Publication information
view printer-friendly version
Source: Chautauquan
Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “A Christian Gentleman: William McKinley”
Author(s): Barton, Frederick
Date of publication: November 1901
Volume number: 34
Issue number: 2
Pagination: 134-37

Barton, Frederick. “A Christian Gentleman: William McKinley.” Chautauquan Nov. 1901 v34n2: pp. 134-37.
full text
William McKinley (religious character); William McKinley (personal character).
Named persons
Frank Bristol; Horace Bushnell; Joseph Cook; William H. Gibson; Charles H. Grosvenor; Jesus Christ; Abraham Lincoln; C. E. Manchester; Ida McKinley; William McKinley; W. K. Miller; D. L. Moody; W. V. Morrison; A. D. Morton; William Shakespeare; George Washington; John G. Whittier.
“Author of ‘Favorite Texts of Famous People’” (p. 134).


A Christian Gentleman: William McKinley

WHEN a public man begins to attain the heroic in the minds and hearts of a people or a nation, there are many virtues attributed to him, some of which he does not possess. In fact he cannot gain the highest place in the hearts of the majority unless it is generally supposed that he is a moral, and, to some considerable degree, a spiritual man. No man who publicly avowed infidelity or scoffed at religion ever attained to the presidency of the United States. While this is true, there are few presidents who have left definite or satisfactory evidence of their interest in the spiritual or higher life. That many of them had such an interest is shown by fruits of it in their lives. We know, for example, that Washington and Lincoln received comfort and strength in the ordeals of war through prayer. But we believe the judgment is amply borne out by the following incidents of his inner life, that no president ever regarded himself more directly under Providential destiny, as ruler of the nation, than William McKinley.
     It is generally agreed that the gentleman or perfect man lives three lives, or rather a three-fold life: the life which concerns himself, that which has relation to his fellows, and that which has relation to God. The degree of perfection or gentlemanliness depends upon the proportion in which these lives are developed. Those who have had occasion to seek for evidence of relations to God in the lives of great men, too often without full satisfaction, if not disappointment, will be especially interested in these sketches.
     Not long since I had a conversation with Rev. A. D. Morton, under whose preaching the late president was converted. He said that McKinley’s mother and his sister Anna were very earnest Christians. They would not have been satisfied with anything else than a definite spiritual experience. The fact of his merely joining the church would not have satisfied them, and they gave, expression to their satisfaction on this subject many times. His devoted mother was not altogether pleased, however, that he did not enter the ministry. She said several times that if she could have had her wish William would have been a bishop. May we say that he was no less the bishop, although his services were performed at the head of a nation, where he extended the diocese of the Kingdom by giving religious freedom to many thousands, and by a short and decisive campaign put an end to a war that had flamed and smoldered and flamed again for many years next door to us.
     The Rev. A. D. Morton (now retired from the ministry and engaged until recently in business in Cleveland) said that he was pastor at Poland, Ohio, in 1856, and became quite well acquainted with the McKinley family. At that time William was attending school, and was a scholar in the Sunday-school. A series of revival meetings was held during the winter, and among those who gathered almost nightly was the Sunday-school scholar, who, no doubt as a result of his mother’s teaching, was an attentive and thoughtful listener. He made a decision, and at an evening meeting of young people, arose and said: “I have not done my duty, I have sinned. I want to be a Christian, for I believe that religion is the best thing in the world. I give myself to my Savior, who has done so much for me.” A few evenings after, he gave his testimony with others, saying: “I have found the pearl of great price and am happy. I love God.”
     This evidence of Christian character might not be accepted in court, and if this were all it would not be worth considering, but these statements and others made by this minister whose ministry was so fruitful in one life at least, were borne out by the daily life of Mr. McKinley. In 1892, at Youngstown, he said in a speech concerning the Young Men’s Christian Association:

     “It [the Association] is another recognition of the Master who rules over all, a worthy tribute to Him who came on earth to save fallen man and lead him to a higher plane. . . . Men no longer feel constrained to conceal their faith to avoid derision. The religious believer commands and receives the highest consideration at the hands of his neighbors and countrymen, however much they may disagree with him; and when his life is made to conform to his religious [134][135] professions, his influence is almost without limitation, wide-spread and far-reaching.”

     According to Mr. Morton, the young man was especially interested in the Bible. And this fact is mentioned in his biography as having attracted attention to such an extent that it was remembered by several neighbors. His speeches exemplify knowledge of the Book, and the following incident shows that his interest in it did not disappear when he became engrossed with the cares of public life. It was related to Rev. C. E. Manchester, D. D., the president’s pastor at Canton, Ohio, and also a member of his regiment, the Twenty-third O. V. I., by W. K. Miller, an old resident of Canton, who died several years since, but who accompanied the politician on most of his campaigns, excepting the presidential campaign. He said: “Major McKinley is a quiet man upon religious subjects, but he is a religious man. I have been with him many times and during all of his campaigns. We have frequently attended political meetings and banquets, and have often retired at a late hour, but I have never known him to go to his bed until he had read from his Bible and had knelt in prayer.”
     Such a habit might not seem strange were it confined to his earlier career. That he found time to consider and practise his religion in the midst of a trying campaign for the greatest place in the world, proves that his religion was woven into the very fiber of his being. That it demonstrated itself on numerous occasions during the latter part of his life is shown by two incidents related by Dr. Manchester.
     During the first campaign for the presidency, when thousands were visiting him at his North Market street home in Canton, a company of a hundred or more influential young men from Detroit arrived on Sunday, and sent word that they would call on him. He replied at once: “This is the Sabbath day, and I cannot receive delegations, much less would I have you come to me with a band of music on the Sabbath. I cannot, in any event, see you this morning for I must go to church. I attend the First M. E. Church, and would advise you to be present.” He added that if one or two at a time cared to call for a friendly greeting, he had no objection. Those young men attended church in a body. It is doubtful if any of them ever had a stronger appeal to consider the Christian life, and not one of them had room for doubt as to the reality of the religion of the man who was a candidate for the highest office in the land. It was not politic, for such things are magnified into mountains in the heat of a campaign. He was a Christian first. He placed the cross higher than the flag, which Gen. “Bill” Gibson used to say was high enough for the flag, although he loved it as much any one. This man preferred to be right with God rather than be president; he has told intimate friends that he regarded the presidency as a God-entrusted responsibility.
     The other incident occurred the Sunday before he went to Washington to be inaugurated. He wished his regular pastor to preach, and added that if he, or any other preacher, should begin to gush over him, he would get up and leave the church. He once said: “I like to hear the minister preach the plain, simple gospel—Christ and Him crucified.”  Appreciation was kindly received by him, but he rightly judged that the pulpit was not the place for it. The text that day was: “If any man say ought unto you, ye shall say, The Lord hath need of them” (Matt. 21:3). One of the hymns sung was No. 602 in the Methodist collection, the words being written by John G. Whittier:

“It may not be our lot to wield
 The sickle in the ripened field;
 Nor ours to hear, on summer eves,
 The reapers’ song among the sheaves.

“Yet where our duty’s task is wrought
 In unison with God’s great thought,
 The near and future blend in one,
 And whatso’er is willed, is done.

“And ours the grateful service whence
 Comes, day by day, the recompense;
 The hope, the trust, the purpose stayed,
 The fountain, and the noonday shade.

“And were this life the utmost span,
 The only end and aim of man,
 Better the toil of fields like these
 Than waking dream and slothful ease.

“But life, though falling like our grain,
 Like that revives and springs again;
 And, early called, how blest are they
 Who wait in heaven, their harvest day!”

     Next day when the board of trustees called upon him to bid him farewell, he asked as a special favor that they give him the copy of the book from which he sang the day before, saying that he had marked that hymn and would like to have the book. It was given to him and was carefully preserved. Read now it seems almost prophetic.
     As he maintained his residence at Canton he did not take his letter from his church there, which he served in 1870 as Sunday-school superintendent and in later years as [135][136] member of the board of stewards and as trustee, but he attended the Metropolitan church at Washington as regularly as if he were a member, and more regularly than many members. Dr. Frank Bristol, pastor of the Metropolitan church, said that the president was so regular in attendance that he noticed his absence one morning. He concluded that something of importance had happened. He was right in his conclusion, for at the close of the services he learned that the battle of Manila had been fought that morning. During the war with Spain his pastor remembered only two Sundays when the president was absent, and he invariably attended the communion service.
     When making his canvass for governor of Ohio he said: “I pray to God every day to give me strength to do this work, and I believe he will do it.” After his election to the presidency he expressed his profound faith in God and confidence in divine guidance. Mr. Grosvenor once asked him if he was not inflated with so much praise. He replied: “I am rather humbled, and pray to God to guide my steps aright.”
     His humility and desire for wisdom for the task he undertook is also shown by the selection of the scripture at his first presidential inauguration. When he took the oath of office as president of the United States, he placed his lips on these words: “Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I may go out and come in before this people: for who can judge this thy people that is so great?” Though advanced to the highest honor possible yet he was deeply conscious of his responsibility, and also felt his need of divine assistance. Soon after the inauguration the Rev. W. V. Morrison of New England, who had been one of Mr. McKinley’s teachers when a boy, called upon the president. When leaving Mr. Morrison said: “You have a great responsibility devolving upon you, but the love and confidence of the American people are behind you.” The president replied: “I hope I shall have the sympathy and prayers of yourself and all good people.”
     The following story illustrates the president’s magnanimity, characteristic of the practical gentleman and also of applied Christianity. During one of his congressional campaigns he was followed from place to place by a reporter for a paper of opposite political faith, who is described as being one of those “shrewd, persistent fellows who are always at work, quick to see an opportunity, and skilled in making the most of it.” While Mr. McKinley was annoyed by the misrepresentation to which he was almost daily subjected, he could not help admiring the skill and persistency with which he was assailed. His admiration, too, was not unmixed with compassion, for the reporter was ill, poorly clad, and had an annoying cough. One night Mr. McKinley took a closed carriage for a nearby town at which he was announced to speak. The weather was wretchedly raw and cold, and what followed is thus described:
     He had not gone far when he heard that cough, and knew that the reporter was riding with the driver in the exposed seat. The major called to the driver to stop, and alighted. “Get down off that seat, young man,” he said. The reporter obeyed, thinking the time for the major’s vengeance had come. “Here,” said Mr. McKinley, taking off his overcoat, “you put on this overcoat and get into that carriage.”
     “But, Major McKinley,” said the reporter, “I guess you don’t know who I am. I have been with you the whole campaign, giving it to you every time you spoke, and I am going over tonight to rip you to pieces if I can.”
     “I know,” said Mr. McKinley, “but you put on this coat and get inside, and get warm so that you can do a good job.”
     D. L. Moody, who would have been generally accepted as a capable judge of human nature and spiritual life, once heard a man testify in a religious meeting that he had not sinned for four years. Mr. Moody said he did not doubt the man’s sincerity, but said that he would like corroborative testimony from the man’s wife. And those with whom we associate daily are in position to judge our characters even better than ourselves. In an interview on her journey to California Mrs. McKinley said:
     “Do you know Major McKinley? No one can know him, because to appreciate him one must know him as I do. And I am not speaking now of Major McKinley as the president. I am speaking of him as my husband. If any one could know what it is to have a wife sick, complaining, always an invalid for twenty-five years, seldom a day well, he knows, and yet never a word of unkindness has ever passed his lips. He is just the same tender, thoughtful, kind gentleman I knew when first he came and sought my hand. I know him because I am his wife, and it is my proudest pleasure to say this, not because he is the president but because he is my husband.” [136][137]
     Shakespeare says: “At their wit’s end, all men pray.” That men do this is evidence, said Joseph Cook, that there is One to answer prayer. And Horace Bushnell in his most masterly sermon says that our unconscious influence is our real influence, and that the impression that we would create is foiled if our unconscious influence is not in accord with it. When William McKinley was lapsing into unconsciousness under the influence of anesthetics on the operating table, the force of habit asserted itself, and he began naturally to repeat the Lord’s Prayer. And as he was approaching the end he repeated the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee.” Not distractedly or at his wits’ end, but calmly and familiarly he said the prayer that he had often said on retiring at night. He sang the song that he had sung Sabbath mornings as he had stood in his pew regularly when the burden of a nation at war was on his shoulders. Many could not understand his dying statement: “It is God’s way. His will be done.” It is asked how could it be God’s way that he should be removed by an assassin. This man regarded his end as part of God’s providence, because he had so regarded his whole life, and he merely repeated the creed of his life under such conditions that many a man not rooted and grounded in the faith, as was this man from boyhood, would have doubted.



top of page