Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Church-going Of The Presidents

( Originally Published 1908 )

All the Presidents, as well as all the members of their families, have been most punctilious in the matter of church going. George Washington was a zealous member of the Protestant Episcopal Church and rarely ever missed divine service. Regardless of where he was stationed, Washington went to whatsoever sort of church the place afforded, and listened with attention to the preacher no matter what doctrines or beliefs that preacher expressed.

The religion of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and, in fact, of all the earlier Presidents, was that of the Golden Rule. They all lived as they would have others live, though none believed that a discussion of theology should be brought into the conversation when many persons of various beliefs were present in the drawing-room at the White House.

President Van Buren's church going is described in an account written by an English traveler, James Buckingham, a member of Parliament, who visited the White House and was entertained by Van Buren over Sunday :

"President Van Buren walked into the church unattended by a single servant, took his place in a pew in which others were sitting besides himself, and retired in the same manner as he came, without being noticed in any other degree than any other member of the congregation, and walking home alone, until joined by one or two personal friends, like any other private gentleman. In taking exercise he usually rides out on horseback, and is generally unattended."

Mrs. Franklin Pierce, it has been written, although an invalid, bore up bravely under the fatigues of her position. She was very pious, and her scruples in regard to keeping the Sabbath, had an influence upon public life. "Each Sunday morning," we are told, by her historian, "of her four years' stay in the White House, she would request, in her gentle, conciliatory way all the attachés of the mansion to go to church."

The White House Churches P> More than one-half of the number of Presidents have attended the same church in Washington. Madison was the first President to worship in this quaint, little edifice, and the latest tenant of the White House frequently seen in the "President's pew" is Mrs. Roosevelt. It is St. John's Episcopal Church, situated opposite the White House, on Lafayette Square. A wellknown Washington correspondent, Waldon Fawcett, says that this place of worship is known at the National Capital as the "Court Church'' because of the large number of Presidents, diplomats and public officials who have been included from time to time in its congregation.

This White House Church is now over a hundred years old, and is one of the historic church edifices of the country and is fraught with interesting associations. So many Chief Magistrates have regularly worshiped there, Mr. Fawcett relates, that for many years a pew has been set aside for the President of the United States. The pew, because of the limited seating capacity of the building, has been occupied for some time past by Secretary Hitchcock of the Interior Department, who surrendered it to the wife of President Roosevelt upon her arrival in Washington.

In this church fourteen Presidents of the United States have worshiped, including every Chief Executive from Madison to Lincoln. The building is simple, old fashioned and unpretentious in the extreme. It was erected in 1816, and was designed by Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the United States Capitol. The church is in the form of a Latin cross, and is well-nigh hidden in many places by a profusion of Virginia creeper and English ivy. The original design of the building was in the form of a Grecian cross, but in 1820 it was given its present contour by the addition of a portico, supported by six columns. Save for interior furnishings, the edifice has changed little in appearance in three quarters of a century. The pews are small and covered with red damask, while the altar, with its cross of gold, manifests similar simplicity.

Immediately after the completion of the church, and before any pews had been sold, a committee from the vestry called upon President Madison, and offered him a pew, which he accepted, and thereafter occupied quite regularly. Although all the men who presided over the destinies of the nation, from the time St. John's Church was completed until after the Civil War, were more or less regular attendants at services at the little house of worship opposite the Executive Mansion, not all of them were regular members of the congregation. Enrolled among the latter, however, are the names of James Madison, James Monroe, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler and Zachary Taylor. Two memorial windows in the church perpetuate the record of this membership.

Mrs. Letitia Tyler, first wife of President Tyler, was a communicant of the Episcopal Church, and when she died the rector of St. John's Church, Dr. Hawley, preached the funeral sermon at the Presidential mansion. The funeral of the famous Dolly Madison, widow of President Madison, was held at St. John's Church, a stone's throw from the house in which she died.

Of the later Presidents, Arthur was the most regular attendant at the "Court Church," although most of the other Chief Magistrates of the past third of a century have gone there on special occasions. The late President McKinley once told the rector that it was his custom, when in the White House, to wheel his chair into a position from which he could see the spire of old St. John's, and that the sight invariably soothed and comforted him. One of the last occasions upon which President McKinley attended services at St. John's, was at the time, of the memorial service in honor of the late Queen Victoria.

Another Washington Church that has for years had a prominent place in the religious life of Presidents and their families is All Souls. Among its founders was John Quincy Adams, then President of the Nation. Although no Presidents have since attended there, it has had among its members many men of National prominence. John C. Calhoun and William Cranch were among its early attendants.

Among its pastors have been Rev. Jared Sparks, Dr. Orville Dewey, Rev. Samuel Longfellow and Rev. Edward Everett Hale, present Chaplain of the Senate. The present pastor, Rev. U. G. B. Pierce, is believed to be a worthy successor of these godly men.

One feature of the church makes it specially fitting, it is said, as a President's church. The bell in its tower was cast by Paul Revere, one of the men closely identified with the establishment of American liberty. It has sounded on great public occasions since 1822, tolling for Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley.

President Roosevelt at Various Churches

President Roosevelt attends various churches of different denominations Methodist, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed according to where he happens to be, although he has long been a member of the Dutch Reform Church. That he is also a friend of the Episcopal Church, is shown in the fact that he recently presented the old parish church at Williamsburg, Virginia, with a beautiful lectern in commemoration of the three hundredth anniversary of the permanent establishment of English civilization in America. At Oyster Bay it has been the custom of the President to attend at various times all of the churches in town, and he has been their patron for many years. Mrs. Roosevelt is a communicant of the Episcopal Church. Mr. Roosevelt was the first to contribute in assisting certain other church property at Oyster Bay, and he has given liberal aid to the colored church also.

How President McKinley Worshiped

Every Sunday, promptly at fifteen minutes to eleven the black horses and carriage were at the White House door ready, to take President McKinley to church; promptly at ten minutes to eleven the President stepped into the vehicle. His wife was unfortunately very much of an invalid, consequently he frequently went alone to church, unless one of the Cabinet members accompanied him. Details set forth in The Rulers of the World at Home, include these further facts :

Just as the minister was about to announce the opening hymn, the President walked down the aisle of the Metropolitan Church and took his seat in the fourth pew from the front. There was no noise about it, no whispering among the congregation, and no attention was paid to his entrance. He quietly seated himself and bowed his head in prayer. When the hymn was started, the President sang heartily, and from that time forward his heart was in the service. He sang every hymn, read the Psalms, and listened intently to the sermon.

He was one of the most modest of men, however, and would be greatly embarrassed to have the attention of the congregation directed towards him. It was his desire to worship in Washington as he did in Canton, Ohio just as a private citizen. "I would rather attend some tiny mission, down among the wharves, and be allowed to worship as I wish," he once said, "than come to this large church and be continually conscious of my position. I want to lay aside my position on Sundays, anyway."

When the offering was taken and the ushers passed the plate, the President enclosed his gift in an envelope and dropped it in with the others. When service was over, and the doxology sung, the nearby portion of the congregation remained seated a moment while the President rose and passed out. That seemed to be the only way in which he could escape many who wished to shake his hand. Before the rest of the congregation was out of the church, he was whirling away to the White House, happy and contented, because for one hour he had been permitted to be just a simple worshiper.

One Sunday morning, drawn by curiosity, a visitor in Washington went to the church where Mr. McKinley was accustomed to worship. It was Communion Sunday morning, and the visitor described his impressions thus : "I watched the President. I watched his face while he sang. I gave close attention to his countenance and attitude during all the opening service, and his interest in the earnest words which were spoken before the sacrament of the Lord's Supper was administered. And after awhile, when William McKinley got up from his place, and went and knelt down at the altar, humbly, with the rest, and reverently took the Communion, and when he arose I saw him quietly wipe away the traces of emotion from his eyes, his whale countenance and attitude showing the deep-est religious emotion, I confess to you that I felt a great change coming over myself, and I said to myself, `A country which has a man, like that at the head of affairs is not so badly off after all'."

Four Presidents as Church Members

President Garfield was the only Campbellite among our Presidents. At the age of nineteen he joined the Campbellite Church and became active in all religious movements of his denomination.

President Arthur "generally attended the church right across from the White House, St. John's Episcopal Church. Often in good weather he would walk over and walk back; if it were disagreeable, he would have the carriage ordered and go over in that."

President Benjamin Harrison, like his grandfather, President William Henry Harrison, was a member of the Presbyterian Church. When he died, his funeral service was held at his home church in his home town, Indianapolis, March 16, 1901. And at that altar, where the remains of General Harrison were now confined in a narrow box, he years knelt hand in hand with the bride of his youth, and there plighted his troth. For forty years prior to his death he was a trustee of that little Presbyterian Church.

President Cleveland's father was a Presbyterian minister. When the son was elected. President, the Rev. Dr. Sunderland, of the First Presbyterian Church in Washington, determined to make every effort to induce Mr. Cleveland to attend his church. Immediately after the inauguration Dr. Sunderland called upon the President, and the latter agreed to be enrolled among his parishioners. Cleveland was very regular in attendance. Always a large crowd assembled in front of the church to see him entering and leaving. "The crowd," the newspapers tell us, "was amazed to find that when the carriage stopped Cleveland would leave the vehicle and start for the door, while some one else would have to assist Mrs. Cleveland to alight. Then she would hasten after her husband, and, catching up with him, the two would walk up the aisle together to their pew."

How Lincoln Blessed the Churches

President Lincoln was a Presbyterian, but he from time to time attended churches of other denominations and was heartily in sympathy with the work of all of them. When Charles Wagner, author of The Simple Life, visited Washington and was a guest of President Roosevelt at the White House, he went to the Presbyterian Church that Lincoln attended, and later described his experience as follows :

"Dr. Radclyffe, pastor of the church that Lincoln used to attend, was to take me for a drive and some sight seeing about Washington. When he showed me the interior of his church, I noticed that its furnishings had just been renewed. The seats were almost aggressively fresh save one old one remaining among them, that seemed, in its more sombre color, to stand out from the rest ; it was the seat of Lincoln."

The late Dr.T.DeWitt Talmage has this to say of Lincoln's attitude toward the churches :

"On my desk, as I make this. paragraph, is a letter presented to me by a friend. It is a letter that Lincoln wrote on May 18, 1864. It was written before the days of typewriting, and is in Mr. Lincoln's own penmanship. The Methodist Conference assembled in Baltimore had passed a resolution of encouragement and sent it to Mr. Lincoln, and this is his reply :

" `Gentlemen: In response to your address allow me to attest the accuracy of its historical statements : indorse the sentiment it expresses ; and thank you in the nation's name for the sure promise it gives. Nobly sustained as the Government has been by all the churches, I would utter nothing which might in the least appear invidious against any. Yet without this it may fairly be said that the Methodist Episcopal Church, not less devoted than the rest, is, by its greater numbers, the most important of all. It is no fault in others that the Methodist Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospital, and more prayers to heaven than any. God bless the Methodist Church bless all the churches, and blessed be God, who, in this our great trial, giveth us the churches'.

"There is in the chirography of this letter a calmness, a confidence and a clearness which give no suggestion of the horrors through which the country was then passing. Every comma, semicolon and period is in the right place. Abraham Lincoln was a Presbyterian, yet in this letter he especially compliments another denomination, and asks for the divine blessing on all the denominations."

Home | More Articles | Email: