Rutherford B. Hayes and his religious views

Most people who knew Rutherford B. Hayes probably assumed he was a Christian.

He spent his life helping other people from representing slaves and the mentally ill in court to advocating for education for all, better veterans’ benefits and prison reform.

He attended church every Sunday with his wife and children and studied the Bible.

During his presidency (1877-1881), he and his cabinet began each day by praying together and reading the Bible. Many of them also joined the Hayes family on Sunday nights in singing hymns.

And he gave money to support area churches, especially the Methodist church in Fremont.

Throughout his adult life, however, Hayes repeatedly said he was not a Christian.

“I am not a subscriber to any creed,” he wrote in 1890. “I belong to no church.”

Later in the same entry, however, he writes: “I try to be a Christian, or rather, I want to be a Christian and do Christian work.”

Hayes may have written more about his personal religious thoughts than any other American president. His thoughts were often contradictory, as this diary entry from 1890 shows. His views on religion evolved and changed over time.

Christie Weininger, executive director of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums, delved into Hayes’ complex ideas about religion during a talk she gave Dec. 8 at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. 

Foundry was the church that Rutherford and Lucy Hayes and their family attended while Hayes was president, although it was located in a different building at that time. Weininger’s talk was part of a special trip Hayes Presidential Library & Museums staff, their family members, board members and Hayes descendants made as part of HPLM’s centennial year.

Hayes’ exposure to religion began through his mother, Sophia, who was a Presbyterian and often spoke of her father to her children. Hayes was also baptized a Presbyterian.

Sophia was a rather dour, unhappy person who had a difficult life. Her husband died before Hayes’ birth, and her 9-year-old son, Lorenzo, drowned after falling through ice on a river while ice skating near their home in Delaware, Ohio.

She often said thought that bad things happened in life because God was punishing people, and she turned to the Bible for encouragement, Weininger said.

“(Hayes) felt like his mother was too strict in her definition of religion and how she views religion in her life,” Weininger said. “I think that his religious views were almost a backlash to hers.”

Without a father, Hayes’ uncle, Sardis Birchard, became like a surrogate father. Sardis, who built the Hayes Home at Spiegel Grove, was not particularly religious. Hayes was drawn more to Sardis’ way of thinking when it came to religion than his mother’s, Weininger said.

Later in his life, Hayes’ wife, Lucy, would become likely the greatest influence on his religious views. She was a devout Methodist. Unlike Hayes’ mother, Lucy and her family believed religion was a way of welcoming people and caring for others.

Diary entries over the years show Hayes struggled with the idea of faith. At one point, he said he was reading the Bible not as a Christian but as a scholar who wanted to be informed.

“The literature of the Bible should be studied as one studies Shakespeare,” Hayes wrote in his diary.

During his political career, Hayes was opposed to blending religion and government, Weininger said. He had been branded as anti-Catholic because during one of his campaigns for Ohio governor, he spoke out against Catholic schools.

Hayes was against sectarian interference in schools, whether it be by Catholics or another religion.

“He was saying if we keep creating all these factions of schools, we’re never going to be one country,” Weininger said.

Outside of the school issue, Hayes praised Catholics for their patriotism support of the Union during the Civil War and after the war.

Despite writing that he enjoyed attending the Methodist church and spending his life trying to help others, he still did not call himself a Christian. Even when Lucy died of a stroke in 1889, he lauded her for her faith and kindness but did not say that he was a believer himself.

In 1893, Hayes suffered a heart attack in Cleveland and went home to Spiegel Grove, where he died. 

“His last words are ‘I know I’m going where Lucy is,’” Weininger said. “Ultimately, he believes she’s in some kind of a better place and that he’s going there.”

At his memorial service in Columbus, The Rev. Washington Gladden gave his eulogy and said Hayes was “profoundly interested in the truth, which constitutes the heart of all things.”

Hayes spent his life following the commandment “Thou shalt love they neighbor.”

“What becomes his religion is looking out for the welfare of other people and getting people to work together,” Weininger said. “Why he couldn’t ever actually make that call and make that statement and join a church, I don’t know.

“Whatever his beliefs were, he certainly acted out on them at every point in his life.”