Mothers of U.S. presidents steeped them in religion
Saturday, May 11, 2002
They form an exclusive sorority with 43 members: mothers of the U.S. presidents. Some were impoverished and some rich, some unlettered and some college graduates.
But most shared one trait: mild to fervent commitment to the Christian religion, often buttressed by daily Bible reading and weekly worship.
Harold I. Gullan tells what we know about the beliefs of the 43 in the popular history "Faith of Our Mothers: The Stories of Presidential Mothers from Mary Washington to Barbara Bush" (Eerdmans).
Because the record is sometimes thin, Gullan fills out the proceedings with other biographical material, including another trait most of these mothers shared: unshakable faith in their sons' destinies.
Gullan doesn't come out and say so, but several recent presidents surpassed their mothers in religious zeal, three Bible Belters in particular.
Methodist George W. Bush, who experienced a midlife recommitment to Jesus Christ, expresses more fervor than mother Barbara, an Episcopalian.
Bill Clinton has been a committed Baptist since turning up at a local church at age 10 and informing the preacher he'd be coming to worship regularly, with or without mother Virginia Dell Cassidy Blythe Clinton Dwire Kelley (she was married four times).
Jimmy Carter added "born again" to the political lexicon and has taught Bible classes for decades, while mother "Miss Lillian" seemed a less robust style of Baptist.
Then we have the reverse, mothers whose degree of piety was not passed along with their genes.
These included the only Roman Catholic among the 43, Rose Kennedy. Her 104 years were a regimen of devotionals and Masses (often daily). Mrs. Kennedy was so old-school that she refused to attend the funeral of daughter Kathleen, who had married a Protestant divorcee.
By Gullan's account, Catholicism gave Mrs. Kennedy a refuge from her husband's flagrant philandering. But she was able to pass on the faith "to her children only in part."
A Protestant version of the piety gap is seen in Warren G. Harding and mother Phoebe. The mother's "second home" was the Methodist church, Gullan recounts, and she became even more devout as a convert to Seventh-day Adventism.
Son Warren affiliated with the Baptists but displayed little piety and died in moral disgrace in the White House. Upon his mother's death in 1910 he remarked that he could not say this for himself "but dear, dear Mother will wear a crown" of God in eternity.
The enigmatic Abraham Lincoln revered his stepmother Sarah (in the book along with Lincoln's birth mother), who could not read but imparted a love of learning and of the Bible. Yet Lincoln stayed at home when his parents worshipped with the Baptists and he's the only president who never joined a church.
Two of the mothers failed to pass on the most distinctive tenet of their creed.
Hannah Nixon and her husband raised son Richard M. as a Quaker. Theirs was the western evangelical type, quite distinct from the quiet version of the Northeast, but both branches forbade the bearing of arms. Yet Richard fought in World War II and became commander in chief.
So did Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose father and mother Ida were devout followers of a "peace church," the Brethren in Christ (aka "River Brethren"). When Ike was an adult, the elder Eisenhowers converted to the Jehovah's Witnesses, who oppose participation not only in the military but voting or anything else to do with what they see as the wicked worldly system.
Many of the 43 were related to preachers. The most distinguished example was the husband of Woodrow Wilson's mother Janet ("Jessie"), who became a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary and the chief officer of what became the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.
Wilson, who wrote in his diary that he "professed Christ's name" at 17, married a fellow preacher's-kid.
We know little about the mothers of some early 19th-century presidents. But the way things are going, Gullan remarks, "in the 21st, we will likely know too much about everyone."
For more about the last 11 presidential mothers see the book "First Mothers" (Morrow, 2000) by Bonnie Angelo.