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John Remsburg Six Historic Americans Chapter 6

Six Historic Americans

Ulysses S. Grant

by John E. Remsburg

In the preceding pages of the Fathers and Saviors of our Republic I have shown that Paine, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, and Lincoln were Freethinkers. In the following pages of this work I shall present some of the evidences of Grant’s unbelief.

The Rev, Dr. J.P. Newman (during the last years of his life a Methodist bishop), whose church General Grant with his wife had attended, and who was with Grant during his last illness, gave to the public a statement of his religious opinions the most important of which are the following:

“Reared in the Methodist Episcopal church and baptized in his last illness by one of her ministers, his religious nature was sincere, calm, and steadfast.”

“His calm faith in a future state was undisturbed by anxious doubt.”

“He said to me, ‘I believe in the Holy Scriptures.'”

“His faithful attendance at church was largely inspired by his respect for the Sabbath day.”

“It was his custom and habit to call to prayers.”

These claims have been given wide publicity, and are generally accepted as a truthful presentation of General Grant’s religious views. Yet those who were intimately acquainted with him, those to whom he had confided his religious opinions, know that they are either wholly or in part untrue and intended to deceive.

“Reared in the Methodist Episcopal Church and baptized in his last illness by one of her ministers,” etc.

These words were designed to convey the impression that Grant was a member of the Methodist Church. All the truth there is in this statement is that Grant’s mother was a Methodist, and when it was supposed that he was dying, a Methodist minister, without his solicitation, sprinkled him with a few drops of water.

But it requires something more than this to be a member of the Methodist Church. It requires the religious experience known as a change of heart. It is not pretended that Grant ever experienced this change. It requires the partaking of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Grant never communed, not even on his death-bed. It requires the sacrament of Baptism. The fact that Newman performed this ceremony when he did shows that it had never been performed before — that Grant had never been baptized.

Grant’s biographers, for the most part, make no mention of this baptizing incident; Newman’s friends were ashamed of it, the secular press ridiculed it, and many of the religions papers condemned it. Had this baptism been genuine instead of the farcical mummery that it was; had it been performed with the knowledge and consent of Grant, he would have allied himself with the church. Yet, although he survived three months, he refused to be taken into the church, and died, as he had always lived, outside of it.

The Rev. H.C. Meyers of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a man of broad and liberal views, deprecating and protesting against the narrowness of the Orthodox creed, writes:

“Men are not all on their way to the bottomless pit who refuse to bow to the creeds composed by a few claimers of infallibility. Is Abraham Lincoln in the bottomless pit? Where are the greatest men this nation ever saw? Was General Grant ever on the record of the methodist Church?”

Rev. J.L. Cram, chaplain of Grant’s regiment, says:

“Grant belonged to no church.”

Grant was not a Methodist, he was not a church member, he was not a Christian.

“His calm faith in a future state was undisturbed by anxious doubt.”

It was claimed by Grant’s intimate friends, General Sherman, Senator Chaffee, and others, that he was not a positive believer in immortality, but simply an Agnostic who hoped for immortality.

In his posthumous letter to his wife, written two weeks before his death, he expresses a hope, if not a belief, in a future life. The letter reads as follows:

“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 knowledge 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, better world. You will find this on my person after my demise.”

Lincoln, in a letter of consolation to his dying father, expresses a sentiment regarding a future existence almost identical with that expressed by Grant in his parting words to his wife. And yet Lincoln was an Agnostic in regard to immortality. The Agnostic professes to have no knowledge of a future existence. He may be a believer or a disbeliever in it, or he may be neither. Probably a majority of Agnostics hope for immortality. To be separated forever from those we love is the saddest thought that ever occupied the mind of man. When brought face to face with this terrible possibility, the desire to meet again is intensified; this strengthens hope, belief asserts itself, and in the moments of its ascendancy the Agnostic may exclaim, “We shall meet again!”

Even if Dr. Newman’s statement be true, it does not prove that Grant was a Christian. The same may be said of Thomas Paine. “His calm faith in a future state was undisturbed by anxious doubt.” He says: “I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it in any form and manner he pleases” (Age of Reason, p. 71).

“I believe in the Holy Scriptures.”

Dr. Newman would have us accept this as a profession of belief in the Bible as the divinely inspired word of God. Yet he and every other friend of Grant knew that he did not believe the Bible to be such a book. If General Grant uttered these words he qualified them at the time. He could have expressed his belief in a hundred books without acknowledging them to be divine or infallible.

Grant, if correctly reported, had on other occasions expressed a certain admiration for the Bible. But never did he express the belief that it was in the evangelical sense the word of God.

Colonel Ingersoll says: “Grant was not a believer in Christianity as a revealed religion, and none of his language applying to the point goes further than to mean that he accepted the moral teachings of Christ and the Bible as beneficial to mankind.”

“His faithful attendance at church was largely inspired by his respect for the Sabbath day.”

“His faithful attendance at church” was not “inspired by his respect for the Sabbath day,” but chiefly, if not wholly, by the respect he had for the feelings and wishes of his wife, who was a church member.

In regard to the alleged piety of the six men whose religious opinions we are considering, the claims made with the greatest assurance by the clergy and accepted with the greatest confidence by the people, are those pertaining to Washington, Lincoln, and Grant.

While it is claimed that Paine died confessing Christ, it is admitted that he lived an Infidel, and there is a vague suspicion in the minds of many that Jefferson and Franklin were not strictly orthodox. And yet Washington, Lincoln and Grant were certainly as unorthodox as Paine, Jefferson, and Franklin. The reason the former have been considered the more pious is because they attended church and contributed to its support; and the reason they did this was because their wives were church members. Mrs. Washington was an Episcopalian, Mrs. Lincoln was a Presbyterian, and Mrs. Grant a Methodist. As dutiful husbands they accompanied their wives to church and paid their church dues. Paine, Jefferson and Franklin, being free to follow their own inclinations, abstained from church going. Lincoln certainly, and Washington and Grant probably, would have done the same thing under similar circumstances.

If a noted man is accustomed to attend a certain church, this, with many biographers and newspaper writers, is considered a valid pretext for setting him down as a member of that church. The pulpit, with the well meant aid of the secular press, continues to keep before the public a statement purporting to give the church membership of the Presidents of the United States. All, with an occasional exception of Jefferson, are represented as members of various orthodox churches. And yet, prior to 1880, no church member had ever been elected to this office.

It has been asserted that Grant was such a zealous advocate of Sabbath observance that he would not, while President, allow his horses to be hitched up on Sunday — that the family walked to church. This is contradicted by Mr. W.H. Burr, of Washington, who states that he frequently saw the President and his family in their carriage on Sunday.

It has also been asserted that “he would not allow his servants to work on that day.” The truth is he did not require his servants to work on Sunday, aside from the necessary duties of the day. Out of consideration for their happiness he allowed them, as far as possible, to devote the day to rest and pleasure. He respected the Sabbath, not because he believed there was any sanctity attached to it, but because he believed in a day of rest.

During the war Grant was not a stickler for Sabbath observance. When the army was in camp the customary regulations regarding Sunday were observed; when engaged in active operations he paid no more respect to it than to any other day. During the last year of his presidential administration he visited the Centennial Exposition on Sunday, and this fact shows that these stories are false.

“It was his custom and habit to call to prayers.”

General Grant did not believe in the efficacy of prayer. Newman prayed, but it was not because the sick man desired his prayers. Newman was his wife’s pastor; she believed in prayer, and so he was allowed to pray.

Ex-Senator Chaffee of Colorado, whose daughter was married to one of General Grant’s sons, and who was with Grant during his illness, says:

“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.”

Another, writing at the time of General Grant’s death, 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 that the press can gather now about his religious belief is filtered through Dr. Newman, and must, therefore, largely be discounted. … As to his regard for the Sabbath and his love of prayer, Dr. Newman has overdone the matter. His anecdotes to show the General’s piety bear very strong internal evidence that they originated with himself.”

There is one thing that Newman does not claim, and that is that Grant acknowledged Christ to be the Son of God, Had Grant accepted Christ he would have avowed it, and this is the claim above all other claims that Newman would have made if true. Grant did not acknowledge Jesus Christ, and this fact proves that he was not a Christian.

The Christian Statesman says: “It is not on record that he [Grant] spoke at any time of the Savior, or expressed his sense of dependence on his atonement and mediation.”

In his published claims Newman went as far as he felt that he could go with safety. To assert that Grant was a Christian in the evangelical sense, that he accepted Jesus Christ as the divinely begotten son of God, would be so manifestly false that he knew it would be denied. In the cunningly devised statements made, which meant one thing to the friends of Grant and another to the world at large he effected as much as he could hope to effect, the general recognition of the claim that Grant was at least a nominal believer in Christianity.

Newman’s description of General Grant’s entry into Heaven is quite dramatic:

“They came at last. They came to greet him with the kiss of immortality. They came to escort the conqueror over the ‘last enemy’ to a coronation never seen on thrones of earthly power and glory. Who came? His martyred friend, Lincoln. … His great predecessor in camp and cabinet, Washington.”

From a rhetorical standpoint this may be all right; but from a theological standpoint it is certainly all wrong.’ It must require a vivid, if not a perverted imagination, for an orthodox parson to see two Infidels coming from Heaven to convey a third one there.

Adverting to his death, Newman says: “Who does not regret the death of such a man? Heaven may be richer, but earth is poorer.”

Why does he express this in the potential mood? Has he doubts as to whether Grant was permitted to enter Heaven or not? Or has he doubts as to the existence of Heaven itself?

When Grant rallied from his sinking spell in April, Dr. Newman said: “If the improvement in his health continues, the General will soon be able to go to bed like a Christian and believe there to a divine Providence behind all this.”

To this the Sunday Mercury replied: “Does the eloquent preacher intend the public to infer that his distinguished patient has heretofore gone to bed like a heathen and held the creed of Bob Ingersoll in regard to Providence?”

Grant’s health did not continue to improve, and so it is to be presumed that he never went to bed like a Christian, or believed there was a divine Providence in the case.

On the same occasion Dr. Newman asked him what the supreme thought of his mind was when death seemed so near. To this interrogatory came the prompt answer of the Freethinker: “The comfort of the consciousness that I have tried to live a good and honorable life.”

No religious cant in this. No consolation for the Christian claimant here. Commenting on Grant’s answer, the New York Independent said:

“The honest effort ‘to live a good and honorable 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, stayed at a common level in respect to their wants and the method of their relief; and they must alike build their hopes on Christ and his work, accepting him by faith, or they will build in vain. ‘A good and honorable life’ is no substitute for Christ.”

Newman says that “Reason was the dominant faculty in him.” This is true. Reason is the dominant faculty in Freethinkers. When reason is unusually strong, faith is correspondingly weak.

Grant’s life has been a series of great conflicts and great triumphs. We see him at Fort Donnelson, at Shiloh, at Vicksburg, at Chattanooga, in Virginia — one unbroken chain of victories. Another battle remains — that long conflict with death, beginning in New York in October, 1884, and ending at Mount McGregor in July, 1885. The anxieties of a thousand battles, the agonies of a thousand deaths are crowded in that last year of life. Thus writes one of his biographers: “Sitting in silence and almost motionless, hour by hour he stared in the face of the coming death of untellable pain, and with it were bankruptcy, poverty, disgrace, calumny, a bitter sense of private wrong, and of public misconception and neglect” (Stoddard’s Life of Grant, p. 355).

It was not a fight with death alone. During those sad months he fought a triple fight; a fight with death, a fight with adversity, and a fight with superstition. Death alone triumphed. In two of these conflicts he was victorious.

Day after day, at his bedside, two agents of the church were at work, the sorrowing wife and a priest in the guise of “a friend of the family.” Both were desirous of his conversion; the one sincerely laboring for what she believed to be the eternal welfare of her beloved and suffering companion; the other for his own selfish glory and the glory of the church he represented. “Great men may gain nothing from religion, but religion can gain much from great men,” was the plea he advanced when rebuked for forcing his religious ministration upon the pain-racked General.

If ever the conditions were favorable for a death-bed repentance they were here. It is in these hours of anguish and gloom that the mere skeptic succumbs to superstition. When nature seems to forsake him he turns to the supernatural. Had Grant been a mere Nothingarian with leanings toward the church, as was commonly supposed, nothing would have been more probable than his conversion. But the good sense and the strong will of the great soldier triumphed.

There was a touch of comedy in this pathetic tragedy. When Grant died Newman was at breakfast and was much chagrined when he learned that the curtain had fallen on the last scene during his absence.

Describing this incident the New York Commercial Advertiser says: “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 physicians 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 the doctor went and ate his breakfast. In the meantime Dr. Sands, who had left the cottage at ten o’clock the evening previous 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 plainly on his face.”

The New York World commented on the same incident as follows: “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 creditable alike to Dr. Newman’s elocution and eyesight, since he witnessed these scenes from the breakfast table of the hotel some distance away from the cottage occupied by the general.”

Dr. Newman believed there were three heroes in this drama — Newman, Grant, and Providence. May not his absence have been Providential? If there be a God, may he not have interposed to keep this clerical intruder from the bedside of the dying chieftain that he might go in peace?

The claims made in regard to Grant’s religion are too much even for a Methodist paper to indorse. Referring to them the Nashville Christian Advocate says:

“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 todayism that pronounces its best eulogies over those who are not the real disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Had there been any truth in these stories about Grant’s piety, had he been a believer in Christianity, his biographers would have been only too glad to record the fact. Mansfield’s “Life of Grant,” written by a zealous Christian, is filled with laudations of the church and Christianity, but its author has not the temerity to assert that Grant was a Christian. Appended to the same work and written by the same author is a brief biographical sketch of Vice- President Colfax. A large portion of the forty pages devoted to his life is occupied with his religious views, In nearly four hundred pages relating to Grant, all that the author is able to claim is that Grant’s mother was a Christian, and that Grant himself was “respectful to religion.”

Gen. James S. Brisbin, in his “Campaign Lives of Grant and Colfax,” devotes much space to the religion of Colfax. The following is all that he has to say in regard to Grant’s religion:

“In many of his orders and dispatchs, Grant devoutly recognizes the providence of God, and his reliance upon it as being the chief strength of nations and men; and if he ever swears, the religious world may be certified that his oaths are in the same category with those of my Uncle Toby and of Washington at Monmouth” (Life of Grant, p. 314).

No man’s statements concerning Grant’s religion appear in an introduction which the publishers of Burr’s biography of Grant had him write for that work. Mr. Burr himself does not claim that Grant was a believer. Stoddard, Dana, and other biographers are also silent.

In Grant’s “Memoirs” there is not a word to indicate that he reposed the least faith in Christianity. He advocated freedom of thought, warned his readers against the encroachments of sectarian influence, and criticized the churches for their sympathy with the Rebellion. He says:

“There were churches in that part of Ohio where treason was preached regularly, and where, to secure membership, hostility to the government, to the war, and to the liberation of the slaves was far more essential than a belief in the authenticity or credibility of the Bible” (Memoirs, Vol. i., p. 36).

His last letter to his wife has been cited to prove that he was a believer in Christianity. This letter affords the strongest proof that he was an unbeliever. Had he been a Christian he would have proclaimed it in this letter. The consolation it would have given his believing wife would have compelled him to avow it. He would have impressed it upon his children. There is not a word to indicate that he wished his children to become Christians — not a word of religious advice. Religion is utterly ignored. He desires his children to be upright and honorable, to be moral, but he does not desire them to be religious.

On the morning following Grant’s death, the New York World contained the following:

“General Grant, as it would appear, had no settled conviction on the subject of religion. … Having been interrogated during his illness on the question of religion, he replied that he had not given it any 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.”

General Grant will live in history rather as a great soldier than as a great statesman. Yet there is much in his career as a statesman to admire, especially his attitude in regard to church and state. No president, with the possible exception of Jefferson, has occupied more advanced grounds or advocated more radical measures of reform in this respect.

Grant is the only president, I believe, who has in his official capacity contended for the taxation of church property. In his message to Congress in 1875 he made the following earnest plea for this just demand:

“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 nineteenth 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 about $83,000,000. In 1860 the amount had doubled. In 1875 it is about $1,000,000,000. By 1900, without a cheek, 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 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, whether church or corporation.”

Equally radical and pronounced are his recommendations, in the same message, in favor of the complete secularization of our public schools.

“We are a Republic whereof one man is as good as another before the law. Under such a form of government, it is of the greatest importance that all should be possessed of education and intelligence enough to cast a vote with a right understanding of its meaning. A large association of ignorant men cannot for any considerable period oppose a successful resistance to tyranny and oppression from the educated few, but will inevitably sink into acquiescence to the will of intelligence, whether directed by the demagogue or by priestcraft. Hence the education of the masses becomes the first necessity for the preservation of our institutions. They are worth preserving because they have secured the greatest good for the greatest proportion of the population of any form of government yet devised. All other forms of government approach it just in proportion to the general diffusion of education and independence of thought and action. As the primary step, therefore, to our advancement in all that has marked our progress in the past century, I suggest for your earnest consideration, and most earnestly recommend it, that a constitutional amendment be submitted to the legislatures of the several states to establish and forever maintain free public schools adequate to the education of all the children in the rudimentary branches within their respective limits, irrespective of sex, color, birth-place or religion, forbidding the teaching in said schools of religious, Atheistic, or Pagan tenets, and prohibiting the granting of any school funds or school taxes or any part thereof, either by legislative, municipal, or other authority, for the benefit, or in aid, directly or indirectly, of any religious sect or denomination.”

His speech before the Army of the Tennessee, at Des Moines, in 1875, was one of the noblest, one of the bravest, and one of the most opportune utterances ever delivered in this country. In this speech he said:

“The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation. If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason’s and Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on the 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 shall 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 school 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 the Church and the State forever Separate.”

It has been claimed that this speech was aimed chiefly at the Roman Catholic Church. It was not. It was directed not so much against the avowed enemy of the public school as against its professed friends, who would destroy its usefulness by making it the handmaid of Protestantism and the nursery of superstition. Referring to this speech, General Sherman, to whom Grant confided his intention of delivering it, says:

“The Des Moines speech was prompted by a desire to defend the freedom of our public schools from sectarian influence, and, as I remember the conversation which led him to write that speech, it was because of the ceaseless 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).

One of the first products of Grant’s pen that has been preserved is a letter to his cousin, McKinstry Griffith, written at West Point, Sept. 22, 1839. With the exception of a few brief lines, the last that he wrote was his “Memoirs.” It is significant that in each of these — in the one written in the first year of his manhood and in the other, written in the last year of his existence — there is to be found a protest against ecclesiastical domination of our government and its institutions. In the letter alluded to, referring to the demerit marks received by the cadets, he writes:

“To show how easily one can get these, a man by the name of Grant, of this State, got eight of these marks for not going to church to-day. He was put under arrest, so he cannot leave his room perhaps for a month; all this for not going to church. We are not only obliged to go to church, but we must march there by companies. This is not republican” (Brown’s Life of Grant, p. 329).

The following is from his “Memoirs”:

“No political party can, or ought to, exist when one of its comer-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 whatever cost” (Memoirs, Vol. i., p. 213).

Instead of being a believer in the Christian religion and in favor of Christianizing our government, as many suppose, General Grant was an unbeliever and a zealous advocate of state secularization.


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