By Jerry Rushford
On November 2, 1880, 10 million Americans went to the polls and elected James A. Garfield the 20th president of the United States. Garfield was deluged with congratulatory letters in the week after his election, but none more significant than the one penned by Burke Hinsdale who wrote: “I have been astonished . . . at the hold that your candidacy took of the religious mind of the country. ‘Now we are going to have a religious man for president’ is a thought that has swelled in the hearts of thousands of religious men.”
James Abram Garfield was born on November 19, 1831, on the Western Reserve, the principal theater of Alexander Campbell’s movement to restore New Testament Christianity. Six weeks after his birth, the Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone movements merged, and for the next 50 years the history of the Restoration Movement (Christian churches and churches of Christ) closely paralleled the life of Garfield.
Seeds of Faith
Garfield’s parents were baptized into Christ by Adamson Bentley, one of Campbell’s coworkers, in 1833. His father died a few months later, and Garfield was raised by a devout Christian mother and his early life revolved around religious activities at the small schoolhouse on the Garfield property. His knowledge of the contents of the Bible and the Christian hymnbook remained with him all his life. A classmate wrote, “His whole life was religiously influenced by the seed which was planted by his mother’s hand while he lived with her in the little log cabin in the wilderness.”
On Sunday evening, March 3, 1850, Garfield noted in his diary that he was “determined to obey the gospel.” The next day he was baptized into Christ in one of the tributaries of the Chagrin River, and that night he wrote in his diary: “Today I was ‘buried with Christ in Baptism and arose to walk in newness of life.’ For as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
Garfield’s conversion proved to be an experience that released his whole emotional nature and gave stimulus to his increasing interest in the Christian faith and the life of the church. His first biographer later affirmed that “without any doubt this conversion in 1850 was the strongest single influence he received” until his involvement in the Civil War.
Garfield enrolled in the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (it became Hiram College), a Christian academy at nearby Hiram, Ohio, and attended the school for three years (1851-54). At Hiram he cultivated an inner circle of Christian friends and developed the ability to preach the gospel. It was assumed by everyone, including Garfield, that he would devote his life to the ministry of preaching.
When Garfield attended Williams College in western Massachusetts (1854-56) he frequently accepted invitations to preach for small congregations affiliated with the Restoration Movement. The fervor of his commitment was evident in the letters he sent to Christian friends back in Ohio. In one letter he wrote, “I tell you, my dear brother, the cause in which we are engaged must take the world. It fills my soul when I reflect upon the light, joy and love of the Ancient Gospel and its adaptation to the wants of the human race.”
However, during his senior year at Williams College, Garfield became interested in politics for the first time in his life. By the time he returned to teach at Hiram, he had already formulated plans for entering the field of statesmanship through the educational portal.
In his first three years back at Hiram (1856-59), Garfield was made president of the Eclectic, married into a strong Christian family, and became a favorite preacher among Christians on the Western Reserve. A monument at the Garfield birth site describes his career as a teacher and includes this line: “He also preached, as a minister of the Churchof Christ, wherever invited.”
In addition to preaching somewhere nearly every Sunday, he preached in many protracted meetings. One meeting in Hiram in 1858 resulted in 34 baptisms, and one in Newburghthat same year had 20 baptisms. Typical sermon topics included: “The Savior’s Second Coming,” “The Evidences of Christianity,” “The Parable of the Wedding,” “Salvation as Illustrated by the Deluge,” and “The Necessity of Obeying Whatever God Commands of Us.”
During these same years, Garfield was laying the groundwork for a political career with the Eclectic as a base and his beloved Hiram circle of friends (especially Burke Hinsdale and Harry Rhodes) as associates and supporters. In 1859, with the support of several influential members of the church, Garfield won election to the Ohio Senate and “gained a step in the direction of my purpose.” His campaign had been skillfully managed by Harmon Austin, a prominent banker and an elder in the Christian Church in Warren.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Garfield accepted command of the 42nd Ohio. With evangelistic zeal he recruited more than a hundred members of the church into his regiment. He also persuaded “Uncle Harry” Jones, one of the most popular preachers in the Restoration Movement, to be his chaplain.
During Garfield’s military career (1861-63) he won rapid promotion to the rank of major general, and through the diligent work of his Christian friends back home, he won election to Congress. His congressional career began in December 1863 and continued until the autumn of 1880 when he was elected to the presidency.
Throughout Garfield’s long career as a congressman, he retained his strong ties to the Restoration Movement. He was one of the founders of a new weekly periodical for the church called the CHRISTIAN STANDARD (in 1866), and he accepted positions on the boards of trustees of both Hiram College and Bethany College (founded by Alexander Campbell). He was always faithful in his attendance at the Vermont Avenue Christian Church—now known as National City Christian Church (Disciples)—in Washington. He took the lead in helping the congregation raise money to purchase a meetinghouse in 1869, and he occasionally taught in the Sunday school program.
President at Church
The inauguration of James A. Garfield as president of the United States was set for Friday, March 4, 1881. Hinsdale and Rhodes were invited to the White House to share breakfast with the new president on the morning of the inauguration. In the grandeur of the noble mansion, the three friends reminisced about their happy years together in Hiram. This was the logical culmination of the great things the little band at Hiram had talked and dreamed of nearly a quarter century before.
Two mornings later, the attention of the nation was focused on the obscure meetinghouse of the Vermont Avenue Christian Church (ridiculed by the press as “the Campbellite shanty”). A special program was planned, with Garfield’s approval, that included several nationally known members of the church. Under a headline that read, “President Garfield at Church,” the Associated Press published a full account of the morning.
On July 2, four months after he entered office, Garfield was shot by an assassin in the Washington railway station. He lingered on in weakness and extreme pain for several weeks before dying on September 19. He was two months shy of his 50th birthday.
Although the nation had come to expect the worst, the news that the president had died was the signal for the greatest outpouring of grief since the death of Abraham Lincoln. The casket lay in state for two days in the rotunda of the Capitol and was viewed by more than 100,000 people. On September 23 a funeral service was held in the Capitol rotunda with Frederick D. Power, the minister of Vermont Avenue Christian Church, delivering the address.
The public funeral in Cleveland was September 27. President Chester A. Arthur called for a day of fasting and prayer throughout the land. More than 250,000 people were in the public park for the funeral ceremonies, in what was described as the largest funeral gathering in the history of the nation. Isaac Errett, editor of Christian Standard and one of Garfield’s closest friends, preached the funeral sermon.
Hiram College hosted a memorial service and asked Burke Hinsdale to speak. “It is left for us,” he told the crowd, “to adjust ourselves to a world that contains no living Garfield.”
Harry Rhodes, searching for words that would describe Garfield’s impact on the church, could only say: “Now that he is gone, and the vision has fled, I feel like using the words of the disciples who came from Emmaus, ‘Did not our heart burn within us while he talked with us by the way?’”
Jerry Rushford is professor of church history at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.