President Garfield's Religious Heritage And What he Did With It
By HOWARD E. SHORT
Volume IV, Number 2
EDITOR'S NOTE: This paper was presented at the commemoration of the sesquicentennial of James A. Garfield's birth and the centenary of his presidency at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, in the winter of 1981, revised for publication.
One hundred years ago today, on February 4, 1881, a young man, 49 years old, spoke in Hiram on a snowy day. This fact in itself would be of no unusual significance. The young man was James Abram Garfield (1831-1881). It was to be his last public appearance there prior to leaving for Washington, D.C., to assume the presidency of the United States. This is significant, for Hiram has not produced a president since. I am indebted to my former colleague on the Hiram faculty, Harold E. Davis, for calling attention to this date in his address to the Hiram Historical Society on the 92nd anniversary of Garfield's farewell to Hiram.
The President-elect's words on that occasion, in retrospect, are doubly meaningful:
I have often been in Hiram, and have often left it; but with the exception of when I went to war, I have never felt that
I was leaving it in quite so definite a way as I do today . . . I cannot see what lies beyond. I may be going on an Arctic
voyage; but be that as it may, I know that years ago I builded upon the promontory a cairn, from which, wherever my
wandering may lead me, I can draw some sustenance for life and strength. May the time never come when I can not find
some food for mind and heart on Hiram Hill.1
Five months later, less two days, he lay mortally wounded in the Washington railroad station. In one of the early days of his lingering death, he said to one of the physicians, "Conceal nothing from me, Doctor; for remember, I am not afraid to die."2 While this expression might sound like a cliche to the modern ear, it made sense in 1881. It indicated that he was conscious of having tried to live a Christian life to the end, that he was "saved" and could die without fear.
The church which became President Garfield's "Religious Heritage," is known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Obviously, there is no need for great detail in describing this movement - just enough to indicate what the church was like when Garfield was born, and what its relationship was to other churches of the day.
There were numerous Baptist churches on the Western Reserve but most of these joined a movement which became independent of the Baptist Church the year before Garfield was born. It is not true to say that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) grew out of the Baptist Church but it is easy to see why some scholars make the mistake.
The movement had two points of origin. Thomas Campbell, a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian pastor at the Ahorey church, out in the country from Armagh, North Ireland, had come to Washington County, Pennsylvania, in 1807, and his son, Alexander, followed in 1809. Because of the Campbells' insistence that all the old-country Presbyterians should feel free to commune together on the American frontier and disregard their half-dozen denominational splits, the Campbells were soon out on their own. In 1809 they organized the Christian Association of Washington (County), and attempted to be just a fellowship of Christians, not a church. That being impossible in the real world, the Brush Run Church was organized in 1811.
Meanwhile, in Bourbon County, Kentucky, the famous Cane Ridge Meeting had been held in 1801. Here the pastor and host church were also Presbyterians. Barton Warren Stone and five others organized the Springfield Presbytery in 1803, attempting to be some kind of "free" Presbyterians, without being under the local Presbytery. This effort soon seemed futile and, on June 28, 1804, six ministers signed a "Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery."
With Virginians moving through Cumberland Gap into Tennessee and Kentucky, and on into southern Ohio and southern Indiana, it did not take the Campbell and the Stone movements long to run into each other. Alexander Campbell, the virile and eloquent young leader from Brush Run, Wellsburg, and later, from Bethany, had lots of influence on Kentucky Baptists. And Barton Stone's new message sounded reasonable to many Presbyterians in southern Ohio, right up to the south edge of the Western Reserve.
Three momentous events took place in 1830, 1831 and 1832. Alexander Campbell became the minister of a new church in Wellsburg, in what is now West Virginia. Soon, he and Walter Scott, distant cousin of the famous novelist and a former teacher in Pittsburgh, were evangelizing on the Reserve, across the Ohio River. They worked under the auspices of the Mahoning Baptist Association. But it soon became obvious that they were preaching doctrines somewhat at variance with those of the churches which hired them. They got a following, however, and the new congregations which were formed as a result of their preaching had more of a Scott and Campbell flavor to them than Baptist. Just as they had during the short time that the Campbell churches were members of the Redstone Baptist Association in Pennsylvania, the Campbells and Scott called themselves "Christians."
The "prize" of the Campbell and Scott influence was the winning of Adamson Bentley and, along with him, the Warren congregation, to their views. This was the largest church in the Baptist Association. When the evangelists were reporting as many as a thousand converts at each annual meeting of the Association, no one questioned their doctrines. Since they were opposed to "creeds and confessions" and even to organizations which did not seem to have scriptural warranty, the Mahoning Baptist Association was voted out of existence on August 10, 1830. Now there was a large group of "Christian Churches" on the Reserve, without order or organization. But they functioned surprisingly well. Incidentally, it was reported that immediately after the vote to disband was taken, Alexander Campbell was on his feet to inquire: "Brethren, what now are you going to do? Are you never going to meet again?"3 Obviously, it did not mean that, and there were soon district and state associations and conventions. In 1849 a national convention was formed. But they were careful to look upon these gatherings as times of fellowship and the opportunity to plan joint work together, not to pass laws or recite ancient creeds as the sum total of their beliefs.
The second momentous event occurred on November 19, 1831: James Abram Garfield was born. His grandfather had settled in Worcester, New York, from whence his parents, Abram and Eliza Ballou Garfield, had migrated to the Lake Erie shore. When the future President was born, they lived in a cabin in Orange Township, Cuyahoga County, Ohio.4
On January 1, 1832, an event took place in Lexington, Kentucky, that seemed at the time to be the answer to the issue of division that was already plaguing the new movement for the unity of Christians. A group of former Baptists was already recognized in Kentucky as Disciples, or by the public, as "Campbellites," many Presbyterian churches and newly-formed congregations following Barton W. Stone, called themselves Christians. At the invitation of Stone, representatives of several churches met for several days of preaching during Christmas week in Georgetown, Kentucky, where Stone was the minister. Then, on January 1, 1832, the same group came together in the Hill Street Church in Lexington to effect a public declaration of the unity of the Stone Christians and the Campbell Disciples.
There were no papers to be signed, no creeds to be recited. "Raccoon" John Smith, a Campbell follower, preached and stated his views. Stone was to follow, but he was so moved by Smith's sermon that he walked over to him, reached out and said, "I give you, here and now, my hand." That was the extent of the formal union.
So, fifteen months before Garfield was born, the church of his choice had launched out on its own in his neighborhood, and, six weeks after he was born, the two similar movements had joined. It would appear that the great pronouncements of oneness had been realized, but, alas, it was not to be.
The Disciples were quite distinguishable from the other churches on the Western Reserve. Without a definitive exposition of their doctrine and policy, a few points may be summarized. There was no human authority beyond the congregation. While the churches were soon meeting in quarterly or annual fellowship much as the old Mahoning Baptist Association had done, the only voting had to do with mutual undertakings such as the hiring of evangelists. Fellowship and inspiration were the order of the day.
Their message was the unity of the whole church and they believed this could be possible only through a "restoration" of the New Testament Church, in all its doctrines and practices. Following Alexander Campbells's teachings, they believe that is was relatively simple to ferret out these truths and present them to a waiting world.
Like the Baptists, they practiced immersion of believers, but for a different reason. The Baptist taught that baptism was a sign of admission into the church, following the "salvation" which God had granted on the basis of belief and confession. The Disciples taught that baptism was a part of the saving process: faith, repentance, confession, baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. These steps were crystallized by Walter Scott into his famous "Five-Finger Exercise."
A slogan was, "No creed but Christ; no book but the Bible." They followed Campbell again in saying that they had nothing against creeds as statements of what the church, or councils of the church, had believed at various periods in history, but they refused to make them "tests of fellowship." And the quoting of famous church leaders or theologians like Calvin could not be accepted without a solid basis in "The Book."
They practiced the weekly observance of the Lord's Supper as a "feast of remembrance."
Since they rejected all names for the church which were not found in the New Testament (such as Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist), they, of course, objected strenuously to being called "Campbellites."
Without laboring these points, one is justified in pointing our that the search for unity has prevailed over any of the other beliefs which have separated the Disciples as a denomination, alongside the world collection of churches. Fellowship with others, at every point possible, has always been the practice, and Disciples have been in the forefront of every cooperative and unitive effort in the twentieth century.
The position of this church may have been only in process of formation when Garfield was born, and even when he joined it as a young man, but his actions and comments in regard to the church at large make one feel that his inherited background must have had some influence upon his development.
Abram and Eliza Garfield, the parents of the future President, arrived in the Western Reserve in 1829, when Cleveland had 1,076 people. In half a century, when Garfield was elected to the Presidency, there were 160,000 there and half a million on the Western Reserve.
When these men and women arrived from the East, they brought their religion with them - if they had any formal affiliation. The Garfield's had a variety of beliefs behind them. Mrs. Garfield's uncle was the famous Hosea Ballou of Universalism. There were also Massachusetts Congregationalists, Puritans, Six-Principle Baptists from Cumberland, Rhode Island, and New Lights and Universalists from Richmond, New Hampshire, in the family tree.5
All these groups, plus the Shakers, the Spiritualists, the Millerites, as well as the more conventional Methodists and Baptists, were keeping the new "Disciples" company, and fighting for every soul. The future President's father came under the influence of several of them.
Abram Garfield heard a Disciple preacher named Murdock6 several times, after he and Mrs. Garfield had begun to search for a better way of life following James' birth and the death of one child. When Adamson Bentley, the former Baptist minister from Warren, moved to the neighborhood and began holding worship services every Sunday in his home, the Garfields attended regularly.
On January 22, 1833, Abram Garfield was baptized and in early February his wife was baptized.
Mrs. Garfield took the children to the church every Sunday and taught the Bible in the home. Abram Garfield died in May, 1833, when James was a year and a half old, leaving his wife with four children to raise. Isaac Errett paid tribute to her in his funeral oration for the President in the Public Square, in Cleveland, Monday, September 26, 1881. The President also often remembered her devotion to her children.
James A. Garfield followed much the same pattern of life toward his conversion as his parents did. To those unacquainted with the frontier concept of such things, it might seem peculiar that a boy reared in a home where the Christian religion had been embraced after his birth, would somehow have to find his way into the church. Several generations now have been reared on the premises stated so clearly by Horace Bushnell about a century and a half ago, that the ideal is to raise up a young child in the way that he should go and he will never know any other. My own experience, many decades after Garfield, was quite similar. The emphasis, among Disciples, was upon personal decision. If one did not come to baptism and into the church by this manner, it is a little difficult to explain it in words that sound either reasonable or acceptable.
In any case, Garfield made his confession on March 3, 1850, and was baptized the next day. He wrote in his diary words that were widely used then and for many decades afterward: "I was buried with Christ and arose to walk in the newness of Life."7
Garfield seemed exuberant in his new faith. He wrote many pious phrases in his diary. He showed the beginning of a broad concept of religion when he wrote about his botany studies that Spring: "It teaches us to look up through nature to nature's God and to see His wisdom manifested in the flowers of the field."8 He also showed that he was learning the Disciple catch-phrases well, when he wrote: "It pains my heart to see the ignorance and bigotry that is abroad in the land. I wish that men would let all human traditions alone and take the Bible alone for their guide."9
In no time at all, Garfield was being accepted as a preacher among the Disciples. There were few rules, often none, regarding the ministry of the new group; given to local church autonomy, and congregation could invite whomever it chose to preach. One is hard put to find accounts of formal ordination services. Thus, when Disciples speak of Garfield as being the only "preacher" to occupy the White House, they are speaking of a fact, in terms of their own practice at the time. Other churches might not be willing to concede that he was indeed a minister. Burke Hinsdale, his intimate friend and correspondent, and his successor as head of the Wester Reserve Eclectic Institute some years later, has written that
"No better school was within his reach in 1851 . . . [and] no other church in the land could have given him the opportunity that the Disciples offered. While there was an absence of license on one hand, there was large freedom on the other . . . No one who is thoroughly familiar with President Garfield's history can doubt that this Disciple habit and method had a most important influence upon his mind, his whole life and character. At the same time, he was the furthest removed from a sectarian or denominationalist. His religious thought was ever broad, his spirit ever Catholic."10
The two years at Hiram, 1851-53, were happy ones, apart from the usual heartaches of the young lover.11 As Peskin puts it, "In the congenial atmosphere of the Eclectic Institute, surrounded by admiring friends, Garfield blossomed. As he discovered latent talents and unused powers, his confidence in himself and his future grew."12 Garfield helped organize the Philomathean Society and then proceeded to become the best orator and debater in the group.
In 1853, when Professor Munnel became ill, Garfield took some of his classes. By the end of the year, even though Munnel was back, Garfield was teaching seven classes, five days a week. He preached occasionally and started a penmanship class while trying to study some himself.13 He received a gold dollar for each sermon, according to his diary.14 He found time to court Lucretia Rudolph and was engaged to her before he left for Williams. He was spreading himself very thin, reading, teaching, preaching, loving and thinking. But he was convinced, as he wrote the following summer, that "the hand of the Lord has been with me, and he has preserved me for some purpose, I know not what . . ."15 What he wrote about the choice of Williams College in his diary (June 23, 1854) tells enough about his religious development to be quoted at some length:
"Where ought I go to College? If I am metal to be cast into some shape, in which mold shall I be run? I do not believe
in giving up one's individuality and becoming stereotyped, an imitator of others; but there is a devotion paid by the
human mind to its superiors and Instructors which tends to shape the mind in its modes of thinking and operating which
it seems to me every Collegiate experiences.
"Hence the necessity of choosing the best possible models. It has been my cherished thought for years to sit at the feet of
our beloved and might A. Campbell of Bethany College, Va. But the sum of my reasonings upon that point is this: I am the
son of Disciples, have always live among Disciples, listening to their teachings, have become one myself, and have for some
years been a teacher among them . . . Hence I thought best, for the sake of liberalizing my mind, to spend some time in the
atmosphere of New England which is so different from that of our Western Institutions, both in Literature, Politics and Religion.
This, together with the objection to Bethany that it is too pro-Slavery in its views and too superficial in its instruction is the
reason why I did not go to Bethany."16
At Williams he soon found that the wider experience which he had anticipated was indeed available. He preached for the little Disciple church at Poestenkill, New York, and occasionally at West Rupert, Vermont, a little church that I visited three quarters of a century later. (It no longer exists.) He recorded that he preached fifteen times in Poestenkill and Pittstown, New York, in 1855 and had "several immersions." Later, he listed six more baptisms. His preaching was typical Disciple formula: an appeal to reason, plus the moral and ethical idealism of Mark Hopkins, the president of Williams College. Hopkins had a great influence on Garfield. Apparently a college president in those days had time not only to teach classes but also for personal friendship with students.
Remembering that Garfield chose Williams instead of Bethany, it is interesting to note what two classmates wrote about him in the year of his presidential campaign. Silas P. Hubbell wrote from Champlain, New York, June 28, 1880, speaking of Garfield and Charles D. Wilbur (another Disciple, who was crippled, whom Garfield took under his care), "Their position at first was a very isolated and peculiar one, and which was somewhat enhanced by a whisper that some circulated among the students that they were Campbellities. Now, what that meant, or what tenets the sect held, nobody seemed to know, but it was supposed to be something awful."
Another, James H. Hazen, wrote, as a member of the Presbyterian Committee on Publication, in Richmond, Virginia, June 22, 1880, in a different tone. He said, "It was the custom then . . . in old Williams, for the Senior Class to devote Saturday morning to an exercise in the Shorter Catechism. Though holding a different type of theology, none of our class entered into the study more heartily than Garfield . . . I was always impressed with the keenness of his criticisms, though my faith in the old Catechism was not shaken, and with the straightforward fairness and the hearty respect which he accorded to views which he utterly refused to accept."17
Years later, Garfield wrote to Hinsdale from Washington,18 regarding his recent commencement visit to Williams: "I stayed with Dr. Hopkins as his guest, and it was very touching when the old President bade me goodby, saying, 'You will observe that I reserved for the concluding act of my official life, before laying down the office, the conferring upon you of the degree of LL.D. I was glad to have my work thus associated with your name.'"
After two years at Williams and graduation, Garfield was back at Hiram, teaching. One can leaf through his diary for that Fall of 1857 and find an amazing variety of activities. Garfield was giving and getting, teaching and learning. For example, we look at ten days in October:19
Oct. 1 "I did but little shamming in teaching - not near as much as I do some days. After school I translated a paragraph of De Imitatione Christi (that is Thomas a
Oct. 2 "I am reading Bishop Lowth's Lectures on Hebrew poetry . . . I am thinking of making a course of lectures for the school on the subject of the literature of the Bible.
If I do so I cannot use much from Lowth for he is too deep and ponderous to please a promiscuous audience."
Oct. 3 "I have been reading that wonderful creation of DeQuincey's, "The Vision of Sudden/Death/ and 'The Dream Fugue.' He is the prince of triflers when in an
Oct. 4 "I went to the meeting house not prepared to speak, but I found no one there prepared to speak so I tried to speak on the Resurrection. I spoke an hour but did not
at all suit myself nor do approximate justice to the theme. "This evening I spoke on life. Three noble souls obeyed the Lord. I let myself out more than I usually have done;
that is, I kept less in reserve. I fear I went too far. May the Lord keep me in the right path."
Oct. 5 "I have been for several hours absorbed in the contemplation and study of Moses, most wonderful of all the magnates of the world. Except Jesus, no foot ever trod
the earth and sustained the weight of so mighty a man as he - Historian, Lawgiver, Poet, and Man of God."
Oct. 6 "A colored man was here last evening on his way to freedom . . . I told him in parting to trust God and muscle. His name is Williams and he is from near Midway,
Ky. "My literature class in doing finely - they are learning to think and I can see a manifest tendency toward metaphysics, which always denotes a degree of cultivation."
Oct. 7 "Lectured this morning on Genesis."
Oct. 8 "Lectured this morning on Exodus."
Oct. 9 "Had the Mythology class before supper. Subject - Hercules, his choice and his twelve labors."
Oct. 13 "Finished this morning the Book of Leviticus . . . I find I am not giving enough attention to my Conic Sections, for I have never been over Geometrical Conics
before and the Analytical Conics which I studied in college does not affect much Geometrically."
One could hardly find a better illustration of the breadth of Garfield's interests and attempts to become a cultured person, as well as be of service to others.
Garfield did not do much preaching after he left Hiram with the 42nd Regiment of Ohio Volunteers, which he had recruited as its Colonel, in December 1862. He was conscious of the fact that the Disciples generally were not great supporters of the war at that time. In October he had attended the annual national convention of the church in Cincinnati, when the convention voted down a resolution sympathetic to the Union. There were few, if any, Southerners present, but the assembly was determined to do nothing which would break the fellowship.
As Leech and Brown have summarized the affair from newspaper articles of the time, "The meeting was then adjourned and a 'citizens meeting' organized in its stead. The disaffected delegates withdrew or kept silence, and the resolution was promptly adopted. An impressive figure in his blue uniform, Colonel Garfield rose to his feet . . . .With biting sarcasm he remarked that he was that a way had been found by which - as men, not as Christians - they could express sympathy for their struggling countrymen. For himself, he blessed God that we have a country we could live and die
for . . . It was correctly understood that Brother Garfield was disassociating himself from the semi-pacifist leadership of the church."20
On a later occasion he seemed as anxious to preserve the unity of the church as his brethren. He wrote to his wife from a military camp in Tennessee: "Several Disciples of the vicinity have been here to visit me. There is a church in the village of Moorseville near by and they have sent up wanting me to preach to them Sunday next. If I am not too unwell I have a notion to speak to them."21
Apparently, when it came to basic religious convictions, no differences could prevent him from Christian fellowship. His roots in the Disciple community, plus his experience at Williams College, helped him to form a religious stance which could be both firm and resolute on the one hand, and cordial and cooperative on the other. There have always been those who feel that to fellowship or cooperate with those who hold theological concepts that seem to be false, would indicate that one not only condones untruth but partially accepts it. A lot of Disciples felt that way, and some still do. I don't think Garfield heard much of the exclusivist attitude around Hiram and he certainly didn't advocate it in his adult life.
When he was with the troops in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, he wrote to his mother, March 22, 1863: "General Rosencrans . . . has Catholic services in his room or mine every few days. I sometimes attend, and as I can understand the latin service it is not altogether unmeaning to me. I hope you are not alarmed about my becoming a Catholic. You ought to be glad that I take time to think and talk about religion at all. I have no doubt the Catholics have been greatly slandered."22
But he "loved the brethren," as the saying goes. When he became very ill during miliary service, he was sent home to recuperate. One Sunday he presided at the Lord's Table, but he was so weak he had to sit. Then he said, "It is so good to be back among my people," and put his head on the table and sobbed.23
Garfield's world view changed considerably when he began to think about other religions. In 1872, when he was in the House of Representatives, he wrote to his friend Hinsdale that he was reading James Freeman Clarke's book, Ten Great Religions. He commented, "It is admirably written in a liberal and philosophical spirit," and said that it "leads me to believe that we have taken too narrow a view of the subject of religion. The absolute truths of religion must be as old as the race, and such books as this of Clarke's widen our horizon and make us more liberal."24
Four years later, Garfield wrote to John Shackleford, Jr., a Disciple minister in Lexington, Ky.: "I recognize the fact that my general views of religion have broadened, but I hope that they have not weakened my faith in the central doctrines of Christ. I care less for the denominational doctrines, but more for the spirit of Christ."
In December 1875, he wrote in his diary: "Are all religions, past and present, false except that of Christ? If so, what shall we think of the Goodness and Mercy of God in leaving mankind so many generations without the truth? . . . Is it not intolerable egotism in us to suppose that we are so exceptionally precious to God, that while He has never seen enough good in the race to make it worth saving until 1800 years ago, yet then its superiority of virtue and importance led him to make great exertions to save it? It may not be unreasonable to suppose that each age has had as much light as it could use."25
As a modern student of Garfield has written: "The religious thought of the mature Garfield was such that probably both the contemporary liberal Protestants and the modern-day Evangelicals would like to claim him."26
The Disciples church in Washington had been organized twenty years when James A . Garfield came to town as a member of the House of Representatives. People did not move their membership in a formal way in those days as much as at present, so there is no record that Garfield joined the church. It seems certain that he considered himself as much a member there as at Hiram. He wrote in his Journal, August 3, 1873, "It is rarely that I stay home from church, but I did so today." He indicated that he was not well. He did preach sometimes, and T. W. Phillips, Sr., said in a memorial address for Garfield several decades later that he had visited Washington and found Garfield "teaching the Bible Class in the Sunday School of a very obscure church."27
Garfield was a prime mover in the actions which led to the establishment of the Christian Standard, a progressive, weekly journal of the Disciples of Christ. Twentieth-century differences which have found the Standard on the conservative side of various arguments, must not dim our memories of the fact that in Garfield's time, following the Civil War, it championed more liberal views of theology and church polity than those the Disciples held.
We have not discovered when the first conversations arose but in 1865 Garfield wrote to Burke Hinsdale:28 "I have made arrangements to have a meeting of the Phillips and Errett and some others, about Xmas at Cleveland and see if we can organize a company to establish the paper we talked of." Tradition has it, in the Phillips family, that Garfield was in the home of T. W. Phillips, Sr., in New Castle, Pennsylvania, some time earlier when "conversation turned to the fact that they felt that we needed another paper."29
The meeting was held, December 22, 1865, in the Phillips home, and the Standard was definitely launched on that occasion. Garfield was appointed as one of the two members of "The Christian Publishing Association" to solicit stock subscriptions, and invested $600 himself.30
The company got its charter January 2, 1866, with Garfield as one of six directors. Isaac Errett was named editor, and the first issue appeared in April 1866, carrying the news of the recent death of Alexander Campbell.
The prospectus announced that the paper was "to stand for a bold and vigorous advocacy of Christianity, without respect to party, creed or established theological systems. A plea for Christian union and the presentation of practical religion 'in all the broad interests of piety and humanity' were to be emphasized."31 The paper has continued to the present day, the oldest continuous publication, under the same title, within the whole Campbell-Stone movement.
In 1866 came the first plan for a national brotherhood church to be built with money raised from Disciple churches all over the country. Garfield even made a tentative pledge of $100 to this cause.32 The dream was not realized until 1930 and the National City Christian Church has just completed a 50th anniversary celebration, including the dedication of a Garfield Memorial window on April 7, 1981.
The Garfields attended worship regularly, in the new building located on Vermont Avenue, even during his few months as President. Much to his chagrin, the attendance picked up phenomenally, curiosity seekers filling the pews. As he wrote in his Journal, March 20, 1881:
"Attended Church with Mother and Crete [Lucreita]. The usual crowd outside and in. It gives me a sorry view of human nature, to see a little church filled to double its usual attendance by the accident of one of its frequenters having been elected to high office."
An oral account sounds true to the President's character. Garfield's cabinet met in extra session one Saturday morning but did not finish its work. One of the members said, "Mr. President, I think we should meet tomorrow and talk about these matters." President Garfield replied," If you men want to meet tomorrow, you may do so, but I will not meet with you. I have a more important engagement each first day of the week that I never miss." A cabinet member spoke up, "Mr. President, what could be more important than discussing the affairs of the country?" Garfield replied, "Upon the first day of each week, I have an engagement with my Lord around the communion table. That is where I will be tomorrow." The cabinet did not meet. Garfield attended church, and the country went on.33
In one of scores of letters to Burke Hinsdale (November 17, 1880), Garfield spoke of "what you say in regard to the expectations of our brethren . . . this is about the sum of my reflections:
"First, our people must not use me as the promoter of the views of our brethren. While I shall cheerfully maintain my old relations to them, I want it understood that it is the broad general views and not the special peculiarities of our faith that I desire to promote.
"Second, our people must not make too much fuss about it. For example: they must not undertake to build a showy house in Washington. They do need a new church building. It should be neat, and elegant, but modest, as I have written to the Pastor there in answer to inquiries.
"Third, our people must remember that they are not a very large percentage of the whole Republican party, and a still smaller percent of the whole American people, and it would not be difficult for me to injure the administration, by giving undue prominence to the Disciples in matters of appointment.
"Let us not flaunt ourselves in the face of the American people, as though we had made a special conquest, but by modesty and moderation, bear out part worthily and take whatever resulting advantages may come."34
This letter came only a few days after the election. It is further indication of the direction Garfield's religious thought had followed. It is not out of line with what others were thinking. This same friend, Hinsdale, wrote to Garfield that he was being criticized by some in the Cleveland congregation where he was pastor because of some of the "historical, critical and evolutionary views on the origin of Christianity" which he had presented. Garfield wrote that they were both engaged in an experiment in freedom: "You to see whether a man can think and speak his convictions in the Disciple ministry - I whether I can do the same and represent a Western Reserve constituency."35
On January 5, 1881, he wrote to Hinsdale regarding the financial situation of Hiram College, saying, "I had hoped that my election would help the college, and I still think it will, but in this I may be mistaken." This is a slightly different concept than that expressed about the church, but I think it only indicated the general Disciple view of the independence of the colleges from the church. They were supported as institutions of higher education, first of all and, while offering biblical and religious studies for all and preparation for the ministry to some, there was no intent to force Disciple views upon the students.
Any attempt to assess a person's religion apart from the life and career of that individual would be both futile and ambiguous. What I have tried to do here is to lay a background against which President Garfield's military, educational and social careers may be evaluated. Ultimately, even that assessment is not to be made by his fellow human being but by the God of us all.
Studies of these aspects of the President's life will show not only moments of brilliance and positive results, but also flaws here and there. In that respect, the President and all others before and after him are quite like ourselves, and all who elect a standard of life, a faith to live by, or whatever religion or philosophy of life one professes. By comparison, judging from what President Garfield wrote in his voluminous correspondence and in his diaries, as well as what a score of others have written about him, I would say that he measures up quite well.
An interesting current commentary on Garfield's life appears in a book review, as recently as 1978:
From this scant material the late Margaret Leech, a master biographer who saw her subjects as mirroring, if not
manufactured by, their times, has evoked a passionate and deeply moving portrait of rural religious fundamentalism,
the beginnings of a socially conscious church, the awakening of American science, the Civil War, the industrial
revolution, the Grant administration scandals and consequent growth of a reform movement, all reflected in the life
of a man who never fully recognized his own motives and wanted to be liked."36
In terms of the focus of this paper, we can agree that Garfield did a lot with his religious heritage if it got him into the midst of such a social milieu. It would appear, however, that rather than simply "mirroring" or being "manufactured by" all these movement, Garfield had a finger in several of the plans, himself.
For example, he is credited with the decision to organize the American Red Cross, at the urging of Clara Barton. He would have been made the president of the organization, but he insisted that Miss Barton be given the honor.37 And the social consciousness of the Disciples may owe something to Garfield in matters of race, industrial, sectional and interdenominational relations.
As Lester McAllister has summarized Garfield's position.
During Garfield's formative years in the 1850's the Disciples were in the process of working out what it was they
should believe and practice. In every instance, Garfield was on the side of the more progressive element in the
movement. He and the movement were of the same spirit. He saw clearly where legalism, the narrow views, the
attempt to be literalistic, were leading and he wanted no part of it. He did all in his considerable power to lead the
movement in a different direction. And he succeeded.
James A. Garfield lived and died a committed Christian, loyal to the religious movement in which he was nurtured
and to which he gave creative and dynamic leadership. He was one of the outstanding fruits of the Stone-Campbell
movement as he and the Disciples made their contribution to American Christianity.38
Much of this took place in Hiram, which, according to President Hinsdale's report to the trustees in 1872, was "small, inconvenient of access, not a cheap place to live, destitute of social attractions and of many conveniences."39
Issac Errett, his co-worker in several Disciple adventures, gave the funeral oration for President Garfield at the service held in the Cleveland Public Square. There is something quite satisfying to those of us who remember Garfield as a fellow Disciple, which bears quoting at some length.
Let no one be disturbed because there was no minister of the gospel with the President in his dying moments. Those who regard the preacher or the priest as clothed with power to give efficacy to the sacraments and to intercede with God, may be disturbed. But his brethren believe that he, as a Christian, was a royal priest in the house of God, and had a right to bring his own offerings to the altar, without other mediation than that of the "one mediator between man and God, the man Christ Jesus." It would have been comforting could he have been blessed with the presence and prayers of his brethren; but that his salvation depended upon it, no enlightened Christian believes. Those who knew him intimately know that his faith did not falter; that his religious life grew stronger with the advancing years; that his trust in God was beautiful in its simplicity, and in the humility ever attending it; that his reverence for truly spiritual men was great, and his observances of the Christian ordinances constant and reverent. In life and in death, in the active employments that filled up the one, and the patient and heroic endurance that marked the other, he has left behind him the most unquestionable testimony of love to God, faith in Christ, and devotion to the best interests of man."40
These words give considerable insight into the Disciple mystique. Errett had circulated a pamphlet, "Our Position," later called "Our Plea," which this statement echoes. In fact, some of his contemporaries criticized him saying that it resembled a creed when Disciples were not supposed to have one.
The eulogy summarizes Garfield's typical Disciple views and those of the average member of the body of Christians from that day to this. Therefore, we let them stand as fitting conclusion to our study of President Garfield's religious heritage and what he did with it.
7Wasson, Garfield, 14; Harry J. Brown and Frederick D. Williams, eds., The Diary of James A. Garfield (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1967-1973), I, 36 (March 4, 1850); Wasson, Garfield, 14.
23From an unpublished paper by Mildred Welshimer Phillips, "The Life of T. W. Phillips, Sr.," read at a meeting of the trustees of the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Nashville, Tenn., May 5, 1980.
26From an unpublished manuscript by William C. Ringenberg on "The Religious Thought and Practice of James A. Garfield," page 17. Read at a meeting of the American Society of Church History at Anderson, Indiana, May 5, 1980.
27The Great Speeches of James A. Garfield! (Twentieth President of the United States), with a Memorial Supplement (St. Louis: John Burns, Publisher, 1881): "A Personal Tribute to James A. Garfield," delivered in Hiram, November 19, 1911.