson was born at Staunton, Va,; later the Wilson family moved to Augusta, Georgia. While in Ohio the Rev. Wilson seemed to take no particular interest in the then all- absorbing question of slavery. But in 1861, he was a delegate to the National Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, held in Philadelphia, where a resolution was passed reading out of the Church all slave-holders. The Rev. Mr. Wilson at once took up the cudgel for his adopted section, and invited southern Presbyterians to meet with him in Augusta, where he organized the Southern Presbyterian Church. He cast his fortunes with the South during the war and became a chaplain in the Confederate Army, while his brothers were fighting in the Union Army. After the war, when upon a visit to Ohio, he was asked if he was a reconstructed rebel, his reply was, “No, only a whipped one.” When his son was first proposed as a teacher in Princeton University, objection was raised against him because of his southern antecedents.
The Rev. Joseph Ruggles Wilson was an interesting characte. He had all the geniality of the Celt, and was far from being puritanical. He loved a good dinner, enjoyed smgking his pipe, and sometimes took a nip of “Old Scotch.” This, of course, was before the crusade for Prohibition had captured the Protestant Churches. His Irish wit, combined with his knowledge and interesting conversation, made him a social favorite, as those who remember him when he passed his latter years at the home of his son will recall.
The maternal uncle of the World War President also had an interesting history, which is recorded in the chronicles of his adopted country. The Rev. James Woodrow was originally a printer and publisher, and sometimes, to hasten work, it was necessary for his printers to work nights. He would permit no Sunday work. At midnight Saturday he compelled his employes to cease their labors, but promptly at two minutes after 12 on Monday morning they resumed. In this way the work was accomplished, but the old scotch custom of Sabbath keeping was not invalidated. Yet while he was a very religious man, and conformed to the standards of the Presbyterian Church, he finally got into trouble, and had to leave the Church. He believed in and preached Evolution. A minority in the Church defended him, but he was ousted from the Presbyterian seminary in Columbia, S.C., where he was a teacher of the natural sciences. Andrew D. White, in ‘The Warfare Between Science and Theology in Christendom,’ vol. 1, pp. 317-318, thus speaks of his case:
“This hostile movement became so strong that, in spite of the favorable action of the directors of the seminary, and against the efforts of a broad-minded minority in the representative bodies having ultimate charge of the institution, the delegates from the various synods raised a storm of orthodoxy and drove Dr. Woodrow from his post. Happily, he was at the same time professor in the University of South Carolina in the same city of Columbia, and from his chair in that institution he continued to teach natural science with the approval of the great majority of thinking men in that region; hence, the only effect of the attempt to crush him was, that his position was made higher, respect for him deeper, and his reputation wider.”
Dr. Woodrow was a real man, and would not compromise as many ministers have done. He finally left the Church and became the president of a bank. He was a member of a number of learned scientific societies both in Europe and America. His trial for heresy, in the 1880’s, aroused national attention. Nearly 40 years later, when his nephew was President of the United States and the Fundamentalists had renewed the old battle against Evolution, some one wrote to President Wilson asking whether he believed in Evolution. He replied: “Of course, like every other man of education and intelligence I do believe in organic Evolution. It surpises me that at this late date such questions should be raised.” It is good that while these Scotch Presbyterians are often very stubborn in maintaining their opinions, when they change them, they are equally stirbborn in defending their new ones.
It will, at this point, be pertinent to consider President Wilson’s views upon the relation of science to certain problems. He once said that college instructors could “easily forget that they were training citizens as well as drilling pupils”; that a college should be “a school of duty.” When he was once attacked for being hostile to science, he replied:
“I have no indictment against what science has done: I have only a warning to utter against the atmosphere which has stolen from laboratories into lecture rooms and into the general air of the world at large. Science has not changed the nature of society, has not made history a whit easier to understand, human nature a whit easier to reform. It has won for us a great liberty in the physical world, a liberty from superstitious fear and disease, a freedom to use nature as a familiar servant, but it has not freed us from ourselves. We have not given science too big a place in our education; but we have made a perilous mistake in giving it too great a Preponderance in method over every other ‘branch of study.”
On the subject of the relation of science to religion, there are three sets of opinions: those of the Fundamentalists, who reject science; of the Rationalists, who reject the claims of religion; of the modernists, of whom President Wilson was one, who accept science in the physical world, but will not be bound ‘by its laws in the spiritual.
Mr. Wilson was the first president of Princeton University who was not a minister. When he moved there, he found two presbyterian Churches, the First and the Second. He thought but one was needed, and tried to unite them. He joined the Second and was elected an elder, but afterwards left it and gave his support to the First. His entire family attended church services, but the children did not go to Sunday School. Mrs. Wilson taught them the sunday school lesson and the Westminster catechism at home. President Wilson often led the chapel exercises in the college, but his talks took a practical trend. For instance, he once took as his text a verse from Paul’s address to Agrippa: “Whereupon, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.” (Acts, 26:19.) He then enlarged upon the necessity of all having a vision, or a purpose in life.
President Wilson was not a Puritan. His daughter says that, like his father, he was a mixture of dignity and gaiety. He liked to play whist, euchre and backgammon, was a remarkable mimic and could tell endless dialect stories. Shortly after his entrance into the White House, in 1913, his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, suggested over the telephone that he make his administration a temperance, or white ribbon, affair, and, conforming to the custom in President Hayes’ day, not serve wine. Mr. Wilson replied he would not do this for three reasons: first, it had been the custom to serve wine at public dinners, except in one administration, since the foundation of the government; second, he was not a Prohibitionist, and, third, he liked a drink sometimes himself, The Volstead Act was passed and went into effect without his signature.
Yet anomalies are associated with both Bryan and Wilson. The first, an apostle of peace, rests in a military cemetery. The second, of the sturdiest Presbyterian stock, found his last resting place in a gorgeous Episcopal cathedral.
Presidents Who Were Unitartians
In point of numbers the Unitarian Church has always been among the minor religious bodies. Yet its influence upon the intellectual, moral and literary forces of the united states has been far greater Proportionately than its numerical strength. No other Church has Contributed to this country so many distinguished men and women in all departments of human activity. A few words touching the history of this Church, particularly in America, will enable us better to comprehend the subject.
From the earliest history of the Christian Church there was controversy over disputed theological questions. Among these none occupied greater attention than the nature of God. Some held to his unity, others to the trinity. Those holding the first view were almost successful in making it the dogma of the whole Church. They were specially strong in the West. They were called Arians, after their leader Arius; sometimes Socinians and later Unitarians. The Council of Nice” the first ecumenical council of the Church, held in the city of that name in southeastern France, was assembled to consider two questions: the canon of the Bible, and the “Arian controversy,” as the question of the Godhead was then called. This council sent Arius into exile and condemned his doctrines. Afterwards, he died suddenly, and, as his friends maintained, through the treachery of his enemies.
Wherever Unitarianism penetrated, it was persecuted and stamped out. The last two heretics burned at the stake in England (in 1612), Bartholomew Legate and Edward Wightman, were put to death for denying the trinity. A special law for the punishment of this offense by death was passed during the Commonwealth. In the toleration act of, 1689 all dissenters except Unitarians were granted freedom of worship. In spite of persecution they grew, and one of the most distinguished writers on Christian evidence, Dr. Nathaniel Lardner, was a Unitarian, and Unitarian views were held by John Milton, the poet, Sir Isaac Newton, the scientist, and John Locke, the philosopher.
In the last quarter of the 18th Century they had two distinguished advocates in Richard Price and Joseph Priestley, the latter, the discoverer of oxygen. In Birmingham, a mob attacked the house of Dr. Priestley, burned it to the ground, destroying all his valuable scientific apparatus. He was driven out of the city and took refuge in the United States, where he died in Pennsylvania, in 1804. Some of his descendants are still among us. In 1813 toleration was granted the Unitarian Church.
The invasion of Unitarian thought among the puritanical churches of New England began in the last quarter of the 18th Century, There was an intellectual and moral revulsion against the doctrines of origional sin, predeesteination, hell, and the blood atonement. King’s Chapel, built in 1749, the oldest Episcopal church in New England, became Unitarian. James Truslow Adams, in his ‘New England in the Republic,’ p. 220, quotes from G.W. Cooke’s ‘Unitarianism in America,’ p. 75:
“In Boston a visitor wrote in 1791 that the ministers there were so diverse in their views that they could not agree in any one point in theology. Ten years later there was but one minister in that city who accepted the doctrine of the Trinity.”
In 1810 the great controversy upon the subject was still on, and by 1,925 Unitarianism had captured a large number of the New England
[Note: Missing text – print didn’t scan well.]
Presidents Who Were Episcopalians
President, March 4, 1853 — March 4, 1857.
Had Franklin Pierce, of New Hampshire, left the Presidency as popular a man as he went into it, he would undoubtedly been the most popular of our chief executives. In the election of 1852 he carried every State but four. No President, except Franklin D. Roosevelt, has been elected by such an overwhelming popular and electoral vote. But when President Pierce left the White House he was completely out of public favar, and remained in obscurity for the remainder of his life. Not until 1914 did the State of New Hampshire erect a statue in commemoration of the only chief magistrate it had given to the nation. He was called “a northern man with southern principles,” and was elected on a wave of sentiment which proclaimed that the only way to save the Union and prevent secession was to accede to all the demands of the slave- holders. Jefferson Davis was Pierce’s Secretary of War and the future President of the Confederacy dictated his policies.
Information concerning Franklin Pierce is meager. Until recently the only biography of him available was that written, in 1862, by his college-mate, the well-known American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, as a “campaign document.” Of Pierce’s religion, Hawthorne said:
“General Pierce has naturally a strong endowment of religious feeling. At no period of his life, as is well known to his friends, have the sacred relations of the human soul been a matter of indifference with him; and of more recent years, whatever circumstances of good or evil fortune may have befallen him, they have served to deepen this powerful sentiment. Whether in sorrow or success he has learned, in his own behalf, the good lesson, that religious faith is the most valuable and most sacred of human possessions; but with this sense, there has come no narrowness or illiberality, but a wide sympathy for the modes of Christian worship and a reverence for religious belief, as a matter between the Deity and man’s soul, and with which no other has a right to interfere.” (Hawthorne’s ‘Life of Franklin Pierce,’ p. 123.)
This is rather meager information, coming as it does from so intimate a friend of Nathaniel Hawthorne, the last night of whose life was spent in the company of Pierce. The same could be said of a Catholic or a Protestant, a Mohammedan, a Buddhist or a Zoroastrian. The document issued by the State of New Hampshire, giving an account of the ceremonies at the unveiling of Pierce’s statue in concord, on November 24, 1914, says nothing of his religious belief or church affiliation. He was a member of the constitutional convention of New Hampshire in 1850. There he made a strenuous fight as did John Adams in Massachusetts, to abolish that portion of the State Constitution which made the Protestant religion the official religion of the Granite State. Although Pierce, like Adams, was unsuccessful, his actions indicated that his religious views were in advance of his time.
However in my researches I discovered that President Pierce was always orthodox in his belief, even while in college, but that he did not join a Church until a few years before his death, when he united with and became a communicant of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, of Concord. While I was looking for definite information, I was informed that Professor Roy F. Nichols, of the Department of History, in the University of Pennsylvania, was engaged in writing a life of Pierce. [NOTE: This book by Professor Nichols was published in 1932.] I applied to him for information, and he responded in a private letter, as follows:
“Pierce expressed himself in writing at least twice on the subject of religion, once in a manuscript fragment written in later life describing his beliefs in college which show them to be decidedly orthodox. The other was a letter he wrote to his law partner in the early 1840’s still expressing belief in orthodoxy but showing no vivid religious experience. He was a constant attendant at church. In Concord he attended the South Congregational Church and while President in Washington he attended Presbyterian churches, most frequently that on 4 1/2 Street (now John Marshall Place). I think you may discount the statement that he attended St. John’s Church. In all probability he went there once in a while but I doubt very much that he made it a regular practice. In later life, during the Civil War, he was baptized, confirmed and became a regular communicant in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, in Coneord.”
Like most Public men of his time President Pierce was a man of convivial habits, and, like some others, he sometimes drank too much. When it was proposed to nominate him for the Presidency, this greatly alarmed his friends, who called on him to talk the matter over. He promised them that if elected he would at once cease drinking, and remain a total abstainer while his term lasted. He honorably kept his word.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President, March 4, 1933 —
The 32nd President of the United states is the third Democrat elected since the Civil War. Like the Harrison and Adams families, the Roosevelts have furnished two Presidents of the United States. Franklin D. Roosevelt is the fifth President to come from the State of New Yolk.
The Roosevelt family in America is of Dutch origin, all being desdendants of Klaes Martensen Roosevelt, who emigrated from Holland to the then colony of New Netherlands, in 1644. The subject of this sketch is a fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, who occupied the Presidential chair from Septerffber 14, 1901, until March 4, 1909. Both of the Roosevelts were graduated from Harvard, both were members of the New York legislature, and Assistant- Secretary of the Navy. Each had been Governor of New York. Each has been a candidate for Vice President, Both have been prolific writers. While one was a liberal Republican, the other has been an equally Progressive Democrat.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born in Hyde Park, N.Y., on January 30, 1882. His father was James Roosevelt, and his mother, still living, Sarah Delano, whose family was of Flemish origin. Philip, the founder of the American branch of the Delano family, came to this country in 1624. They were a sea-faring family and are said to have owned and operated ships in all parts of the world.
As Franklin Delano Roosevelt descended from two old American patrician families, he began life with many advantages. In 1904 he was graduated from Harvard University, later studying at Columbia University Law School, and he practiced for several years in New York City. He was elected and reelected to the New York State Senate, and Under President Wilson was Assistant-Secretary of the Navy. In 1920 he was nominated for Vice President on the Democratic ticket, his running-mate being James M. Cox, of Ohio. Roosevelt supported Alfred E. Smith for the Presidential nomination in 1924, and worked for him when he was nominated in 1928. At Smith’s suggestion, Roosevelt consented to become the Democratic candidate for Governor of New York, in 1928. He was successful, and was again elected in 1930, by a majority of 725,000 votes, the largest that any candiclate ever received in the history of the State.
Roosevelt had a strong Republican legislature to oppose him, as well as Tammany Hall, the local New York City Democratic organization, yet he effected many reforms. He soon became the most prominent contender for the Democratic Presidential nomination, and in Chicago, on June 27. 1932, he was nominated on the fourth ballot, receiving 945 out of 1,154 votes. During the campaign he visited all sections of the country and was frequently heard over the radio.
The campaign was an exciting one. For three years the United States had been in the throes of the worst economic crisis of its history, and the Hoover administration had became thoroughly discredited. The people were also in rebellion against Prohibition, which most right-minded persons held to be ineffective, a farce and a disgrace to the land. It soon became apparent that the Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover, was not to be counted in the running. He carried but six States, while Roosevelt carried 42, with a popular majority of 7,000 000. It was the greatest victory since 1852, when the Demoepitic party elected Franklin Pierce.
On February 15, 1933, the President-elect narrowly escaped assassination when he was shot at by a demented Italian, one Zangara, in Miama, Fla. Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago was hit instead by the bullet and after lingering for a few days died.
There can be no doubt that President Roosevelt has faced greater and more serious problems than has any other peace-time Psesident, and that he has handled these problems with great courage and vigor.
In 1905, Franklin D. Roosevelt married Miss Anne Eleanor Roosevelt, a distant cousin. They have five children. Mrs. Roosevelt, like the President, takes an active interest in social welfare, which she manifests by her various activities and by her public utterances.
Both are members and communicants in the Protestant Episcopal Church, the President being a vestryman in the church of Hyde Park, N.Y. It is said that no pressure of piiblic duties has ever interfered with his duties to his Church. Yet, unlike many, he does not make merchandise of his religion, and his speeches, messages and other public utterances are singuarly free from religious cant and platitude so commonly resorted to by politicians to catch the church vote. His Thanksgiving proclamation in 1933 was one of the briefest ever known.
The cliergy seem to be cold toward him because he advocated the repeal of the 18th Amendment. This led a Methodist bishop to call him an “alley President,” while another Methodist minister, the Rev. Clarence True Wilson, in comparing him with his Presidential namesake, said that Theorore Roosevelt was “100,% American,” while Franklin Delano Roosevelt was “2%,” both of which statements illustrate the milignity of the clerical mind under opposition. The collapse and repeal of their favorite law, which was a failure for the purposes for which it was enacted, to say nothing of bringing in its wake other evils, has put a considerable crimp in the political activities of the Churches.
It is said that while President Roosevelt is a church member and a church offical, he is a more irregular attendant upon church services than some Presidents who were not professing Christians.
Presidents Who Were Not Members Of Any Church
William Henry Harrison
President, march 4 — April 4, 1841.
William Henry Harrison, a son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the last President who had witnessed scenes in the Revolution, and the first to die in office, which he held but 30, days. He early went into the army, distinguighed himself in Indian wars, commanded at the battle of Tippecanoe, where he defeated Tecumseh, the Indian chief who was so troulolesome to the settlers. It was to General Harrison that Commodore Perry sent the famous message, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Later he fought a battle on the River Thames, in Canada, where the British were defeated, and their ally, Tecumseh, was slain.
After the War of 1812. General Harrison was continually in public life, a member of Congress, the State Senate of Ohio and the U.S. Senate, a presidential elector and minister to the United States of Columbia. The Whigs thought a military hero was needed as a candidate for President; hence in 1836 he was nominated to oppose Martin Van Buren, by whom he was defeated. in 1840, the two opposing candidates were before the people again, and General Harrison won, in the famous hard cider and log cabin campaign.
When he took the chair, in 1841, General Harrison was 68 years old, and in feeble health. He had taken cold on the day of the inauguration. He over-exerted himself, and died when but a month in office. President Harrison had never been a church member, as is proved by the following account of his funeral, to be found both in Montgomery’s ‘Life of Harrison,’ and in ‘The Diary of John Quincy Adams.’
“At half past 11 o’clock, the Rev. Mr. Hawley, Rector of St. John’s Church arose, and observed that he would mention an incident connected with the Bible which lay on the table before him (covered with black silk velvet). ‘This Bible,’ said he, ‘was purchased by the President on the fifth of Mareh. He has since been in the habit of daily reading it. He was accustomed not only to attend church, but to join audibly in the services, and to kneel humbly before his maker.’
“Dr. Hawley stated that had the President lived, and been in health, he intended on the next Sabbath to become a communicant at the Lord’s table.”
This proves that, at the age of 68, President Harrison did not own a Bible, and had not thought religion worthy of his attention, for if he had was he not derelict in his duty all his life? Or, did he suddenly take an interest because he was in public office? This would appear suspicious in a politician. And was it any credit to the Rev. Hawley to convert a broken-down oId man, whom, when he was in the bloom of youth and health, all the Churches and ministers had failed to draw into the fold? For all this, we have no evidence except the word of the clergyman. Yet if all he has said is true, the transaction sheds no luster on either President Harrison or himself.
President, April 15, 1865 — March 4, 1869.
The successor of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, and the third to become President through death, Andrew Johnson, is one of the interesting characters of American history. Springing from that class of people called in the South, “Poor white trash,” he was without educational advantages in his youth. A tailor by trade, he learned to read while working in a shop. After his marriage, his wife taught him to write. He began at the bottom of the ladder politically, serving as alderman, mayor., member of the legislature of Tennessee, a member of Congress, Senator, and finally President.
Until recently Andrew Johnson was one of the most misrepresented men in American history, and one of the most common errors concerning him is the statement that he was a member of the Methodist Church. Anyone who will only take the trouble to investigate will learn that this was not a fact, as will be proved in this chapter. Johnson had the courage to stand firm against the political spoilsmen of his time. This was “the head and front of his offending.” [NOTE: For proof of this statement, see a recent work (1929), ‘Andrew Johnson, A Study in Courage,’ by Lloyd Paul Stryker. The Macmillan Co.]
The truth is, that after the death of Lincoln, Johnson determine to follow the policy of the deceased President in the reconstructioin of the States lately in rebellion. This did not please demagogues like Thaddeus Stevens, Benjamin F. Wade and Charles Sumner, who stood at the head of the party seeking revenge upon the South and an opportunity to persecute and plunder its people. Had Lincoln lived he would have had the same conflict on his hands — in fact, it begun ibefore his assassination,
When the cotton States seceded in 1861, and their Senator and Conoessmen went South to aid in the rebellion, Andrew Johnson was the only one who stood by the Union and remained in his seat in the Senate. President Lincoln sent him to Tennessee, in 1862, as military governor of that State. At the risk of his life he did his duty, brought his State back into the Union, restored the authority of the national government, and as a reward was elected Vice President, with Lincoln, in 1864.
In spite of this service, malignant partisans have called him a traitor. He was even accused of complicity in the murder of Lincoln. Articles of Impeachment, born of malice, were framed-up against him, that he might be expelled from the White House, and one of the South-hating radicals put in his place. It was a close contest; Johnson escaped impeachment by only one vote. There were, however, enough honest men in the then corrupt Senate of the United States to prevent this disgrace of the law-making body of the American people. Most of those involved in this great wrong, among them Charles Sumner, who was its chief instigator, afterwards expressed their regret that they were connected with it.
Andrew Johnson was not a Methodist, nor was he a member of any other Church, though he always claimed to be a reliious man. At one time William G. (“Parson”) Brownlow accused him of being an “Infidel.” This is usually a term of reproach. Mr. Johnson replied, “As for my religion, it is the doctrine of the Bible, as taught and practised by Jesus Christ.” (See The Age of Hate, by G.F. Minton, p. 80.)
Mrs. Eliza Johnson was a Methodist, and, like a loyal husband, Johnson would sometimes accompany her to services. We will now give the facts as told by Winston. (Life of Andrew Johnson, p. 101):
“I have stated that the influence of Mrs. Johnson over her husband was unbounded, and yet into one place he would not follow her, the organized Church. She might find satisfaction in such a Church, but he could not. Like Lincoln, if he could have found an organization based on the personality of Christ, without creed or dogmas, without class distinctions or the exaltation and deification of money, he was willing to join it ‘with all his soul.’ But so far as he could make out, there was no such Church. Believing in a rule of right and in a revealed religion, he took Christ as a model, yet he feared that the Christians of his day were further away from the simplicity, the charity and the love of their fellows, which Christ enjoined, than many a heathen was.”
As the Methodist Church was somewhat interested in the impeachment proceedings against President Johnson, the truth of history demands that we say something albout that Church at this period. Its clergy have always insisted that Methodism is synonymous with patriotism and all other virtues. This depends largely upon the epoch and the geographical location. During the Revolution it took the side of England, following the example of its founder, John Wesley. As a result, Methodist preachers were obliged to leave the country, or go into hiding, as did Francis Asbury, who afterwards became the first Methodist Bishop in the United states.
Upon the question of slavery, John Wesey said it was “the sum of all villainies.” This was said in England, before buying and selling Negroes became profitable in the United States. When it became profitable, from 1820 on, the position of the Church was either in favor of Negro servitude or it was equivocal. At its General Conference, held in ‘Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1836, it censured by an overwhelming vote some members who had attended an Abolition meetin. In 1841, at the meeting of the General Conference, the Church split, and the Methodist Church South was organized.
Most assuredly, the Southern church was pro-slavery. The mistake many make is in assuming that the Northern Church was anti- slavery. The fact is that members of the Northern Church continued to hold slaves without coming into conflict with the Discipline, and it was not until the Conference of 1864, a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, that the Northern Conference came to the conclusion that slavery was wrong. They had plenty of time to think it over, and were now certain they were on the safe side, as all church organizations in polities aim to be. Hence, while the Southern Church was always proslavery, that of the North trimmed its sails to float with the tide.
It might be asked why the Methodist Church of the North took such a great interest in the impeachment of president Johnson, and why their Conference of 1868 was so anxious to throw him out of the White House. The reason was that it followed the hue and cry of politicians, expecting thereby to attain some advantage to itself. We have seen such a case in our own day. While our ministers were preaching peace before the United States entered the European war, none were more belligerent than these game reverend gentlemen after we did enter it. They expected their reward, and they received it. They obtained chaplaincies. They were permitted, with the aid of the Government, to stage “drives” for money, which were so remunerative that they tried to continue them after the war was over. The canteen service in the Army was turned over to religious organizations, some of whom obtained as much as they could free of charge, and charged the soldiers all they could. and made millions.
The presiding Bishop at the Conference of 1868 was Matthew Simpson, who for years had been an astute Republican politician. The Methodists had been influential enough to have President Lincoln appoint James Harlan, who was once one of their preachers, Secretary of the Interior instead of appointing as he wished to do, his old Illinois friend, Jesse K. DuBois. Harlan served in the Cabinet for about a year under President Johnson, and then resigned. He went back to Iowa, was again elected to the Senate, was on hand in 1868 — one of the bitterest enemies of his former chief in the impeachment proceedings. It appeared that there would not be enough Senators opposed to President Johnson to make out a case. As Senator Willey, of West Virginia, was a Methodist, the influence of the Conference was brought to bear upon him, and he voted for the impeachment. Then they offered a resolution for an hour of prayer that they might ask God to cast out the President of the United States. Under these conditions, why ask the Senate of the United States to waste its time further? Why not turn President Johnson over to the Methodist Conference actin under the direct influence of the Almighty? one of their members saw they were in a very ticklish position. He called their attention to the fact that the Senate was under oath to decide the case under the law and the evidence, and that this resolution could only be interpreted as demanding that they violate that oath, and decide regardless of the law and the evidence, for it placed the Methodist Church above both. Bishop Simpson saw the point, and unctuously introduced another resolution praying “to save our Senators from error.” This would take them out of a very embarrassing situation, and they had faith that God would understand them just the same. At the same time the white Methodists were in conference in Chicawo, the Negro members of that Church were in session in Washington. They also took up the question of President Johnson’s impeachment. They did not bother God at all about it. They appealed first hand to the Senate to impeach him.
It is needless to say these proceedings of the Methodists, white and black, did not please the President. Out of courtesy to his wife he had been attending their Church. Now he ceased going, and went to the Catholic St. Patrick’s Cathedral to hear Father McGuire, who, he said, “cut out politics.” He admired the Catholic Church “because of its treatment of the rich and poor alike. in the cathedral there were no high-priced pews and no reserved seats, the old woman with calico dress and poke bonnet sitting up high and being as welcome as the richest.” (Plebeian and Patriot, b. 47,6.)
Andrew Johnson died at his home in Tennessee, in 1875. just after taking his seat as United States Senator from that State. He had been a Mason, and the lodge to which he belonged conducted his funeral.
Ulysses Simpson Grant
President, March 4, 1869 — March 4, 1877.
The life of U.S. Grant, commanding general of the Union forces in the Civil War, was, in large part, tragic. He was graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, but his scholastic record at West Point was not brilliant. His career in the Mexican War was honorable, but he did not like the army. In the earlier 5O’s he was sent to California, where, possibly because of the monotony of army life on the frontier, he took to excessive drinking, as a result of which he was obliged to resign. This habit grew on him, to the great detriment of himself and his family.
The opening of the Civil War found him in Galena, Ill., a clerk in the leather store of his younger brothers. With great difficulty he obtained a commission as colonel of an Illinois regiment. Here he found his opportunity in middle life. From small- town clerk to commanding general and, eventually, to the Presidency, Was quite a stride for the unknown and almost penniless man of eight year’s before.
President Grant was wholly unacquainted with and without training in statecraft; he innocently became the victim of dishonest politicions, and his two administrations have passed into history as the most corrupt on record. He was obliged to bear some of the infamy of this, although it is generally agreed that Grant himself retained his integrity.
He was as unfamiliar with business affairs as with polities, and innocently permitted his name to be associated with that of a sharper in a fraudulent banking enterprise. It collapsed, after victims in all sections of the country had been fleeced. General and Mrs. Grant, their children and other relatives were ruined financially in this debacle. An ex-President of the United States, the most successful general of modern times, he was thrown back into the poverty of earlier years and at the same time he had to endure the implied reflection upon his character. As though this were not enouoh, General Grant developed a cancer, and, after months of patient suffering, died. We do not believe the history of the world records a case more pathetic. While his health and life capitulated to disease and death, General Grant at no time surrendered his principles or his honor. He was more of a hero as he lay in the cottage at Mt. McGregor, than before Donelson, Vicksburg or in the Valley of Virginia.
It has been erroneously maintained that General Grant was a Methodist. The fact is, he was not a member of any Church, and had not even been baptized. Once, while a cadet at West Point, he failed to attend chapel. For this he received eight demerits, and was placed under arrest. He tells of this incident in a letter written to his cousin, McKinsey Grifflith, September 22, 1839. He objected to being compelled to go to church, saying, “This is not republican.” (Brown’s ‘Life of Grant,’ p. 320.)
Mrs. Julia Dent Grant was a Methodist, a member and attendant of the Metropolitan Methodist Church of New York City, after the Grant family made the metropolis their home, Her husband accompanied her, as many other husbands have done when their wives have been church members. Some men who do not dance accompany their wives to balls. Does this make them dancers?
The minister of this church was the Rev. J.P. Newman, D.D., afterwards a Methodist bishop. He was a lover of notoriety, and ever sought to have his name on the front page of the newspapers, as was demonstrated by the following incident.
In 1869 there was a great contreversy in Utah over the subject of polygamy. The government was trying to suppress it, but the Mormons were defendinol, it and chief among their defenses was the plea that it was sustained by the Bible. The Rev. Newman traveled to Utah and challenged the Mormons to debate the question with him. His offer was accepted, and Elder Orson Pratt, one of the leading Mormon preachers, was selected to meet him. The Mormons were so jublant over the success of their champion that they issued the discussion in pamphlet form as a campain document, and for years circulated it as a justification of polygamy from a biblical standpoint. When I first visited Salt Lake City, in 1897, I bought a copy of this work at the church bookstore.
From the time General Grant became seriously ill, in the spring of 1886, until his death, on July 23, the Rev. Newman devoted to him almost all his attention. He became a member of the family, leading in family prayer, and endeavoring to point out to the General the way of salvation. He made as inglorious a failure in this endeavor as he did in trying to convince the Mormons that the Bible did not sanction Polygamy. He did succeed, as W.E. Woodward says, in “making a fool of himself.”
We may well wonder why he was thus permitted to plague the dying man. General Chaffee, one of whose daughters General Grant’s son married, enlightens us, in the following words: “There has been a good deal of nonsense in the papers about Dr. Newman’s visits. General Grant does not believe that Dr. Newman’s prayers will save him. He allows the doctor to pray simply because he does not want to hurt his feelings, He is indifferent on his own account to everything.” General Chaffee had formerly been a senator from Colorado, was with Grant frequently during his illness and knew whereof he spoke.
A contemporary journalist said: “His acceptance of the effusive and offensive ministrations of the peripatetic preacher was probably due as much to his regard for the feelings of his family and his tolerance of his ministerial friend as to any faith in religion. All the press can gather now about his religious belief is filtered through Dr. Newman, and must, therefore, be largely discounted.” To what extent this writer is telling the truth will appear hereafter.
Yet, the Rev. Newman had a reason of his own for being there and he was candid enough to tell it. It was not to save from hell the soul of the man who had witnessed so much death, destruction and carnage on the field of battle. He said, “Great men may gain nothing from relegion, but religion can gain much from great men,” In other words he was there to obtain publicity for his Church and for himself.
When Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s great opponent, who, like General Grant, was not a church member, lay dying in Chicage, Mrs. Douglas, who was a devout Roman Catholic, called in Bishop Duggan, of that Church, to see her husband. Wives who are religious naturally think their husbands ought to be the same, so we can account for the attitude of Mrs. Douglas and Mrs. Grant. The Bishop asked Senator Douglas whether he had ever been baptized according to the rites of any Church. “Never,” replied the Senator. “Do you wish to have mass said after the ordinances of the holy Catholic Church?” inquired the Bishop. “No, sir,” was the prompt reply. “When I do, I will communicate with you freely.” The next day Mrs. Douglas again sent for the Bishop. Coming to the Senator’s bedside, he said: “Mr. Douglas, you know your condition fully, and in view of your dissolution, do you desire the ceremony of extreme unction to be performed?” “No,” replied the dying man, “I have no time to discuss these things now.” The Bishop left the room, as any other clergyman who was also a gentleman would have done.
The Rev. Dr. Newman, however, was a sticker. When he found that General Grant had never been baptized, he did not ask permission to perform the rite. While Grant was asleep, he took a pan of water and sprinkled him. He was determined that General Grant should go to heaven, in spite of himself.
The reverend doctor frequently questioned General Grant, hoping that in his replies he would say something that would commit him to the Methodist faith. When he refused to do this, Dr. Newman put words into Grant’s mouth which he never uttered. Once he quoted him as saying: “Three times have I been in the valley of the shadow of death, and three times have I returned thither.” Mark Twain called the attention of the public to this misrepresentation, saying the General always spoke in plain, blunt language and never used figures of speech. Mark Twain was a personal friend of the General, frequently called on him while he was sick, and was the publisher of his Memoirs after his death. Fortunately, we know just what Grant did say. It was true that his life was despaired of three times and he later recovered. The last time, he was revived by the physicians with the aid of brandy. General Adam Badeau, an old personal friend, who was on his staff during the war, was present at the time and gives the exact facts, and the exact words uttered:
“At this crisis he did not wish to live. ‘THE DOCTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE THREE TIMES,’ HE SAID, ‘FOR MY BEING ALIVE, AND — UNLESS THEY CAN CURE ME — I DON’T THANK THEM.’ He had no desire to go through the agony again. For he had suffered death; be had parted with his family; he had undergone every physical pang that could have come had he died before the brandy was administered.” (Badeau’s ‘Grant in Peace,’ p. 450.)
Quite a difference between these words and those attributed to him the Rev. Newman, who interpolated three times have I been in the shadow of death,” and “three times have I returned thither,” to give the incident a dramatic effect and a pious air.
At another time Dr. Newman asked General Grant what was the supreme thought on his mind when death was so near? The answer was “The comfort of the consciousness that I have tried to live a good and honerable life.” Would that all men could say this when they are about to leave this world, but it did not please the reverend doctor, nor did it please his friends, the religious press. The ‘New York Independant’ commented thus:
“The honest effort ‘to live a good and honerable life’ may well be a source of comfort at any time, and especially so in the hour and article of death: and we see no impropriety in referring to it as such. But it would be a great mistake to make such an effort, or such a life, even though the best that any man ever lived, the basis on which sinners are to rest for their peace with God and their hope of salvation. Sinners are saved, if at all, through grace, and by the suffering and death of Christ, and upon the condition of their repentance toward God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the gospel plan of salvation as Christ himself taught it and the Apostles preached it. There is no other plan known to the Bible.
“Great men and small men viewed simply as men, as subjects of the moral government of God, and as sinners, stand at a common level in respect to their wants and the method of their relief; and they must alike build their hopes on Christ.”
We will let the New York ‘Commercial Advertiser’ tell the story of General Giant’s death, and the relation of the Rev. Dr. Newman to that event:
“About 7:15 o’clock on the morning that Grant died Dr.Newman said he thought he would go over to the hotel and get a little breakfast. The physician warned him that a change might occur at any moment, and that he had better not go. He turned to Henry, the nurse, and asked his advice. Henry thought the General would live for an hour. so off went the Doctor and ate his breakfast. In the meantime, Dr. sands, who had left the cottage at 10 o’clock the previous evening in order to have a good night’s rest, came back about 7:50, just in time. Dr. Newman was not so fortunate. After breakfast, he came up the path at so quick a rate, his arms waving, that he was short of breath. Dr. Shrady saw him coming, walked out, and said, ‘Hush! he’s dead.’ The Doctor almost fell. His terrible disappointment was depicted on his face.”
The secular press did not hesitate to ridicule the Rev. Newman and call him a mountebank. Other religious journals criticised him, even more severely than did the ‘New York Independent., The ‘New York World’ said: “Dr. Newman beautifully remarks that ‘some of the last scenes of General Grant’s death were pitiful and at the same time eloquent,’ which is alike creditable to Dr. Newman’s elocution and eyesight, since he witnessed these scenes from the breakfast table at the hotel some distance away from the cottage occupied by the general.”
On the morning followinl, the General’s death, the ‘World’ said: General Grant, as it would appear, had no settled convictions on the subject of religion. Having been interrogated during his last illiness on the question of religion, he replied that he had not given it deep study, and was unprepared to express an opinion. He intimated that he saw no use of devoting, any special thought to theology at so late a day, and that he was prepared to take his chances with the millions of people who went before him.”
The ‘Christian Statesman’ said: “It is not on record that he (Grant] spoke at any time of the Saviour, or expressed his sense of dependence on his atonement and mediation.” The Nashville ‘Christian Advocate,’ a Methodist organ, rebuked Dr. Newman in these words:
“Some ministers seem to have an incurable itch for claiming that all the men who have figured prominently in public life are Christians. Mr. Lincoln has almost been canonized, and General Grant has been put forward as possessing all the graces, though neither one of them ever joined the Church or made the slightest public profession of faith in Jesus. Has it (Christianity) anything to gain by decking itself with the ambiguous compliments of men who never submitted themselves to its demands? The less of all this the better. We are sick of the pulpit toadyism that pronounces its best eulogies over those who are not the real disciples of Jesus Christ.”
After General Grant’s death, Dr. Newman issued, a statement filled with rhetoric and generalities. but he does not assert that the subject of his great solicitude acknowledged faith in Christ. That was further than he could go in safety.
General Grant was a firm believer in separation of church and state, and had no patience with clerical interference with the government. In his ‘Memoirs’ (vol. 1, p, 213), he said: “No political party can, or ought to, exist when one of its corner- stones is opposition to freedom of thought. If a sect sets up its laws as binding above the state laws, whenever the two come in conflict, this claim must be resisted and suppressed at any cost.
He was opposed to all types of religious interference with the public schools. In his speech before the Army of the Tennessee, delivered in Des Moines Iowa, in 1875, General Grant used these words, which are often quoted:
“The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation. If we were to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I prediet that the dividing line will not be Mason’s and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on one side, and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other. Let us all labor to add all needful guarantees for the more perfect security of FREE THOUGHT, FREE SPEECH AND FREE PRESS, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and of equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color or religion. Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar of money be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school. Resolve that neither the State nor nation, or both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan or atheistical tenets. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the Church, and the private schools, supported entirely by private contributions. KEEP CHURCH AND STATE FOREVER SEPARATE.”
Some persons said that General Grant was here attacking the Catholic schools. On this point, his friend, General Sherman, says, “The Des Moines speech was prompted by a desire to defend the freedom of our public schools from sectarian influences, and, as I remember the conversation which led him to write that speech, it was because of the clamor for set religious exercises in the public schools, not from Catholic but from Protestant denominations.” (Packard’S ‘Grant’s Tour Around the World,’ p. 566.)
General Grant believed that church property should be taxed the same as other property. In an annual message to Congress (1875), he used this language:
“In connection with this important question, I would also call your attention to the importance of correcting an evil that if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land before the close of the 19th Century. It is the acquisition of vast amounts of untaxed Church property. In 1850, I believe, the Church property of the United States, Which paid no tax, municipal or State, amounted to $87,000,000. in 1860 the amount had doubled. In 1870 it was $354,483,587. By 1900, without a check, it is safe to say this property will reach a sum exceeding $3,000,000,000. So vast a sum, receiving all the protection and benefits of the government, without bearing its proportion of the burdens and expenses of the same, will not be looked upon acquiescently by those who have to pay the taxes. In a growing country, where real estate enhances so rapidly with time as in the United States, there is scarcely a limit to the wealth that may be acquired by corporations, religious or otherwise, if allowed to retain real estate without taxation. The contemplation of so vast a property as here alluded to, without taxation, may lead to sequestration without constitutional authority, and through blood. I would suggest the taxation of all property equally.”
Two weeks before he died, General Grant wrote the following note, addressed to his wife, which was found on his person after his death:
“Look after our dear children and direct them in the paths of rectitude. It would distress me far more to think that one of them could depart from an honorable, upright, and virtuous life than it would to know that they were prostrated on a bed of sickness from which they were never to arise alive. They have never given us any cause for alarm on this account, and I trust they never will. With these few injunctions and the knowled@e I have of your love and affection and the dutiful affection of all our children, I bid you a final farewell, until we meet in another and, I trust, a better world. You will find this on my person after my demise.”
Here is shown no partiality for any creed, Church or religion. General Grant hoped for a future life, as do all religionists, and even some Agnostics. [NOTE: For the facts about the religions opinions of General Grant, I am largely indebted to ‘Six Historic Americans,’ by John E. Remsburg; to ‘Grant in Peace,’ by Adam Badeau, and to ‘Meet General Grant,’ by W.E. Woodward.]
Rutherford Birchard Hayes
President, March 4, 1877 — March 4, 1881.
While Rutherford Birchard Hayes was President of the United States, it was said by his enemies that he was ruled by his wife, who was, in fact, the Chief Executive. While this statement contained an element of truth, it grossly exaggerated the situation, particularly in regard to President Hayes’ religious belief.
As is well known, Mrs. Lucy Webb Hayes was a Methodist of the strictest type. When she took charge of the White House, cards, dancing, and low neeked dresses were banished. Wine and liquors disappeared from the table — even the glasses in which they had been served were put out of sight. The Discipline of the Methodist Church prevailed. Yet the good lady was unable to convince her husband of the superiority of the doctrines of John Wesley, for President Hayes was not a Methodist, held views contrary to the Discipline, and was not a member of any Church. Many persons were astonished when President Hayes’ Biography was published, and the real facts of his religious views given to the world.
The mother of President Hayes was a Presbyterian. He attended Kenyon College, where he had Episcopalian instructors, but his biographer, Charles Richard Williams, says: “While he felt himself to be a Christian in all essential respects, he never united with any Church. There were declarations of belief in the orthodox creeds, that he could not conscientiously make.” (Vol. 2, p. 435.)
In his Diary (May 17, 1890), he states his position: “I am not a subscriber to any creed. I belong to no Church. But in a sense satisfactory to myself, and believed by me to be important, I try to be a Christian and to help do Christian work.” (P. 435.)
Before his last sickness he said: “I am a Christian according to my conscience, in belief, not, of course, in character and conduct, but in purpose and wish: not, of course, by the orthodox standard. But I am content and have a feeling of trust and safety.” (P. 437.)
He read and admired Emerson, who was not orthodox but a Pantheist. From him he said he obtained “mental improvment, information and kept the mental faculties alert and alive.” He thought the Sage of Concord prepared us “for the inevitable, to be content at least for the time, and also for the future,” and that he “developed and strengthened character.” “How Emerson prepares one to meet the disappointmerts and griefs of this mortal life! His writings seem to me to be religion. They bring peace, consolation; that rest for the mind and heart which we all long for — content.” (pp. 433-434.)
President Hayes was an admirer of the closing declaration of the will of Charles Dickens, which read: “I commend my soul to the mercy of God through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, and I exhort my dear children humbly to try to guide themselves by the teaching the New Testament in its broad spirit, and to put no faith in any man’s narrow construction of the letter here, or there.” (Dickens attended the old South Place Unitarian Chapel in Finsbury, London.)
Hayes copied this in his Diary (p. 437), under date of March 13, 1892. Were President Hayes to be classified religiously, he might find a proper place among the Unitarians of the middle of the 19th Century.
In writing of President Hayes, we cannot forbear, mentioning the case of D.M. Bennett; first, because it involved the President himself; second, it involved religion; third, it aroused great controversy in 1879; fourth, it is one of the noted cases in the Federal Reports.
Bennett was a Freethinker and edited a Freethought, or, as Some preferred to call it, an “Infidel,” weekly in New York City. He smote the popular orthodoxy of his time “hip and thigh.” He also published many books and cheap tracts, all attacking the supernatural claims of Christianity. He had no pretensions to learning or literary ability. He was, however, thoroughly honest and earnest, and a “hard hitter.” Quite naturally, such a journal would arouse the antipathy of orthodox religionists. The old tactics of suppressing by law those whose ideas one does not like were not out of vogue in the 1870’s, nor are they today. The ultra Evangelicals sought a method to put this troublesome man Bennett out of business, As he was a small publisher with little capital, it was hoped that a prosecution followed by a term in prison would accomplish the object. Blasphemy laws were in existence, although they were unpopular; and there was also a law providing severe penalties for sending obscene matter through the Mails.
This law was passed in 1873, just at the close of the congressional session. Attention was then called to the nature of the bill. Among other things it was pointed out that it could be utilized to throttle free press and penalize the discussion of legitmate questions upon which the people ought to be informed. This law was very flexable, and might, and did, result in the imprisonment of those who sent through the mails articles or literature that offended the prejudices of judge or jury. As further evidence of its flexibility, we can point to 84 other decisions.
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